Expert tips on when to start downsizing (early) and where to start (in the closet).
Annie Elliott is a former art historian who started her Washington, D.C.-based design firm, Annie Elliott | bossy color, 15 years ago. Elliott joined staff writer Jura Koncius for The Washington Post’s Home Front online chat. Here is an edited excerpt.
Q: I’ve read lots of books on decluttering and downsizing, but as I face it in my own life, I don’t even know where to begin. Room by room? Clothes, then furniture, then personal items? Just invite friends and family over and beg them to take one item with them when they leave?
A: Starting with clothes is good, actually — a manageable and satisfying task. Then, room by room, flag the things you don’t like, don’t want or have never liked. If you can physically clear out those items — have friends or family take them, or donate them — you won’t feel as overwhelmed.
Q: How can I draw the line on stuff I may need again at some point? I hate getting rid of things I will likely need in the next few years, but on the other hand I want to downsize. I move every two to three years, and it’s frustrating because what works in one flat may not work in my current one, but will again in the future. And I have a fair amount of tools and other useful items that I really use only every couple of years or less and clothes that I cycle in and out of my daily wardrobe from year to year.
A: William Morris said something like, “Keep only those things that you know to be useful or believe to be beautiful”? So on the useful stuff, if you’re only using a hammer every two years, you don’t need to own one. That’s how you meet your neighbors. For things you really don’t want to get rid of, though, how about a storage unit? I think the cost might be worth your mental health if the clutter is getting you down.
Q: I have been living in different apartments for the past 13 years, moving on average every 1.5 years. My furniture consists of a bed, chest, desk and chair, wood stools, a folding table and a skinny bookcase. My apartment always seems very impersonal as I don’t decorate at all because of the constant moving. I do have plants, maybe 15 one-gallon and smaller pots, including three avocado plant trees (the biggest one is four feet). I will probably move to an even smaller space, probably 650 square feet. Do you have any ideas on how I can possibly get my plants organized so that they give harmony to my very dull future apartment?
A: If moving every 1.5 years is the reality, I think focusing on the plants is an excellent idea. If you can group your plants together, they’ll make a nice statement — a large tree on the floor, medium-sized plants on a stand or two (check West Elm), and the smallest ones together on a small table or shelf. It would look nice to coordinate the planters, too: mostly baskets, or mostly terra-cotta — something to unify them. And remember: You could paint. One and a half years is long enough to go to that effort.
Q: If a family is downsizing from a home of 20 to 30 years to a two-bedroom apartment in a senior living community, how long might they expect the downsizing process to take?
A: There’s no standard timeline. There is one universal piece of advice, though: Start early. Just start giving things away, one room at a time. It will take time, especially if you care where your family treasures end up.
Q: I’m downsizing my 30-plus-year collection of beloved books and looking for ways to honor the few I am holding on to and the ones I let go.
A: To feature the keepers, display them prominently in a nice bookcase. It doesn’t have to be built-in, just tidy and arranged with some special objects and framed pictures. I also love stacking the larger coffee-table books on, well, a coffee table.
Q: We just purchased a new house and need to add some personal touches to make it feel like a home. What do you suggest for some quick ways to make my mark on my new home?
A: Painting a room is the quickest, least expensive way to personalize a space. It doesn’t even have to be a dramatic color. Soft blues look good in most places. Benjamin Moore’s Whispering Spring is one of my go-to colors. Just, please, no more gray. I’ve had enough.
Q: My big, overstuffed furniture won’t translate well to a smaller home. Can you recommend local sources of downsized but comfortable, classy sofas and chairs?
A: I don’t know your style, but if traditional is your thing, check Chairish for local pieces that are easy to get. For new and modern, Room & Board and Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams are favorites.
Q: I’d like your opinion on paint colors.We have a kitchen with an eastern exposure — lots of morning sun and maple cabinets with hardwood floors. We need to paint to prepare house for sale. There is a hallway off the kitchen that has navy blue under chair rail and khaki above the chair rail. To be safe, go with the khaki?
A: No! Khaki is never the answer! It won’t look good with maple cabinets. How about a fresh white, like Benjamin Moore’s Simply White? It would make the kitchen feel clean and sparkly, and then the hallway will be a nice contrast.
Q: So what are some of your favorite paint colors for a front door? I want to add some personality.
A: Almost any color looks good if it’s really shiny. I like Fine Paints of Europe for a glossy front door, and the line has some great colors. The front door is definitely the place to have some fun. It depends on the color of your house, of course, but I recently saw a pretty dark blue brick house with a bright yellow front door. Pick any color you love that goes with the rest of your house. I do think darker colors are easier to work with than pastels for front doors, though — dark orange, eggplant, cobalt blue.
Q: I have at least three cedar chests, all different styles from different eras. Any ideas for repurposing them out of bedrooms? They are great for storage, but my rooms are small. Does anyone use these anymore? Where do they go to R.I.P.?
A: Start by giving away the ones you don’t like. Is one of them tall enough to use as a side table next to a sofa? Long side against the wall. I think chests look great next to furniture with piles of books on them. And coasters. Always coasters.
Q: I struggle the most with kid stuff. I don’t want to get rid of the 5-year-old’s toys as he outgrows them, as the 2-year-old will be growing into them in another year or so. Any tips?
A: Bins and shelves. If you have space for a few low bookcases from Ikea, you can put toys in fabric bins on the shelves. You can put a picture of the stuff on the front of the bin so your kids can learn to put things away themselves — for example, a picture of a plastic dinosaur equals “all small animal figures go here.” A truck equals “all the cars and trucks.” And for stuffed animals, a huge laundry bag or bin.
Q: I have a signed print of a picture by Tony Bennett. Met him a few years ago at a gallery. The personalization on the print is fading after all these years. Is there a way to fix this? It is in a glass frame.
A: Unfortunately, no. Just make sure the glass is “museum glass,” which has UV protection. You may have to reframe it if you’re not sure. And then, even with that protection, don’t hang it in a sunny spot!