In the past few months, the pavement outside my flat has been taken over by stuff: baby baths, filing systems, books, stools. People leave them, others take them; no money exchanges hands. It’s a well-established, sustainable micro-economy – and, according to my neighbour, whose bedroom window opens on to this pavement, it’s becoming a problem. “You have to ask: where did this crap come from – and where’s it going to go?”
Clutter has emerged, dusty and triumphant, as a defining byproduct of the pandemic. Yet we are undecided on what to do with it. “Forced inside, some people have been decluttering, absolutely, but I’ve noticed others actively re-embracing their stuff,” says Jennifer Howard, author of Clutter: An Untidy History. “The pandemic has forced us to reevaluate what we have, make better use of objects and space ... and also see their value, often for the first time.”
Howard, who works from home, has witnessed (among other things) what she calls a “renaissance” in encyclopedias used as laptop stands. In some corners of social media, such reappraisal of forgotten belongings goes by another name: cluttercore. On TikTok, videos hashtagged #cluttercore have almost 2m views. On Instagram, there are about 1,300 posts. Many of these feature beds piled up with clothes and walls papered with pictures. Other images have a cosier feel: clothes sandwiched neatly together, walls crammed with paintings and mantelpieces groaning under mementoes. The idea of cluttercore exists in loftier places, too: in the current online issue of Modern House, Alison Lloyd of Ally Capellino waxes fondly about the “organised clutter” of her decorated eggs, postcards and tasteful bric-a-brac.
Cluttercore devotee Amy-Louise Holton, 36, who lives in Brighton, East Sussex, makes and sells clothes on Etsy. She describes her clutter of fabrics and threads as “part of the creative process”. Irina Balog, a 32-year-old interior designer from Gothenburg in Sweden, agrees. She says cluttercore “is both an aesthetic and an emotion … I’ve basically done this since I was a teenager, so this is not new to me, even though the word is. The way I decorate my space is part of who I am.”
For a generation that rent rather than buy, clutter can be a lifeline. “I’ve accepted the fact that I won’t own a house so making [my home] joyful and cosy is really important,” says Holton.
TikTok’s depiction of cluttercore is often bedroom-based, and advocates honesty over aspiration. The spaces tend to be cramped, intimate and lived in, and the commentary lighthearted. Clothes clash, angles are off. It’s the opposite of the broad, bland perfectionism pedalled by Instagram – more importantly, it’s inclusive.
Stuck inside during febrile times, our social lives much diminished, we may be more likely to fall prey to consumerism. But clutter can mean something other than the excess mess made by an accumulation of things we don’t really need. For some, clutter is being repurposed for pandemic life: the “living chair” in my bedroom moonlights as a laundry basket and folding pile, for example, and my ceramic pot now holds pens instead of plants. Cluttercore’s aesthetic is often hashtagged alongside #cottagecore, though the latter feels more like a lifestyle for which clutter (the cosy, country kind) has a walk-on role.
Joseph Ferrari, who studies the psychological impact of clutter at DePaul University in Chicago, describes home as a “situation for living” and a foundation for identity. Home is not simply a place, he says, “it is an extension of our selves, a living archive of memory”. It is now also an office, a nursery or any other number of things. It is something to be looked at, as well as lived in, a duality many of us have yet to accommodate six months on from the first lockdown. We may not be entertaining friends, but we are inviting colleagues in via Zoom. We have upended the role of our home entirely; it must function not only as a nest but as proof that we are holding it together.
Typically, an abundance of clutter has the power to undo that. It’s no surprise that critics of clutter, Ferrari included, tend to be homeowners. But what if we were able to reclaim it? Asked about his writing habits in 1967, the novelist Christopher Isherwood told the BBC that he “prefers to be around his own things”. He would often get up from his desk and open a book at random, “and just take a swig at it”. One artist friend told me that quarantine was her most productive period because she was forced to sketch things inside the home, many of which she hadn’t looked at for years.
Some of the greatest creative minds lived a cluttered life: Virginia Woolf, Francis Bacon, Iris Murdoch. In her essay Making Home, Rachel Cusk talks about Murdoch’s emphatic “rejection of domestic servitude” as gender-led, as if by “ceasing to care about our homes we could prove our lack of triviality, our busyness, our equality”.
Of course, one woman’s clutter is another woman’s trash, and how we view it depends entirely on how we define it. Derivations of the word point toward clot, but “to me, clutter is stuff that is no longer useful but gets in the way of living,” says Howard. Based in Washington DC, she was moved to write her book on clutter after clearing out her late mother’s house and unearthing “bags of bags, pickle jars, jars of pennies, jars of rubber bands, records … So much stuff!” Clutter, she agrees, is in the eye of the beholder.
It is crucial to point out the difference between clutter and hoarding. Hoarding is a mental disorder in which, as the NHS puts it, “someone acquires an excessive number of items and stores them in a chaotic manner, usually resulting in unmanageable amounts of clutter”. Howard agrees: “There is an idea of excess and abundance built into the word, but you don’t need a metric tonne of the stuff to call it clutter,” she says.
If maximalism, the embrace of excess, has emerged as a curated rejection of minimalism, a commercial sort of Zen that imagines a home free from the tyranny of its owner’s lifestyle, cluttercore is somewhere in the middle. There is a “comfort in things”, as the anthropologist Daniel Miller once argued. “Objects don’t talk. Or do they?”
An attachment to buying things can also be at play here, although it is easy to sympathise, as Howard does, with those who turned to shopping during the pandemic, since it “gives a sense of control”. We can’t find the cure to the virus, but we can streamline the bills with a tasteful filing cabinet.
Naturally – this is capitalism, after all – new ways to profit from our clutter anxiety have also emerged. Marie Kondo just launched an e-course to help people declutter during the pandemic, while Netflix aired Get Organized With the Home Edit, which hopes to do for organising what Kondo did for disposal. Fronted by friends Clea Shearer and Joanna Teplin, each episode sees them transform the cluttered space of one celebrity and one non-celebrity with an armoury of containers, labelling and stamina. It is twee yet bewitching, a sort of ASMR-meets-Changing Rooms for the online generation. The show also advocates the “rainbowification” of objects – hair extensions and books included – a method of creating joy rather than – as Kondo recommends – waiting for it to spark (although book lovers might disagree).
As a concept, clutter was arguably invented during the Victorian period. In 1861, Mrs Beeton published her Book of Household Management, bearing the catchphrase “a place for everything and everything in its place”. The idea was that new systems of production required new systems of order, explains Howard in her book, meaning you get stuff and then get more stuff to deal with the stuff. “The internet hasn’t yet killed, if it ever will, the lingering Victorian habits of acquisition and display,” she writes. Back then, most things were relatively more expensive than today, so they were more highly valued – even if they were seaside knick-knacks or children’s toys.
“Now it is cheap to fill your home with stuff. Clutter has become political,” says the architect and academic Eddie Blake. “There’s a neurotic strain in interior design – unable to deal with the ambiguity of clutter, architects purge it, and I’ve spent a long time trying to get over this urge.” Blake’s taste sits somewhere between modernist and bohemian, valuing function over form. There is clutter, though, on the mantelpiece. “The conkers my son collected are imbued with a magical esoteric value.” He smiles: “I like stuff. It helps anchor you.”