The Japanese declutterer is all the rage. But some of Maine’s professional organizers pre-date her. Others model themselves on her.
Before there was world-famous Marie Kondo and The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, there was Dawna Hall. She started her Portland-based company Organize ME! in 2008 to help homeowners declutter and organize their lives. Organizing was always instinctual for her; back when she was a graphic designer, Hall would slip off to tidy the break room or the supply closet. It got her away from sitting in front of a screen, and it was satisfying. These days, it’s her full time job. She has two employees and sees two clients a day, five days a week.
She is grateful that the Japanese-born organizing guru has put organizing in the spotlight on a mainstream level. “I love that Tidying Up and simplifying is trending,” Hall says.
Trending may be an understatement. Kondo, who began her tidying consultant business as a 19-year-old university student, has had back-to-back New York Times bestsellers, a Netflix series, a celebrity life in Los Angeles and legions of “Konverts” all over the globe who follow her advice with cult-like devotion. She’s also got a fleet of 231 certified consultants, including a few in Massachusetts, but none in Maine. What she does have here is enthusiastic followers. Kondo inspired Brunswick resident CeCe Camacho to start her own organizing business after Camacho and a friend, using The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up as their guide, sorted and tidied each other’s clothes over the course of two six-hour sessions. “Those two days were revolutionary,” Camacho says. “No doubt on a physical level in my drawers, but also on a mental and emotional level in my life.”
Camacho had been trying to figure out her next career move after leaving a position as chief operation officer for a global nonprofit called Sustainable Health Enterprises. While she was meeting with a micro-enterprise specialist from New Ventures Maine, a state-wide educational service for Mainers in career and or financial transition, Camacho couldn’t stop talking about her experience with the KonMari method. (The company name is a contraction of Kondo’s name as written in the Japanese style, Kondo Mariko.) The specialist recommended she explore it as a business idea. Two weeks later, Camacho launched Prune (she uses the lowercase in her business name), which she describes as a lifestyle company to help people make space for what matters most in their lives.
Camacho herself exemplifies Kondo’s philosophy, which goes beyond sorting and putting things away. The first step in the KonMari method, before any tidying even takes place, is to visualize the life you wish to have in a clutter-free space. Kondo believes a life-changing transformation occurs when we put our homes in order, and references former clients who went on to launch businesses, change relationships and lose weight, as if no longer being stifled by their cluttered spaces opened them up to new possibilities.
There are methods the Maine versions of Marie Kondo all seem to agree on, like there being no need to buy anything special to organize with. Bringing in more objects is never part of the goal. (Kondo famously uses shoe boxes as drawer dividers). But none of the Maine-based professional organizers say the explosive popularity of Kondo and her KonMari method dictates how they work with clients. First published in 2011, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up (her sequel of a sorts is Spark Joy) starts with an aggressive, category-based period of discarding based on the owner’s response to the object. For example, all clothing and all sentimental items are assessed at once, regardless of what rooms they live in. This can take a long time and be tiring, says Hall, whose training includes classes from both the National Association of Professional Organizers and the Institute for Challenging Disorganization. Many of the clients Organize ME! helps are struggling to keep a consistent tidying system in place, sometimes due to personal challenges like attention deficit disorder.
“We’re thrifty Mainers and we don’t want to just throw things away.”
Moreover, while Kondo insists a one-time overhaul will keep your home permanently clutter-free, for many of Hall’s clients, the relationship is ongoing. “Sometimes clients need a tune up,” she says. “The system [we established] may not have been maintained as well as it could be, so it’s just a matter of putting things back where they belong and doing a little purging.” Like Kondo, Camacho tends to organize by category, but she also believes the idea of tackling a whole house at once is too much. “It is emotionally and physically laborious to prune,” she says. “It brings up feelings, and I want to make sure there’s time and space to talk about those, if the client wants to.”
The trademark question Kondo asks her clients to answer, ‘Does this item spark joy?’ regularly comes up in professional consultations in Maine, and Hall says, “It either resonates with people or it doesn’t.” But If Hall has a professional catchphrase, it might be “limits.” In a broad sense, she says, your home is a container for your stuff. And within the home, there are smaller containers, starting with rooms, then narrowing down to closets and eventually, drawers and shelves. When those containers exceed their limits, Hall says it’s time to purge. Too often people use storage to solve the issue of too much stuff, she says, and next thing you know, you have a basement full of bins you haven’t looked at in years. Instead, Hall says, approach all those containers as you do your refrigerator. “We don’t question the limits of our refrigerator,” Hall points out. “If it’s full, we toss the old items to make room for the new. Items are in constant rotation. We need to think of the rest of the items in our home this way.”
Dawn Hellier of Object: Organization, a professional organizing company based in Eastport, takes what amounts to a fire drill approach to helping her clients get started. The fastest way to really take stock of your possessions, Hellier says, is to ask yourself this question: If you had five minutes to leave your house forever, what would you take (besides people or pets)? “Your answer will immediately help you identify what is important,” Hellier says.
When Hellier first read Kondo’s book, she’d been in business for a year, but she was already unknowingly utilizing many of the same techniques as Kondo, including her approach for folding clothes. (File, don’t pile!) Hellier began her career as a lawyer and says there are commonalities between the two professions. “To be successful in either case it is important to listen, observe, have a certain sensitivity and integrity,” Hellier says.
Often professional organizers are hired to help before or after a major life event, like a move, the death of a loved one, or transitioning an elderly parent into a care facility. “It’s hugely personal work,” Hellier says. “It’s an honor to be invited into a person’s home and to deal with very intimate aspects of their lives.” When people struggle to part with items they no longer need but feel attached to, she says there can be a greater sense of peace when those items are passed on instead of put in the trash. Hellier has made photo books for clients to keep as momentos, and she’s donated items to local libraries, museums and historical societies where they can still be viewed. Hall, who participated in an episode of Hoarders and Hotel Impossible on The Travel Channel, also does a lot of donating so that nothing goes to waste. Hall says. “Clients are more apt to let things go if they know it’s going someplace where it’s appreciated. I’m happy to deliver any donations to local charities at the end of our session.”
Camacho says the pruning process she oversees can also help people become more thoughtful about future purchases, by providing an opportunity to realize how much of a burden these things can become. Investing in organization, she believes, can help save money in the future on acquiring material possessions. The process, if done correctly, also establishes sustainable practices to keep things in check. “It’s about reframing how we connect with objects, ourselves and others,” Camacho says. “Pruning is a lifelong practice,” Dawna Hall agrees, calling organization a process, not a state achievable in one day. “The most important part happens after I leave,” Hall says. “Maintenance.”
Sarah Holman is a writer living in Portland. She is enthusiastic about cheese plates, thrift shop treasures and old houses in need of saving. Find her online at storiesandsidebars.com.