HOLDING on to things that have meaning makes us feel safe. The flip side to that emotional anchor, however, is all that "stuff" can weigh us down and make our lives feel out of control. How can we regain equilibrium? Get creative, says Santa Monica interior designer Sasha Emerson. "You shouldn't feel like you are overwhelmed by your possessions." The trick is to organize your things and display them in an attractive way. Try nontraditional storage solutions that are practical and pretty. A vintage flea-market bedroom dresser, like the one at right, performs triple duty as a buffet, a display area for a pottery collection and a storage unit. "A house that has possessions is a more attractive home environment," Emerson says.
Getting started: The first step is "to rid yourself of stuff," says Emerson, who uses the word "purge" often and with emphasis. Arm yourself with garbage bags and clear out everything you don't need. "There are so many worthy organizations desperate for castoffs which will pick them up -- and give you a tax deduction to boot," she says. Emerson also recommends yard sales as a great way to unload some of your things. That said, Emerson cautions not to go too far. Once the bags disappear, something you thought you didn't want, like a vase, may now look terrific in your new spare surroundings.
Don't get boxed in: To solve storage problems creatively, think about what you like, not what you should have. "Storage is not just about elaborate and expensive built-ins and throwing everything away," Emerson says. Find a storage unit that you like and start from there. The trick is to take something that is not meant for storage and use it because it's beautiful to you. A handsome flea-market find, repainted and refurbished, may be the jumpstart you need to put everything in its place or mask the items -- china or bills -- you want hidden from view.
Bookshelves: "Attractive bookshelves in all sizes look great with boxes, mismatched or uniform," says Emerson. If the bookshelves have seen better days, Emerson suggests a coat of paint or wallpaper. Background color, however minimal, will make display items pop. Emerson says unique paper can be found at stores like Walnut Wallpaper & Trim, Hiromi Paper or Soolip Paperie & Press. Mirrored glass is an inexpensive way to create a reflective backdrop for pottery and other artworks. Books should be stacked horizontally and vertically. Emerson says the artful configuration of books and objects pleases the eye. "You don't want to look like you're in college," she jokes. Get rid of ugly paperbacks and emphasize art books and vintage books.
Furniture as storage: Unique furniture, vintage and otherwise, can be sprinkled throughout the house. "An old curio cabinet -- lacquered, painted or wallpapered -- can store dishes, treasures, books, family photos, boxes of letters, bills or baby clothes," Emerson says. Even towels and sweaters can look artistic if they're folded neatly in a cabinet or bookshelf. She calls the credenza a storage champ. "They look great refinished, painted or topped with fabric or mementos under glass," she says. They work in any room, even as a bathroom unit with a sink or two. Emerson recommends Skank World, Wertz Brothers, Futurama Vintage, Design Utopia and Fat Chance for great used furniture finds.
Kids' rooms: Lockers, baskets, boxes and shelves are great receptacles for the books, toys and party favors that litter kids' rooms. Emerson also suggests pulling the Craftsman tool chest out of the garage -- it's utilitarian and vibrant red -- for a bedside table in a boy's room. Store fixtures, such as free-standing tables (think sweater displays at Gap or Ann Taylor) work well too. A shelf wrapping the entire room can house stuffed animals kids never touch but can't part with. Emerson likes paper-covered boxes from stores like Tuesday Morning and labels them with brightly colored luggage tags from Duet on Pico.
Basket case: Baskets are great for storage but they must have a purpose and look nice. Emerson shops for baskets at favorite discount and floral supply stores like Rolling Greens, TJ Maxx, Ross and Cost Plus. "I love to put things in baskets on shelves, on the floor, stacked and labeled in an office," she says. Emerson's personal aesthetic is bright and bold, but not cluttered. "I like looking at art and objects, not clutter or junk," she says.
Go industrial: "A great storage bonanza is industrial furniture," says Emerson who has used wooden library carts, doctor's cabinets, school furnishings and hospital furniture as space savers. Even a potting table can be reborn as a bar or changing table. How to make something industrial work at home? "Soften the edges," says Emerson. Things that are quirky and feminine, such as a pink leather photo box or a Murano glass vase, can add soft contrast to items with hard edges. Vintage hardware pulls from Liz's Antique Hardware fastened onto boxes create a handle that gives them a finished look.
Nontraditional traditional: Figure out unpredictable places for storage things. Don't be afraid to place a collection of dressers, matching or mismatched, in a row along a long wall, says Emerson. "It looks very sculptural and can store a lot." She also suggests placing a series of matching lamps on each one, or using mini dressers or a credenza on either side of the couch. Hip kid's toy boxes, such as the Parker activity table by DWRjax, can be used as a coffee table. A trunk at the end of the bed, under a window or under a large desk houses a lot of stuff and looks good too. Anything can look deliberate, Emerson says, if arranged with some forethought and finesse.