Kettle’s Yard: a reflection

I recently visited Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge, UK.  Kettle’s Yard was the home of Jim and Helen Ede during 1958 to 1973 . Jim had been a curator at the Tate Gallery in London 1920-30s.  Collecting and curating art and nature in his home, became his cure for undiagnosed PTSD brought on by the Great War.  He became a patron, collector and buyer of works by then unknown (and some famous) artists- paintings by Ben and Winifred Nicholson, Alfred Wallis, Christopher Wood, David Jones and Joan Miró, as well as sculptures by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Constantin Brancusi, Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth.

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This work, called ‘Bird swallows a fish’ by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, made a profound impression on me. Very pertinent for our ecological crisis.

Jim did not distinguish between high art, naive art, and nature.  There are no labels, so the visitor enjoys the work as it is.  Surprisingly for a curator’s home, there no curatorial statements either.  Alongside carefully positioned valued artworks, we find broken and old furniture, glass, ceramics and natural objects. The aim was to create creating a harmonic whole, not perfection. He was influenced by his visit to India after the war and his work reflects his interests in Eastern religions and folk art.  He invited students for talks at the end of each term and in the end, left the house to Cambridge University.  He meant this humble home to be neither ‘an art gallery or museum, nor … simply a collection of works of art reflecting my taste or the taste of a given period. It is, rather, a continuing way of life from these last fifty years, in which stray objects, stones, glass, pictures, sculpture, in light and in space, have been used to make manifest the underlying stability.’

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Humble collections of stones, arranged carefully, give a peaceful ‘zen-like’ calm to the home.

Looking and reflecting on the interiors, as an architect and home maker, I came to realise that to create a home you have to know yourself and your own needs deeply.  And to create such an harmonious home, you don’t need expensive things- just things that reflect who you are.  So Jim and Helen Ede’s home could be viewed by some as eccentric and unsophisticated but the abiding impression is that of a couple who consciously chose to eschew the materially rich for that which is soulfully rich.  A lesson indeed for these chaotic times and materialistic culture.  Such expression where someone’s inner life has been thrown open public gaze requires inner confidence, critical thinking and unwavering certainty.  This is the home of someone who has absolute happiness, not relative one.  In the end, the lesson for me wasn’t from the art but from the collection and the home as one.

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Works of art by famous artists are placed deliberately low on the floor so that the viewer can sit down and contemplate these.
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Light and shadows play a part in how sculptures are placed
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Plants also part of the display- a living natural art
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You are invited to sit on the chairs to contemplate the space and art

Lessons on design and interiors from Kettle’s Yard

  1. Make the design work for you, don’t follow others blindly.
  2. Choose things that enhance the spaces- these might be cheap things like plants, rocks, books and sea shells. They could be things that you love to touch and see.
  3. Follow the design through as you walk from space to space.  It might be simpler and cheaper to have a flow, rather than each space having its own ‘theme’.
  4. Remove and hide things seasonally.  This gives a sense of the home through the seasons.
  5. Eclectic collections have a charm of their own.  Many design magazines feature empty monastic looking spaces but as this home shows, you can have many things if displayed well.

 

Why I have problems with Konmari methods

The Konmari method of decluttering and organising has taken the world by storm. With astutely commercial timing, Netflix launched ‘Tidying up with Marie Kondo’ on New Year’s Day this year, when everyone was making their New Year’s resolutions. There is even a best selling novel, Careful what you wish for, set in the world of professional organising.  Charity shops, streets, and recycling centres have become clogged with donations of clothes, books, and home furnishings that have failed to spark joy.  In the US, in some shops donations were up 66 per cent over last year in the first week of 2019, and one even saw a 372 per cent increase! In Australia, the charity, Lifeline, was begging people not to leave goods outside overflowing donation bins. Even returning new stuff is causing problems- in a typical brick and mortar store, there may be 8-10 per cent returns but with online purchases, there is a 20-30 per cent return rate, much of which may be sent on to landfill.  Returned stuff generates as much as £5 billion worth of waste as it is cheaper to send packaging and goods to landfill instead of recycling or reuse (although after listening to consumers, Amazon now has used goods stores in the US and UK).  Some luxury retailers even burn returned stuff (In 2018, Burberry incinerated nearly £27 million worth of returned clothes and cosmetics to ‘protect their brand’).

