All Kondo'd out: Why Marie Kondo's cleaning method may not work for New Yorkers in tiny apartments

By Alanna Schubach  | August 17, 2016 - 2:59PM

It's been well over a year since Marie Kondo, the spritely Japanese de-cluttering guru, and her book, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, inspired millions to get their homes in order with her particular brand of radical minimalism. (The book is a global bestseller.) And perhaps inevitably, Kondo—who along with introducing a shirt-folding method many swear by also proposes that socks should be put away unfolded “so they can relax”—has since also inspired a backlash.

For instance, it’s unreasonable to expect that every item in your home will deliver bliss, Gretchen Rubin writes. (Fair enough: I don’t feel happiness coursing through me when I take my toilet plunger in hand, but it’s certainly useful to have around.) Bibliophiles like Laura Vanderkam object to the idea of jettisoning the books she hasn’t read lately (Kondo says if you haven’t cracked a book in a while, it has become “dormant.”) And NYC fashion icon (and clutter-lover) Lynn Yaeger writes in Vogue that she finds nothing objectionable about living “amid artfully arranged tableaux of lovely, dusty collectables.”

Yaeger concludes her article with perhaps an even more salient point: “Just because you are lucky enough to live in the belly of late capitalism and your biggest problem is your glut of your material possessions, please resist the temptation to be smug.”

Others, too, have noted the uncomfortable class politics of Kondo’s manifesto. A writer for the Atlantic points out that low-income people can’t afford to blithely toss the things they don’t like: “In order to feel comfortable throwing out all your old socks and handbags, you have to feel pretty confident that you can easily get new ones,” she writes. “Embracing a minimalist lifestyle is an act of trust.” Another writer wonders in the New York Times: “Buddhist belief says happiness is the freedom from want, and yet, what if your life is streamlined out of necessity, and not choice?”

Having acquired so much clutter that you need expert assistance reducing it does seem like a rarefied problem to have. But considering that there's an entire industry built around it--the National Association of Professional Organizers--many Americans are apparently overwhelmed by their own stuff. And it may not be a bad idea for the nation that invented the phenomenon of Black Friday to start leaning away from rampant consumption, and for people to stop defining themselves in terms of their possessions. 

But it’s clear that Kondo is writing for a particular audience—a moneyed one. According to her website, Kondo has a three month-long waiting list of Tokyo residents seeking her wisdom; when New York Magazine followed her on a stateside client visit, it was to a "charm-stuffed dream pad" in Greenwich Village.

I found myself blanching at some of her advice because it simply did not apply to me. Kondo suggests that readers take all their coats and go through them one by one, deciding which to keep. This wouldn’t take me long: I have one winter coat and a couple lighter jackets for spring and fall. Her devotees seem to be people who are fortunate enough to own so much that they lose track of their possessions, a privilege many do not share.  

Or many New Yorkers, at a range of economic levels. Admittedly, one reason I have so few coats is that I just don’t have room for more. The typical NYC one-bedroom measures 750 square feet, according to Naked Apartments; meanwhile, nationwide, homes are getting bigger. In 2014, the Census Bureau found that the average size of new American houses had hit an all-time high of 2,690 square feet.

Dana Gehry, who runs Syystema, a boutique consultancy focused on ongoing household management, said that she was originally intrigued by Kondo's book. But after she read it, she felt a bit skeptical of its methods: "She has a formula that she applies to every person she meets," says Gehry, who prefers an approach that is tailored to each individual. 

Gehry adds that even most of her wealthy clients have to be deliberate with what they allow into their NYC apartments. "It's tough to be drowning in things when your space is so small," she says. "Everything for most people living in New York serves a purpose." 

The majority of New Yorkers have much less space to work with, then, and while it’s certainly a good idea to pare down possessions, clutter often feels inevitable. When our homes are so tiny, even our joyless (but necessary) things, from cleaning supplies to pillowcases to cookware, can quickly become a space-stealing hodgepodge. And for those with children, a certain degree of in-home chaos seems to be inevitable. Just try junking your kids’ toys—or their artwork, school supplies, snacks, and all the other accoutrements.

Such objects, too, can take on tremendous emotional value. The author of the Atlantic article describes how her immigrant relatives, when they moved to the States, saved dozens of seemingly useless items, not only out of thrift but also to maintain a connection to their homeland.

Although it’s on a much milder level, many New Yorkers, too, are peripatetic, moving frequently from one apartment and one borough to another, and their possessions can provide a much-needed sense of continuity. The Times writer describes moving to a 400-square foot studio with her daughter, and the pain of being forced to part with the mementos that had provided her with a sense of her own history. 

"There's something in human nature that makes us want to collect things, whether or not they have value," Gehry says. "People like to hold onto things, and they don't want to live in a sterile environment."

And even for New Yorkers who do want to go minimal, there are challenges, Gehry notes, in finding places that accept donations, due in large part to fears about bed bugs and other hygienic issues. "New Yorkers have a huge conservation mentality, and it would be great if the red tape was taken off a bit and there were centers that helped clean things for reuse," she says. 

So what should you do if you can’t stand to part with a quantity of stuff? Curbed offers a “To Hell with Marie Kondo” list of methods for storing items in a small apartment, though many of these are pricey, like a $2,200 set of nesting tables from the MoMA Design Store. For most New Yorkers, then—particularly the many of us who are scraping by—it may be necessary to reconcile ourselves to living amid the kind of clutter that would horrify Marie Kondo. 


Alanna Schubach

Contributing writer

Contributing editor Alanna Schubach has over a decade of experience as a New York City-based freelance journalist.

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