Organizing the American domestic interior : 1978-2010




Kelly, Katherine Feo

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Over the past thirty years, organization has become one of the most popular ways to spend time and money on the home in the U.S. In part, this popularity and its attendant fixation on simplicity and stillness is a reaction to historical circumstances of the late twentieth century, in which consumption and time seem to have “sped up” as a result of the postindustrial economy. Situating home organization within the fields of American Studies, Design History, and Material Culture studies, this dissertation examines the contemporary preoccupation with organizing the domestic interior through five case studies: reality television shows about messy homes, the retail vendor The Container Store, Real Simple magazine, self-help books on de-cluttering, and interviews with professional organizers. Although its rhetoric and aesthetics seem to mimic the principles of design modernism, home organization is highly postmodern in its adoption of neoliberal values of self-improvement and its participation in an aestheticized landscape of consumer culture. Each case study in this dissertation exposes a number of tensions at the heart of the trend: home organization is a lucrative industry that relies on anxiety around overconsumption to sell products, often depending on corporate branding techniques that stress organization as an ongoing “lifestyle” of consumption; acknowledging gender inequity in domestic responsibility, home organization advice texts show women how to speed up, rather than delegate, housework, ultimately creating more work for women; de-cluttering manuals ask individuals to detach their sense of self-identity from their belongings, yet use the same principles to explain how editing objects results in the expression of one’s “true” self. Placing the discourse around clutter and order in the home within historical and cultural contexts, these case studies offer valuable insight into gender, middle-class culture, and the domestic interior at the turn of the twenty-first century.


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