Does Mess Equal Stress, or Creativity?

21 Jul 2009

Tell me, does a messy studio stress you out, or is it a sign of a creative mind at work? Can you create better with everything out in the open and available, or when you have everything unneccessary to the task at hand put away, with clean open spaces in front of you?

I ask, because there's been a friendly debate going on over at the Studios Forum on the topic of tidy studios: some people see clutter as the bane of creativity, others see it as a boon. Which one is right? I suppose--and several posters have said as much--that the answer is that there is no right answer. It's not "wrong" to fold every scrap and replace every pin before you leave for the day, nor is it a sin to close the door and leave everything right where it was so you can dig right in the next time. One thing I will say is that when we ask readers what topics they most want to see in Cloth Paper Scissors Studios, the #1 answer is always Storage and Organization ideas. That makes me think that more people want to get organized than want to add clutter to their studios. But I think that's partly because most of our readers are long on "stash" and short on space.

I think the trouble comes when the way you keep your studio doesn't work for you or your art. For example, you always tidy everything up into neat bins and drawers because that's how Mom taught you--or because you just can't stand a mess, but you miss the visual stimulation that having everything out in the open can bring. Or, you hate to clean up and don't mind clutter, visually, but you can never find what you need when you need it, and frequently find yourself heading off to the craft store for something you "know you have somewhere," or rummaging for a rubber stamp or piece of fabric only to find something you were missing a month ago: "So that's where that was!"

Maybe the answer is in compromise. If you like a sleek, tidy studio, consider a wild and crazy (or orderly but colorful) design board or inspiration shelf that you can change frequently to spark ideas. If clutter is your thing, at least commit to keeping one drawer, or a segmented tool box, for your most basic supplies (such as scissors, glue, sketchbook, ruler, hand needles and threads) and resolve to put those things away every day so you can find them and get back to work quickly and easily.

I know that at home I am always trying to clear the decks, create more space, and de-clutter. But, you know, I like stuff. And stuff apparently likes me, as it seems to follow me home and in through the door. So I've tried to commit to putting at least the most important things in my household--bills, school papers, coffee-making supplies--in one place, always. It works most of the time. I'm still working out the best method for my "studio" supplies; I think the best plan for me is to have duplicates of the basic things in each room where I like to craft (primarily hand stitch in front of the TV) and move the project from place to place, because I am a social crafter who likes to be with other people (or at least the TV) while I create.

What about you? Do you have any suggestions for "slightly" de-cluttering or getting "a little" messy? If you do, spill! (Or, if you're a tidy type, don't spill, just leave a comment.)


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Jody Johnson wrote
on 21 Jul 2009 4:33 PM

Mess stresses me out and blocks my creativity. At the same time though, if I can't see it I tend to forget about it. To de-clutter my space but keep it organized looking I use a number of tactics that I am sure others commonly use as well:

Mesh wire baskets for fabric (arranged by colour and fabric type) like the type you see in closets for organizing clothes.

Plastic trays in my drawers to hold and organize thread by type and brand

Plastic see-through rolling drawers to hold supplies

Metal rod mounted to my wall on which I can hang hooks that hold containers in which I put my paint brushes, marking tools/pencils/pens, scissors (from IKEA - don't know if I can say this)

Design boards for all my photos and inspirational tidbits. 1 board is an old coarkboard I covered with a favourite piece of fabric. The other is a styrofoam rectangle covered in a favourite piece of fabric as well.

Wooden magazine holders - Unify the look to reduce cluttered appearance and make for easy organization and storage of magazines, books and loose sheets of paper.

Metal watch maker cases in various sizes to organize beads and other baubles (Lee Valley). They have clear tops so I can see what is in each case at a glance.

Square glass vases to hold cutting implements and related items.

Old oak office trays to hold all my glues and like supplies. I can take the tray off the shelf to use and easily replace it when done.

These are just a few of my ideas that I use to organize my clutter but  keep it visually present.

Cate Prato wrote
on 22 Jul 2009 8:23 AM

Great ideas, Jody!

on 22 Jul 2009 3:20 PM

fun to hear a debate is going on about clutter or not!  ;)  i think that my desk is the most important factor in creativity... when it is clean and open, i am ready to layer it with items to make... but slowly over time, it starts to become scrap-heavy, which is fine while in creative mode, i just pick and choose what i have on it for art... but once the desk is buried - then i am in need of an overhaul and things need to get tidied up.  or... i just move down to my floor and keep going.  but then we have a real problem when the floor becomes buried.  welcome to my life!  ha!  ;)  

MandyH wrote
on 23 Jul 2009 2:48 AM

Speaking personally, I like my workspace to be tidy when I start a project. No unrelated items to confuse or irritate me.

