The Mess, Professionally Styled

comments: 73

RosesA stylist from Better Homes and Gardens Creative Home magazine was here yesterday, fixing up the studio for Thursday, when the photographer comes to take pictures of it for the spring '07 issue. She brought this gorgeous bunch of spray roses with her. I'm glad I checked to see if they needed a drink because there was something wrong with the container and it was leaking water all over the place. Poor babies! Got to them in time, though. I think they'll be okay.

The stylist and I worked on the studio all afternoon, mostly removing stuff from the room. Like, a lot of stuff — boxes of it. It's normally pretty densely packed. That was something I found interesting, and something I always wonder about when I look at magazines. Are the spaces really as austere in real-life use as they appear to be in the magazines? We "know" they're not. But it's nice to have confirmation: NOPE, they're not. At least, not mine, and apparently, not generally. Real-life stuff — envelopes, packing supplies, papers, any sort of extra clutter — it comes out. Then a whole bunch of cute, non-cluttery stuff also comes out — it just can't be too busy or nothing can be "seen." It's not that those people don't have those things in their life; those things are right outside the door of the room in about seven huge plastic boxes. We talked about it a lot and it was really interesting to hear how much moving and cleaning and clearing of stuff out happens before a photo shoot. For instance, in kitchens? They take out the glassware (transparent, doesn't photograph well) and replace it with dishes, china. Things that are too dark, black or brown? Those often come out. She showed me a few photos of other spaces that she had styled, and I asked her, Was that there? Was there something there that you took away? And the answers were usually no, and yes, respectively. Many things go, a few come. A few envelopes stay, suggesting a possible need to mail things. Just, interesting. Not that surprising, and still, a little surprising. We all do this when we take pictures of stuff, say things. I mean, unless your intention is to make something look crappy, or blabber away, editing is your friend. (I'm not saying my stuff doesn't look crappy or that I don't blabber away, mind you — just that it's not intentional. Unless it's like, now, the blabbering, which kind of is, just to illustrate, you get it though, etc. Nevermind. Moving on. [Like that. No one needs that.] )

I don't know what to feel about it, really. I'm a little conflicted, a little embarrassed (anyone who knows me in real life will pee in their pants laughing when they see how nicely my seven padded envelopes are now lined up, when in real life it generally looks like a hundred padded envelopes got mad, threw themselves at me, I batted at them with my forearms, then left them where they lay and walked away). I guess we want to be inspired and at the same time feel connected, like we can relate to the person who inhabits that life. After all, who doesn't have envelopes. It reminds me of that commercial where people are coming out of the church — bride, groom, and guests — and everyone looks totally disheveled, unkempt, like they just woke up (but the funny part is that they are all completely happy and not acting as if they are in any way disheveled). And then the voiceover says, "Wouldn't it be nice if you didn't have to care what you looked like? Unfortunately, you do, so there's Walgreen's" or whatever. Anyway, whenever I see that commercial I always crack up — because that juxtaposition, you can't help but picture what everyone would look like with their hair brushed — and I guess that's what happens to spaces that get photographed. They get their hair brushed. And cut. And colored. Highlights, at least. Maybe some eyeliner. We can't have them looking like they just got up. It's a special occasion, after all! And I must say that the room looks beautiful in its new, sparer state. DAMN ENVELOPES. Well, I couldn't mail anything to you if I didn't have envelopes.

Nevertheless, I couldn't helping thinking. An essay that changed my life is called "Prosaics: An Approach to the Humanities" by Gary Saul Morson. Morson is a lit professor at Northwestern, and I was introduced to this essay when I studied literary criticism in college in the late '80s. I carried my copy with me in a special folder of things I kept from school, and pulled it out again in graduate school in '95, when I hurled myself into The Brothers Karamazov with ardor. (Of course, my basement is a mess so I have no idea what I did with the article, but I think I'll go to the library today and get it. It's been a long time since I read it.) But, generally, Prosaics suggests that the stuff in the background, the mess and clutter of daily life (specifically as depicted in the Russian novel) is what counts. The things often overlooked, cloaked and rendered invisible in their very ordinariness — these are the most important things, the things that, collectively, are far more significant and consequential than the big, memorable moments. It's interesting, especially in terms of The B.K., for instance, where we know big things happen.

But this is something bloggers know already, or at least suspect is true, that the background is not insignificant. Oh no. It may even matter the most. The essay was sort of watershed for me at the time; it confirmed what I'd always thought, and changed how I would think about everything else. The blog is about the stuff, a little bit tidied; the Stuff is Everything. Or almost everything. Dr. Morson's probably sitting in his office in Evanston, looking at blogs and going, "See. Told ya. Somebody give me a raise. And somebody get me a TA [teaching assistant], too. This desk is a mess, man!"


Utterly and totally true. My house is full of stuff that is important to me, cluttered to some, full of life to me. I always feel as though I don't really know someone until I've seen their house, as though the things that they choose as important from the flotsam and jetsome of life complete the picture of them for me. If they have a "show home" with nothing in it then I always come away disapointed and somehow feeling as though they aren't really my sort of person.

You though, lots of flotsam and jetsome that I can see in your photos, deffo my sort of person!

Wow~how exciting! I am so anxious to see the magazine issue you will be featured in...I would love to have my house styled...though I think they would need more than boxes to make it look magazine ready. How did this come about? Did you "apply" to be in the issue or did they read your blog or find you another way?

Very cool! Congrats...and interesting about the amount of styling done in most photo shoots...I really thought all those people were just perfect!

Wow~how exciting! I am so anxious to see the magazine issue you will be featured in...I would love to have my house styled...though I think they would need more than boxes to make it look magazine ready. How did this come about? Did you "apply" to be in the issue or did they read your blog or find you another way?

