January Interior Design Tip: Purge!

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Dear Shelly: Help! My home is just “blah.” I’ve spent years accumulating all sorts of things; furniture, art and accessories, most of which I liked, but now I’m not so sure. The more I get, the worse it looks, and it seems to be a hodgepodge of different styles. I’m tempted to get rid of everything and just start over. What do you recommend?  –  Elizabeth G.

Dear Elizabeth,

I truly feel your pain and frustration. It’s not as though you intentionally set out to make your home a source of frustrastion and dissatisfaction. You have spent time, effort and money in a quest for creating your idea of the perfect home, only to be left feeling discouraged and unhappy with your personal surroundings. What you lack is a comfortable and pleasing sanctuary to enjoy with family and friends.

The first step to achieve this haven of cozy tranquility? The dumpster and/or donation box(es!). Purge, big time, or “edit.” Be merciless, as long as you grasp the concept that this goes beyond typical “spring cleaning.”

For now, put away the cute feather duster, and arm yourself with gallon-sized trash bags and cartons. We need to start with a clean slate, and give your household treasures an opportunity to be set apart from the “junk” that has been granted equal status, yet doesn’t pull its own weight.

Like what, you might ask? In my home this year, I am on a mission to “be real,” inspired by my late son Matt’s life philosophy. This month I began going through my house with a box, working my way around the room, and asked myself the question, “Do I really love this object?”

The standards of “love” could be sentimental, something of dollar value, or beauty. Another value test for this question would be the “what would you rescue from the house if you had to evacuate in 30 minutes?” question. Obviously, those belongings earn immediate “stay” status. “Whew!” sighs the circa 1989 candy dish made by your now-grown child.

Items that passed the “love it” test still have to pass a second question: “Is this item negative?” I”m not getting groovy on you, but, as complex, sensitive human beings, we have subconscious awareness that constantly processes our environment. Think about the history of the object, and be aware of whether memory ties are good, bad or indifferent.

Bad? Get rid of it, out of your house and out of your life, for good. In print, this sounds slow and tedious, but you can move along fairly rapidly, and you will soon realize a gradual lightening of an emotional burden. All this clutter has, in effect, been demanding your attention, and robbing you of the opportunity to relish your surroundings and habitat. Rooms like kitchens are notorious for accumulating multiples upon multiples.

Case in point, how many measuring cups does a household need? I was shocked, in purging my kitchen, to find that I possessed (rather, they possessed me) four different oddball sets of measuring cups, yet none – except one – was a complete set.


Would you believe, I actually paused, thinking of various uses for incomplete measuring cup sets? Here’s a common thread in those who are buried in too much: We have creative imaginations.

Empty jars, mismatched cups, a plate with a chip, dozens of knives, utensils, wine glasses, ancient cookie sheets, etc. I could cite half dozen “creative possibilities” for these things, but in reality they merely serve as excuses for possessive gluttony. In my household purging exercise, I did my best to recycle castoffs to thrift shops. The rest was junk only fit for the dumpster.

Another liberating and unexpected level of this purging is giving away that which is perfectly good, even very nice, but something you have rarely used, or something that you have in duplicate, or multiples, such as nice dishes and vases. The goodness that comes from giving away that which you know has value, or would serve to enhance another’s life, is a gift that serves full circle.

Soon, as you methodically account for every “thing” in your household, you will be reintroduced to the objects truly deserving of imparting visual, functional and emotional importance in your home. Enjoy the satisfaction of a job well done, for yourself, your family and for others.

Now, how to begin reappointing all your reunited treasures? That’s another column for another day.

Editor’s note: This is a best-of column that first appeared on anewscafe.com on Jan. 28, 2008.

Shelly Shively is formally trained in the art of re-design, and is IRDN (Interior -Re-design Network) certified. Shelly is a freelance artist, illustrator and muralist.  She can be reached at leinanishively@gmail.com

Shelly Shively
Shelly Shively lives in Redding. She is Interior re-design network certified. Among her specialties are real estate staging, furnishing vacation and new homes, and the art of interior re-design where she transforms and refreshes clients living spaces using their existing belongings. Shelly is also a freelance artist, illustrator, muralist, Whiskeytown kayak volunteer and curator at O Street Gallery. To inquire about a consultation, she may be reached at 530-276-4656 or leinanishively@gmail.com
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22 Responses

  1. Avatar Tammy D says:

    Shelly, thank you for the timely advice!

  2. Avatar `AJacoby says:

    GOOD HEAVENS . . . . YOU'VE BEEN READING MY MIND!!! But can I do this?? That remains to be seen. I've said, on occasion, the only REAL way to clean house is to move. And I haven't done that in thirty years so you can only imagine!!! My daughter looked around my house when she was on her way home from going through her late dad's stuff and said, "You'd better clean this out. I don't want to go thru this mess again!" So there's another reason for en environmental purge! I think I'll print this one out and put it on my fridge . . . oh, wait, there's too much stuff there . . . . maybe my . . . ummm, no, that's full. Guess I'll tape it to my forehead!!! LOL!

