I recently passed a hoarding in front of a half built row of modern retirement homes, and along with the usual photos of utopian couples, there was a quote from William Morris, printed proudly in bold.
‘Have nothing in your houses,’ it read, ‘that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.’ You will have heard that quote before – it’s on a par with Coco Chanel’s passive aggressive tut that we must look in the mirror before we go out and always remove one accessory.
It’s verging even, I’d argue, on the screaming command to ‘Live Love Laugh’, typically printed on canvas and often hung above a sink. But this quote stuck with me because its placement, on the advertising hoarding of a building site, showed how its anti-clutter message is now powerful enough to sell houses.
Not storage boxes, not recycling bins, but houses – containers for people, and their two useful things. While once this message was a self-help projector matter of taste, now it is a branding exercise, a promise of calm. A shorthand for the life that could be led, a clean slate. It tells us that what we would be buying, were we to purchase a luxury retirement home here, just off the North Circular and within spitting distance of London’s premier dogging spot, would be the chance to start again, and with nothing.
Instinctively, I shiver at the mention of minimalism. Rather than serene and meditative, the vision of a minimalist home has always suggested to me a life lived in fear, both of spills and of getting things wrong. There is the sense that this is not just the most tasteful way to live, but also the most morally superior – the sign of a balanced mind and ethical wallet, conscious and conscientious and simply better than you.
I walk into white spaces and feel suspicious, as if entering a crime scene. ‘What are they hiding?’ I mutter. ‘Where are the bodies?’ When Marie Kondo pivoted from celebrity tidying consultant, whose teachings centred on the idea that stuff was bad and should be chucked, to celebrity shopkeeper, whose brand focused on the idea that, actually, her stuff was good and should be purchased immediately, I sighed my self-righteous smile, and murmured wisely about late-stage capitalism.
My trusty cynicism is sparked by the idea that minimalism can be bought, and by the illusion that through purchasing such emptiness – a single perfect teacup, a white paper lampshade – one can control the rest of one’s life. Can rid one, too, of any messy feelings, smudged memories, tricky relationships that we have with food, drink, things...
It is possible, of course, that I am wrong. That my criticism of minimalism is actually a criticism of myself, of the primary coloured chaos I live inside and among. That in undermining the idea of it, I’m allowing myself another day without having to consider why, for example, I give into a nightly impulse to buy yet more folk art on Ebay.
It is possible. It’s possible that, though I hoarsely insist that a messy desk encourages a creative mind, I might get more done with said mind if, for instance, I could find my blue notebook. It’s possible that, though my tastes lean heavily towards thousands of pot plants and 80s lamps, a home with fewer things might help me become calmer, less acquisitive, more respectful of light and space, serene.
In moments of great want, when a journey to the charity shop or stores of Instagram has pricked a desire in me, it’s possible that I might find equal satisfaction walking away from a useful and/or beautiful object as I would from adding it to one of my many ‘collections’. But the idea, well, it stabs a little.
There is a version of me somewhere, I’m sure, that is living quite simply and gorgeously; her children sharing their single wooden toy; her capsule wardrobe rotating for autumn, and I would like to meet her, share a small plate of warm biscuits, marvel at her linens. There is a version of me also, who’s living without the word ‘no’, her home piled with pulp fiction and pottery, a careful filing system known once, but briefly.
I can dream of a life of contemplation containing only objects of wellness, but were I actually to achieve it I know I’d be paddling furiously under the surface to uphold the illusion of calm. In truth, I’m somewhere in the middle of those versions of me, with nothing in my house that I do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful, or might come in handy one day, or quite like because it has fish on it. Peace comes, I’m realising, not by simply emptying your home, but by emptying your ideas of what serenity should look like.