Those who watch a lot of home makeover shows are familiar with the “big reveal,” the moment homeowners see their newly redesigned space for the first time. Neatly labelled belongings, clothes hung by rainbow color in immaculate closets, appliance-free kitchen countertops. There are usually gasps of surprise and, more often than not, some joyful crying. I tend to be skeptical of these scenes, knowing as I do that, like pretty much all reality TV programming, they are highly choreographed, even scripted, to produce a certain emotional response in the viewer. In fact, in most respects, the world of professional organizing is decidedly different than its televisual counterpart. It came as a surprise, then, when I found myself moved to tears during the real-life reveal at the end of an organizing session.
As part of my research on the professional organizing industry, I worked as an unpaid assistant to professional organizers in Southern California on what I call “workalongs,” helping clients manage their homes, work spaces, and belongings. Founded in the 1970s, professional organizing is a relatively young field, but it’s garnered a lot of attention over the last decade thanks to an array of reality television programs, from Clean Sweep and Tidying Up with Marie Kondo to Hoarders and Hoarding: Buried Alive. An anthropologist of work, I was especially interested in documenting what organizers’ labor entails, why they do it, and how they feel about it.
In this instance, I assisted on the second day of a two-day job reorganizing the home of Marcia, a fashion designer and mother of three. Marcia and her family lived in a large, brightly decorated home in a quiet, upscale neighborhood in central Los Angeles. The front yard was crowded with sunflowers and lined by a small, white picket fence. The house looked happily lived in, clean and a bit cluttered, with worn wooden floors and quaint arched doorways. The entryway held a jumble of shoes, jackets, bags, and sports equipment. Piles of paper lay atop the kitchen counter, waiting to be attended to. Bookshelves stacked two rows deep lined a wall of the large living room, more books in piles beside them. A comfy-looking couch was draped with a colorful afghan and scattered with mismatched throw pillows.
A slender woman in her mid-fifties, Marcia wore chunky black glasses and no makeup. Her mane of black hair, touched with gray, was corralled into two long braids that nearly reached her waist. She smiled often, thanked us constantly, and invited us to help ourselves to anything in the fridge if we were hungry.
Starla, the 40-something organizer I was working for that day, told me in advance that Marcia was good at making decisions and parted with things easily. They had already met during the initial consultation, when Marcia walked Starla through what the job would entail and the two had determined “what hurts most”—the areas Marcia was most keen to get organized. The team had tackled the attic the day before, clearing out boxes of holiday decorations, many of which had to be thrown away due to water damage and the remnants of a rat infestation. From what could be salvaged, Marcia selected items to keep or donate, and the organizers cleaned, packed, and labeled the “keepers” in sturdy storage bins Marcia had on hand. In contrast to most reality shows, where organizers cajole or even force clients to part with belongings, the organizers I spoke with and worked alongside were emphatic that the client always has the final say on whether to keep an item; many organizers include a clause to that effect in their contracts.
Our job for the day was to organize Marcia’s basement workspace. Marcia had been designing clothing for women’s fashion brands for more than 20 years, mostly from home. She did most of her work in the home’s well-lit basement, which was also used for storage. The 300-square-foot space included a large drafting table and two walls of metal shelving, the kind you buy at a big box store and assemble yourself. On each shelf, Marcia’s work supplies—drawing pads, pens, pencils, markers, paint and paint brushes, glue, tape, artificial flowers, needles and thread, ribbons, fabric swatches, a dressmaker’s mannequin, multiple sewing machines—vied for space with the miscellany of family life, including off-season sports equipment, old CDs, home movies, vinyl records, framed movie posters, the kids’ old art projects, shoe inserts, and extension cords.
The first step in organizing the basement, deciding what should stay and what should go, went quickly. We organized items by type, tossed away anything broken or unusable, and relocated the sports equipment and a few other items to the garage. One of Marcia’s children, now at college, stored their artwork in the basement—large canvases leaned in rows along the wall, unwieldy papier maché sculptures balanced atop the stacks. There was no question of getting rid of these pieces at the moment, so we moved them into the unused space under the steps coming down to the basement. We lined the canvases up from biggest to smallest for easy access, with the sculptures tucked safely under the lower part of the steps.
Meanwhile, Marcia made quick work of the record collection. She set a few favorites aside, packed up the rest, and headed off to Amoeba Music, a nearby used record store. (Once the decision to part with something is made, organizers usually encourage clients to get it out of the house immediately; otherwise, items intended for sale or donation become one more pile of clutter to be dealt with later.) On her way home, Marcia planned to run a few errands and pick up her daughter from dance class. That left the rest of us—Starla, me, and two other assistants—to organize the basement into a usable work space.
