Seize control of your closet

Times Staff Writer

Judd ABRAMS says he is a clean freak, the kind of person who has valued order since he was a kid. But when his fiancée, Nicole Sassaman, met him a year ago, Abrams' collections of old guitars, cameras and tribal masks were scattered throughout his Malibu bachelor pad.

One night, a few weeks into their relationship, he asked her for home improvement ideas. After all, she is a contractor who specializes in finding hidden space in the tightest of condos. He thought she could suggest a few tiny fixes for the reasonably tidy house where he has lived for a dozen years.

"Well," she said, searching for the right gentle words, "you know you don't have to fill every space with something."

By the time Sassaman was finished, the trinkets were gone and so was the sofa table. "Judd thought that if there was a blank wall, it needed to be filled with pictures and to have a table against it and that table needed to have stuff on it," she says. She designed built-in mahogany bookcases in the living room to display some of his collections and found containers to store the others. She also took down a jumble of pictures on the walls and rehung a few interesting ones.

Stuff. We all have it. It spreads, it spills, it piles, it grows. As homes get larger, they're being filled with more kitchen gizmos, high-tech must-haves, holiday garnishes and keepsakes for amassing collections.

Although Southern California, with its T-shirt-friendly uni-season, doesn't have the wardrobe mooring needs of cold-weather places, we still have our space bottlenecks. In a state that has more cars than licensed drivers, our beloved wheels sometimes get shoved out of the garage in favor of sports gear and other outdoor provisions. Spare patio cushions dangle from the rafters, bikes are hooked to the walls, and recycling bins and 5-gallon water bottles block pathways. Submerged somewhere in all of this is an aging earthquake kit.

Our houses don't have mudrooms, those cold-weather catchalls. So shoes, jackets and backpacks get dumped in the entry. Kitchens are packed with barbecue and tailgating supplies, TV rooms are a tangle of cords and loose discs, and everything else is jammed into closets.

Over time, the buried stuff is forgotten until a moment of real need — where is that thing? — fuels our desire to manage it all better. Then we make a New Year's resolution to get our things in order.

But where to start? Even the definition of clutter is as wobbly as a stack of unpaid bills.

"Clutter is a relative term," says Webb Keane, a cultural anthropologist with the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences in Stanford, Calif. "If your things form an extension of yourself, they may not seem to be clutter. If they oppress you, they become good candidates for clutter."

Sorting through it all takes time, but it can lead to an easier new year. Disorganization and clutter, say experts, zap our focus and productivity. For Abrams and Sassaman, clutter control is leading to a June wedding. "Your environment has an effect on you," says the bride-to-be, a self-confessed "extra minimalist" who gives space-saving advice on the Style Network's "Area" series.

Getting organized can be as simple as making a to-do list or getting in the habit of putting something, like keys, in one place. Or it can take muscle and money. There is a sweeping personal organization industry devoted to getting our paper and possessions in order. The Container Store, which was launched in 1978, was the first specialty store to home in on our mounting need for recycling bins, adjustable shelves and odd-shaped containers. A thicket of Hold Everything stores and closet- organizing companies have sprouted up since then.

"Every year something new gets added to our lives — a career, family, home, technology," rattles off Audrey Robertson of the Container Store, which raked in almost $45 million this year. "Getting organized has a comforting Zen quality to it. The world may be crazy, but you can have control of your surroundings."

Order, at least, reigns on TV. We feel pleasure — perhaps it's glee — in seeing someone else's unruly home transformed on TV shows such as HGTV's "Mission: Organization" and the Style Network's "Clean House."

There is no shortage of experts who want to help us by rolling up their sleeves and digging our homes out from under leisure suits, broken bats and dusty treadmills. A national franchise called 1-800-Got-Junk? will load heavy, oily, unwanted items into its blue trucks and sweep your newly exposed floor before heading to the recycling or donation center or dump.

Professional organizers — who have been called the personal trainers of the new millennium — charge up to $100 an hour to stand by our side while we slough off the unnecessary and unworthy. The National Assn. of Professional Organizers has grown in ranks from five founders in 1985 to more than 2,500 members, and it has expanded its Get Organized week to the entire month of January.

Wardrobe stylist Kristy Laschober has waded through 75 closets since she expanded her personal shopping business to include shaping up closets a few years ago. She says her high-stressed clients have almost everything they need in their closets already, but they can't see it because it's hidden behind clumps of outdated outfits, rumpled wrapping paper and boxes of mystery goods.

Laschober is understanding, but firm. Regardless of their cost, the emotions tied to them or how great they looked when they were in style, unnecessary pieces have to go.

