Ask Maxwell: How To Cure Clutter by Getting Good Flow into Your Home

published Aug 15, 2022
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flow diagrams from the eight step Cure book
Credit: Emily Payne

Last week Baki asked:

“My house is a living, breathing mess of my two kid’s clutter, and, especially with school coming up in a month, I need to get control of it. Any help would be appreciated.”

This is a continuing answer!

Dear Baki,

This is my third, and last, little chapter that I hope might help you with your kids clutter problems – especially as school approaches. This, too, comes from my first book, Apartment Therapy: The Eight-Step Home Cure, which I’m adapting for a video series, and it speaks to a concept that is central to how I see homes working well, but is also, ironically, related to the lovely and healthy suppleness of children’s movement. They might be in league with Clutter Beings, but their energy is great for a home.

Two weeks ago it was The Outbox, last week The Landing Strip, and this week I want to share with a you a concept I think I put new words around – especially for home design – and I call it FLOW.

Enjoy! M

The Secret Power of Flow
One of the biggest concepts that I’ve discovered over the years is the concept of Flow and it’s the very first thing I want to walk you through. 

Flow refers to the movement of energy through a space. It is a concept referred to with different words in Eastern practices such as Feng Shui or Vastu, as well as Western design approaches, all of which recognize that a space is most successful when it allows for full movement of energy within. I think great interior designers understand this without thinking about it. While specifics among worldwide approaches to space differ, I have taken the general concept of Flow as a unifying principle and have found that it is readily understandable to clients and helps them see their home in a new light.

The Callahan’s Kitchen
When I was a kid, I found myself hanging out at our neighbor’s house more than my own. The Callahan’s had a great kitchen, where everyone gathered on weekends. It was well lit, with a big table in the center and counters all around the sides. It was big enough for a crowd and cozy enough for a late night beer when we were older. I don’t remember spending much time like this in my own house. It was  always nicer next door. 

Most everyone knows a home like this. Whether it’s a small studio on the 26th floor of an apartment building or a ranch house in the suburbs, there are just some homes that are more comfortable than others. It has nothing to do with how much the home cost or what part of town it is in. Some homes just feel more comfortable and there’s a secret to this. 

What was so nice about the Callahan’s kitchen? It wasn’t exceptional or fancy and I don’t remember any standout style features. First, it was a well maintained room. It was clean and comfortable to sit in, the fridge was well stocked, and meals were cooked regularly. It was a true “living” room, supporting the life that happened in the rest of the house. Second, it was well designed. In the middle were a table and chairs, and there were open traffic areas on every side. The sink was under a window, and the triangle between the stove, sink and refrigerator was easily navigable. Put together, the room had good Flow. Movement, energy and life made this kitchen comfortable and inspiring to all who spent time there. 

Flow is Movement
I first came to understand Flow as a physical concept when I went to see a chiropractor for the first time after college. I was having severe back pain from sitting at work. What I learned from my chiropractor was a very simple and sensible explanation for the origin of my pain. The spine – every spine! – wants to move. It wants to be flexible, and when it doesn’t move and flex it begins to lock up, which causes pain. Chiropractors generally work to restore  movement to the spine; if this is not addressed, the pain grows worse, becoming bad posture, pinched nerves and fused discs as the muscles tighten their hold on their frozen positions. 

When I walked out of the chiropractor’s office and he’d “adjusted” my back by moving it fully, I had a whole new feeling in my upper body – and no pain. I was stunned to realize this simple truth: that maintaining full and flexible movement is one of the secrets to good health. 

When we are children, we are naturally inclined to move. Children run, talk, and express themselves a great deal, keeping their bodies limber and healthy. This is flow in its natural state. As we get older, there is a natural tendency to neglect this healthy movement and allow hardness for form. This clotted condition appears variously in our bodies as back pain and arthritis. In social groups it becomes stubbornness and dogmatism.

