Organizing whiz Peter Walsh helps a family clean out the ultimate junk drawer.
"This is the 'Oh my God, are you kidding me?' pile," says Peter Walsh, a teensy hint of exasperation flashing across his face. The usually unflappable Australian is standing with Allison and Kay Johnson in their family's Woodland Hills, California, driveway, the contents of their garage all around him. A quick scan reveals rusty weights, Entourage DVDs, two stained-glass chandeliers, beat-up cardboard boxes full of dirty gardening tools, a red Snoopy suitcase, baseball bats, pet carriers, a belt sander, a fish tank stuffed with boxes of mosquito dunks, bins of Christmas ornaments, expired containers of motor oil, vinyl records, stacks of books (Flowers for Algernon; Driven from Within, by Michael Jordan), tangles of neon bungee cord, mismatched dishes, framed Jimi Hendrix posters, and a giant, dingy, dusty Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. In other words, three decades of family life, metastasizing across the cement. Walsh, star of OWN's Enough Already!, rolls up his sleeves and prepares to get busy.
Step 1: Purge the Junk When it comes to garages, Walsh recommends "jumping in the deep end" by staging an annual clutter-cide, wherein every last garden shear and mystery electrical wire is dragged out to be assessed and (in most cases) eliminated. Eighty-six percent of single-family houses built in the United States in 2009 had at least a two-car garage, and for many families this square footage ends up becoming a repository for stuff we don't want to look at, don't have room for anywhere else, and aren't even sure we need. "Garages are the elephant burial ground of the 21st century," Walsh says. "Stuff goes in; stuff never comes out."
This has been especially true for Kay and her husband, Tony Johnson, a creative couple with pack-rat tendencies whose garage has been accumulating evidence of their professions and varied interests (wet suits, signs from Kay's defunct floral business) since 1977. Kay, a microbiologist, seems overly fond of glue guns and Christmas decorations, while Tony, a hardworking clinical psychologist from a humble background, has always found it wasteful to part with anything that still works (and many things that don't). Their two sporty kids—Allison, 31, and her brother, Jeremy, 27, who lives in San Diego—contributed their own share of stuff until the garage was so packed the doors wouldn't close; Kay hung bamboo shades to hide the mess from neighbors.
These days, however, Mom and Dad are looking ahead to retirement: Tony is in Costa Rica, fixing up their future home, while Allison, a no-nonsense charity fund-raiser, has volunteered to help her mother shape up the family's bungalow, which will eventually be sold. Allison has already cleared out some of the garage by holding a yard sale ("One person assumed it was a multifamily sale," she says), and persuading her parents to donate their second fridge ("There was a square-shaped carpet of rat droppings underneath"). When the remaining mess was still too much to handle, she called Walsh for help.
Now Walsh is presiding over the purge phase of the process with militaristic efficiency, issuing orders to the Johnsons, their two helpful cousins, and Allison's boyfriend, Checo Fernandez, as they select items to pitch into the donate pile or the Dumpster. In general, Walsh suggests getting rid of anything not used in the past 12 months. The garage shouldn't be a place to store your good intentions, he explains—equipment for some future self who may one day have time to tinker with the family cars or learn to reupholster the living room furniture. Instead, it should reflect your current life. Kay is initially resistant. When Walsh asks if she really wants to keep two random bottles of acid, she figures they might come in handy as cleaners someday and replies with a definitive "Yes."
"Acid never goes bad," Checo volunteers.
"In all my years organizing garages, no one has ever said that," Walsh notes drily. It's Allison who finally lowers the boom: "Kay Johnson! Get rid of it!"
But Walsh is also humane, sparing Jeremy's old snowboarding boots and the weight machine Allison swears she'll use when it's no longer buried under boxes, as well as Tony's army uniform from Vietnam (he called from Costa Rica to make sure it made the cut). Kay eventually relinquishes four of her six glue guns and dozens of her husband's old paint containers and bottles of engine oil. "We're just hoping he won't notice," she says, with a hint of mischief. Walsh reserves one slice of concrete for old paints and chemicals, which Allison will arrange to have safely disposed of.
Step 2: Rethink the Space Two hours in, with the dumpster full and the Goodwill pile swelling, Walsh asks the Johnsons the most important question about any room: What do you want to use it for? Parking is high on the list (because of the junk, the family's two cars haven't fully fit into the garage in a decade). The women also request storage for files, tools, chemicals and paints, gardening equipment, Jeremy's stuff, and holiday decorations, plus an area for working out. Based on these categories, Walsh divides the garage into zones. "When everything has a designated area," he says, "you always know where it belongs, which helps you set limits on volume." In other words: Whatever doesn't fit into its appointed zone is toast.
Now team Johnson is sorting the stuff still left in the driveway into categories, and with Walsh to back her up, Allison is ruthless. "Say goodbye to Santa Claus!" she cries when Walsh instructs Kay to fit her acres of holiday decorations into two green plastic bins. "No way!" says Kay, who grabs the figurine from her daughter, jams it into an already-full bin, and sits on the lid in a desperate attempt to close it.
To delineate zones, Walsh recommends using color, especially in storage-heavy rooms like garages and basements. Visually differentiated areas help ensure that everyone knows what goes where, he says, making it more likely that things will be returned to their place. He hands Allison a brush and a can of orange paint and points to a pegboard he drilled into the wall above the tool bench—soon to be the orange tool zone. "Don't be messy!" he says with a wink.
Step 3: Store Smart Walsh believes that nothing should be kept on the garage floor (this allows for easy sweeping and prevents the slow creep of stuff across the space). Instead, he recommends creating vertical storage organized by one simple rule: The less often a category of stuff is used, the higher up it goes. Luckily, the Johnsons already have a wooden mezzanine built into the rafters of their garage, which is perfect for childhood toys and other items that will go into deep storage, as well as the newly packed plastic bins holding Jeremy's stuff and Tony's old patient files. Walsh orders that anything currently stored in cardboard boxes (a favorite nesting material for rodents) also be transferred to plastic. The bins are then grouped together—a different color for each category—and marked with a labelmaker. Finally, they are organized on the mezzanine level with their labels conveniently visible.
Meanwhile, Walsh is busy converting the walls of various zones into vertical storage. He hammers in nails to hold saws and shears, hangs a rack for rakes and brooms, and erects heavy-duty plastic shelving to store small plastic bins filled with frequently used items like gardening gloves and spades. Suddenly Kay, who is organizing containers of tape and lightbulbs on the shelf beneath the tool bench, finds a tail sticking out of a hole in the wall. With Walshian efficiency, she yanks out the attached dead rat and tosses it into the Dumpster.
Four hours after Walsh's arrival on the scene, the formerly chaotic space has been transformed into a tidy minimalist's paradise that will actually—Allison can't get over this—fit two parked cars. What's more, the garage doors will close behind them, discouraging future rodents from seeking shelter inside. "It hasn't looked like this in 30 years," Kay says quietly, surveying the cleared expanse of concrete, one whole phase of her life swept away to make room for the next.
"It's so clean," Allison marvels. "Quick, Mom, get some of your stuff and mess it up!"