So while generally decluttering and organising are good practices, I can see why the Konmari method might not work for everyone.  In fact, in my view, this decluttering and reorganising is a singularly Western consumerist obsession (Japan, despite its Buddhist beliefs, is a hugely consumerist society today struggling to cope with stuff packed inside its minuscule homes).  Just look at how people in the West (and now in the East too) struggle with decluttering someone’s home when they die.  When I visited my village in India, I didn’t find this obsessive need to declutter there.  And it was liberating to be just so.  Mahatma Gandhi, whose 150th birth anniversary year this is, left behind just ten items when he died. He said, ‘You may have occasion to possess or use material things, but the secret of life lies in never missing them.’

Some Western fans believe this is an exotic Shinto/Buddhist practice backed by a spiritual theory. Marie Kondo’s books don’t mention any connection with Shintoism but a  ‘Chinese whisper’ connection with spirituality circulates, even a ‘theory of austerity’.  Marie Kondo actually attended Tokyo Women’s Christian University to study sociology. As a practitioner of Japanese Buddhism for over 35 years and having knowledge of Japanese culture, I know that both Buddhism and Shintoism believe in ‘dependent origination’ of material goods and a profound connection with nature. But can this joy can be sparked in mass produced goods made of synthetic materials?  In the actual Japanese version of the book,  Marie Kondo uses the word ‘tokimeku’ or “ときめく” instead of ’spark joy’. The English translation is ‘to throb’ or ‘to flutter’. It was probably easier to market a book on decluttering called ‘Spark Joy’ instead of ‘Throbbing or Fluttering’ joy!  But as research has shown, positive human experiences produce joy and well being- not material goods, whatever their origination.

Second, the method doesn’t allow for reuse, just discarding.  The stuff found in the charity shops had once sparked joy in the buyer- that is why they had bought them.  Could they not try to spark joy again by doing something creative with it? The photograph below show dresses I bought from a charity shop. While I loved the colours, I found that each item had a small defect which I fixed with the minimum effort using whatever I had in the house.  For instance, the pink blouse had a flap at the neckline that kept flipping up. So I ‘weighed’ it down by sewing on some pearly buttons.  Surely the people who had dropped these off at the charity shop could have done these tweaks as well?  Anyway, it was my gain.  But my issue with the Konmari method is that it makes it easy to discard.  That’s because there is no reflection about why you bought the product in the first place. Instead, by just holding it and feeling this so called joy emanating from the thing, you can decide to keep it; or throw if you didn’t feel the joy.  There is no critical thinking involved so it makes it easy, especially when you can buy again. But consider, if your partner doesn’t spark joy for you, would you just discard him/her; or would you at least try to make the relationship work?

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Then is the folding method, especially the socks. Apparently the socks feel upset if they are rolled up and tucked in (also called the ‘army roll’).  So using the same logic, would clothes feel bad if they were rejected and thrown or left in the charity shop?  Who has the time to fold clothes unless you are being paid to do so?  Having tried it, I now just put smaller items like underwear in the box while larger items are either hanging or rolled up.  Another thing that someone on Youtube pointed out is that no one has seen Marie Kondo’s own home- we only see her going to others’ homes. If you were the expert in home organising, wouldn’t you be proud to show off your own place? In all the videos or visual contents I’ve seen of Marie Kondo, she is wearing different outfits- I wondered if she has a huge wardrobe.

Some fans of the Konmari method believe that it is a system that doesn’t need further organising or looking after.  Again, this appeals to people who want to get stuff done easily and quickly.  But people move homes, marry, have children, age and become single, ill or disabled at some point in their lives.  Lives are never constant and you get things that fit that particular stage in your life.  So the Konmari system is not a ‘forever’ system.  Marie Kondo admits that she had to change her own organisational habits once her children were born.  Even the system that worked for her older child didn’t quite work for the younger one. So this is not a system that will work for all forever.  The actor, Jamie Lee Curtis, who interviewed Marie Kondo when she was nominated as one of 2015 Time magazine’s 100 most influential people, says,

‘Decluttering is a fruitless fad. It’s a reaction to the confluence of all our technology enabled connectivity and the gnawing feeling that we are wildly out of control of our bodies- overpowered by drugs and and obesity- and as a planet, burdened by the fear that we are one tweet away from nuclear war. By focussing on the order within our homes, we’re missing the point: life is messy, and so are people.’  (Time magazine, August 5, p.50)

I’m also not impressed that Marie Kondo, having told us that we don’t need to buy anything to organise our stuff- all we need are shoe and other empty boxes- is now promoting decorated boxes that she designed. Her method, if followed properly, requires you to buy more stuff from Marie Kondo herself.  The Hikidashi Box Set, was available in four Japanese-inspired patterns, priced at $89 until it sold out last summer.  Where is the Japanese method of secondary or multi form use and Wabi-Sabi, the love and enhancement of imperfections?  Then to become a Konmari consultant, you need to pay more money to do the training. This is not a spiritual matter but an organizational empire with books, TV shows, and storage solutions. While it is good that Marie Kondo has a business worth $8 million (2019), it is serious business for her, not just freely available life changing magic for us.

