Inner space

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 April, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 April, 2004, 12:00am

A house free of clutter is the key to a calm, relaxed lifestyle

My great-aunt Dorothy is the most minimalistic person I know. She can admire nice things without feeling the impulse to buy them. She never brings back souvenirs from overseas trips. And long ago she banned the giving of gifts, no matter how special the occasion.

It is not that she is niggardly. Indeed, all of us in her extended family are remembered on birthdays and at Christmas, when Aunt Dorothy sends her trademark greeting of a card containing a generous sum of money.

It is just that she does not want to receive anything herself.

At 80, she keeps a flat that is neat and relaxing, with strategic furnishings and a few chosen artworks or photos. Her apartment does not have the busy look of so many of her friends' homes, spaces crammed to the rafters with the accumulations of a lifetime. It is not our fault, really, that we tend to gather stuff like rampant bowerbirds.

Baby Mitchell, the newest addition to our clan, began accumulating the moment his conception was announced, via gifts to his parents. Now, we are all buying up big for his christening - and we have not even got to the first Christmas or birthday yet. A bigger house will soon be in order for that section of the family.

Lest possessions threaten to erupt like Vesuvius, consider some judicious sorting. Right now is traditionally the season for 'spring cleaning', and a good time to grit one's teeth and go ahead.

A good place to start is the wardrobe. The clutter you have stashed there might be out of sight (and therefore out of mind), but the act of clearing out that war-zone should inspire further advancement. The feel-good factor after is something to relish.

And remember that most of us wear only 20 per cent of our wardrobe, and that just 80 per cent of the time (probably because we cannot see half of the clothes we possess).

Eve Roth Lindsay, of Savvy Style in Sai Kung ( or tel: 2719-9674), believes there is an art to what she terms 'wardrobe weeding', where you try on every item in the closet, and divide them into categories of 'Love It', 'Not Sure', 'Hate It', and 'Memories and Must Keep'. Be objective. Is the item of clothing fashionable? Appropriate? Does it still fit? Is the colour suitable? Is it worth keeping if you can only wear it one time and then dry clean it?

You can keep everything in the first and last categories, but only 'Love It' belongs in the wardrobe. 'Memories' can be bagged or boxed to be stored elsewhere, while everything else should be given away to charity.

Then, Ms Lindsay advises, rearrange your suddenly larger-looking closet, having first attended to all things that require mending, tailoring or cleaning. Lastly (and here comes the fun part), make a list of the new things you have to buy

'It's always good to have a clean-out,' agrees designer Adrian McCarroll, of Original Vision ( or tel: 2719 9606).

He believes well-considered storage to be the main management tool in maintaining an organised home.

'Humans are hoarders by nature,' he says. 'We tend to attach memories to items and to hold on to them. A clean-out of a simple drawer can take a full day, one of reminiscing and painful decisions, at the end of which you may have reduced the hoard by only a few per cent.

'This is why storage should have an important place in anyone's house. It should be carefully considered and amply supplemented by a healthy dose of general storage, which can be apportioned, through time, to specific needs as they arise during one's lifetime in a home.'

And do not forget to leave space for further accumulation, he says.

Discarding might be tough for many of us, but from an architect or designer's viewpoint achieving a minimalist interior is a relatively straightforward process. The space should be simple but striking, and the fittings, furniture and decoration should be appropriate, Mr McCarroll says.

However, keeping a space minimalist can be an ongoing challenge. Clutter in a minimalist interior is easily amplified, especially in a family home; careful management is the answer, and having appropriate storage is the best aid.

'Whether it be clothes, photographs, CDs, toys or even food, having organised storage that is flexible to ever-changing needs is a big advantage in maintaining a minimalist home,' Mr McCarroll says. 'Design cannot be termed good unless it embraces storage as a defining element.'

Tidiness is calming, he adds.

While a minimalist interior is tidy by nature, it also makes spaces look and feel bigger - an important consideration in the kind of high-pressure environment found in Hong Kong.

'Space is beneficial to well-being, and is becoming a luxury in the 21st century. The more we can do to enhance this feeling of personal space, the better.'

But be warned, Mr McCarroll says: sorting through that vast collection of stuff requires probing one's understanding of self and family in order to determine what we may need in the future.

Think 'flexibility' as a guideline, he says. A CD drawer should be able to take CDs and also DVDs and VHS tapes. Shelves should be adjustable wherever possible (but never show it: that's when tackiness comes in). Toy boxes can double as seats, and bicycles belong in the tool shed.

'Everything has a place and everything in its place is a great concept, but it is just a starting point. A home is ever-changing, and should be adaptable to the forces a family imposes on it. People mature and their interests change. Children grow older and their needs can exceed the powers of the imagination.

'Whether it be closet, bathroom kitchen, playroom or study, our storage needs are personal, but they evolve. Anticipating this evolution is not rocket science, but it does take thought and careful planning - more so if the spaces within are minimal in nature.'

John McLennan, of Options Home Furnishings ( or tel: 2552 3500), has a rather more ruthless approach to the problem of accumulations: 90 per cent of normal household clutter should be tossed away or sold.

His gospel to those packrats among us who pile up old magazines, newspapers and other junk is that if you have not used it in over a year, then sell it, bin it, donate it or store it.

If you are a collector (as opposed to a hoarder), rotate your possessions - as they do in art galleries.

'Don't feel you have to show everything at once,' Mr McLennan says. 'In a crowded room, things tend to look cluttered and no one can appreciate what they are looking at. Pick one main item and make it a focal point, and store the rest.

'Items that must be kept should be stored in closets, cupboards or under beds. As a last resort, there are storage companies that will store items you cannot part with. These can be rented by the month, and come air-conditioned or not.

'My suggestion is to pay a little more and get a secure air-conditioner. If an item is that important to pay storage for, you don't want it damaged.

'Also, remember that a few years in storage could be equal to a new item. If you are going to store it that long, why not bin it, sell it or donate it?'