In our crazed, capitalist society, we are what we consume. Because our standing in the social hierarchy depends on how much we buy, we strive to accumulate more: more money, more real estate, more cars, more clothes. We’re obsessed with “getting and spending” as William Wordsworth observed over two centuries ago.
The tragedy of our times is that the shopping mall has become our collective cathedral. Rather than develop a deep interconnectedness with our fellows or believe in something greater than ourselves, we worship the material. Ultimately, we believe the answers to our spiritual problems can be found in the racks of department stores.
Feel isolated and lonely? Forget connection and community. Find consolation in the luxurious leather of Gucci.
Uncertain of your life’s purpose? A glamorous fur coat or pair of vintage Jimmy Choos will cure your existential dread.
But this excessive cycle of “getting and spending” has serious consequences. We are collapsing under the weight of consumer products. Today, the average American household contains 300,000 items. Though the size of our homes has nearly doubled over the last fifty years, nearly 10% of Americans still have to rent some sort of self–storage. Indeed, self-storage has boomed in recent years: in 1984, there were only 6,600 storage facilities across the United States; today, there are an astounding 50,000. In the internet age where anything can be delivered to your doorstep with a click of a mouse, it has become all too easy to accumulate more junk.
Our epidemic obsession with stuff has sparked new professions and entire industries. Today you can hire a professional organizer to sort through your mountains of clothes and classify them by color and type in a closet worthy of Good Housekeeping. International bestsellers like The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up teach us how to let go of things that don’t “spark joy” while retailers like the Container Store promise their orderly storage bins can contain the disarray of our lives.In her compact, befittingly uncluttered Clutter: An Untidy History, Jennifer Howard examines our relationship to the things we bring into our lives. Interweaving her own personal experiences with meticulous research, Howard traces clutter from its beginnings in the lavish drawing rooms of the Victorian era to the overcrowded American homes of the modern day.
As we embark on a new year, many of us (myself included) have resolved to declutter our space. How— Howard wonders— can we distinguish what to toss from what to keep? How do we know what things to bring into our homes in the first place?
To answer this question, she turns to English designer, activist and poet William Morris (1834–1896). Morris was a central figure in the Arts & Crafts movement, which revolted against the mass production and cheap consumerism brought about by the Industrial Revolution. Deeply troubled by the declining quality of goods, he rejected the mechanization of modern manufacturing and championed careful craftsmanship.
The core tenets of his philosophy? Beauty and utility.
The Arts & Crafts movement wasn’t just an artistic revolution— it was political as well. “Apart from the desire to produce beautiful things, the leading passion in my life has been and is hatred of modern civilization,” Morris wrote rather pessimistically in 1894. Like the Romantic poets, who shared his distaste for modernity, Morris romanticized the past, particularly the Middle Ages. Unlike modern factory workers on an assembly line, who were alienated from the fruits of their labor, the artisans of the past took pride in their work and felt deeply connected to the things they made. Morris envisioned a future where the people who made our goods were artists rather than cogs in a machine.
The master of minimalism, Morris believed in quality over quantity. He rejected the popular design trends of his day: while most Victorians favored excess and extravagance, he disliked ornamentation. For him, a single statement piece was preferable to a mantelpiece cluttered with random tchotchkes.
So to return to our central question: when it comes to our personal space, how can we distinguish what to toss from what to keep?
In his iconic 1880 “The Beauty of Life” speech, Morris created a handy rule of thumb. An object should only remain in our lives if it is either beautiful or functional. Or as Morris writes,
“Believe me, if we want art to begin at home, as it must, we must clear our houses of troublesome superfluities that are forever in our way: conventional comforts that are no real comforts, and do but make work for servants and doctors: if you want a golden rule that will fit everybody, this is it: HAVE NOTHING IN YOUR HOUSES THAT YOU DO NOT KNOW TO BE USEFUL OR BELIEVE TO BE BEAUTIFUL.”