Sixth, and this is my biggest problem with the method, is that it won’t help serious hoarders.  This is because hoarding is considered a mental health problem. For a hoarder, everything sparks joy, everything is important and useful.  I know, because I have a close member of my family who will keep packaging of every kind, used match sticks, used notebooks, etc.  Funnily enough, this person also suffers from regular constipation. For such people, counselling by trained therapists will help. For the millions of hoarders around the world, discarding will be a painful exercise, not a joyful one. This journey requires sustained compassionate care and understanding.

So having read the Konmari books and watched some of the shows, what have I done myself?  First, I try to use and reuse as much as I can, which helps the environment by stuff not going to landfill or clogging up charity shops.  Second, I look at the houses of people who are like me and who I admire.  I like the homes of creative people and I see no minimalism there- instead a lot of stuff to stimulate the brain, arranged beautifully (there a beautifully produced Youtube channel called ‘Nowness’ which takes us inside homes of artists and creatives around the world).  These interiors are colourful with curated collections- and surprisingly common are lots of indoor plants.  And there are lots of books!  (Agatha Christie had a very messy desk and look how creative her output was)  I was going to get rid of most of own my books using the Konmari method until I realised how much I loved them and used them.  My home wouldn’t be my home without my books and painting materials.  Third, I believe in the easy enjoyment of a space without the need for everything looking immaculate all the time.  There is tidying, dusting and cleaning to be done, always.  But I’m not going to spend all my valuable time doing that.  So for some time, if my place looks a bit dusty or messy, I am not going to be worried about it. I am just going to enjoy it all!

Insight of the day

‘If you are depressed you are living in the past. If you are anxious you are living in the future. If you are at peace you are living in the present’,  Lao Tzu

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This is my friend’s five year old.  While I was talking to his dad about future projects, our worries and the state of the world, this young man decided to enjoy his surroundings.  While the grown-ups’ talk was getting darker and depressive, this child found my Venetian mask and said he would put on a ‘funny face’.  As soon as we saw him, we all started to laugh.  The present moment was alive again.  I realised we were having a dinner party and we weren’t actually enjoying it.  We were drawn back to the present, thanks to the intuitive wisdom of a five year old!

On being authentic

I saw this at a not very posh furniture shop and thought about it- a lot.  It is trying hard to be something it is definitely not.  It is new furniture trying to look as if it is old- with mismatched bits like some cheap chic but ends up looking like an embarrassed DIY effort or worse.  IMG_1133.JPG

I wondered if we also do this same thing with how we present ourselves- trying too hard to be something we are not.  When we imitate others, or present an image of us that is not authentic, not true to ourselves.  It is worth keeping this photo in mind when we look at others, celebrities and other famous people, trying to be them.  You can only be you, warts and all- that is what this photo teaches me.

Decluttering lessons: part 2

This follows on from my musings after helping to clear out my parents’ house.  There were many things that I realised and I kept on writing notes to myself as I reached certain milestones or achieved a key goal.  Most important was how was I feeling?  Did I feel good?  Did I feel sad?  Did I feel ‘lighter’?  Did I feel free? Did I feel guilt?  Actually as I moved on through the process, I felt all these emotions.  One of the worst moments of hat clear-up was finding cheques worth a lot of money, cheques that had not been cashed and now were worthless.  How much my mother had saved and scrimped; and yet so much money that was already there had simply wasted away because we hadn’t found them.  And the sadness from seeing her pristine and unread books given to her as marriage gifts now being bitten by rats which also had to be thrown out.  So from my notes here are some points-

