article

08.03.09

Univ. of Martha

Martha Stewart's new instructional Web videos promise an upgrade to domestic bliss. Doree Shafrir follows Martha's how-to advice to get organized for the first time in her life.

When Martha Stewart was a teenager in Nutley, New Jersey, she used to babysit for a woman with a very organized linen closet: "She had the most beautiful cupboards all down a long hall, and in the cupboards were all her neatly folded sheets, and towels, dinner napkins, tablecloths," Martha has said. "And I thought then, 'Wow, what a great idea, maybe someday I'll be that organized.'"

Click below to view our gallery of the writer's apartment before and after Martha's Web intervention.

As I watched her say these words—in Organizing, the fifth part of a seven-part series that one may purchase, for $9.95, on the iAmplify Web site, part of Stewart's Martha University series—I realized that this is truly what separates those of us who are born to be decoupagers of tables and throwers of formal dinner parties for 12 from the rest of us.

And so, inspired by the release of the film Julie & Julia, I decided to undertake a similar experiment as the blogger Julie Powell did when she decided to cook the 524 recipes in Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking in 365 days, but on a much smaller scale. Instead of attempting to become Martha Stewart over the course of a year, I would see how much like the doyenne of domesticity I could become in the course of a single afternoon.

I've never been been much of a cleaner; when I was 4 years old, my parents were told during their conference with my nursery-school teacher that everything was going well, except that whenever it was time for cleanup, I was nowhere to be found. It's a pattern that's repeated itself throughout my life, except now I'm really the only one who suffers because of it.

Video screenshot

I accumulate things: Tchotchkes, old Polaroid cameras, vintage radios that don't work, stickers, issues of Life magazine from the '50s, costume jewelry, books, bags, shoes. My poor 450-square-foot apartment, where I currently live with my boyfriend, Sam—whom no one would ever mistake for neat either, though to be fair, he owns approximately one-eighth of the amount of things that I do—and our dog, is practically bursting with all of my crap. Sam recently proclaimed that I was not allowed to purchase any more trinkets, and not only that, he was going to start throwing things away.

"Like this! What do you need with this?" he said one day, picking up my ViewFinder.

"But ... but that's my ViewFinder!" I said. "I like it."

"When was the last time you viewed the ViewFinder?" he asked.

Silence.

"Exactly," he said.

So when I found out that Martha Stewart was selling some of her classic instructional videos on iAmplify (a kind of clearinghouse for paid celebrity videos; other offerings include Eckhart Tolle's Secrets of Happiness video and a "Female Sexuality Hypnosis Session" with a Dr. Ava Cadell), I rolled my eyes internally and wondered on how many platforms the woman could think to sell herself. But then, with my household issues at the front of my mind, I got to thinking. Though I like to cook, I am generally not what I would call conversant in the domestic arts—and in that category I include crafting, scrapbooking, flower arranging, children, gardening, and practically everything else that Martha and her empire are obsessed with—and so I've never been a Martha groupie.

But I don't think she's a freak, either. Sometimes I wish I derived more pleasure out of making sure my kitchen table was always clutter-free and that my sheets smelled like lavender. But there are also some fraught, uncomfortable issues that housework brings up for young women in the 21st century: Are we perpetuating archaic gender roles if we pick up our boyfriends' socks, or do we do it and just assume that they'll do the dishes later?

Fortunately my relationship is generally the latter; after nearly two years of living together, Sam and I have developed an equitable arrangement (if I cook, he does the dishes, and vice versa, is pretty much what it comes down to; if his socks don't make it into the laundry basket when it's my turn to do laundry, they don't get washed). That being said, there is the nagging feeling that ultimately, it is I who cares more about our apartment being habitable. If it were truly up to him, would the sheets ever get washed, or does he wash them because I have to ask? I had a feeling that Martha probably wouldn't help me in that arena.

While I’m in no danger of suddenly becoming obsessively neat, Martha’s videos did impose a certain degree of order on our lives.

Still, I was determined to check out what she could help me with. Her offerings are divided into three categories: Weddings ($39.95); Recipes, Decorating, and Crafts ($34.95); and Martha Stewart Classics ($19.95). The videos in each series are also available for individual download. I decided I didn't need all of the videos in any category, so I chose Organizing (seven parts, $9.95) and Decorating Basics (six parts, $9.95) from the Recipes, Decorating and Crafts category, and Secrets of Entertaining: A Formal Dinner Party (four parts; $7.95) from the Classics category.

As I settled in to watch the Organizing series (Closets, Basement Shelves, Bathroom, Dresser Drawers, Linen Closets, Organizing Board, and Organizing Kids Art), I took a glance around the apartment. Sam and I share one tiny closet and another area with a few hooks and shelves, where Sam hangs some of his shirts and I store my shoes, many of which I realized guiltily I hadn't worn in years, and some of my handbags. There's another horrible area we call the hearth (our bedroom used to be the kitchen of the old brownstone we live in, and there's a large hole in the wall that we think used to be a fireplace, which we fill with junk). I have another shoe rack that hangs over the door to our bedroom that makes it difficult to close, and always seems in danger of falling. Sam and I each have a dresser; mine is usually overflowing with wrinkled T-shirts and cardigans, and I long ago deemed my underwear and sock drawers beyond hope.