However, I am a messy worker. I do find all my stuff spread around me as I work, but funnily enough, I find it helps. Sometimes I get to see accidental placements of colours which I might never have considered otherwise.

Like Jody, I do organise my fabrics into colours. The fabric scraps too. I can never throw any scrap away no matter how small.  My buttons go into colour organised containers. Scraps of threads get saved too. I tend to use plastic containers which enable me to see the colour within.

riverart wrote
on 25 Jul 2009 12:42 PM

I like a tidy well organized studio and house.  That being said, while in the middle of a project it is possible to walk into a well organized disaster zone.  Fabric, paint, thread, all the doors and drawers open things hanging on other things, I can't find my flip flops, total chaos.  By the end of the day most of it has returned to its home and only the items that will make the final cut are left out for the next day.  I always have something on the design wall, finished or unfinished and many other works of art  covering the walls.  

My storage techniqe is bins, lots of bins, drawers with bins, closets with bins, bins with bins.  I also label everything.  My magazines go in magazine holders and loose patterns, ideas, templates, sketches, ect. are put into 3 rings binders in sleeve protectors and labeled.  I have a large carry case and sewing machine trolly that is ready to go should I take my studio on the road.  I have doubles of most things so I keep one set packed and ready to go, all I have to do is add my project.    

edzellinni wrote
on 25 Jul 2009 1:15 PM

I vote for tidy...I can think better when I start with a neat space. But it usually gets messy fast. A tip from my friend Sonja: use cloth to wipe up spuills and tuck upder projects, then later you can make cards or inchies or ATCSs out of the pretty parts of the clean-up cloth. Works well with paper towels too...I fuse mine to interfacing, then quilt them up.

QE2 wrote
on 25 Jul 2009 6:29 PM

In an attempt to organize and reduce clutter throughout the house I've created a mess and I'm finding it stressful.  Instead of dealing with it right away I've been pushing stuff ahead of me.  I suspect some of this happens in my creative endeavors.

Each time I reinvent my space I learn something and this latest go round has been very satisfying.

I have put my fabric into 3 tall white bookshelves with colour and a few theme categories.  But this time I covered them each with a curtain in a subtle colour and pattern.  They are ready for action and if the stacks get messy I draw the curtain and the mess is not adding to the visual clutter.

The major pieces in my room  are white.  The large craft/cutting table with clear rolling drawers under it also has  two white faced 4 drawer cabinets. The long sewing cabinet is white.  I have a low white bookcase for my books and a tall white entertainment unit repurposed for storage and some books and the music centre.  White enamel wash tubs hold projects, fabric, etc. and all this white seems to calm things quite a bit.  

I keep the wooden table in the  computer corner small as it always seems messy.  The corkboard above it is too full to be useful so  I'm going to keep it for necessities and limited to black and white.  I made another  board  for inspiration and it sits above the low bookcase and is covered with the same fabric as the book case curtains except for an accent strip.  This one can hold colour combos, shapes and I can put larger dimensional things in front of it to add  tactile quality.

I will be putting a metal strip or rod above the sewing machine counter because some stuff just needs to be seen.  When I'm sewing I don't tend to be distracted by what is near me.

I try to put stuff together in areas were the project will happen. So one side is for quilting and the other for fibre arts.   I have an old wooden office cabinet that I'm going to repaint periwinkle as the 3 colours on it are rather jarring.  I iron on top of it and it has lots of drawers and the bottom section is seen thru 2 glass doors.  I'm thinking mixed media stuff as the drawer pulls have labels.

I use the inside of doors for small design walls but my main design wall is a white flannelette sheet on a big dowel in the hallway just outside my sewing room.  It can be rolled up if necessary but I really like seeing it when I come up the stairs.  I also feel that creativity benefits a bit from exercise so room to move about is good.

Creativity for me starts in an orderly manner but as it grows so does the disorder.  To keep it from overwhelming me I've learned to use white to unify things.  I try to keep one drawer empty for the latest project for when you don't have the time to put everything back.  At least it is contained in one small area.   It can be the prelude to the next project as you tidy up and get ready to start again.

needlescape wrote
on 26 Jul 2009 11:40 AM

When I am in the midst of a creative project chaos reigns.  When I begin to get a grip on the problem and my approach I find the need to reduce the chaos because now the way forward is understood and I can introduce structure.  At this point I find chaos distracting.  

kimfulton wrote
on 27 Jul 2009 2:57 AM

interesting debate. I am just converting part of the garage as a workspace because I am fed up with all my art/quilt stuff being scattered in different spaces. As to tidy versus cluttered I like all the favric and paints beads etc to be where I can find them easily but I find i need ameessy "desgin wall" or Space where I leave the inspirational picture fabrics, colour up so when I walk in it hits me. Agree Ikea best for organizing systems in Uk at least.

lizzieanne2 wrote
on 3 Aug 2009 6:57 AM

I have a large 1400 square foot basement designated for crafting.  It still isn't enough!  I have shelving, bins, trays, plastic containers, etc. and stuff still overflows.  The mess continues to my upstairs loft and an extra bedroom.

