Marie Kondo on ‘Sparking Joy’ in the Time of COVID and the Alison Roman Mess
The Japanese organizing master talks to Marlow Stern about her new Netflix series “Sparking Joy,” the Alison Roman controversy, and the things that spark annoyance.
In January of 2019, America fell under the spell of Marie Kondo—the Japanese doyenne of de-cluttering whose Netflix series Tidying Up with Marie Kondo saw her enter America’s homes and help people reorganize using her KonMari method, which entails taking stock of one’s belongings and then tossing anything that fails to “spark joy.” The show was such a sensation that Goodwill donations exploded across the country, with centers in Washington, D.C., seeing a 66 percent spike. Media outlets came to calling it “the Marie Kondo effect.”
And then COVID happened. With Americans—and people all over the world—mostly confined to their homes, Kondo’s methodology became more useful than ever, as everyone did their damnedest to fend off their inner hoarder. Enter Sparking Joy with Marie Kondo, a new iteration of her Netflix series that follows the elfin Kondo as she helps American families consolidate both in and outside the home, including an outdoor organic garden, a home office, and a church. In a time of turmoil and sadness, Kondo’s relentless charm is a welcome tonic.
Kondo, 36, has had a busy year. She not only filmed Sparking Joy in between COVID lockdowns while pregnant, but also had her third child—and even found herself roped into a controversy involving recipe author Alison Roman, who was effectively fired from The New York Times after criticizing Kondo and Chrissy Teigen’s branding prowess.
I spoke about all this and more on a recent Zoom interview with Kondo (and her trusty translator, Marie Iida).
I’m curious: As someone who believes in “sparking joy” through organization, how difficult has it been to reconcile that philosophy with the pandemic? Because it’s such a chaotic and tragic time where so many people are feeling profound sadness.
I completely understand. But I do feel that now is the time that it’s all the more important to find the small joys in your life and learn to cherish them. I think that’s a sensitivity—or a muscle—that’s definitely worth cultivating because it’s such a difficult time. And by ordering your environment, to bring a little bit of comfort in your life, is definitely important. Just little things, like lining your books in a way that give you comfort and peace, are all the more important nowadays.
How has the pandemic been for you? And what were some things you employed to get you through the pandemic? I’m picturing you constantly reorganizing your home. [Laughs]
[Laughs] Just like everyone, I was also very much confined to my home, so I did have an opportunity to review how I tidy my home. But not only that—the time I had with my kids definitely increased, so I tried to be mindful of bringing joy to the time I spend with my children. A simple thing like folding clothes with them I tried to do a little more slowly, and to approach it as more like playing a game. Those were little things that I tried to be mindful of to get through this time.
You are associated with “sparking joy,” but what are the things that most annoy Marie Kondo? We all have things that grind our gears.
[Laughs] I think it’s natural to feel various annoyances, especially during this time, but I just had my third baby, so that has really cut down on sleep—and I’m constantly sleepy, so it’s very hard to feel that joy when you’re so sleepy and you’re waking up in the middle of the night to feed the baby. It’s a struggle when you’re sleepy. You’re frustrated when you can’t do all your tasks to get you through the day.
For me, it’s being caught behind someone who’s smoking a cigarette on the sidewalk—just trapped in the wake, with the smoke blowing into your face.
[Laughs] I understand. Totally.
Does your need to organize and tidy up come from a sort of obsessive-compulsive disorder? Because I have minor OCD, so I have to regularly tidy up my home and am always doing the dishes while other people are still finishing up dinner.
I don’t know if I could be OCD, and the reason why I say that is because when I go into clients’ homes, it’s quite messy. I go into quite a number of messy situations, and I’m completely OK with that. I’m at ease with all sorts of mess I encounter. For me, it’s the process that I enjoy—and the before-and-after that I am completely passionate about. Right now, in my home, I have three kids and there is a lot of mess, and even that gives me joy.
In one of the new episodes, you help a family with a home office setup, and that’s something that a lot of people have found themselves putting together during the pandemic. What, for you, are the keys to a good home office?
I think it’s very important that you start out by having a goal image of how you want to work in that office space within your home. What would be the ideal? Having that goal image in your mind is very important. And the second is to have a designated spot for everything—even just one stray book or one pen, after you use it you always have a place to put something back. That is the key to maintaining an orderly home office.
