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The Art of Downsizing

I went to the Metropolitan Museum recently to look at a closet.

This is not a joke about the high cost of Manhattan real estate, although the closet in question is pretty small.

The installation shows the belongings of a woman named Sara Berman. Nearly everything in it (and there’s not much) is hyper-organized, perfectly folded, and white.

You’d think that someone with such a pared-down existence would be pitiable, probably poor. But Berman was no ascetic; there were luxuries, too. A half-empty (or half-full?) bottle of Chanel No. 5, an orange tin from the Parisian bakery Fauchon, oversized tortoiseshell-framed sunglasses—she clearly wasn’t depriving herself.

So her severe editing was a choice, a statement. This installation shows her personality more vividly than any portrait could, because it reveals the way she thought, not just what she looked like.

There have been a lot of pieces written lately about our “stuff”—mementos, photos, collectibles—and how to make sense of it all. What do we keep? Is memory linked to objects? Can we save everything? Should we?

At the same time, we here at Remarkable Life are mulling adding a “Collections” book to our offerings, for clients who have amassed beautiful things and want a way to catalogue them. So we’ve spent some time thinking about these questions.

It’s not the things themselves that we collect, and arrange, and rearrange, and discard, and put in a cedar-lined hope chest or take to Goodwill. It’s what those things say about us and our choices. They’re a window into our priorities and anxieties.

Here’s where that becomes a problem:

  • I can’t give away my mother’s antique teacups (although no one really likes them, not even her)!

  • I’d feel guilty if I trashed those expensive designer shoes (which are so uncomfortable I never actually wear them)!

  • If I get rid of these first editions, people won’t know that I’m educated (and I need to show that I’m educated)!

But Sara Berman transcended that kind of anxiety and turned her stuff into a shorthand for her personality. She had exactly what she liked, arranged exactly how she liked, and made no apologies (by all accounts) for living as she preferred.

What does your stuff—what’s in your closet, what you collect, what you can’t get rid of—say about you? Look around you, right now. What do you see? What do you wish (truly) you could see? Are they the same?

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