Keep nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful. (William Morris)
I’m not a materialistic person, and this quotation from William Morris has always been my guide for keeping my home free of ‘clutter’. It’s been very useful over the last couple of years – R and I moved to a new flat in London just nine months before we moved to America and had little trouble throwing away what things we had allowed to accumulate over our first three years of living together, which kept the cost of moving down considerably. And then, of course, came the move to America – we threw even more stuff out before the shipping company arrived.
I certainly surround myself with useful things. My college room was once described as ‘efficient’ – which was not meant as a compliment. So when I was younger I experimented with throws and canvas lamp shades, and wind chimes and dream catchers, because I thought I should – but I only discovered that I hate the dust they inevitably collect. I hadn’t really developed my own taste, didn’t fully and truly believe these things to be beautiful, and so had no business keeping them.
My taste, it turns out, is for the efficient, the spare, the perfectly designed. I have few ornaments or pictures in my home, but those I’ll never get rid of include a satisfyingly squat and heavy blown-glass penguin paper weight in black and white, and a black and white abstract painting of camels by a Canarian painter called Manrique (see Lanzarote’s tourist information pages for further information about this painter).
To break up the monochrome there’s also a beautiful canvas painted by my sister-in-law in imitation of Edward Ruscha – gradations of blue into white into pink and red, which inspired us to be bolder than usual in our most recent choice of a bedroom color scheme.
Useful things can also be beautiful. I have some lovely blue ceramic bowls bought for me by my sister that I love to use for chips or guacamole, and a really elegant, fluted crystal decanter from a friend to mark my wedding. I also love the simple, blue glass tea light holders this friend bought me, and the satisfying, rustic-looking baking dish my husband and I bought when we had first decided to live together. And my books – whatever they now look like on the outside, having been faded by sunshine and warped by the sea air on holiday – are beautiful on the inside as well as essential in my line of work.
As you might gather from the above, things given to me by people I love are also things I find to be beautiful – especially as people who buy me presents usually know me well enough to appreciate my taste for the simple and well designed, potentially useful gift! When we left the UK we were given some wonderful coasters – some Union Jack, and others from Oxford with just the names of Oxford places printed in white on a black background. And this Christmas I received many beautiful book-themed presents – I think all of them were also useful!
In the US we’ve been careful not to buy too much. If we bought a DVD player it wouldn’t work with our UK DVDs, and if we bought American DVDs… you get the picture. We’re considered unusual in that we don’t have a television and cable service – but our little (shared) laptop and Netflix are fine substitutes. We had to buy all new furniture as furnished flats turned out to be a rarity in DC (we left our furniture at home for our tenants), but we really kept this to a minimum as we were only going to be here temporarily.
Sometimes I do wish we would stay around somewhere long enough for me to nest. When furnishing both our first owned flat and this DC apartment I’ve had to keep religiously to the ‘things you know to be useful’ creed, and resist my urge to buy beautiful things. Both times we knew we were furnishing for temporary residence, and so mainly relied on IKEA. It’s fashionable to rather disdain IKEA, and I certainly hate their shopping experience (being forced to follow their idea of the ideal route makes me rebellious), but IKEA design tends to suit me. It’s all clean lines, wood, bright colours here and there, serviceable book cases and kitchen counters – and cheap enough to not worry that you’re only going to be using it for 18 months.
Now that we’re maybe heading home and I’m thinking about packing up, I’m grateful again for our lack of clutter. Some ‘stuff’ has accrued over our time here, but by following Morris’s advice, I think we’ll be able to ditch what we don’t need pretty easily. Meaning we’ll have space for future purchases of useful and beautiful things as we enter the next chapter of our lives.