We have a well-curated independent bookstore in town, but last Sunday I headed up the line to Barnes & Noble to check out publishing in the wider world. With a separate Architecture section gone, the House & Garden shelves have become . . . eclectic, with “how-to for dummies” paperbacks next to expensive design books. My impression is that a quarter of the books were about downsizing or decluttering. As an editor who’s published many voluptuously furnished houses, I was tempted to take this personally. But then the very next day our writer Regina Cole called to ask: “Can you Kondo-ize a Victorian house? Forbes wants to know.” She’s writing a story for them that looks at period houses from the standpoint of celebrity tidying expert Marie Kondo.
We both knew the answer. Of course a Victorian-period house can be sparse, just as a Mid-century Modern house can be filled to its clerestory windows by a hoarder. Architecture doesn’t change depending on furnishings. And wasn’t it William Morris (1834–1896) who admonished: “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful”? Marie Kondo’s mantra—“Do I truly need this? Does this object spark joy?”—sounds a lot like Morris, whose own homes at Bexleyheath and Kelmscott were startlingly spare, evoking farmhouse rooms and American Colonial interiors more than those of an upper-class Victorian.
Victorian houses are full of fancy woodwork and details because the Industrial Revolution had made that possible. Likewise they were stuffed full of textiles, furniture, and knick-knacks because for the first time such abundance was available to the middle class. Now, many people are weary of consumerism, weighed down by too many belongings and the often inevitable disorder.
Decluttering should be confined to ephemera, however. When it comes to the architecture, it’s not our call to obliterate the good work of the past, to rip out original material that may be irreplaceable. That’s not decluttering. That’s vandalism.
~ Patricia Poore, Editorial Director of Old House Journal
Look below to see stories from this issue.