The psychology of clutter with Style Network's Mark Brunetz | Home Front

Sep 13, 2012

Let's talk clutter! Why does it plague us? How can we control it? For this Thursday's chat, we'll be chatting with Mark Brunetz from Style Network's "Clean House," who is a designer, clutter expert and author of the book Take the U Out of Clutter. Send in your questions now and join us live on Thursday at 11 a.m.!

Every week, Jura Koncius helps you in your quest to achieve domestic bliss. Got a question about decorating? She's happy to whip out her paint chips and suggest the perfect hue, call a retailer to help track down a hard-to-find accent piece or offer some do-it-yourself. Built on years of reporting experience, Home Front is an online conversation about the best way to feather the nest. We invite you to submit questions and share you own great tips, ideas and, yes, the occasional complaint.

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This morning we are fortunate to have Mark Brunetz with us to answer your questions. Mark is a designer from Los Angeles and host of Style Network's Clean House. Having trouble getting rid of stuff because of sentimental reasons or because it's "part of a collection?" Tell us why you are having trouble keeping your clutter under control.  Recently, Brunetz launched own line of home furnishings on HSN and wrote his first book called "Take the U Out of Clutter."  He will appear at the Capital Home Show at the Dulles Expo Center Sept 21-23, where he'll host several discussion sessions and a book signing. Let's go!

How do you handle gifts for the home from family/friends that just aren't your style? Do you give them away? Store them in a box until person visits? I tend to keep some things from really close members (stored away), and give away things from acquaintances. All these chatchkyas really add up! I'd love to hear suggestions!

Just remember, a gift is giving unconditionally.  It's yours to do with what you wish.  And if you focus on the intention behind the gift, you might be able to find a use for it.  If not, after some time, it's your to let go.

Here is a question for the crowd: I adored Upscale Resale and have not found any similar place to shop for gently used, nice furnishings. Any good stores to recommend? Better yet, any idea when UR will reopen?

Good question. I have had good luck at Ruff & Ready at 4722 14th St. NW and people like Miss Pixie's at 1626 14th St. NW. The Sloans & Kenyon Consignment Shop in Chevy Chase has a good stock of used furniture. Weschler's Tuesday Auctions are good. What else? Share with us please everyone.

Couple of questions/comments about the mosquito article. I've seen commercials for a new repellant device, not spray, that you clip on your belt that creates some kind of barrier. Not sure how it works, anyone know about this? Another effective thing, depending on where you are or what you are doing, is to have a fan. This can be an outdoor ceiling fan or a box fan on the ground, but it doesn't take much air circulation to thwart their ability to fly up to you when you are on the back porch. BTW - my mother was the first confirmed case of west nile in Maryland the summer of 1995. She took herself the ER and told them she thought she had WN, and they said no here gets that. She was, unfortunately, right.

Wow. You have quite a story. Does anyone know anything about this clip on repellant device?

We're moving into a new townhouse soon and we'll have a powder room off the kitchen/dining area. I was thinking it would be fun for our guests (both big and little) to paint it in chalkboard paint - leave notes, doodles, etc. I know Benjamin Moore now offers almost their entire line of colors in chalkboard paint, so I'm wondering if there would be a good color to paint this little room? There are no windows to it. Should I do the traditional black, for some drama? Or a deep, unexpected color - perhaps a dark teal? Thoughts? And many, many thanks. I look forward to these chats and inspiration every week!

What a cool idea! In black, the room would indeed be very dramatic and if you got some neon chalk, the messages would really stand out. I would go for that. I'm told that there is great Japanese chalk available online that is far superior in terms of colors and intensity than most of the stuff you can buy in an office supply or craft store.

I live in a small townhouse, and the bedrooms are tiny with little closet space. What steps can I take to make more storage space? (I already added extra hanging space to the closets and have plastic bins under the beds.) Is there a quality bedroom set you could recommend whose dresser is tall and narrow? What colors might make the rooms look more spacious? Thank you!

