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How Curated Clutter Makes This Designer’s Home Inspiring

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Jan 11 2022

Multiple studies have suggested that cluttered workspaces are no good for us, or even downright harmful. Connections have been made between clutter and procrastination, stress, and even life dissatisfaction.

Clutter has the opposite effect for me, but there’s a very specific twist. If the type of clutter that drags us down is disorganized clutter—stacks of papers, discarded shoes, and items with no home—I’ve cultivated the opposite: what I like to call “curated clutter.”

I’m an industrial designer who works as an IDEO Toy Inventor in the Play Lab. My job is exactly what it sounds like: I come up with new toy and game ideas based on market research and client asks and then design and prototype them.

Like so many of us, I have been exclusively working from home in San Francisco since March 2020, and the remote working space I’ve created for myself is different from what I’ve seen so many other designers create. Theirs tend to be sleek and very minimalist. That’s never been me, even dating back to design school, when I used a desk covered in astroturf.

The books shown here are carefully curated, too, and range from books on concept art for movies and installation design to an original catalogue for a Memphis Milano exhibition - one of Andrew's most prized possessions.

My workspace is an explosion of color, an arrangement of knick knacks on my desk and shelves that serve as pieces of inspiration. Some have been with me for more than 25 years. Others are recent additions, both things I’ve collected and gifts from friends and relatives who have spotted things they thought were special or entertaining and might fit well.

I don’t keep a journal, but my knick knacks function as sort of a substitute practice for that. They capture both some of the chronology of my life and the emotional state I was in when I received them. I have alien action figures from my childhood that remind me of how genuinely afraid I was of aliens as a kid and how far my thoughts and imagination could stray. But there are also items I’ve collected while dating my partner, like a meaningful piece of coral from my first trip to her home in Hawaii. It’s sort of like free-form scrapbooking, just not confined to a leather-bound tome that gathers dust. While nothing’s written down, that history is captured, and I get to scan and revisit it regularly.

Can you find the bunny pin? Andrew won it in a giveaway from an artist he has followed since childhood who had a huge influence on his interest in art and design.

The clutter is curated but not fixed. I rotate the items, and that process is rejuvenating and refreshing. To keep things from straying toward hoarder territory, I stick to a couple rules: I only hang on to the things that have some kind of value to me, and if I can’t move something without knocking something else over, I need to reassess.

I live with my partner, who is adamant that she is not a fan of clutter, but our friends will laugh and say “What are you talking about?” Her approach is an even more curated and refined way of displaying objects, and I think it’s a good illustration of there not being one “right” way to do it. Your curated clutter could be five items or five hundred. Ultimately, if clutter is made up of the things that have no home, curated clutter is made up of the things that make your home.

For many people, designing their workspace or spaces in their home is a very purely aesthetic process, like, I like the way this lamp looks, or this pencil holder looks. That process can end up being devoid of emotion, which I think can result in a space that's not necessarily built to address our emotional well-being—a consideration that’s more important than ever these days.

I know incredible designers who project a very clean designer persona and have tasteful objects in their houses: walnut, leather, beautiful brass hardware. And then you look at their inspiration boards for work and they're wacky, and I don’t see the purpose in reining in that inspiration. Sometimes the idea of what is good taste causes people to censor their living space. That’s not for me. I’d much rather be in a place that’s overstimulating than understimulating.

Andrew's travel shelf holds items from Denmark, New Mexico, Bali, China, Peru, Paris, Guatemala, New York, Japan, and Mexico. Some are from his travels, others were gifted to him.

I would say almost every day I feel inspired by what surrounds me. It’s a library of thoughts and thought-beginners, especially my desk, which puts different textures and color combinations and parts and mechanisms in front of me. But above all else, my curated clutter provides a sense of comfort, which ends up supporting my emotional well-being. At times when I feel anxious or overwhelmed, it grounds me because it’s an extension of myself: a way of revisiting people and moments that matter. It’s like flipping through your journal to remind yourself where you come from, then feeling energized enough to flip to the next blank page and keep going.

  • Andrew Stewart

    Senior Designer, IDEO Palo Alto
    Andrew is a Senior Designer / Toy Inventor at IDEO's Play Lab, where he develops and invents toys, games, and otherwise playful experiences and products. Andrew's primary goal is to imbue whimsy and delight into every project. Prior to joining IDEO he earned his BFA in Industrial Design at the Rhode Island School of Design while studying in the Modern Culture and Media department at Brown University.
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