Finding Order in Beauty

Recently I was reading a book by Sandra Felton called Messie No More. It’s a bit dated, but interesting because it takes a look into the psychological reasons that people are messy or struggle to keep their homes clean and organised. One chapter is entitled ‘Finding Order in Beauty’, and at first I actually thought maybe it was a typo – don’t we usually think that order naturally leads to beauty? However, Felton argues that, practically speaking, many people need to make a space beautiful before they are able to keep it in order. I’ve considered this for some time now, and I think she may have a point.

The history of beauty and function

Usually, I think of order as leading naturally to beauty in home and work spaces: if it’s organised and functional, won’t it be ‘beautiful’ because it will be tidy and functioning? In fact, the idea that whatever is functional will naturally be beautiful, though it seems desirable, is a fairly recent one, pioneered by twentieth-century functionalist architecture. This architectural theory claimed that a building’s function should determine its form, including its arrangement of space and ornamentation. This theory suggests that, when a building’s form suits its function well, it will be beautiful. In other words, the focus should be on making a building perfectly suited to its practical purpose, and its beauty would be the natural result.

Regardless of the theoretical debates on this subject in relation to art or architecture, I think it has a practical result in how we’re tempted to think about our own space. It’s easy to think that anything beautiful is an unnecessary garnish, or even a wasteful excess.

I’ve wondered this myself, especially now that I’m living with someone else and we have to decide together which tasks are necessary and which aren’t. For example, I always make my bed, but my husband usually didn’t before we were married. When we discussed it, I realised that technically his non-bed-making was functional because it saved time. When you get into the bed again, the experience isn’t practically improved by the bed being made. I realised that I was investing time on something that really was only for the sake of what I considered beautiful. Maybe I was just being frivolous!

The function of beauty

So, as a result of this and similar discussions, recently I’ve been thinking about my motivation for making the bed and doing other cleaning or tidying I do purely because I like the way my home looks as a result. For example:

  • Hanging up my dressing gown
  • Rearranging sofa cushions and folding up blankets
  • Aligning the spines of my books on the shelf
  • Arranging bottles of toiletries on the dresser with tallest at the back and shortest at the front
  • Even washing the dishes – this is obviously a necessary task, but often I wash them almost solely because I’m tired of looking at the clutter they cause

Sandra Felton argues that beauty can have a practical function as the motivator for preserving order. Often, she says, the problem with failed attempts to organise is approaching the problem from the angle of functionality first, treating beauty as irrelevant. Looking at a messy living room, the natural response of most people would be to say it needs organisation: storage space, an assigned place for everything so it can be put away, some labelled boxes, etc. These are the practical means of attaining order, and hence of making the room functional insofar as everything can be found when needed and put away easily.

However, does that ensure that the owner of the room will actually put everything away each evening or every few days?

In my experience, I have to say: no!

I’m precisely that person who can organise in theory (everything has a place) but in fact leave the room still very messy, or feel too tired or depressed to put things away. I don’t consider myself a chronically messy person, but I do tend to be untidy because I’m always undertaking projects: craft and sewing projects, research projects that require books and notepads, cooking projects that create huge messes, even organising projects that leave boxes and papers and mismatched socks strewn everywhere! I find it hard to work up the motivation to clean up at the end of the day, even though I usually have a system that gives everything a place to belong.

Suppressing beauty

Felton suggests that the motivation for keeping things clean and organised often comes not from a desire for function but for beauty.

She explains that messy people aren’t people who are impervious to beauty. In fact, she says, in her experience messy people love their homes to be beautiful but believe exactly what I mentioned above, that this desire is frivolous or selfish. They think function should rule the day. Thus, they ignore or suppress their desire for beauty.

Ironically, though, this can actually sabotage functionality. For messy people, the result of suppressing their desire to arrange a room attractively is often a habit of trying to sneak beautiful things into their homes in minute ways: crafts, ornaments, or the beauty of language in having books everywhere. I’ve been guilty of this at times – trying to beautify my room by decorating boxes, putting up pictures, and adding to a clutter that already threatened to overwhelm. I was overtly focusing on function and only indulging in beautiful things as little side hobbies, but the result was chaos, which in turn made it hard to function in the space.

Felton suggests that messy people can actually be helped by permitting themselves to indulge their desire for beautiful surroundings. And this doesn’t mean the addition of more decoration, adding to clutter, but rather what Felton calls the ‘search for gracious surroundings’. She suggests looking for restfulness in the whole arrangement of a room rather than myopically seeking little corners of attractiveness.

In particular

I recognised a little of what Felton described in myself. I always want my home (even if it’s just one rented room) to be beautiful, but usually feel that that desire is a little selfish, a waste of time, not very functional, etc. So, recently, I’ve been trying a new approach, allowing myself to indulge the desire for ‘gracious surroundings’, not by spending lots of money but simply by taking the time to rearrange what we already have or selectively replace a few things I don’t like. I’ve undertaken a few projects:

  • Making some magazine-box-style storage to conceal little notebooks and maps that clutter the bookshelves
  • Redecorating our dining table area (for a total of £1, though, so not really a splurge financially!)
  • Buying some better-looking storage containers to replace the ugly one in our bathroom (again, very cheap at a charity shop)
  • Finding ways to display some pretty glassware I inherited from my grandmother
  • Clearing a few key spaces (windowsills especially) and prioritising keeping them clear from clutter or reserved for displaying some nice candles or crockery


The other indulgent thing (to me, anyway) which I’ve started doing is allowing myself a little time in the morning to tidy up anything in the living room which is in my eyesight while I’m working. I straighten the sofa cushions, put away laundry, clear away clutter from the day before, and maybe stack the breakfast dishes away. Although it technically takes away from my work time, it greatly improves my mood, as well as the neatness of our house!

The interesting result of this indulgence in gracious surroundings is that, practically speaking, I am more organised, our home is more tidy, and I am more motivated to keep things straight and in order on a regular basis. In other words our home is more functional, as well as more pleasant to inhabit.

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