Special to the Globe, Summer Décor Supplement, 2015
Susan Alexander remembers standing in the formal dining room of her parents 8000 sq ft home and feeling completely overwhelmed. Her 90-year-old father had died six months before, and she and her siblings were tasked with sorting through three generations of stuff since their parents had inherited the house and all its belongings from her grandparents. “I stood in the middle of the dining room looking at these teetering piles of china and glasses and vases and platters and Corningware casserole dishes thinking what am I going to do with all this crap?”
Problem was it wasn’t crap, but good quality, and many items were fraught with emotional attachment, but Alexander and her four siblings – all in their 50s –had homes full of their own stuff. “It was enough to make you weep – beautiful things collected over decades, but the only answer was to sell, or donate.”
Each of the children kept a few items, but now, four years after the fact, Alexander is still eliminating stuff: “Now really, what is one person going to do with four silk kimonos no matter how exquisite or rare?”
Mimi Ng, VP sales/marketing for Menkes Corp, understands the emotional troughs and swells of decluttering but for entirely different reasons. When she and her boyfriend – both in their 40s -- decided to move in together, they had to go through a long process of what to keep and what to get rid of.
“In your 20s all you need to cast off is the university dorm things. But at this age, I have accumulated really wonderful things. My boyfriend and I both have a nice dining table, so whose do you choose?”
With some pieces it’s not so hard to let the other person have their way, but investment pieces deliberated over and then purchased with the intention to keep a long time, are much harder. “How do you compromise on it, who gets the right to nix the other’s item?” Ng asks.
What helped was keeping her eye on the positives – the excitement of building a home together – and his observation that so much of their individual things didn’t make sense in the new space, and that it made more sense to “start clean, rather than trying to force our stuff to work.”
The process was a positive one since it spurred the couple on to communicate and negotiate. “We ended up talking about other things in the process, like are we going to be the entertaining couple, or are we going to be homebodies?
Getting there was challenging, and they did it in stages, with “tons of conversations. He was good, didn’t pressure, but would sometimes say do you really want to drag that to another home? That resonated a lot with me.”
As sales and marketing VP for Menkes, Ng has seen the same or similar situations play out countless times on the sales centre floor. “I’ve seen tons of buyers go through the experience, and often they end up working with a professional. In fact, you almost need an objective third party – it’s hard for me to tell my boyfriend that I hate a chair, and easier for an objective party to come and help you talk pros and cons of each piece in the space.”
Ng says some couples have been going through this process for years, and in the “process of where you start and where you end up, there’s a lot of shedding of belongings and shedding of emotional baggage. You have all these reasons why you can’t get rid of something, internal conversations about how you could revamp a piece to make it work, or save it for your sister, or daughter. That’s the psychological part of this – letting go of things and everyone has their own pace for it.”
Professional organizer Rosalind Tantalo, of Simply Home, wasn’t prepared for how much psychology was involved in the job. “It’s an emotional challenge for anyone when they have to part with things. As an organizer and downsize expert I can physical support – online auction, sorting through things – but deciding what to keep and what to toss is about emotions and requires a softer touch in guiding people to make those decisions.
To make the process a little easier, Tantalo groups like things together in rooms so people can see what they have, walk around picking out what they will keep. “Otherwise, when things are piled high, nobody can see past the mountains of stuff and that’s daunting.”
She also gets a floor plan of the new place, measurements of favourite items, and from that they develop a list of what will fit. Tantalo also provides a little “design coaching” -- re-envisioning the space and pieces – as part of setting people up in the new home. She also recommends built-ins because they can take advantage of the linear height for storage.
A major part of inheriting items, or merging households, or even downsizing your own things, is donating. Tantalo finds that people feel better about donating than holding a sale – although she also arranges for online auctions. Donating is faster and saves money in the long run because of the time spent by her team setting up sales.
For the high end “fancy” stuff, Tantalo will secure an appraiser from one of the auction houses – Christie’s or Sotheby’s – especially if there’s an extensive collection of artwork or carpets, but even they are “getting pickier,” she says.
In his long career as a designer Bryon Patton, who did Menkes’ Gibson Square project, has experience helping clients make sense of their inherited, merged and accumulated things. Sometimes, when pieces hold sentimental value, or if a client feels “guilty” getting rid of things, Patton gets “creative.”
Once, clients inherited a huge silver service they weren’t going to use but couldn’t bear to part with, so he filled large glass urns with soup tureens, tea sets, and cutlery, added a glass top and turned it into a conversation piece dining table.
When your style is clean and modern, but you have inherited accessories Patton suggests containing everything together. “I’d rather have a shelving unit packed and keep the rest of the space uncluttered. Trays are also good -- 30 vintage bottles on a tray look much better than scattered all over the place.”
Another client inherited a bunch of oriental carpets, so Patton layered them on top of one another then instructed his client to call in six months so he could layer in a different pattern.
But Patton is also “ruthless” with his clients. “I tell them their kids do not want this stuff and the best thing is to get rid of it now rather than make them go through this process. I have friends who had to disperse five generations of stuff and by the end, they were hating their parents.”
The answer for Alexander was to keep only things she knew she’d use -- like pure linen sheets from the 1940s, Depression era wine glasses wine, and a Victorian side table now painted dove grey and used in her entry.
She’s still trying to find a home for the four silk kimonos, however.