A few years ago, while researching a magazine article, I began having conversations with Michael Daley, a self-styled art conservation watchdog. Daley has used the term “blockbuster restoration” to describe our era’s increasingly common practice of over-cleaning and touching up master works by artists such as Leonardo da Vinci or Titian in a way designed to create exciting “before and after” shots, and thus excitement around major exhibits—Vermeer as you’ve never seen Vermeer, and indeed also Vermeer as Vermeer had never seen Vermeer. Every few weeks Daley would send me another example: a Renaissance madonna who looked as if she’d had a nose job, a 17th-century nymph whose face had been made whiter and more lineless, her surrounding putti more perfectly pastel. The Old Masters had entered the obsessively seamless era of Botox and computer-generated imagery, and, said Daley, were coming out looking more new than old. “There is some disordered practice going on,” said Daley. “A little dirt is normal. Imperfection does not need correction. People are being conditioned to think otherwise.”
And so to the home, where I believe there is increasingly some disorder too—something like anorexia worn on the outside, or an obsessive compulsion directed toward the home, where a person’s living quarters become the site for absurd perfectionism, unattainable standards, and distorted perception. Last year, three people told me, completely independently of each other, that either they or their partners could not endure anything on their kitchen or bathroom counters—counters had to be sparkling empty plains, punctuated by no more than, say, a single soap pump. A cleaning woman I’d hired after renting my home out for a couple of weeks looked sadly at the electrical wires hanging behind my desk and television and side tables. The nice houses she cleaned, she said, had no visible wires. Nobody could stand visible wires anymore. A cousin explained to me how he had grown unable to tolerate items in his apartment that he didn’t “absolutely, 100 percent need or like.” He kept a big brown box on his back balcony and placed a few things in it every week. He said he kept a running query in the middle of his mind nearly all the time. And this sweater? And this plate? In all these cases, the behaviour described was not tagged as particularly problematic, more as something falling within the realm of interesting personal tic, possibly hard to live with, but not entirely devoid of virtue.
Back in the 20th century, when many more people had homes with separate living rooms, it was not unusual for the living room to be purposely little used, a kind of pristine set piece that the homemaker hoped would speak over the rest of the more lived-in parts of the house. Bedrooms—with their unmade beds and stacks of magazines and chipped saucers full of single cufflinks and pennies—might have their doors closed when guests came over, but in the living room, every cushion was plumped and every flower pot or ashtray was carefully angled on the coffee table.
It would not be a stretch to say that in many contemporary homes, this old ideal of the shrine-like living room has infected the rest of the house. Ikea ran an ad campaign a couple of years ago encouraging its customers to leave the bedroom door open, a cheerful (and cheap) siren call to make one’s private space ever more public, ever more available to the gaze of the neighbourhood Joneses. “Where is it said,” asked the commercial, “that, when everyone comes over, the bedroom door has to be closed? We’re for leaving it wide open.” Thanks to digital domains such as Apartment Therapy and Pinterest and television home shows (Trading Spaces, Property Brothers), the ideal of the relentlessly staged and curated home has become entrenched. Never have so many bookshelves been so artfully displayed. Never have the average citizen’s bathroom products been so meticulously arranged on trays, like volatiles in a lab that can never be touched. Paper towel holders and TV controls and toothbrushes have become egregious “eyesores” better hidden from sight. And when did it become normal for people with young children to have white rugs and white sofas? Buying a white sofa is buying a seat of constant maintenance and neuroticism—Um, ah, let me just put this dishcloth under your feet. No, no, it’s no problem at all. It’s just, you know, ha ha, the couch—and yet it seems more people do it now, than ever before.
Into this milieu comes The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, a faux-naïf ruse of a book that is already a best-seller, a supposed guide on how to pare down and beautify your home in preparation for your death so that you do not overburden your loved ones with too much stuff and ugliness after you go. The brief is to live as though you are perpetually on the verge of popping off. Authored by one Margareta Magnusson, a Swedish grandmother who has crafted her bite-sized chapters in a softy-soft voice, so as not to traumatize the children, and who describes herself—I suppose for the street cred of oldest age—as “somewhere between 80 and 100” (Magnusson is reportedly in her 80s), the book instructs us to start death cleaning now, whatever one’s age, because you never know, you could get run over by a bus tomorrow, and think of how much work your family will have getting rid of your belongings.