Homes can be seen through the same lens.  In our homes it becomes clutter, blocked spaces and dated style. The Callahan’s kitchen had great movement and flow which drew me and others to it. 

If your home is depressing you or stressing you out, it is undoubtedly due to poor movement and poor flow within your home. In working with clients and asking them lots of questions, I’ve found that after five years, EVERY home begins to suffer from an unhealthy flow state if it has not been tended to all along ( I wouldn’t include “style” in this time period! Style can work a lot longer).  At this point, it can be a big job to restore proper flow. It is far better to take care of your space in an ongoing fashion, so you never need to call in emergency help.

Credit: Emily Payne

Energy in Nature: Earth, Wind and Fire.. and Rivers
Energy can flow in one of three ways: quickly, slowly or not at all (read STUCK). In its natural state, energy flows slowly in a back and forth curving motion. This is what we want to emulate. Often called a “meander” – this meandering motion can easily be observed in the movements of a snake, a flame, a river, or a rising plume of smoke. These last three elements are fire, water and air and they channel energy, just like animals do.

However, if you create a straight path, the energy flow CANNOT meander. Instead , energy will speed up and move quickly. The natural tendency to meander helps to slow the the force of energy down, as its course is constantly adjusted and its motion redirected. On the other hand, if there are too many curves or if there is no place to move, the energy will slow until it stops and stagnates. 

We see this very clearly in rivers. A healthy river will always flow in the same way: with slow, meandering curves and straight lines in between. You can see this if you look at rivers from far above – through the window of an airplane as you fly over the country – or in satellite pictures or the Mississippi or any great river; they create great long squiggles when seen from above.

This the pure energy of nature at work in its happiest state. 

Similarly, when a river is healthy, the water flows in a way that is peaceful and inviting to those on its shore. Sometimes, however, a river runs too fast. This can happen if it rains too much or when the river’s sides are straightened with concrete by engineers as in the case of the LA river. In these cases the same river can become dangerous. It is also an interesting side note that fish die in rivers that have been straightened – they, too, gain life energy from the meander. 

At other times a river can stop entirely. Either it dries up or a big bend separates from the main branch of the river and forms a pool. Along the Mississippi these stagnant pools are called oxbows. IN both of these cases, what was once an inviting body of water becomes inhospitable. 

Credit: Emily Payne

Flow in the Home
Now consider your home. Imagine you were to open the door and let in a river of water. How would it flow? Would it rush right in and through your rooms, or would it get stuck and swirl around in dead corners? Ideally, it would meander around your furniture, creating paths that allow the most  movement possible throughout the whole room. 

It should not, for example, run quickly along one side of the room that is kept clear, while it gets stuck and stagnates along the other side behind furniture, boxes and clutter.

Remember the Callahan’s kitchen and how nice that room flowed… all around the table in the center? It was a perfect example of great flow. 

Without thinking, we instinctively tend to push things up against their walls and clear out the center of their rooms over time. We do this in an effort to organize or “clear up” but we are only making matters worse. The resulting energy flow becomes wildly unbalanced, with fast harmful energy running down the middle and dead stagnant oxbows along the walls, where clutter easily forms. 

Credit: Emily Payne

So, I want you to take a look at the room you’re in – and perhaps it’s your home. Now ask yourself – Does this room make me feel energetic and happy?  Could I imagine a river flowing through it or a person walking through in an easy meander?

If your answer to each of these questions is no, then I really want you to rethink this room and we’re going to talk even more about how to shift it next. 

If your answer to either of these questions is yes, then you’re in a good place and someone is doing it right! 

From – Apartment Therapy: The Eight-Step Home Cure

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(I keep changing this each week based on your clicks)

Maxwell Ryan is a father and was an elementary school teacher in NYC before founding Apartment Therapy. He’d love to answer your question: This piece was created for Cubby, our weekly newsletter for families at home. Want more? Sign up here for a weekly splash of fun and good ideas for families with kids.

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