To see Marie Kondo, the tidying-up sprite with a mission and a method, bound into mess after mess with exuberance is a bit shocking. She does just that, in episode after episode of her Netflix series, “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo,” with an utterly infectious attitude and nonjudgmental approach that stays as shocking as it is endearing. “I’m so excited,” she says repeatedly, as she meets a new drawer, closet, or garage stuffed with the detritus of modern life. “I love mess!”
Similarly, throughout the eight episodes in the series, she expresses her love for every client she encounters, whether a widow, empty nesters, a couple with toddlers, a family who radically downsized in a move to follow their dream, or a lesbian couple merging households. Quickly apparent, whether taking in one episode at a time or binge-watching the series, is that Kondo also loves her mission: To help people remove stress in their lives—and find a new sense of happiness—by eliminating the clutter in their homes.
At the heart of Kondo’s work is intentionality. Which resonates deeply with anyone seeking a greater level of purpose and calm in their lifestyle (and isn’t that nearly everyone, these days?). From her prayerful introduction of herself to each house, to her gentle encouragement in her clients to develop the sensitivity to feel and acknowledge joy in each item they keep (while letting the rest go), intentionality is at work.
Now, her “does it spark joy?” approach to sorting through each item, her suggestion to thank that which you no longer want, and her folding method have given rise to all kinds of humor and snark. A true test of her methods? The Midwestern basement and attic. That electric bill, dirty frying pan, and well-worn and pilling wool sweater certainly don’t inspire joy, but are essential parts of daily life. Still, her methods work.
As Penelope Green wrote in The New York Times, quoting Leonard Koren, a design theorist who has written extensively on Japanese aesthetics, “In Japan, a hyper-awareness, even reverence, for objects is a rational response to geography…. ‘Think of the kimono, and the tradition of folding,” he said. ‘There is also the furoshiki, which is basically a square of flat cloth used daily to wrap packages. Folding is deep and pervasive in Japanese culture. Folding is a key strategy of modular systems that have evolved because of limited living space.’”
In essence, then, what’s at work here goes beyond helping people de-stress through de-cluttering. It’s about addressing our rampant consumerism. While the clients in the series donate truckloads of unwanted goods, they also put hundreds of bags of trash in the garbage. The next step—and perhaps even more difficult than sorting through a pile of clothes that reaches the ceiling, transforming a family dynamic into one less gendered (i.e., texting Mom because we can’t find our socks), or even the devastating letting go of a loved one’s belongings—is radically shifting Western culture’s approach to stuff.