‘It’s a control thing’: why are we so fascinated by super-organised homes?
Strangers joke that Jacquelyn Rendall should stick a label on to Adam Rendall’s head. “Husband,” it would read, in the curved typeface Rendall designed based on her own handwriting, the Pretty Perfect Font. If Adam had a label on his head – some of the 400,000 people who follow Jacquelyn on TikTok say – then he would match everything else in the couple’s home in Rochford, Essex.
It starts at the front door, where the words “Thank you postie” are stuck on the silver letterbox, followed by a cartoon heart. There’s nothing too unusual about this, nor the drawers in the corridor that hold separated bits and bobs labelled “cables”, “batteries” and “tools”. It is Rendall’s six-doored pantry that has the power to inspire a thousand envious and incredulous comments online. Starting at the top left, there are nine transparent containers full of white, brown, pink and yellow powders, each marked by its identity: “sugar”, “hot chocolate”, “banana milkshake”. Below that are miniature acrylic drawers of stock cubes and tiered rows of spices. The word “cereal” adorns six canisters in the next cupboard; “tagliatelle”, “spaghetti”, “conchiglie” and “penne” are also spelled out on clear containers (use-by dates are written in chalk pen on the back).
Behind the next set of doors are dishwasher salt, stain remover and softener decanted into corked glass bottles. In the fridge, an open-topped container of apples reads “apples”. The words “ties and cufflinks” adorn a drawer in Adam’s office. The couple’s young daughter, Sienna, knows where to put her things, thanks to baskets marked “dress up”, “sports” and “dolls”. Everything has its (labelled) place.
One thing that is hard to label is the period of history in which we are living. Will our descendants call us Caroleans? Is this the plastic age? I think you could compellingly argue that we are actually living in the decanting era. Never before have things been removed from packages and put into other packages at such a pace. More than 6.7 million people have watched a YouTube video in which Khloé Kardashian stacks Oreos around the edges of a glass jar so that they look aesthetically pleasing. Meanwhile, professional declutterer Marie Kondo sells packs of 90 labels, including ones for bread crumbs, chia seeds and, alarmingly, food colouring, the least decantable substance sold in supermarkets.
In their bestselling 2019 book The Home Edit: A Guide to Organizing and Realizing Your House Goals, professional organisers Clea Shearer and Joanna Teplin jokingly label their own (inexplicably joint) gravestone, speculating that it will read: “Pantry perfectionists who were canister enthusiasts, turntable advocates, and women entirely committed to labelling all things.”
Although excessive organisation began as a hobby of the ultra-wealthy (Shearer and Teplin once sorted Reese Witherspoon’s closet, and charge more than £200 an hour for their services), storage-stuffed homes are increasingly commonplace. A spokesperson for bargain homeware chain B&M says home organisation sales have seen “substantial growth for the last few years” and “show no signs of stopping”. Clear storage containers are particularly popular, as well as nestable boxes that allow customers to maximise space.
It’s easy to dismiss this as a fad, but look closer at 10 glass jars lined neatly on a shelf and you’ll see a reflection of yourself. The rise of the highly organised home reveals something deeper about the way many live today – and it can’t be separated from modern capitalism, the pressures of domestic labour, social media and ever-increasing anxiety rates.
“All I felt I was doing was working, then coming home, cleaning up, making dinner and going to sleep, and that was literally my life,” says 32-year-old Rendall, who worked as a PE teacher until April 2022. To gain control, she started waking up at 4.40am in 2021 – she exercises, tidies, does laundry and showers before her daughter and husband wake up.
People don’t see the long-term benefit. In the evening, they have to think, shop, cook, tidy away. Times that by seven
“Everything I do – everything – is centred around time and saving it and maximising it,” Rendall says, sitting in her kitchen in an oversized white jumper, black leggings and pink fluffy slippers. Rendall’s food is organised so she can bulk buy and cook once a month – meals are kept in fridge-freezer drawers marked with the days of the week. It’s faster to write shopping lists now she can see with a quick glance what she’s running low on, and Rendall says she never has to clean spilled flour, thanks to her containers. Snacks are categorised to save time packing Sienna’s lunchbox, while her clothing is laid out in seven separate drawers every Sunday, making it easier to dress her each morning.
Of course, Rendall admits decanting and organising “does take a bit of time initially” and some critics are adamant she should “get a job” and stop “wasting time”. “People don’t see the long-term benefit,” she says – yes, it might take her an hour to unpack her monthly shop and six hours to bulk cook on a Saturday, “but then in the evening, other people have to think, go to the shops, cook, tidy away. Times that by seven.”
