Life at Home in the 21st Century – Book Review

Life at Home in the 21st Century

If I took a picture of my kitchen table this morning, you would see today’s “Chicago Tribune” a sharpened #2 pencil, Matched (the book my teenager is currently reading), an empty orange juice glass, and a cloth napkin.  What is on your kitchen table right now?  If someone came in and took a picture, what would it reveal about you and how you live?

As Professional Organizers, many of us have the privilege of seeing kitchen tables in various stages of use.  In fact, many of us have photos of them in our reference files.   If we gathered, sorted, and analyzed all of our photos, what patterns would emerge about how kitchen tables are typically used in 21st century homes?  What could we learn to help our clients use their kitchen spaces more efficiently?

Through the power of twitter (via NAPO’s New England Chapter @NAPONEWENGLAND), I was informed about  a book summarizing a study that did just that.  A team of researchers – specifically “cultural anthropologists,” spent time in 32 homes of middle-class families in southern California.  They took photos and documented the home environment to look at, “what families actually do with their possessions…what they keep, discard, display, and use each day.”

Their motivation?  To find a way to document how we live for future generations.  Countless sales and marketing research studies have been conducted about how and what we purchase, but rarely had anyone looked at what happens to stuff once we take it home.  Brilliant!

The research, conducted from 2001-2005, was recently published in book form, Life at Home in the 21st Century by Jeanne E. Arnold, Anthony P. Graesch, Enzo Ragazzini, and Elinor Ochs (Cotsen Institute of Archaeology Press).  The result looks like a coffee table book, but reads like a textbook for stuff geeks!  The research (an interdisciplinary and collaborative effort by the Center on Everyday Lives of Families CELF at UCLA) looked at what kinds of things we accumulate and how we are using our spaces.  Though sprinkled with words like taphonomic, ethnoarchaeolgy, and situ, the data is presented in a user-friendly manner and is the kind of information organizers draw upon daily when servicing clients.

Researchers recorded daily struggles families had with their stuff as a result of the large volume of possessions within their living spaces.  A specific study of cortisol levels in saliva revealed a direct relationship between clutter and stress – but not for everyone!  Working mothers who described their living spaces as, “cluttered” or “messy” in a video tour demonstrated the highest cortisol levels once they were in the home amidst their cluttered stuff at the end of the work day.

There are intimate, compelling photos and ideas about all areas of the home.  Chapter Four, entitled, “Vanishing Leisure,” even looks at how families spend their down time.  The graphs are easy to read and understand.  Particularly compelling is the graph that plots the traffic patterns of how families use the space in their homes.  Kitchens are for more than just food prep these days.  Important information to consider when organizing them!

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