In the past few years, I have gone through all the objects of several deceased loved ones, some of them valiant collectors of utter junk, and I can tell you that this exercise is nothing to build the rest of your adult life around. It takes a couple of weeks; it is cathartic; and, in a society chock full of things but increasingly devoid of useful rituals around death, it is a good way to sift through memories and say goodbye. I don’t entirely understand why its spectre is so haunting for this book’s author. Magnusson’s simple musings (“What are vices? I guess habits that are not so good for us”) and no-duh instructions (“Regard your cleaning as an ordinary, everyday job. And in between, enjoy yourself as much as possible with all the things you like to do”) hardly need the grim reaper as through-line. What is clear is that the final shuffling off has become oddly trendy these days. In the past month or two, the same magazines and newspapers, including the New York Times, that have written up Magnusson’s Nordic sweater of a book as being the last word in charming have also reported the rising popularity of an app called “weCroak,” which reminds users, with push-notifications sent five times a day at random, that they are going to die. So this is not a book to read for the writing, or the suggestions. It is a book to know of because of the one big idea hiding behind its muffin-scented Swedish apron: that the only way out of our current mess of anxiety and materialism, of maximalism and minimalism, of schizophrenic messaging about buying humongous messes of things while maintaining homes so exhaustively curated as to be museum-like, is death. Just in the same way that death is the solution to many chronic illnesses.
Four years ago, when Marie Kondo’s four-million-selling The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing was first published in English, the initial reaction to its extreme form of home minimalism was predictable enough. To her readers, Kondo’s endearingly animistic ethos (famously, she writes that rolling up one’s socks is cruel to the sock, that socks should be lovingly folded, so they can rest after a long day “trapped between your foot and your shoe”) and punishing principle of nothing extra, was a welcome reprieve against the excesses of home-related consumerism. Even though it was an instant best-seller, the book came across as a cult object, countercultural in the way that becoming a monk is countercultural. With Kondo, the key to a happier, more fortunate life is to throw nearly everything away, even useful things, keeping only the very few items that “spark joy” when held. In Kondo’s world, one might only need four teacups and two dishtowels. After so much bullying Nespresso-and-thread-count lunacy, the sort of thinking that could make a temp office worker making $15,000 a year believe a dual climate-controlled wine locker (available at Wal-Mart for less than $400) is a “home essential,” entering Kondo’s ladylike realm of precious spareness, where you always know where your keys are because there is nothing else on your hallway table, ever, could feel like tip-toeing into a quiet patch of sanity. You had been choking under an avalanche of stuff, and look! All you’d ever needed was a single river rock in the palm of your hand.
It can sound healthy enough, even sensible, with living space shrinking, and open-plan architecture (which does away with those useful clutter containers called walls) still inexorably on the rise. But the problem of a Marie Kondo in a shopaholic consumer society is that even the best-intentioned minimalism turns into more consumerism, just of a more demanding, neurotic sort. The relentless paring down is a convenient and ongoing clearing of the stage for some fresh, as-yet unmet, un-acquired object which—unlike those other familiar ones grown boring or distasteful with time—has the box-fresh ability to give jollies. And neurotic it is; Kondo herself admits that her need to organize and strip down does not come from a place of great mental health. She writes how, by the age of five, she could not help but compulsively clean not just her personal spaces, but those of her siblings and parents as well; how she was once traumatized—to the point of crying at the very memory—by a shampoo bottle that had developed a slimy bottom in a humid bathroom. “From the fact that I spent my recesses alone, tidying, you can guess that I wasn’t a very outgoing child,” she writes. “Because I was poor at developing bonds of trust with people, I had an unusually strong attachment to things.” No amount of quasi-religious your-socks-have-feelings pillow-talk can turn “It was material things and my house that taught me to appreciate unconditional love first, not my parents or friends” into anything but a good reason to seek therapy. Photos of Kondo’s own apartment show not just a white sofa and rug, but white everything, an anorexic space meant to be viewed as the apex of serene livability that no average person could—and, I would add, should—possibly feel comfortable living in.
Other recent books sit on this same intersection between mental disorder and a house in order. Justin Klosky, a former actor on the soap opera Guiding Light, has made a successful L.A. home-organizing business out of the obsessive-compulsive disorder he was diagnosed with when he was an anxious and unhappy child vacuuming lines in his carpet that “were evenly spaced and perfectly parallel.” Incredibly, he calls his business O.C.D. Experience. His book, Organize & Create Discipline (OCD, get it?), is full of scrappy bro chatter about taking the garbage out every day (“I’ll do a lap around the house, emptying every can, spraying my Lysol, because I don’t want anything stinking up my space while I’m sleeping”), fixing up your car’s glove compartment with special separators and sections, and, poor everyone, creating a habit of vacuuming in straight lines. (“Nothing screams fresh and clean like parallel vacuum lines!”) Baldly, Klosky writes, “because of my neurosis and obsessions, [O.C.D. Experience is] the most efficient, effective, and evergreen system out there for transforming your life.”