The “turning point” for Rendall was when her father passed away in her arms after having gall bladder cancer. She was just 19. “I realised that actually, I don’t want to waste time, I want to maximise it … I don’t want Sienna to just work and be bathed, I want time with her.”
To stay organised, Rendall designed her own planner – it’s pink, gold and thicker than most bibles. She sells it for £48.99 on her website Pretty Perfect Products, where she also sells labels. Booming sales in the pandemic enabled Rendall to quit her teaching job; her products have caught the attention of TV personalities Dani Dyer and Alison Hammond (Rendall even visited the latter’s home to help organise her cupboards).
Still, not everyone loves Rendall’s lifestyle. “I don’t understand why it gets people so mad – like, SO mad,” she says. Rendall sees it as her job to educate hateful commenters about the benefits of home organisation, but she knows they’re right about one thing: the squash. In a cupboard that holds cups and mugs, Rendall has three corked glass bottles filled with red and yellow liquids; on the side of each is a swirly white word, “squash”. “This one is my only thing that is for aesthetic,” Rendall says, conceding that moving juice from a plastic to a glass bottle is not time-saving. “It gets people really mad. I do get that.”
It is hard to imagine that anyone would ever decant their squash in a world without social media. While people’s pantries used to be private spaces, they’re now shared across the internet. (Singer Stacey Solomon went viral in 2020 for sharing a video of crisps hanging on a curtain pole inside her cupboard. She now has her own decluttering show on the BBC.) As well as busy parents, children and teens enjoy home organisation content that provokes a satisfying autonomous sensory meridian response (better known as ASMR): when Coco Pops cascade into a plastic tub or lids are clicked on to containers, the sound gives some people pleasant tingles. “Satisfying” is a word that recurs under Rendall’s videos.
Design researcher Lisa O’Neil says that this is all part of something called “metaconsumption”. Metaconsumers, O’Neil explains, “consume content about consumption” – there are almost 4m posts tagged #organization on Instagram, while Rendall makes 10 TikToks a week. Home Edit authors Shearer and Teplin got a Netflix series in 2020, while Kondo showcases her “KonMari” tidying method in two shows of her own. “Idealistic real estate shows make people feel like they need to aspire to these perfect homes,” O’Neil says.
There is another aspect of metaconsumption, which O’Neil describes as “consuming objects that act in service of other objects” or buying things for your things. In Kondo’s bestselling 2010 decluttering book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, she told readers to store possessions in shoeboxes – today, she peddles £30 bamboo storage bins on her site (while also admitting this week that tidying is less of a priority, personally, now she has three children).
The solution to overconsumption has become yet another form of consumption: if you have too many clothes and devices, simply buy somewhere to store them. Decluttering, perversely, now involves acquiring more stuff – an abundance of bins, boxes, labels. Rachel Burditt, a 42-year-old Leicestershire-based professional organiser known as the Declutter Darling, believes demand for her services has increased because of Amazon. “There’s a lot more accessibility for buying things,” she says. “I’ve been in people’s kitchens with Amazon boxes all over the place. Quick shopping has made people fill their homes.”
O’Neil, whose master’s thesis was titled Declutter or Die: How the Home Organization Industry Designs the Metaconsumer, has researched which brands benefit. In the US, storage chain the Container Store saw sales increase 27% between 2019 and 2022. John Lewis now has the Home Edit range – a single cereal canister will set you back £20. When Burditt started organising in 2015, she could find storage boxes only in her local hardware store, “whereas nowadays, every store has something”.
So, where did it all start? Netherlands brand Curver launched its first big plastic box in the 80s – its cream, latticed storage boxes are now available in most UK homeware stores. Japanese brand Muji arrived here in 1991, bringing a range of acrylic storage units that inspired coverage in Time Out and teen magazine J-17. In 2016, Ikea’s chief sustainability officer said the world had reached “peak stuff” – yet in 2022 the company released Snurrad, a £29 clear plastic refrigerator turntable that swivels around to allow easier access to those back-of-the-fridge condiments. It exploded across the internet, with one TikTok alone earning 2.8m views.
“You’ve got to be honest with people, it does cost money,” Rendall says – she tells viewers to buy organisation products gradually from Home Bargains and B&M. Still, the highly organised believe they’re not just investing in their homes – they’re investing in their mental health. For many, organisation is a way to find control in an increasingly out of control world.