First let me encourage you not to think that the problem is that you don't have enough space for your stuff.  It's always important to live within your means when it comes to space.  But for houses with little closet space, I love repurposing tall dressers and chest of drawers and place them in unique places for storage.  As far as colors, limiting your color scheme to three or less in a room will help maximize visual space.

Recently I've had friends and relatives help me pack for a move. And in return, I've helped them clear more than a few things out... do you think you always need a set of fresh eyes or an outsider to come in and say, Why do you still have this? It's junk. Or do you think it IS possible to clear out your own stuff on your own?

Yes, having a clutter buddy can be key as it brings objectivity to the equation.  The important thing is to keep only items that you need, use or love.

Ever since I was a kid I have always wanted to hang onto stuff. School papers, ticket stubs, notebooks, etc. Now, with a family of my own, I find myself doing the same thing with my kids' papers, drawings, etc. What's a good thought process to follow in throwing some of it away? I always say to myself that I'll keep it until I sort through it later, and later never comes...

I always say that keeping stuff for one day robs you of TO-DAY.  I understand wanting to preserve the memory of your children growing up, but don't let it keep you from experiencing them fully today.  My suggestion is to pick your top 5 pieces from each child and display them proudly.  Let the others go.

This is a great topic. I strive to keep the stack on my dining room table short but it is so hard. Right now the stack has simply migrated to a folder sitting on my desk at work. I think the key is just being decisive and deciding "yes I am going to follow up on this mail offer" or "no I don't need this." I also need to buy a home shredder and a tasteful, firesafe filing cabinet.

You should like you are making clutter reduction a priority. That is what you have to do. The goal is to get rid of paper stuff as soon as possible and only file what is really necessary. Watch out if you get a new filing cabinet as you will fill it up with stuff you might not necessarily need. A small home shredder is a good investment.

Speaking of clutter, there's nothing like dog hair swirling across my floors. I'm considering installing gray bamboo floors for ease of cleanup. But I'm concerned that the color gray is too trendy like the white-washed oak fad. It's a one-time purchase. My townhouse in Norfolk overlooks water. Thank you for your guidance.

Do I take it you have a gray dog? Gray is a bit trendy and floors are a major investment. I might go with a more traditional shade of brown or tan. And invest in  Swiffer which picks up dog hairs beautifully.

Hey Mark, are you and the gang going to get Clean House going again? That was the best show on television. I have iTunes to see the old episodes but I want new ones.  It won an Emmy! Why stop it when you had millions of fans out there?

Yes, we have stopped production on Clean House so that we can go on to other projects.  I have several other shows in the works that will continue to help people live better lives.  Thank you for your support!

We are nearing completion of our bathroom renovation (hooray!). Floor and wall tiles are white. Accent tiles (shower floor, shower niche, and a strip all around the walls) are frosty glass in no-color, very light gray, and a very pale burgundy tone. It's more subtle than it sounds. The countertop will be a granite with the reddish tone plus gray and white. Can you please help with paint color suggestions? Thank you!

That sounds beautiful.  My advce would be to pull a color out of the stone that complements it.  This will only enhance the value and look of the stone.

Hi. My 1950s home has no mudroom; the front door opens directly into the living room. We have a small coat closet, but I'm wondering if you have other ideas/solutions for what to do with the shoes/backpacks/snow gear that all accumulates right at the front door. Thanks!

Alas, I have no mudroom in my 1937 colonial either. I bought one of those black plastic boot trays for the bottom of my closet at the Container Store. Wet boots can go in there. I also got a bin for umbrellas that sits in the bottom of the closet. On two closet shelves, I have woven basket bins for the three members of our family for hats, gloves, whatever. Backpacks should go right into the owners' rooms since they are usually full of laptops, homework assignments and stuff that you need to be able to put your hands on. I have a small table by the front door with two drawers. All keys go in there so they can be found immediately when we are leaving the house.