I personally love the neat and clean look but it is impossible to keep that way when you are creative and you have more than one hobby.  I love digging through all my stuff when funds are low.  It's like shopping for free!

The most frustration comes from not being able to find something you know you have and you need it right NOW.  My newest endeavor is to clean up after I finish a project.  I cleaned most of my work tables off before making this decisionl.   This seems to be working for now and keeps me from adding more clutter on top of what still needs to be put away.

My clean work tables satisfy my desire to be neat and the clutter satisfies my creative juices!  The best of both worlds!

vtjem wrote
on 3 Aug 2009 7:07 AM

Funny, I was having this debate with myself. I guess I'm in the middle. I love organization but tend to not be so organized. I get a little A.D.D. when it comes to creating art (and I find that I'm not alone). My biggest problem is keeping a flat surface clean. There are so many things that I come across that I want to save for a project down the line but just don't have enough places to store them. Oh to have an IKEA closer than three hours away. When I start a project I clear the decks and start in, finding that I have to shove things further back to give me more room. I'd love a clear space. I like things available to me to use or to give me ideas. I do have a nice storage system for my different tools which works well. It's the papers, fabric, fiber that gives me the biggest headache. I thought that I had the fiber figured out when I took over a portion of the attic for my "fiber studio" but then my 22 year old graduated from college and came home. Oh. He took it over for his "architecture studio"/hang out.  Uh oh. I certainly have to room, but need to declutter myself. Thanks for asking. ;)

on 3 Aug 2009 9:26 AM

I can't believe how on point this post is. I have been out of focus literally for a few months now and find that I wander from item to item and complete nothing/start little. As I look in my sewing room, there are piles of 'stuff' everywhere and I am slowly trying to regain control. I find like others have mentioned that if I can't see it, I forget it. But if I see stuff, I am over-stimulated and lose focus. Jody has some great ideas, but I am trying to balance organization with space.

I can see why this is so popular a subject.


on 4 Aug 2009 10:12 AM

Creating Mixed Media work is messy business, there's no getting around that.  When paper, paints, crayons, glues, gessso, glazes, and fabric, start flying, you know you're onto something good!  For me, I have to start with a clean slate.  I can't concentrate with too much clutter, so part of the process is tidying up before starting a new project.  I love to be surrounded with my art supplies in plain view, it makes me want to create, but there also has to be that balance and order.  There is nothing more lovely to me than a pretty glass bowl full of acrylic tubes, or a basket brimming with beautiful fibers.  Even the not so lovely supplies look wondrous when grouped together in a wonderfully chaotic, creative, order.  My studio looks like an eyeful, but on closer inspection you can see the order.  Bottom line, your studio should be inviting to you.  If you walk in and don't want to 'stay', it's time for some cleaning:-)

annielou2 wrote
on 4 Aug 2009 11:55 AM

Greetings From Annie Lou from RI----I try//and like to put everything in its place after I am done with a project.  That way---I do know where everything is.....but I still have alot of clutter in my work area.  I just have 'to much stuff'' ... .......and then I am always impatient and want to start the next thing immediately ---but I think putting it all away and starting fresh is good.....

Susu65 wrote
on 11 Aug 2009 11:28 AM

I realize I am late posting to this party but I have a different question. How do all of you keep track of all the wonderful articles, ideas and instructions from CPS and QA? My magazines are full of post-it notes and bookmarks.  I have even tried a keeping a small notebook with me went I sit down to read them which is cumbersome but maybe the best solution. I'd appreciate other tried and true tactics.

ShereeS6 wrote
on 13 Aug 2009 8:39 AM

I definitely thinkk that you have to keep your space organized in a way that let's your creativity flow.  If you need to have a neat, uncluttered space to concentrate and work...great, keep it that way!

