Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic

Your Quarantine Clutter Has a Long and Distinguished History

Herbert Gehr/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images.

Picnic basket. Badminton racket. Jigsaw puzzles. Cold-weather gear. All these items and hundreds more spill across the floor, as a sorrowful blonde clutches more rackets and a baseball glove, a Madonna of the closet. This full-page photograph by Herbert Gehr was staged to accompany a 1945 Life story on the storage wall: the revolutionary new system, designed by architects George Nelson and Henry Wright, that was going to help the American family organize the 10,000 objects they had stashed in attics, on shelves, and in basements. Thirteen feet long and 12 inches deep, the storage wall would separate living room from hallway and house a tenth of the average family’s worldly goods, from sports equipment to stereo system, stationery to board games behind closed doors.

I always thought of the storage wall as #housegoals, a place for everything and everything in its place. I dreamed of clearing the decks of clutter, from counters to coffee table to bureau top, and seeing only clean space and that Aalto vase every architect owns. As millennial home décor has trended toward the minimalist — by choice and by economic necessity — mobile versions of the storage wall, by IKEA and others, have achieved their own level of name recognition. Interiors influencers like Sarah Sherman Samuel have even designed semicustom doors for the Besta in Blush, Agave and Juniper, so their closets and their kid can match. As a mother, I knew putting it all away to be largely impossible, surrounded on all sides by LEGO and stacks of graphic novels.

But from the first days of the pandemic, when flour sold out and masks were hard to come by and the (mistaken) powers that be told us to stay inside, my relationship to clutter changed.