Consumer Reports says it doesn't work.

Oh well.

We just purchased a home built in the 1970's and are in need for some updating. Would you be available for design ideas? We have seen every episode of clean house and value your ideas. If you can, please contact me @ Thank You very much for your time!!

You have to come and see me at the Capital Home Show, Sept. 21-23.  I will answer all your questions.  For more info, go to  Hope to see you there. 

We have the platform bed from PB that allows you to have drawers or baskets underneath - it has been the best purchase we could have made for our small bedroom (with an even smaller "master" closet). We were able to get rid of a large hulking dresser, replace it with a smaller one, and still fit all of our clothes in our room! I highly recommend it to anyone with storage issues!


I tried it...didn't work at all. Don't waste your money!

Hate wasting money.

I have tried the "Off" brand but discovered that it does not work if you are moving around as it creates an area of protection around you if you remain in place. The most effective product by far in our area (Michigan) is the Thermacell, which works on a butane cartridge in a holder into which one inserts a repellent-soaked pad. Again, it must be left in place as it gets very hot but does protect in about a 15 square foot area. When the pad needs to be replaced it's as if the mosquitos descend immediately. Sporting goods stores have them as well as online retailers.

Gerat info. Thanks. Wonder if the Michigan bugs are worse than ours?

Hi Mark. I am a big fan of yours. I find that certain items are very easy to give away or toss, others are clearly keepers. But then I have boxes of stuff that just paralyze me: Really darling salt and pepper shakers that I don't know where to put, a very cool book with a great cover that I never read, papers that I might need someday, etc. What's a good way to break that deadlock and move forward quickly? thanks!

First, I would encourage you to read my book Take the U Out of Clutter.  I address the very thing you are taking about; stories that hold us back.  And for you, that is 'I might need this someday'.  We can't live in the past or future, only in the present.  To reinforce that, we should only keep those things that make us feel good today.  Everything else will just rob us of that.

I am terrible at organizing paper and end up shoving it in boxes and stashing it when I clean. I pay my bills on time, so that is not the issue. I simply do not know what to do with things. It frustrates me horribly and I really want to get a grip on it. Help!

I think many of us are at a loss at what to do with stuff. If you are paying your bills on time that is huge! I think a lot of people shove their bills into shopping bags and somehow forget about them! I know many professional organizers say you should set aside a small amount of time every day to just sort through piles and baskets of stuff. Even 15 minutes in the morning or the evening would be a start.

My kids are back in school and it seems like a huriicane went through my house. Any tips on getting to help out?

You're funny!  For starters, kids need to pitch in and help keep the house clean.  It's important as parents that you express to the kids how important that is to you.  Second, create a structure for them.  A place for everything and everything in its place.  You can't expect them to put things away if they don't know where to put them.  Lastly, reward them when they do.

I just got an email from Habitat for Humanity ReStore - they of course are a great place to find gently used furnishings. they will be exhibiting at the Capital Home Show and showing techniques to refresh an old pieces.

Hi Mark! Have been a fan for a long time. I have a long wall in my living room. I took scenic pictures of our local state park, I have a total of 4, 8x10 matted prints. This will take up a small percentage of my wall. My question is, do I spread the prints out to take up more room, or do I cluster them together and find additional decor to help fill the space? Thanks, Amy Sadler Ludington Mi.

I would create compositions that tie to the large furniture pieces in the room.  Then I would cluster them together for greater impact.

My husband has graciously downsized his music CD collection, but there are still about 100 he's hanging on to for sentimental reasons. All our music is digital now, so we don't actively play these. What is an attractive, non-cluttered way to keep or display these, that won't make our basement or spare bedroom look like a college dorm? Thanks so much for your help!

Way to go husband!  Now take the remaining CD cases and create one large piece of art; a mosaic.  Then frame the one parge piece.  He deserves the opportunity to enjoy them especailly after letting so many go.