But is your life transformed for the better? The latest book from the collective behind the Remodelista design site, Remodelista: The Organized Home, contains so much anxious complexity masked as easygoing simplicity, so much useless, circular puttering posing as good sense, one gets a tension headache just flipping through it. In the highly millennial matte-white-and-untreated-beechwood Remodelista fantasyland, a Scando-Amish stringency is sold as illuminated pleasure. “Stop the encroachment of unappealing, bulky packaging the way chefs and scientists do. New to decanting? Start in the kitchen by storing your olive oil, hand soap, and other liquids in pretty bottles.” In a section called Stowing the Unmentionables, we are told that “a toilet-cleaning kit needn’t be cringe-worthy. Choose a non-plastic brush, like this Iris Hantverk birch-handled option…and stow it in a pleasing container.” Perhaps a terracotta planter or an enamelware pitcher resting on a Fog Linen tray, the picture suggests. First of all, I have children and a job. Second, the rest of this evil book could fall under this very same category—stowing the unmentionables—because almost every human mod con is here an unmentionable. Real life, in all its messiness, is impossibly gauche. So here is a two-page spread on hiding “eyesore” office wires, and another on Where to Put the Blow-Dryer (note: you will have to add an outlet to the back of your drawer, to hide the wire), and another on Camouflaging Your Television (“the cable box is hidden in a cardboard box”). In a section called “Use Display-Worthy Vessels and Containers in the Bath,” we are told that “a bottle of Ibuprofen fits neatly inside a covered ceramic canister.” In another on leftover food, we are instructed—honestly—to use linen bowl covers.
Of course, making your whole house—these days very likely smaller than the one you grew up in; these days very likely more open plan—into a seamless showpiece, a zone of total presentability, with not an unwanted or unsightly thing within eye’s view, manufactures an unprecedented crisis of clutter, a problem exacerbated a thousand times over by the fact that, as a species, we are encouraged to buy, and we do buy, more things per person than anyone ever has before. And so here we find ourselves in a terrible schizophrenic wedge. The last third of the supposedly minimalist Remodelista book is dedicated to where you can purchase “essentials.” “Here’s what you need to achieve a well-organized (and nearly plastic free) existence,” write its editors, after which flow 54 pages of natural rubber ties and Shaker peg rails and “lab-style cylindrical glass-covered containers.”
Michael Daley, the art restoration expert, told me that most people tend to think of the era they are living in as aesthetically neutral. It’s only once the era has passed that a definitive, overarching look becomes more clear (the purple velvet sofa you bought in 1997 did not look like the 1990s until about 2010, when it did, irredeemably). The pristine domestic look of our time surely expresses some desire for escape from the trash compactor’s worth of stimuli that crowds us out every day (after four hours staring into your iPhone, how does your brain feel? Not good! Not spacious!). But I would posit it has flown from being the product of an anxious headspace to the creator of more anxiety, a kind of vicious circle. If you look at popular decor books from the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s—say, Terence Conran’s classic The House Book, or any of the influential interior design books by the New York Times writer and editor Norma Skurka—most of the photographs of homes featured would not pass muster today with the editors at Rizzoli books or Veranda magazine, or, indeed, even the New York Times: the sofas look sat in, the hems of bed skirts are not ruler-straight, seat caning may be darkened, and bunches of flowers, weirdly often, are somewhat wilted. Today, in order to look “right” things increasingly need to look untouched, untouchable. Iron-straightened hair in 2018 is straighter than it was in 1968. Manicures are more manicured. To understand what I am getting at, reach, with your mind, into history and take almost any everyday object—toothbrush, placemat—from the house you grew up in, and compare it to the state of the same item today. When I was a kid in the 1970s and ’80s, the Tupperware my mother happily used every day was scratched, cloudy, and stained, as was everyone else’s. Today, when our disposable-yet-non-disposable Ziploc containers start looking anything but clear, they are due for replacement, because in the lunchroom at work, most people’s containers look shiny-new all the time.
In this era of botoxed Leonardos, and bodies worked out to look like seamless stone, and walk-in closets with a hundred shelves that are best left nearly empty, in this time of so much spacious order camouflaging so much interior mess, these books can be seen as rampant overcorrection. Any human feeling inhuman and wishing to return to centre would do best to read none of them. The way to better health and home might be a messy bedroom. The path to fewer headaches: Leave the Advil on the counter.