Monday, January 08, 2007
Q & A with Michael Nowlan, Professional Organizer
Photo by Lucia Di Poi
Our Town downtown
January 8, 2006
The earliest indication of Michael Nowlan’s career path was a pantry he tidied up for his aunt as farm kid in Australia. But he had no idea he would one day study feng shui, and that he would move to America. He arrived in New York in 2002.
“But you don’t do any feng shui until you’ve cleared your clutter,” he says, and “nobody in the feng shui world was prepared to go in and help you get rid of your clutter.” So there was a gap, which is more or less what inspired him to set up his business.
He says New Yorkers are wasting valuable real estate to store their junk. “You’re paying a thousand bucks a month rent for this apartment (well if you were you’re bloody lucky, it’s cheap). If you can save twenty percent of the stuff in here—you’re not using it, you know, it’s just storage—that’s 20 percent of a thousand bucks a month for storage. So you pay 200 dollars a month to store all this stuff in your apartment that you’re not using.”
“One of the things that amuses me most—you know it’s 2007 now, we live in Manhattan, it’s a 24/7 city—people will still go and live in a 300 square foot apartment, and buy a pack of 48 toilet rolls. Why? 48 toilet rolls takes up enough space for a lounge suite. You can get it on the corner at any time of the day or night. ‘Here’s a tissue.’ ‘Oh, I save money.’ Yeah. Right.”
So how do people become disorganized?
It’s not hard to collect clutter cause every time you’re on the street somebody’s shoving something in your hand, whether it’s a piece of paper, it’s an invitation, it’s a best buy, it’s a new phone, and then just, people just inherently take it. You go [to] the shops and you buy something [and they’ll] shove something else in your bag—another piece of advertising. You open your post box and it’s full of junk mail. You can’t stop it. It’s like a disease. I never take anything from somebody on the street because, I didn’t want it five minutes ago, why do I want it now?
Can you describe some of the types of solutions you come up with for people?
Don’t go out to your container store and buy … 12 plastic cups [to hold things in]—please don’t do that. It’s a waste of money.
If we can use something in the apartment for another purpose, then yeah let’s do it. You know, armchairs can be used as end tables, or ladders can be used as magazine racks, anything you can.
What are basic things that people can do to reduce their clutter on their own?
There’s no right or wrong place to start. The system that’s gonna work is the one that works for you.
One of the reasons why people become cluttered is they don’t have a specific place to put stuff. Don’t view the project as a whole. Just do one little thing. Allocate yourself time, like you would an appointment. Put the music on and keep your focus. And if you do one little thing, and then another, and then another little thing, it gets done.
At our apartment, if something new comes in, something old goes out. Don’t think about it as throwing stuff away. Think of it as more of giving it a new life. [I have] a lot of clients give stuff to Housing Works.
Tell me about some of your toughest and most memorable cases.
Well there was one situation—it was a good job, and he was a really nice guy, but I’m telling you, what’s on the surface is not what’s underneath. This apartment was disgusting. I mean I had to literally shovel stuff out of there. It was on 59th. He was a really nice guy, well-presented you know, professional person. You would never know. But he would buy takeaway food and just throw the container on the floor. Empty cans of juice or drink or plastic bags, sticky sauces from Chinese food. And newspapers and magazines and stuff. Number one it’s a health hazard. Number two, there were vermin—cockroaches and stuff like that. I had to get pest control. I did some follow-up sort of stuff with him, but he was one of these cases that no matter how hard I tried, he was gonna go back to his old ways. Some people are just born lazy, man. There’s nothing you can do about that.
Some people are obsessive compulsive; one guy had not thrown out a newspaper—for 25 years. He had a sickness and was getting treatment for it, but I saw 25 years of news in America or wherever he was from.
I love the before and after shots: I worked with a working girl, and one day we were sorting through clothes. We had to do the work gear. She had a wardrobe for herself and [another] for the working gear. So that was a funny day. She wanted to try everything on, from knee-high patent leather boots to strapless, braless, crotchless, strap-on chains, whips, whatever, you name it, like feathers. We did it all. We would go through it and see what still worked, what needed D batteries and what wasn’t doing it for her anymore. It amazes me—this woman must’ve had 17 handbags, not to mention, she had probably 25 coats. And these weren’t all because she had different reasons to wear them; these were just hoarding unnecessarily.
Some people don’t look after their pets very well. You know the cats pissed everywhere or shit under the bed. It’s not always pretty. Sometimes it’s rubber gloves and a face mask. And a very long-handled broom.
— Matt Elzweig