I bought the bug repellent and it made me sick. I got nauseous so I returned it. It was on sale at Costco and they took it back.

Good for you. Not good.

Both of my parents are deceased and now we are dealing with their home's contents. It has made me take a hard look at the stuff I have. I am committed to getting rid of stuff so our family members do not have deal with a household of stuff. The dishes you never use. The ugly dishes you keep. The comforters that are stored forever. Sell it or give it away. Coping with grief and clutter is a burden no child should have to bear. My advice get rid of the excess stuff while you have the strength and health to do it.

Thanks for this reality check. You really have great advice.

Hi, Mark: How long should I keep old issues of magazines? Do you recommend storing them away and reviewing again after several months, or ripping out the articles I want and filing them as soon after I read the issue? how about special issues and commemorative editions? I hate for them to clutter up the living room, but always feel guilty if I toss something too soon! Thanks! Dee Long, Bethlehem, PA

Your were meant to enjoy and be inspired by the magazines, not feel guilty.  If that's not the case, it's time to let them go.  As far as commemorative editions, you don't have the space to enjoy them, donate them to a local library and let others enjoy them.  Magazines (and other items) are useful to us only if we actually use them.  Good luck!

first a suggestion for used furniture : Hash's auctions in Berryville holds auctions each Monday. They also display photos for everything on their site so you can preview. Now for my question: I am replacing my kitchen cabinet knobs and the screws are too long thus banging into the vertical post. How do I saw them to make them flush so the cabinets will close?

Thanks for the suggestion on Berryville. I'm sending your query out to the DIYers who are usually around on this chat.

My dad has several African leather "poofs" that I would love to have and I think he'd be happy to pass on to me. They currently don't have anything in them; what should I stuff them with? I'd like them to have enough resistance so that we could sit on them.

Many people stuff them with old clothes or blankets or towels. Poufs are often sold empty so they can be shipped easily. Newspapers can be used to stuff them but they can be lumpy. Cotton batting or foam can also be purchased for this purpose.

Take a picture of the artwork, or scan it into your computer. You can then put it into a scrapbook, if you want. Keep 5 or so of the best/most poignant. Works for me (but then I am an ardent scrapbooker, & put all sorts of ephemera into them.)

Love this. Thanks.

Hi Mark - I've got an lego enthusiast in my home and am completely overwhelmed with the clutter that comes with it - do you have any great organizational types for setting up a system where he has projects set up - but we can at least have a clear space in our basement ? We've tried the bin systems - but ultimately it is a mess

Try a chest of drawers for the lego lover.  Designate lower drawers so that they are accessible and place the completed projects on top.  When the top is full; it's time to dismantle.  A simple rule that I hope will help.

Hi Mark. I LOVE your work! Where can I find storage to de-clutter that is not only functional, but stylish, too! Maybe won't break the bank either! Thank you! Linda H.

I'm a big fan of repurposing older pieces of furniture for stylish storage.  Dressers, high boys, trunks, consoles, armoires; you name it.  What's great is they all can be stained or painted to coordinate with room decor and style.

The paint is peeling in our large and light bathroom. The adjoining bedroom is dark blue with white trim. The marble in the bathroom is a sort of sand color, and the counters and tub are white. Should we paint or paper, and what colors would you consider. No yellow or green, please.

If you have dark blue and white in the adjoining room, why not go for a watery blue. Wallpaper is better in a powder room than a bathroom with a tub or shower in it. So I would stick to paint. What about Benjamin Moore's Blue Angel?

Hi-- what are some great, bright, clear, not muddy/not green (a little warmth is OK) yellows for a pop of color in the back of a built in? Having a hard time fining the right shade. Am overwhelmed.

Benjamin Moore Pale Moon.

Hi, Mark! How do you deal with decluttering fatigue? I recently cleared out my mom's house after she died - it was a two year job, requiring monthly visits from the charity truck, 3-4 carloads of documents to be shredded, etc. I do have 5-6 boxes of keepsakes with legit sentimental value that I brought to my own house and have not unpacked. I know there is more paring down to do before my own house is fully decluttered, but I am emotionally exhausted with the process! My "second wind" was used up a while ago - how do I get my fourth wind?