Could Martha save me?

It quickly became clear that in order to get organized The Martha Way, I was going to have to acquire a few key items. There are certain things that Martha loves—namely, her Brother P-Touch labelmaker, clear containers, and acid-free tissue paper. Since I was doing this Brooklyn-style, and in one afternoon, I decided I would limit myself to what I could procure at the Target in downtown Brooklyn—always a risky proposition, because they tend to be out of the most important things I need whenever I go. But after watching the videos, and armed with a list, I headed over. (By this point, I'd decided that taking on more than the Organizing series was going to require a much more extensive commitment and would probably also require Sam's involvement, which seemed dubious; the formal dinner party, for example, would have involved purchasing a dinner service for 12, plus food like caviar.) At Target, I limited myself to purchasing only items that I could use in service of becoming Martha. The only thing on my must-buy list that they didn't have was the acid-free tissue paper, which Martha had said was essential for folding into my delicates and my sweaters. I briefly debated using regular tissue paper but decided against it.

I came home with:

—a labelmaker, the DYMO LetraTag, and an extra roll of label tape. I really wanted the Brother model Martha uses, but Target didn't have it.
—double-A batteries for the labelmaker
—three clear plastic shoebox sets of five boxes each
—three 28-quart clear plastic containers
—two rolls of contact paper (one decorated, one not)
—four tie and belt hangers
—two drawer organizers
—a cedar accessories closet set (Martha also loves cedar)
—two suit/dress protectors (basically garment bags)
—five shoulder covers for suits, dresses, etc.
—sponges in three different colors (Martha says to have different sponges for your toilet and sink... makes sense, though when she said it I felt sort of gross for not doing it already)
—Krazy Glue
—two medium and one small clear plastic craft organizers

With all of my materials in hand, I watched the videos again. Some of her instructions clearly were not directed at me—in the section on basement organizing, she points to the shelf where one is to keep "your Christmas ornaments, your oversized picnic baskets." She also has a shelf in her basement devoted solely to vases and other flower-related vessels, and one for dormant bulbs for the garden. In her segment on dresser drawers, we learn that Martha has an entire section of her drawer organizer devoted to identically folded white socks. In the linen closet section, in addition to learning about Martha's childhood idol, she teaches her audience how to maintain a collection of antique linens and lace curtains, and concludes with the wince-worthy claim that "organizing your linens like this is just one of the many tasks you have as a homemaker."

But other tips were useful. Folding towels in thirds, then in half and in half again, really does save space (though it took me a few tries to get them to neatly fold into thirds). The drawer organizers made my chaotic underwear/bra/bathing suit drawer instantly orderly; it helped that I was inspired to throw out a decade's worth of granny underwear and ill-advised thongs. Sam's ties had formerly been hanging haphazardly on hooks in the closet, and so I put them on tie hangers, just like Martha suggested. My jewelry—mostly costume jewelry heavy with oversized bangles and baubly necklaces—had long been sitting, tangled, on a tray inside the "hearth." I took out my new labelmaker and got busy with one of the craft organizers; now my necklaces, bracelets, and earrings are all in separately labeled boxes. And perhaps most crucially, Martha inspired me to get rid of around 10 pairs of shoes (and Sam agreed to get rid of three pairs). I put several other pairs, as Martha recommended, into clear labeled boxes ("black patent J. Crew high heels"). Sam's sweaters and sweatshirts had lived chaotically on the shelf in our closet, and I put them into neatly stacked plastic containers labeled "Sam Sweaters."

There are some fraught issues that housework brings up for young women in the 21st century: Are we perpetuating archaic gender roles if we pick up our boyfriends’ socks?

So while I'm in no danger of suddenly becoming obsessively neat, I do feel that Martha's videos imposed a certain degree of order on our lives—however long it lasts. I do wish, though, that Martha had a series of videos about how to make the best use of small spaces; the videos are clearly targeted to audiences with large, suburban homes (the bathroom she demonstrates on looks bigger than my bedroom).

And, Martha or not, I still have a ways to go. There's a file cabinet filled with an intimidating amount of my detritus—six-year-old bank statements, back issues of newspapers where I used to work, birthday cards from over a decade ago—that I need to deal with before Sam follows through on his threat to junk the whole thing. Our refrigerator is covered with invitations to events that have long passed and photo Christmas cards from several years ago. It's laziness, sure, but I think it's also some sort of insistence on holding on to the mementoes of the past that help keep me enslaved by my stuff. And that's probably not something that Martha can help me with—I have to help myself.

Doree Shafrir has contributed to The New York Observer, The New Yorker, Slate, and The Awl, and is the co-author of Love, Mom. She is a former editor at Gawker. Her Web site is www.doreeshafrir.com.