There are hundreds of books (and magazines and blogs and podcasts) aimed at teaching us to live without clutter. But in the real world, where kids (and their messes) still outnumber adults, where many people are busy working multiple jobs to make ends meet, and where the accessories from the hobbies and decades-long fascinations that illustrate our lives accumulate, this ideal can be difficult to achieve.
So I’ve come to reject titles that tell you how to “manage” chaos or get organized. Who really lives in the highly edited and sanitized spaces presented in a typical Architectural Digest spread? Normal people’s homes contain signs of life, from stacks of dishes to children’s artwork.
A Perfectly Kept House Is the Sign of a Misspent Life, by Mary Randolph Carter, came into my life on the heels of my reading Marie Kondo’s ubiquitous The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, the inspiration for the recently released Netflix series Tidying Up With Marie Kondo. I read Kondo’s book and thought, “This is the way I’m supposed to live, but how?” The pressure to organize and minimize was heavy, but at the same time, I had a toddler and a second baby on the way. I couldn’t tidy up, and I couldn’t get comfortable in my own home. That’s when I went in search of real homes that looked like mine. I wanted to see a mom’s cluttered dining table, not her spotless, Insta-perfect kitchen.
I do understand the allure of floors so polished that white socks stay white. I also understand the reality of being the only one among a family of four (plus two cats) who cares how clean the floors are (unlike Kondo’s kids, mine do not tidy), and there is joy in replacing Kondo’s prescriptions for sock-folding with the acceptance of clutter.
Here are some titles that encourage embracing stuffed shelves, covered walls, and worn textiles. If phrases like “The Unmade Bed” and “Living With Junk” make you uncomfortable, turn back now.
Carter’s book is filled with images of memento-covered surfaces, clashing patterns, and doodads that would certainly be swept away before an Instagram shoot. It ignited in me a love of books that grant the permission to be an imperfect housekeeper.
Feast on more real homes stacked to the ceilings with personal treasures.
If there’s just not enough junk in your life, read this guide for tips and inspiration to collect junk more deliberately.
Kirke is an interior designer and former boutique owner and Stoeker operates a vintage clothing web-store. Their book presents homes full of layers of carefully arranged textures and colors and yard-sale finds. “Every corner has a story,” Kirke wrote. “It’s not cluttered or decaying but it’s not brand-new and sparkly clean. It’s somewhere in the middle where life lives.” Kirke’s daughter Jemima says: “She makes damaged goods feel at home.”
This book includes photos of the Paris home of Marianne Faithfull, where you can see the rock legend’s tilting stacks of books and exposed electrical cords. No fussy stylist tidied Faithfull’s real life before photos were taken, and I appreciate the authenticity.
A line from Surf Shack could also be a motto for those of us who want our homes to reflect our interests above housekeeping skills: “Create a home around something you love doing, and it can’t help but be beautiful.” Almost all of these surf shacks feature some combination of wooden bases, covered seat cushions, and piles of mismatched pillows and blankets. Granted, there are a few sleek minimalist surf shacks in this book, but I let them slide. Even the most photogenic modern surfer’s home must have a layer of sand that can never be eradicated.
What if you thought of your home — whatever its condition — as your own artistic creation? One that evolves and reflects the stages of your life like shifting sediment? Consider the home of Michael Kahn and Leda Livant in Artists’ Handmade Houses — every inch is molded, appliquéd, and absurdly stylized. There is no pressure to keep up with the Joneses when you choose to live in a sculpture instead of a house.
If you buy something through our links, New York may earn an affiliate commission.