I love your spirit; and sorry to hear about your loss.  Decluttering doesn't happen overnight.  Tha'ts a big misconception.  It takes a team of 40-50 people on Clean House to clear three rooms.  My advice is to take a break; do something for yourself; recharge.  The house will be there.  And next time you go back, enlist the help of friends or family.  Try to leave yourself wanting to do more rather than ebing exhausted. :-)

I have a goal to have more stuff leave my house each week than comes into it. I meet that goal about 50% of the time which for my family of four is pretty good. It's a constant battle. I'd love Mark's tips for managing clutter for a busy family of four (I know - not an easy question...) Thanks.

It's a great question!  The most important aspect of maintaining a clutter-free house is to have a place for everything.  Then it's just a matter of discipline; changing habits.  But I also love having a one-stop drop at the front door.  Take an old soda crate and divide it up based on the each family member.  This is where stuff gets put the minute you walk in the door vs. dropped all over the house.  Now you have a place for the extra stuff too.

we have tried the electronic device to repel mosquitos. it was totally uneffective. My mother in law even tried using two at a time with no good result.

oh boy.

I found a place for my old magazines--the gym! When I'm done reading them on the exercise machine, I leave them in the magazine rack. Sure enough, they disappear and find a new home on their own!

Great repurposing!

Check with your local hospital to see if they need magazines. I'm currently going through chemo, so am spending about four hours each week in the chemo room reading magazines. You go through what's available pretty quickly.

This is so true.

I agree, brown or tan is best. My parents installed bamboo floors when they built their house nine or 10 years ago (in Virginia Beach, neighbor!), and people still comment on how neat the floors are. A word of advice--listen to the flooring manufacturer and DON'T use products like the wet Swiffer cloths/spray. This leaves a film on the bamboo floors, even if the product says it's good for hardwood. My mom has a wide O-Cedar broom that she swears by, and -yes- a commercial (but small) floor buffer for when the dog's nails scratch the floor. Good luck!

Thank you!

My mother died a few years ago and my father wanted to give me a number of decorative items from their house to declutter and streamline; I think he wanted to take possession of his new space. In packing them up (six big boxes worth), my heart sank as I realized that I have spent the last 20 years trying to replicate all my parents possessions. I now have too much of everything. Add to that that both my husband and I are only children and will inherit everything (three full sets of Wedgewood china, for example). I'd love to figure out a plan in advance so we will not be buried by stuff. Any thoughts on this matter?

This is an issue that many children of baby boomers are facing today.  How to deal with their parents stuff.  Here's the short answer:  It's your life.  And I'm sure your parents wanted nothing more than for you to live well.  And since you and only you are the true expert on your life; it's time for you to exercise your expertise and make some hard decisions.  Keep in mind, the memory of your parents lives in your heart; not your house.

Just writing to say that you are absolutely fantastic on Clean House -- if only I had the Style network again -- and it's great to hear that you'll be at the Capital Home Show. That's reason enough for me to try to make it out there!

Welcome to all of Mark's fans - we love having you on the chat.

I love getting all these questions which is why I'm coming to the Capital Home Show Sept. 21-23.  A good portion of my presentations include Q&A.  Please check it out at  I'd love to see everyone there.  Mark B

Mark and Jura, could you please tell me if I'm about to make a trendy mistake? I have found a wrought iron and clear glass light fixture that I really like. The trouble is, without those old fashioned looking light bulbs the fixture really isn't anything special. Do you think these chandeliers are worth the hype or do you suppose they will be very 2012 in just a few short years?

Anything is worth the hype if you LOVE IT!  Choosing quality items that you genuinely love not only answers your question about if its trendy, but will give you a lifetime of joy.  You bought it for a reason, enjoy it.