  1. Fear of deprivation– Some of the stuff my mother was storing, like plastic bags, were not really needed- she had so many of these.  Despite feeling angry and frustrated at this, I realised that my mother’s needs to hold on to things stemmed on from her very deprived childhood.  I had to be sympathetic and understand where she came from.  But there was also a fear that my mother felt that if she let go of these things, she wouldn’t get anymore (again stemming from her childhood).  So my solution was to put all the plastic bags in front of her and ask her how many did she really want?  Could we get rid of some that were torn or dusty?  In the end, slowly, after selecting a few useful ones, my mother let go off most of the bags.
  2. Delayed action– My mother put things away for another time to do-, so one day she was going to sort out her children’s clothes.  In the years that followed, her children grew up and moved away from not only her home but also country.  Now that my mother is old, she doesn’t have time.  I wondered how much clutter accumulates because one day we are going to tackle it- receipts, clothes, etc, etc. As my parents have grown older and less mobile, the growing clutter was actually becoming dangerous to them in their daily lives.  After I explained that to her, she realised that she and we were at a stage in our lives where the things she’d saved up were of no use to either us or her and she was able to let go.
  3. Achieved function– Each thing that comes into our lives has a function.  So the purpose of the envelope is to bring to your a letter or bill.  Once that thing is has done its job, then you have to let it go. I have heard that Thoreau used to look at something once and then chuck it if it was of now use.  Now in our current age, we can’t just chuck things like that- we need to sort it out as most of our waste is not biodegradable anymore.  So we need time to do that and we should but let it go as you can.  It is now possible to recycle everything.  Give away unused presents.  This was the most useful thing I learnt about getting rid of clutter for others.

 

Happy clearing!

How to deal with bullies

I am dealing with my 12 year old son’s bullies right now.  For many weeks, I have not seen him smile and he looked tired all the time.  He was being bullied with physical, racist and homophobic (yes, even that age, bullies use all sorts of excuses) abuse in school.  Initially I told him to ignore it and deal with it with humour.  After he was set upon by the gang of boys last week, I was livid and complained to the school.  I also found out that my son hadn’t told me about the attack because he was ashamed.  Here is what I have learnt in the last ten days-

  1. Bullies, like other people, change when they want to.  They won’t change because you want them to.  Don’t stay with a bully thinking that they will change.
  2. Bullies cannot be appeased by good humour and manners.  This brings out more of their ugliness. Do not associate with bullies- get away from them and leave them to deal with the emptiness of their lives.
  3. Bullies only listen to fear, so put fear into them by reporting it.  Transmit it widely because the only thing the bullies care about is their image and their power.  Bullies do not like reciprocal or equal relationships.
  4. Let children and all vulnerable people know that bullying is never okay and never to sit in silence.  Bullies love it when people take it without complaining. Never be ashamed of reporting bullying.
  5. Build up the broken self esteem of the bullied person with love and support.  Find other people who can support the bullied person. Build a fortress of love and teach that person to always respect themselves.

Critical

I was thinking about how I used to like the ‘likes’ on my social media pages.  Now, they don’t matter so much.  So I began to reflect on why that might be?  I know that since starting these pages and sharing my thoughts, I have also began to clarify my feelings and experiences. Consequently I am feeling stronger and happier than I ever was before.  Childhood experiences often shape us stealthily and it is much later when we ourselves become parents that we start thinking about these experiences.  Thinking back to my childhood, I had a very critical father.  Some of my work involves being critical- writing and to choosing employees, etc.  But was I transferring my critical habits at work to my home?

Now, being critical has its good points and bad ones.  Critical people are able to distinguish between important issues, make choices and reflect on things intelligently.  In the fields of arts and literature, being critical helps us to edit and curate our choices.  However, taken too far, being critical, can be very dangerous.  Especially where personal relations are concerned. If someone is very critical, then they are less likely to have close friends or family.  Critical people also have a need to be in control and to have a say in everything.  Criticism can become all consuming anger at every one and everything that is not going someone’s way.  Having an overtly critical parent can turn to us to wanting love and attention in other ways.  Wanting ‘likes’ might be way of saying I need love and attention because I am not getting it in other ways.

I breathed a sigh of relief when my younger son announced the other day that he was not going to go for a school prize that is given to ‘popular’ children- that is popular with teachers.  He said that he would be pleased to get it on his own terms (he is a polite and popular boy anyway).  He didn’t want to do things like writing poems or ‘thank you’ letters to teachers for no reason, staying on for extra lessons (not because they want to learn but to earn points), smiling all the time, etc.  He said he just wanted to be himself and if anyone thought he was good, then it was fine.  Here was a boy who used to be anxious to see how many ‘likes’ he was getting in the social media posts.  I realised that I had become happier, let go of the past and become less critical, so my son was a result of the change in my parenting.