Will Clutter Make a Comeback? Yes, but in a New Form, Baylor Scholar Predicts

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    Baylor design historian Elise King (Photo by Thomas Harbin)
July 20, 2015

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WACO, Texas (July 20, 2015) — The New York Times best-seller "The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up" — in which the author advocates ditching things that do not "spark joy" — has inspired many people to get on board rather than hoard. But techno-clutter may be the next hurdle.

Baylor University design historian Elise King, who is herself streamlined when it comes to knickknacks and the clothes closet, says there is "an ebb and flow over time" of non-essential vs. busy when it comes to architectural styles and interior design — including "stuff." These days, what is increasingly emerging is not only digital clutter, but "digital debris" that spills over into the physical, she says.


  • Amazon’s recently introduced "dash buttons," each labeled with a brand product name. The wireless-enabled buttons come with adhesives and hooks so users can hang or stick them in kitchens, bathrooms or laundry rooms. Press one when you’re running out of an item, and you can order that particular product via Amazon. The dash buttons serve almost as a glut of techno Post-it notes throughout the home, said King, assistant professor of interior design in Baylor’s Robbins College of Health and Human Sciences.
  • Tangled cords and printer paper. "They’re byproducts of the Digital Age, but they’re still clutter," King said. (Although scientists are working on Wi-Fi technology to someday eliminate the bird’s nest of chargers for smartphones and tablets.)
  • Digital art. This emerged a few years ago, with high-resolution images that adorn walls, hide a computer underneath and can be controlled by a smartphone, voice or gesture.

  • TiVo's recently unveiled Mega DVR can store up to three years of TV shows, which some might suggest borders on techno-hoarding.
  • The Crock-Pot Smart Slow Cooker with WeMo -- a new incarnation of the trusty Crock-Pot -- can be controlled with an app. So if a consumer opts to buy this one, do they keep the other for backup? (Or clutter, depending on how you look at it.)
  • When it comes to accumulating or divesting stuff, "Everything is a reaction over time,” said King, who specializes in 20th-century American architecture and interior design.

    While those who weathered the Great Depression championed the “use it up, wear it out, make it do” philosophy, the current societal nod goes to those who donate, recycle, toss or tidy up. (And be sure to thank the items before you say goodbye, suggests Marie Kondo, author of the bestselling book and a consultant in the Japanese art of de-cluttering and organizing.)

    Historically, architects around the turn of the 20th century until the period between the two world wars embraced the notion of "form follows function," King said. Designs should be derived from a purpose, with simplicity and no unnecessary details. "Architect Adolf Loos went so far as to say that ornamentation bordered on criminal because it was wasteful," King said.

    But by the 1960s through the 1990s, architects were mixing myriad colors and styles — and that happened in home décor and appliances, too. Architect Michael Graves — best known by some for creating a line of Target items such as colorful toasters and teapots with whistles or birds bedecking the spouts — "thought you could have all these bells and whistles, literally, if it brought you joy," King said.

    But the current joy is sparked by what is relatively stark. To Kondo’s way of thinking, even the conventional nifty storage bins are clutter if they are simply a way to hide outdated or unnecessary items.

    "It's all very much a reaction," King said. "Americans are downsizing. Baby boomers' kids have moved out; a lot of boomers are moving from the 'burbs to the 'urbs.'" Many millennials also are moving to smaller, more central locations.

    On TV shows such as FYI Network’s "Tiny House Nation" and HGTV’s "Tiny House Hunters" and "Tiny House Builders," people shrink their space to simplify, save money or increase family closeness — literally — in such habitats as the '172-foot Dream Castle' or the '264-square-foot Honeymoon Suite.'

    "Maybe people want to be in a place with less traffic, or get away from it all to the country," King said. "But properties in both the country and urban areas can be at a premium, so what may make it doable is having a smaller house."

    With the changes, generations are switching roles a bit.

    "Parents always tell their kids to clean their room or get rid of clutter. But eventually it will be the kids who have to clean up after their parents," said Spencer Cutright, a Baylor University senior majoring in public relations. "When my grandpa moved from his house to his retirement home, my dad and I had to go through all of his stuff and see what was worth keeping. During the cleaning process I was shocked at the amount of items and clutter he had."

    So he is doing things differently.

    "As a student I feel like I’m constantly receiving different papers and documents from my teachers," Cutright said. "By the time the end of the semester rolls around, I have stacks that I’ll never use again. Instead of letting them sit around, I recycle them. When I recycle them, it is a moment of reflection over all the hard work I put in during the semester."

    Whatever the future holds in the way of clutter, King said, she wants her students to be prepared.

    "One of their projects is to a design for a 400- to 500-square-foot 'micro-apartment,'" she said. 'A lot of their solutions involve the combining of areas/functions — things such as a Murphy bed that is also a desk.'

    Co-written by Spencer Cutright


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    After more than three years of evaluation and input from Baylor regents, deans, faculty and staff, and external entities, the Baylor Board of Regents approved the creation of the Robbins College of Health and Human Sciences on May 16, 2014. This was also a direct result of identified priorities for strengthening the health sciences through Baylor’s strategic vision, Pro Futuris, which serves as a compass for the University’s future. The anchor academic units that form the new College – Communication Sciences and Disorders, Family and Consumer Sciences, Health, Human Performance and Recreation, and the Louise Herrington School of Nursing – share a common purpose: improving health and the quality of life. The new College is working to create curricula that will promote a team-based approach to patient care and will establish interdisciplinary research collaborations to advance solutions for improving the quality of life for individuals, families, and communities.

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