We have shades in our bedroom that hang over the windows, and they are very dark except for the light which creeps into the room on the sides. Any suggestions as to how to fix this problem? We've currently got a dark sheet that is thumb-tacked over our shades and windows, but would love an solution that is more stylish and doesn't require as much work to put up each night!

Shy of drapery panels, a boxed plantation shutter would work.  They are also easy to clean.

Nothing says you need to keep an entire set! A pretty dinner plate hung on the wall will get appreciated more than an entire set in storage.


Mosquitoes absolutely LOVE me, so I bought the clip-on repellant. It contains a little sac of liquid repellant, and a fan to disperse it (so it needs a battery). It worked the first time I used it, but a week later, I guess the liquid had dried up and it didn't work at all. I don't want to breathe those fumes anyway.

Thanks for sharing your pain.

I often donate mine to doctor's offices, hair salons, etc. Just make sure to tear out the portion with your address!!

I always do that. Thanks.

To follow up on the suggestion to take pictures of your kids' art, there are apps designed to do that. My Artkive is one, for example.


OP from "emotionally exhausted" here - I saw the post above about "reality check" and wanted to second their comments. After the 2 year ordeal getting rid of my mom's stuff, I now look at everything and think - who will want this when I am dead? If there is a good answer, it is a keeper. I can a) enjoy this now, b) let someone else use/enjoy it now, or c) keep it until it is ruined and my kids have to throw it away when I die.

More reality check here. Thanks.

Why yes. Yes they are. In spades.

Oh dear. Courage.

Hi, I'm moving to Belgium in three months and need to make some draconian decisions on what to bring with me or get rid of. I'm not storing anything for my return - so it either goes with me or is discarded. Do you have any suggestions on what I really need to bring, particularly for the smaller stuff? I have a relocation package, so I can pretty easily decide on furniture, but the endless small stuff is driving me insane with all the decisions I'm having to make. My mom died recently, so it's especially hard to get rid of the many things she's bought for my house over the years, stuff I might not bring with me normally but am considering for sentimental reasons. Thanks.

Love Belgium.  As you put your ducks in the water, think about what you will be doing on a daily basis and what items you will need to accomplish that.  And yes, take a few smaller items that remind you of the special people in your life.  Also, upload all of your cherished pics to a digitial picture frame.

Must I really have a vent hood over my range? Our new house has a hideously huge brass one - at least 2 by 3 feet plus a tall brass "chimney" since the range is in a peninsula. Please say I can just rip this thing out!

Yes, rip it out.  There, I said it.  :-)

Hope everyone is gearing up for a weekend of decluttering after all this great advice and cheerleading from Mark. Thanks for being on the chat with us, Mark. And here's to getting rid of lots of stuff without a lot of pain.

We are planning a full kitchen reno and are working with designers. They are encouraging us to do a tile backsplash of some sort. I worry that anything we pick will look "dated" in a few years. Are tile backsplashes a trend? I've only had painted walls behind counters. We'll be using "blue sahara" silestone. What would look nice as a backsplash, tha doesn't compete with it? Thank you!!

Consider a simple brushed metal liner tile.  It's timeless and will not compete with the Silestone.

In This Chat
Jura Koncius
Jura Koncius is a Washington Post staff writer who specializes in home and design. Read her daily twitter feed @jurakoncius for the latest in decorating trends, shopping, decluttering, organizing and DC retail.

Home Q&A archive
Mark Brunetz
Mark Brunetz, an Emmy award winning co-host of Style Network’s "Clean House," is an authority in clutter-free living and affordable design. Recently, Brunetz launched own line of home furnishings on HSN, wrote his first book called "Take the U Out of Clutter," and was named National Spokesperson for the International Design Guild. He will be a featured guest at the upcoming Capital Home Show at the Dulles Expo Center Sept 21-23, where he'll host several discussion sessions and a book signing. For more information, visit his Web site:
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