I’m so excited to share this month’s minimalist interview! I started following Laura Alger-Barkley, the organizer also known as the Domestic Unicorn, several months ago. I love her aesthetic and how she incorporates a lot of the KonMari practice into her own organizing yet maintains a realistic perspective on organizing real households, especially with kids.
We sat down to chat about how organizing has given her structure as someone who tends to be a bit on the messy side plus some great tips for maintaining your space.
How did you first get into home design and decluttering?
My mom is my role model in that department. She was a home ec teacher and had a background in interior design and fashion.
I went to art school in Brooklyn and my background is in fine arts. I’ve always been helping people rearrange their apartment, pick things out, go shopping with them.
After I read Marie Kondo’s book, that was when it kind of clicked for me. I started incorporating her practices. I’m more of a messy person, I need these systems to keep the order.
I want to hear more about tending toward messy as an organizer!
As a kid, I was a collector and loved to organize them but definitely had way too much stuff. My life was trying to tame the mass amounts of things. I still have things I love, I just don’t have that same volume.
I would feel scatterbrained and just move on to the next project with some things left undone. Decluttering has changed my life - it’s given me structure, I can think more clearly, and it makes more sense to help others with their homes.
What was it that resonated for you when reading the Marie Kondo book?
I was feeling burdened by the sense of keeping things.
When I read that book, I was pregnant. I was really surprised and it was a big shock to find out I was pregnant with twins. After having my girls, my body was very different.
That’s when I dove into KonMari’s practices with clearing out my clothes. I felt guilty for holding onto clothes that I just couldn’t get back into. Then I started going through the rest of the house and paring down. I don’t need 104 ladles, I really need just a big one and a small one. It was very liberating! I also felt more in control.
What did your partner think of the KonMari paring down process?
My husband grew up in a family of six boys and his parents were like the original minimalist parents.
He was taught early on how to do his laundry and keep things organized. He doesn’t have a lot of stuff in general and maybe thought in the beginning that I was going a bit overboard as I started purging!
What's your advice to parents as they try to keep areas tidy with kids in the home?
I would see homes and think “this is really out of control, how did it get this way?” Now that I have kids, I totally get it!
The number one thing is that it’s easy for everybody to clean up, whether it’s parents, siblings, cousins, whoever is coming over. Kids can also easily clean up the messes with you.
I’ve heard a lot of things about rotating toys out for children. I don’t have a ton of stuff for my kids plus I have two of them so there’s generally more toys out in our home.
If you have a kid that’s 12 months and younger, I recommend having one bin to throw things into before nap time or at the end of the night ( keep one in the living room, the nursery). Make it simple. Then you can control more of what they are playing with and they can help put away.
I started to sort things out so my kids don’t get so overwhelmed, like activities sorted out - books, blocks, crayons and paper - these all sorted into different baskets which they can help with putting away.
What do you do with the influx of toys coming in from the holidays?
For little kids, let them open and play with the toys one at a time, keep some of the gifts hidden away and bring into the rotation when they are ready for a new one (especially when some of the toys might not yet be age appropriate).
That way you aren’t overwhelming them with all these new toys and you can also swap out old toys that are past their prime or that they’ve outgrown as you bring new ones in.
You don’t have to return all the toys to become a minimalist.
What kind of systems do you have in place at home to help your family stay organized?
Our house is always evolving with our kids!
I cook and clean the living room and my husband cleans up the kitchen after we put the kids to bed. I’m not sorting a million activities out - blocks to the blocks bin, puzzles into that bin.
We get the toys cleared up, wipe down the highchairs, run the dishwasher, and chill out. It’s really about maintenance every day. It feels like you’re always cleaning but those little things everyday keep your home much more in order.
My girls want to dump out their laundry bins if they are on the floor so I hang a reusable grocery bag in their closet for their laundry.
We go through and clear out anything damaged or that’s missing a lot of pieces, ripped items (the kids went through a recent “ripping book phase” which was stressful and totally weird because they do love books). It’s hard to do it as we go so once a month, I dump out the baskets and go through it.
Then I go through what’s age appropriate. I remind people that children get overwhelmed with all the choices. Paring down will help them play with the things they really want. Also think about other kids in your life that would like a game or toy, someone who comes over to play from the neighborhood, a cousin. I try to frame it like that as a way to re-gift some of the toys that can be passed along.
Who are your favorite type of clients to work with and why?
I like doing everything! What really excites me the most is creating personalized systems for people. Getting everyone involved and creating the plan together - diagnose the situation, help people create a specific system for their family. It’s all problem-solving.
Even in our own homes, it’s hard to “see” our own spaces and having someone come in with a fresh eye to look at the space makes a difference. A lot of what I do, someone is in a new space and old systems don’t quite work in their new homes, I help them find new solutions, or they have outgrown the system that they are using right now in their home.
What else do you want people to know about organizing / decluttering / design - the process, the work you do?
Once we declutter, figure out a good system for their home, I’m help them rearrange the space. I then reuse and repurpose the things they already own in different ways and then if there is a need talk about possibilities for new furniture and items for their home. I’ll also help them take measurements if they are looking to bring things into their home. We create a little game plan and I consult with them about designs.
I recently worked on an unpacking project and determined how to fit things in the new home. I create more of a game plan, revamp the space, and focus on using what you have.
Most people have something in mind or vision for their dream space and I consult with them to narrow down options and make that space a reality!
What’s your advice to people who want to start decluttering?
First, start really small with like a spice rack or a pantry to clear out old stuff, putting back in new and fresh items to see how much space there is. If you exceed the space limitations, that tells you that you need to pare down.
Next do a bathroom cabinet or a silverware drawer. You’ll feel good because you can easily work your way through a shelf or drawer and be successful.
For longer term and bigger projects, it’s not always easy to do in one fell swoop. There might be parts of your life that were not easy to do at the time. It’s all about maintenance and when you are ready, tackle that part of your life or home.
Remember that it’s all about maintaining. Go through things a couple times a year.
What does minimalism look like for you?
It’s very different. It’s the minimal amount of stuff that I can feel comfortable with. There are areas of my life that I don’t want to have a ton of stuff like I don’t have a lot of clothes but I have so many books right now! You can be extreme in some areas then still have collections. Those practices have helped keep things under control.
Any other tips you want to share - how do you stay organized yourself?
I keep a printed calendar on my fridge and I update it! I don’t do as well using apps (although the MinimaList is a fun one to try), and tried to do a family calendar but it just didn’t work out well. Every month we do our budget and talk about what we have going on and add it to the calendar.
I do meal planning and grocery lists which I keep all in the same notebook. It’s easy to have a million little things everywhere. Writing things done in one place works and the notebook fits in my bag.
I also keep a running list of things I want to do around the house (my dream list) to keep track of everything. I don’t ever write down the house maintenance tasks and incorporate those into my day so I never feel like they are a burden.
Maintaining your home is not a “to do” it’s just what you should do! Find the shortcuts that work for you.
If you come home to a messy home, you want it to be easily cleaned. Our master bath isn’t ventilated and I use the Method shower spray daily to keep it clean. This saves me time because I’m not spending an hour on my hands and knees scrubbing away.
Make it more enjoyable. I suggested to a friend who doesn’t have a dishwasher to spend more on a nice smelling dish soap, good gloves, and a really nice scrub brush. She said it doesn’t feel like such a chore because she’s using nice things to clean her dishes now.
I could have easily chatted with Laura for a few hours! She had so many great tips to share that I’m going to incorporate into my everyday (like that Method shower spray!).