  3. Avatar jacki g says:

    Thanks, Shelly…timely advice!

  4. Avatar pmarshall says:

    Very difficult thing to do, especially if one has lost a spouse. But I have no excuse, my spouse collects also.

  5. Avatar shelly shively says:

    Having more than one person's (spouse, kids, etc) clutter to deal with does make it extra challenging, especially if they are not all on board with the idea. Maybe if you begin with what is exclusively yours, that it will help to inspire your husband to do the same….worth a try 😉

  6. Avatar Donna D. says:

    Shelly, I was trying to purge my home a year ago, and then my mom passed away and I have been dealing with all her stuff for the last 8 months. I couldn't exactly get a backhoe in to deal with her stuff (it is family, after all)). Now I have even more stuff than I ever imagined. It has made my job harder. Gosh, where does all this stuff go?

    • Avatar shelly shively says:

      Donna, I can appreciate your dilemma in having your Mom's belongings. I went through the same situation in coping with the sentimental value of each and every object of my son & husband. I had great difficulty parting even with a pencil that my husband used on grading tests. I found that I ended up creating a type of shrine of those belongings, and eventually realized that letting go of most of their possessions, especially in the form of giving it away to a "new life" for another, allowed me a certain release from a self imposed bondage to the past. Very painful, yet brought growth. This process is something that only you can gauge, and cannot be rushed. Perhaps, in your family or friends, are there others who would like to have some of your Mom's possessions? My best to you, in being a good steward of your Mom's things.

  7. Ok…you got with these two words…"possessive gluttony"….I think that hit home! So now…it's time to de-clutter and de-possess. Thanks for the good advice and encouragement to DO IT!

  8. Avatar Canda says:

    Great article, Shelly. After enjoying some of your yard sales, I can attest to the fact that you've definitely de-cluttered, and I've enjoyed giving your "clutter" a new home. 🙂

  9. Avatar Lynda Demsher says:

    Umm, us volunteers who sort through stuff at thrift shops don't appreciate the chipped plates, ancient cookie sheets, lone measuring cups from a set…however, some of the clutter you describe may fit someone else's decor just fine. When donating to a thrift shop, stop and think "would I buy this"…and please make sure it's clean before it goes in the donation box. Keep in mind that the non-profit thrift store you donate to has to pay to have your dirty, broken and stained stuff hauled off, defeating the purpose of your donations.

    • Avatar shelly shively says:

      Thanks, Lynda, for input from someone who deals with donated items. The old adage, "one man's treasure is another man's trash" is why thrift stores are so fun. You never know, that chipped plate or one cup may be just the thing another is looking for. Good advice for those donating to be mindful of items that only create the burden of disposal for the thrift shop.

  10. Avatar Kirsten says:

    Shelly- great article- I am now looking for boxes big enough……………… Another idea for "de-cluttering": My friend Jan, has this project every year: to clean out one drawer a day, starting on the first of January. She is usually done by mid-March.

    Seems to be a very reasonable way to get rid of stuff, and most of us can handle a "drawer-a-day" kinda thing.

    But I'm gonna need your help in re-arranging my house after de-cluttering…………

    • Avatar shelly shively says:

      A drawer-a-day, or closet-a-week, is an excellent way to manage clutter. Your friend Jan sounds like a methodical thinker!

      I look forward to helping you rearrange your home after decluttering.

  11. Avatar `AJacoby says:

    Well, I read the article and took it to heart. Started with my car. in the pocket over the sun-visor I had at least four or five years worth of "proof of insurance" and "vehicle registration" papers. So, off the old ones went to the shredder. The caveat here being that as that last outdated registration began it's trip through the shredder I realized it was the current one!! YIIIIKES!!! $55.00 later I have a replacement. LOL!

    But I will continue and I WILL persevere . . . eventually!!

  12. Avatar Michelle says:

    Great article! I tend to hold on to so much of my 10 yr old son's school work and toys from when he was smaller. I am afraid my memory will fail me when he is older and wants to reminisce about the past. Any suggestions?

    • Avatar shelly shively says:


      As a parent of kids all grown, I can appreciate your concern of how much to save from each year. Something I think is an excellent idea (though not my idea) is to use "extra large"(clean, unused) pizza boxes for each school year, saving art, school assignments, school & class photo, and even small toys or favorite books from that year. The child can decorate the box each year, and it would be a bonus if you could include a letter from you about the child's life that year: highlights, activities, interests, friends, etc. The boxes can be labeled on the edge, and stacked, or even stored under a bed.

      Hope this tip is helpful!