I definitely am the most creative in my space when it is pretty messy!  I tend to work on several projects at I run two businesses from the space, so it is usually a mess to most people's standards.  But for me, it is a sign of my productivity and creativity.  I usually take time every couple weeks to put things back on the shelves and tidy up...clearing the tables, etc..  That is usually when I have completed the projects or orders and have time to start fresh and plan out the next creations.  Once I start in on them, the mess creeps back!  I tend to put fabrics together in a very freestyle manner and the messiness has lead to quite some unplanned, but perfect fabric combinations.  A scrap spills over and touches another fabric and I see it out of the corner of my eye and voila!  Perfect combo.  I would never have otherwise put those things together....serendipity is a beautiful thing...and often can only happen if there is some level of "messiness" in the studio.

I did sort my fabrics by color a couple years ago and I keep them sorted that way.  That helps alot!  You can see a picture of some of my shelves and storage on my flickr stream and on my blog.

lje2117 wrote
on 11 Sep 2009 5:54 PM

Hi-this is my first comment, but I so wanted to participate-especially for storage and organization. I so enjoy browsing around this entire website and learning all the great ideas presented, along with the convenience of online shopping-which means even more shopping-so to implement the great ideas presented on this great website! Our problem was that two artists under one roof with entirely different ways of making the art, and to be honest, having a sloppy-but lovable husband who can work in any cluttered space without concern and me, the felix of the duo, who must be tidy and organized to enjoy art-making! Plus, we have continued to shop for art supplies for the last twelve years without a plan for storage and it did not take long to exceed our space for art. Since I am an art therapist, it seemed that we were on the right track to deal with the stress of owning our own business and my having to leave my profession due to illness, but we didn't consider that our art interests required so much space for the equipment and supplies! Recently, we came up with a plan that allows more organized space and more time to do art. The solution of more time to do art evolved by organizing our art space; merely being able to find what we need to use-when we need it, instead of the way it was before, which was to spend more time looking for things than using them! What we also realized is that there were/are vast differences in the way we approach our art making, time and attitude about it. My husband sets out to do a project, works to get the result planned with the prescribed tools of the art, and he is motivated toward the end product, or result of his labors. I am the opposite and mostly have no idea what the end result will end up looking like, as I am rewarded by the process of art making itself-the enjoyment of the process, and often do not want it to end too soon, constantly changing plans mid-stream, etc. We realized that this vast difference meant that we have differing space and storage needs. His is specifically prescribed, and mine is all over the place! I have the need to have space to spread out my stuff, and look at it, play with it, make decisions along the way, and his is goal oriented for the end result. He can decide on his tools and begin, create his project, and enjoy the result. I have to decide what tools, the cricut or the sewing machine?-or both! The fabric or the paper, or the canvas, the tin sheets, the metal boxes, suit cases, or all? The computer, sewing machines, or the longarm, or?? This meant planning two-or more-different kinds of space. So, my advice is to determine what kind of artist one might be, and once that becomes clear, plan art making and storage based upon that fact to start with. It will help to plan out the space needed, and kind of space required for storage. It is challenging, and for us still in progress, it seems to be working so far! For the sewing room we transformed a large old wardrobe, purchased at an auction, into a large fabric closet with shelves fitted to fabric bolts and folds and kitchen cupboard storage racks on the doors for stabilizers, parchments, wax paper, freezer paper, and other racks shaped appropriate storage on the doors, inside and out. We also got some pegboard, painted it to match and hang all of the rulers, misc. templates and covered/closed cutting devices, (open blades are kept in a storage cube on the sewing table) as well as thread racks and a tool caddy. We have added 3 rolling art bins that are color coded for fat quarters; another one for the small fused pieces of scraps for papercrafting or quilt making, odd sized patterns and related stuff, and one that keeps only paper-making scraps in it. But the very best storage items I have found are also attractive enough that I have twenty-four of them in my living room! (they look like a library card catalog cabinet.) Best yet, I can use the contents of them while i sit in front of the tv!! They are storage cubes made of some type of coated hardboard and made by a company called "Jetmax."  They have a metal drawer pull with space for labeling and are around twenty-three dollars (Target) per unit and best yet, house 12x12 papers. They come in varying shelf or drawers systems, four drawer cubes or four long drawers, open shelf styles for color coding paper, some with vertical shelf space halfway with cupholders and removable cups for small embellishments, etc. and they  are stackable. They are found in different places with largely diverse pricing. I have been asking Target to please try to get the many styles they once carried, as now there are only three our four style systems available. I also am planning to contact the company directly, as the price is very prohibitive at some stores. What makes them perfect is that they are fairly priced and very sturdy and convenient to use anywhere. Because they have so many options for storage of varying types of supplies, and stack so well, they really made a big difference in our space available and organized us quite nicely. These are a few of the things we have done, there are many more ideas, but this is getting sooo long!! I hope that this helps someone who shares a similar dilemma!