This use-or-lose method works throughout a house, say experts. But it's easier said than done. Sometimes, stuff is heaped upon us. Life events can throw our orderly lives off track: moving, downsizing a house, losing a job. A loved one dies and it's too painful to sort through it all.

The first step, say experts, is to stop buying. Then take a hard look at what you have.

Laschober converts messy closets into streamlined sanctuaries by pulling everything out. She then asks her clients — men and women — to put on their favorite outfit. She takes their photograph and every other piece of clothing is compared to this look. This makes it easier to give away unflattering clothes.

"I'm ready for the new year," says client Kelly Colvin of Laguna Niguel. "I'm not only organized in my closet, but in my mind." Colvin says she is applying the formula used to maximize her wardrobe to the rest of her house: toss out the bad, put the rest where it can be easily seen and reached.

In her closet, clothing is arranged into categories — jackets, pants, shirts — and by color, from white to tan to pink, brown and black. Shoes are set in slotted, see-through boxes. Out-of-season or rarely worn clothes are stored on high shelves.

"If a client sees an empty hanger or empty slot, they know exactly where to put back the item they're wearing," says Laschober, who adds that properly folded or hanging clothes won't wrinkle and will keep their shape longer, and shoes won't be scuffed or creased if they're not thrown into piles.

Her best piece of advice: Nothing stays on the floor. This leaves more room to maneuver in a tight space and prevents anything from being tossed on the floor "temporarily."

While Laschober makes the best of what's already in place, contractor Sassaman organizes with hammers and nails. She designs the plans and a crew knocks down walls to convert hallways into expanded master bathrooms, shallow closets into his and her desks, and dead-ends into lighted nooks with custom shelves and cabinets.

Sassaman, who has moved twice a year for the last seven years into homes she has bought, remodeled and sold, is completing her largest project: modernizing a Beverly Hills estate that once belonged to Greta Garbo and Gloria Vanderbilt. She pulled down all but a handful of the exterior walls of the French Regency mansion.

She says she learned during 50 condo remodels that every home, even large ones like hers, needs to take advantage of every inch. In one of her condo remodels, she built a mahogany cabinet in the entryway to conceal a washer/dryer unit. A polished door hides the appliance on one side; three open shelves are on the other. "It looks so much like a piece of furniture that even I forget it's there," she says.

In the hallway, she cut out 4-inch-deep niches in between the two-by-fours to hold a picture frame, artwork or frosted shelves. In a spare room, she converted a walk-in closet into an office space. There, built-in cabinets with doors and a desk with drawers hide the unsightly but necessary computer, fax and stereo equipment. In the kitchen, she moved the refrigerator, with its 3-inch clearance on each side, to make a 6-inch-wide wine rack along one side.

In her own kitchen, she had the room to design an island with a long counter for preparing and serving food. Underneath are large, deep drawers that she says take a one-step action that's quicker than opening a door and swiveling a Lazy Susan. She covered her wide kitchen door, which leads to the entry, with a chalkboard so she can write reminders to herself before she leaves for the day.

In her bathroom drawers, divider trays keep makeup, curlers and other items orderly. A tightly wedged corner behind the bathroom door has three odd-shaped, asymmetrical shelves for soaps and candles.

The bedroom, says Sassaman, has to be a respite from the workday whirl. The view should be inviting enough to have you forget your list of things to do, and the room must be neat and orderly. She hides needed but unattractive items in a storage chest at the foot of her bed.

She avoids visual clutter by painting two or three colors throughout the house. She stains the African mahogany cabinets and walnut floors dark. She uses solid fabrics rather than patterns, and books are arranged sparingly on shelves in blocks of colors. "You don't have to show every paperback you ever read," she says.

Sassaman's friends set her up on a blind date last December with Abrams, a real estate developer. They hit it off, they say, because they are both successful, disciplined and — despite the state of his collections then — organized.

She's designed his condo in the city to keep work and social schedules running smoothly. There, the built-in shelves in the living room hold Abrams' vintage cameras, surrounded by plenty of nothing. Abrams selected the ones to be put on display because of their quality and special meaning to him.

Being organized has become more complicated, however. Abrams still lives in Malibu, but spends some weekdays in a Century City condo that Sassaman remodeled. She is busy putting the finishing touches on her Beverly Hills mansion. At the end of the day, they get together at one of the three places. "Sometimes I have to think, 'Do we have milk there?' " she says.

But she's even figured out a way to organize their current multi-residence challenges. "Having different homes is a whole set of other issues that will be resolved once we're married."

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