Very cool! Congrats...and interesting about the amount of styling done in most photo shoots...I really thought all those people were just perfect!

Better Homes and Gardens?! How cool is THAT?! Why hadn't you told us this was coming? Congrats!!!!!!!

I'm excited to see your home in the magazine. Spring '07 is too long a wait.

The lamp is on. Where is the cord? That has always bugged me. There are no cords in magazine homes.

how great about your photo shoot [so deserved]

and i'm looking into my office RIGHT NOW and seeing all the highly important stuff then. seriously.

i'm on a hunt for that article b/c yes - we bloggers.... we do know that, don't we?

There is so much to all of that. the "stuff", the "clutter" is all about who we really are. I think if you do not have any of that, there is probably not a whole lot of depth to you as a person. Kind of like families where the parents do not have a cluttered frige (or some kind of board with all of their children's art). I wonder about them. Sure, it looks good, but where is all the fun stuff? Of course my fridge looks like train, calendar, schedules, artwork, foam frames, popsicle stick people.. you name it. The things in the background are all about who you are and what makes you, well, you.

I cannot wait for that issue to come out. I can say, well, I know her in blog land to all of my friends!

and yes, where is the cord to the plugged in lamp?

It's a magic lamp.

No, it's not a magic lamp. The cord must go around the back of the TV and plug into the power strip next to the TV with another lamp and then I just turn off the power strip for all three. See? It's not magic. It's Home Depot. (Unfortunately, it's Home Depot.)

so, better homes and gardens is coming on thursday? you are so famous woman! what else do you have up your sleeve?! :)

That is SO exciting - I would love to be professionally styled (the home, that is, not me - I am a lost cause!!!) - it looks beautiful :)

OOOH - how exciting! I love the whole idea of seeing other people's homes/studios/etc. in magazines and sometimes enjoy movie houses more than the actual movie. I am glad to hear the inside story about the extra "stuff" that's removed. I do believe it's in the extra stuff that we find our real lives, but it's fun to get inspiration from the pared down version of real life, too!

Great post, I'd love to see a before and an after photo! :-) And have that mag of course, hehe. If you want to see real life studio clutter, go to flickr and visit
Art Studio Group! :-)

take care!

Thank you for sharing your experiences with us. I took a decorating course and was surprised to hear that clients allow designers to pick their accessories for them. I can see choosing furniture and flooring, but to have someone else decide on highly personal items like wallhangings/art, tabletop items, photographs, what point is your home not *your* home, but someone else's vision? I'm not a fan of clutter and feel that we need clear spaces to breathe, but there's a balance between having space, and a home being empty, with no soul. I'm always worried when I visit houses with no books!

Your kitchen looks very cozy, by the way! :)

I think the 'background stuff' in our lives determines how the 'big stuff' affects us.We all need a secure baseline to work from.
I am glad to know that homes are beautified before photo shoots as I have often wondered if that's how people really live and work!

How exciting! I can't wait to see it!

i can not wait to see the magazine - but it is interesting to hear about what they do BEFORE the photo shoot!

I find that when I think about my grandparent's house as it was when I was a child I remember all those things that I'm sure a stylist would sweep away but I'm not sure I could accurately describe the furniture style/color or most of the art on the wall, the actual stuff you're meant to see.

Congratulations on the magazine spread. You should sell autographed copies when it comes out!

I totally agree about the stuff that is not 'important' being so telling and so revealing. And blogs are just that, we photograph corners of our homes, not a whole room, just a chair, a teapot, a piece of fabric, whatever, and show it and it says something about us.
Congratulations! I am looking forward to seeing the photos of your beautiful studio {even before all the styling} in the magazine.

that was the best part of my visit with amy and melissa, seeing their "real" homes. i am so glad they arent all sterile and white and covered in plastic carpet runners. remember those things? ugh. congrats on the photo shoot, very cool stuff.

I know I'm going to come off sounding like Miss Kissy Kiss-up, but if there was ever a studio that deserved to be in a magazine spread, it's yours!

It's sooo exciting to see the "blog ladies" in print. It's fun to open a magazine and say, hey, I *know* her! Here's this phenomenon that has become such an integral part of my life, and 90% of the world is like, what's a blog?

(oh you write well! had to say it.) so true so true.

Can't wait to see that magazine issue. I can't imagine, though, your home looking any lovelier than it does on your blog. Also, thanks for the info on "Prosaics". It sounds very interesting and I'm adding it to my reading list.

So very cool! I can't wait to see the photos in the mag (which I will buy, of course!) I remember a friend and her husband here in town let their home be used by Eddie Bauer for a photo shoot and they basically had to agree to have their entire house redone (it had to be repainted, lots of furniture removed, rearranged, replaced, etc). I was fascinated and a bit freaked for them.

If my studio were styled up, I'd be hesitant to put things back in that had been removed, I'd feel much like you do. (What, I have too much crap?? No one was supposed to know that!) Peter has done some interior trimming and a wee bit of photo styling in his job, he often tries to do that to our own home.

"wo, we actually live here dude...."

Congrats on the BH&G...that will be so fun to see!! And I'm so glad you shared this story, I think it's an important reminder for all of us when we look at those pretty glossy mags. We're all WAY too hard on ourselves, I think. And this reminds us that what we're (possibly) trying to acheive doesn't even exist. A good thing to know....and can be applied to SO many areas of our lives...our 'messy' desks AND our 'messy' hips. ;)

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About Alicia Paulson


My name is Alicia Paulson
and I love to make things. I live with my husband and daughter in Portland, Oregon, and design sewing, embroidery, knitting, and crochet patterns. See more about me at