For each type of item, we chose an appropriately sized box or bin (Marcia already had many on hand), labeled it with a Post-it note, neatly packed the items inside, and found a logical spot for it on one of the shelving units. Nonwork items, such as DVDs or kids’ belongings, were assigned to the shelving unit farthest from Marcia’s desk, while items she needed on a regular basis were placed within reach. Larger categories of items, such as ribbons, were organized into subcategories—plain ribbon, fancy ribbon, holiday ribbon. Once we found homes for everything, we replaced the makeshift labels with permanent ones. (Starla banned me from printing any of the final labels, saying, not without cause, that my handwriting is terrible.)
It took about three hours, but by the time Marcia returned home, the basement was nearly finished. There’s rarely a dramatic reveal at the end of an organizing job; clients usually participate in, or at least witness, the process from start to finish. Marcia had been actively involved in the sorting process, but when she left on her errands, the basement was still a mess. Everything had been taken out and sorted through, but nothing had yet been packed away or put back. We rearranged the shelving units and other large items so the room looked larger. We vacuumed the floor, dusted the shelves, and wiped down every single item. The drafting table, previously piled high with stacks of paper and office supplies, was clean and bare. On the shelf behind it, facing Marcia while she worked, sat a row of colorful art and sewing supplies, arranged in neatly labeled bins.
Other than one $25 wire shelving unit from Target, no new items were purchased for the job. Organizers often explained to me that most clients already have more organizing products—boxes, bins, color-coded file folders—than they could possibly need, so organizers prefer to repurpose items the client already owns. Although organizers are often criticized for their complicity with the contain-industrial complex, a billion-dollar home storage and organization industry comprising everything from Real Simple magazine to The Container Store to the more than 1.5 billion square feet of self-storage space in the United States alone, they are actually among the industry’s most passionate and persuasive critics. They regularly reassure clients that everyone, even organizers, gets disorganized sometimes; they remind them that organized spaces don’t have to look Pinterest-perfect; and they discourage unnecessary consumption, especially in the name of getting organized. And while organizing is sometimes perceived as a luxury service, many organizers reduce their rates for low-income clients or work pro bono for clients in crisis, such as people moving to escape domestic violence or being abruptly evicted from their homes.
As organizers often say, organizing is not really about “the stuff”; it’s about the feelings people have about their stuff and what they think it says about who they are. The goal of getting organized, then, has less to do with dramatic before-and-after photos than with how the client feels—about herself (most clients are women) and about the newly organized space and the items in it. Nothing makes an organizer happier than a satisfied client. As one organizer explained, “Seeing [clients] at the end of a session, it’s a 180 sometimes. Like, I’ll go in and they’re overwhelmed and stressed out and can’t find anything. They feel like there’s a sense of lack—lack of space and time and energy. …I just love to see their relief when we’re done.”
This was exactly what happened with Marcia. As I wrote in my fieldnotes that day, when Marcia returned home, “it really was like on TV.” She started down the stairs into the basement and stopped mid-step. She cried out in surprise, lifting her hand to cover her mouth. “I can’t believe it,” she said, and started to cry. She continued into the room, walking from shelf to shelf, touching random boxes, quietly reading labels aloud: “Fake flowers! Fancy ribbon!” Then she sat down at her drafting table and let out a small sob.
“I’ve been a designer for 20 years,” she told us, “but I never felt like a professional until I saw all this organized on the shelves like this. I always grabbed as I went, never organizing, but here it is.” She hugged and kissed each of us, thanking us profusely. “I could never have done this,” she told us, and thanked us again. And then I was crying along with her, as were the others, even Starla, who prides herself on being a “tough love” sort of organizer. It was a bittersweet moment—despite her long success in a competitive field, Marcia had never seen herself as a professional, something I suspect is true of many women who squeeze their work, physically and temporally, into the spaces left around their family responsibilities. It felt gratifying to have been a part of something that made her feel differently about herself and her work.
Organizers may spend part of their day shredding old tax statements or organizing books by the color of their spines, but at the core of what they do is what sociologist Allison Pugh calls connective labor—listening empathetically to clients and emotionally connecting with them in order to identify and solve the problems that led them to hire an organizer in the first place. The real “reveal” is not how pretty a space can be or how well a system can work, but how self-critical, isolated, and overwhelmed many Americans, even the more privileged among them, feel on a daily basis. Organizers can’t cure the sources of this anxiety and insecurity, but they can help clients see that a cluttered home, messy desk, or unwieldy to-do list is not evidence of personal failure. They can also design customized, sustainable strategies to help people save time and money and enable them to feel more in control of their lives, spaces, and belongings. In an era when meaningful work and human connection can be hard to come by, organizers work to do both, improving clients’ lives in ways small but significant, one basement, one closet, one junk drawer at a time.
Charlotte Corden is an illustrator and fine artist whose work often centers around what it is to be human. She has an MA in anthropology from University College London and has studied at the London Fine Art Studios and the Arts Students League of New York.