A Maximalist's Response to Marie Kondo's Minimalist Mandate

“I have to go home and Marie Kondo my kitchen,” my friend Max told me last Monday, standing up from the dinner table and heading to his apartment, where all culinary non-essentials would be tossed into the garbage.

The same day, my friend Veronica posted a picture of her cat on Instagram, lounging in a drawer of shirts, each one folded, KonMari-style, into perfect rectangles.

It was the end of a three-day weekend, and the effects of Tidying Up With Marie Kondo, a home makeover-style reality show on Netflix based around organization guru Marie Kondo’s cult KonMari method, had officially set in. All of a sudden, my social channels and real life were overflowing with talk of clutter. So I did the only logical thing: from a couch piled high with books and “important mail,” I watched the first episode.

As I observed a modern American family called the Friends say thank you to their old workout clothes and kitchen gadgets and throw them into the garbage, I did what, I can only assume, viewers across the country have been doing since the show's January 1 debut: I looked around my happily stuffed one-bedroom apartment and took inventory.

What sparks joy? Almost everything, actually.

My joy-sparking giraffe pillow.
My joy-sparking giraffe pillow.
Photo: Hannah Martin

Six lamps, only one of them plugged in? All essential.

A silver sea shell filled with crystals? They keep me balanced.

Two tall shelves, stuffed with books (Marie recommends under 30)? I'm a writer!

All those weird pioneer clothes I thrifted in high school? About to have a moment.

The shotski bearing my Instagram handle? Best party favor to date and perennial conversation piece.

All those rugs? OK, I got a little carried away in Morocco, but pattern-on-pattern is a maximalist's palette cleanser.

There are a few things I think I can part with: some half-used scented candles, some freebee cosmetics that never made it into rotation, a few old tee shirts. OK done.

When I was seven or eight years old, my parents bought a fire ladder. It was folded up and stored in the upstairs linen closet in the terrifying case that our house caught fire. If this happened, we were instructed, we’d take it into my room, drop it out the window, grab whatever necessities were nearby, and climb down to safety. I had nightmares about fires for years, but they weren’t really about me or my family. They were about what I would grab. If I rescued my top three dolls, I wouldn’t be able to save my best stuffed animals. But if I got the stuffed animals or the dolls, I’d have to abandon my diaries and my favorite books. It was impossible to choose.

Should we have to? The truth is, I love stuff. I love my stuff. I love other people’s stuff. I love the history of stuff and what it says about us. I literally get paid to write about stuff. As proven by critic Mario Praz, who famously catalogued his life by way of the possessions in his Rome apartment in House of Life, so much of our story is in our stuff. Had Mario gotten swept up in some sort of fad purge, what might have been erased from his memory and, all these years later, from our memory of him?

One of the aforementioned stuffed bookshelves.
One of the aforementioned stuffed bookshelves.
Photo: Hannah Martin

Kondo’s famous KonMari method isn’t quite as extreme as a house fire. But when you see the number of garbage bags outside the Friends family's house, post-tidy, the comparison doesn’t seem entirely off-base. Her philosophy, which she outlines in the New York Times bestseller The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, requires people to sort their belongings into five groups: clothing, books, papers, komono (things in the kitchen, bathroom, garage, and the like), and sentimental items. By holding onto each object, you see if it "sparks joy." ("You feel it when you hold a puppy or when you wear your favorite outfit," she says on the show. "It’s a warm and positive feeling"). If it doesn't, you politely tell it thank you and you throw it in the trash. According to Marie, "it is life transforming."

But not all transformation feels good. What if you miss your stuff afterwards? Things can't exactly be retrieved from a land fill. Minimalism, after all, worked out for Donald Judd and Tadao Ando, but is it really the right prescription for everyone? Imagine the sterilizing effect KonMari might have on the wildly maximalist rooms of Mario Buatta, Elsie de Wolfe, or Kelly Wearstler. For me, being surrounded by a dense assemblage of objects and things, all of them embedded with memories or associations, conjures the same sense of calm that, I can only imagine, someone else might find in a pristine white room.

And that doesn't mean I'm breaking all the KonMari rules. In all my deliberation on the disposal of stuff, I realized I can get behind the main component of the Kondo method: the respect of things—even the ones you trash. Marie famously thanks each object when she throws it away. If a pile of tee shirts accidentally topples over in the purging process, she politely apologizes. When she removes stacks of books from the shelf she gives them a little pat to "wake them up". Things, to her and also to me, have a certain kind of life.

Those big piles of garbage might add to the before-and-after, reality show appeal, but so much of Marie's approach goes beyond purging: it's about appreciating your objects and living with things you love. Perhaps the lesson for maximalists is this: take your possessions, hold them in your hands, thank them for all they've done for you and then put them right back on the shelf where they belong.

I call it the KonMaxi method.