I can be up and down with my mood, but if I’ve done a full restock and clean, I feel calm and in control
Ellie Killah started organising after experiencing postnatal depression following the birth of her first child. “I never had any mental health problems before children,” says the 32-year-old mother of two from Somerset, who posts organisation content on her YouTube channel Ellie Polly. “I can be up and down with my mood, but if I’ve done a full restock and clean, I feel so calm and in control – it is a control thing.”
Like many organising influencers, Killah stocks snacks like a shop, lining them up in neat rows in her pantry. Organising makes her feel “euphoric” – she compares it to the endorphins experienced by gym-goers. Before seeking therapy and medication, she suffered from anxious thoughts about her children: “Morbid thoughts about them dying and constantly worrying about them.” She considers staying on top of her home another type of treatment: “Mental health-wise, it just saves me. It is my therapy, I think.”
Kate Bartlett concurs. The 27-year-old marketing specialist from Bath says organisation has been a “coping mechanism” and “creative release” since her student years, but more recently it has helped her prepare for motherhood. “When I found out I was pregnant, I really struggled at the beginning with having that lack of control,” Bartlett says – organising her baby’s clothes by colour helped, as did stocking a hospital bag with labelled pouches. “I find that looking at the things I can control really helps me mentally.”
Hsin-Hsuan Meg Lee is a marketing professor at ESCP Business School in London who has researched the relationship between Marie Kondo-style decluttering and happiness. Lee says many people see decluttering their spaces as akin to decluttering their minds. “There’s a concept called symbolic pollution,” she says. “In the context of household organisation, this term refers to items that are out of place and violate the rules we set for our surroundings … For some, the process of removing this pollution and putting things in order causes them to feel they are in control.”
Yet organisation is not always beneficial for mental health. While it’s a myth that obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is only about cleaning, some OCD sufferers do have compulsions around cleanliness and order. Psychologist Tara Quinn-Cirillo, who runs her own practice in Sussex, advises looking out for intrusive thoughts such as excessive worry about germs. Warning signs include missing out on valued activities because you prioritise organising routines, limiting activities in your house because you’re afraid it will get messy and a preoccupation with rituals (for example, vacuuming in a set pattern from the same corner of the room).
There is also the risk that watching organisation content could damage viewers’ mental health – being bombarded with polished perfection could make some feel inferior, anxious or out of control. In 2009, psychologists at the University of California asked working parents to give guided tours of their homes and monitored the “stressful” words they used, before measuring the levels of the stress hormone cortisol in their saliva. Wives who described their homes as more stressful had flatter slopes of cortisol throughout the day – a phenomenon linked to chronic stress, psychological distress and higher mortality. Husbands with stressful homes were mostly fine. The study’s authors noted that women may feel greater “responsibility” and “guilt” about clutter – idealistic organisation content could entrench such feelings.
By now you may have noticed a word conspicuously absent from this article: “he”. In 2019, researchers from UCL found that women still do more housework than their male partners, even when the woman earns more money. Between 2014 and 2019, the number of women earning the majority of their household’s income increased by 30% – but 45% of female breadwinners still did most of the household chores, as opposed to 12% of male breadwinners. Juggling teaching, mothering, cooking, cleaning and managing her planner business ramped up Jacquelyn Rendall’s organisation habits, and her customers are “mainly women, mainly mothers”.
When her husband did a food shop, TikTok commenters praised him: “Everyone said he was amazing. He’s doing the shop I do every week! I don’t get a ‘Well done’,” Rendall says. Might she consider resetting the balance and challenging society’s expectations by creating organisation planners for men? “No,” Rendall says, “because I am my target audience … I just feel like I need to help women because we have more pressure.”
It’s not up to organisation influencers to fix gender inequality, but could their content entrench it? After all, when excessive organisation stops feeling remarkable – when it stops being something worthy of writing an article about – won’t it just be another expectation placed on women? Rendall says she shows “the dodgy side” and isn’t afraid to be honest about mess. In 2023, she also wants to start visiting mothers in need and organising their homes for free.
For now, home organisation booms unabated. APDO, the Association of Professional Declutterers and Organisers, has more than 400 experts across the UK – professional organiser Caroline Rogers says that when she first joined nine years ago, there were only 100 members. Back then, clients used to be ashamed about employing her. If she met someone in a client’s life, “I’d have to say, ‘Oh, I’m her friend.’ Now people say, ‘This is Caroline, she’s my professional organiser.’”
When I speak to Rendall, she’s in the process of reorganising her office – pink Post-its adorn 12 white drawers, marking the future homes of her possessions, which lay jumbled in baskets and boxes around the room. “This makes me feel a little bit on edge,” Rendall says, looking around. “But I know that once it’s done, I’ll sleep easy.”