With this new season of the show, when were the episodes filmed? And how was filming affected by the ongoing pandemic?
We were most definitely affected because our original shooting days coincided with the lockdown, so our shooting dates were pushed back about half a year, and we had to circumvent the amount of time we spent with people. So, a lot of negotiations had to be made in that time.
What were some of those negotiations?
We had to scale down the number of crew we had, limit the number of people appearing, and with the scheduling, we had to shorten the amount of time we had to tidy, so I had to balance out the amount of time I could spend tidying with my clients and the amount of homework they had to do on their own.
Generally, what are some things you’ve seen over and over again in American homes that could use some improvement?
I’m always surprised by how many storage spaces there are in American homes compared to Japan, but I think the area of improvement is how to maintain that ample storage space. So, just learning how to fold clothes properly would make a very drastic difference in your storage spaces.
I feel like there’s more of a hoarding culture in America compared to, say, Japan. What is your theory on hoarding?
I don’t think there’s that much difference between Japan and the U.S.—and this is just from my experience—and I think you see a greater number of things in American homes because there is the space to accommodate them. But with that said, the important thing about my method is that the concern is not with the quantity—it’s not less is better, but rather being aware of your comfort level, and of what quantity makes you feel better in your home.
Why do you think people hoard stuff? I’ve had periods in my life where I’ve had some accumulation of stuff, and I think a lot of people tend to either get tied to things or don’t want to be wasteful.
I think it comes from a place of anxiety. If you feel right now that no matter how much you purchase or buy you still feel anxious, I recommend taking the time to have a very honest conversation with yourself. Oftentimes, we are not even aware of how much we possess; we only have a vague idea of how much we have in the home. So, really take an honest stock of how much you have in the home, and how long you think it will realistically last you. Is it three months or six months? And how much inventory do you need to have to feel secure and balanced?
I have to ask if you’re aware of the “I love mess” meme, and what your feelings are on it. People usually deploy it when there’s some internet drama going on.
[Laughs] So, that was a very honest moment for me when I said that. Mess excites me, because when I see a messy situation, all I see is the potential for big changes. That’s what happened in that moment. And I think even for people who love mess, it’s totally fine too if you discover that that’s what makes you comfortable. I love mess.
[Laughs] If you love mess, do you watch reality television? A different kind of mess.
Sometimes I do! I watch some reality shows. I wouldn’t describe this show as messy, but I definitely love Queer Eye. I think there are some commonalities we share—the before and after—and the idea of witnessing people changing their practices and brightening their expressions, those are the things I love about it.
Since you live in L.A., do you watch Real Housewives of Beverly Hills?
[Laughs] I’m so sorry, I’m uneducated in that area and I have not experienced it yet.
It’s a very messy show. I wonder if you could explain to me what you think the keys are to the KonMari method, and if it was inspired by the Shinto religion, as I understand you served as an attendant maiden in Shinto for a time.
I don’t know if it was directly inspired by Shintoism, because a lot of my methods are inspired by my direct experiences with my own clients. I only realized later that there are some similarities, especially in this idea of cherishing material objects.
I’m curious what your thoughts were on the comments by then-New York Times recipe author Alison Roman, who said, “When Marie Kondo decided to capitalize on her fame and make stuff that you can buy, that is completely antithetical to everything she’s ever taught you.” She then accused you of “selling out,” and subsequently lost her New York Times column because of it.
I don’t know if there is a contradiction there, because the fundamentals of my method and my approach to tidying is that we always choose what sparks joy, and what you need to be letting go in order to achieve a life that sparks joy. But not only that: I always try to teach people to cherish what you already have, and in buying new things, I really encourage people to be as selective as possible. And I do have my online shop, but it’s after you finish tidying, and you attain a life that sparks joy for you, that you start to add new things to your life that truly spark joy. I see so many clients let go of things and acquire new things, so I encourage everyone to be as selective as possible in what they introduce into their lives.
How do you feel about the punishment she received from those comments? Because she was effectively fired from The New York Times for making them. Do you feel that that was maybe too harsh?
So, I think it’s completely natural for everyone to have different opinions. I’m someone that really considers discussions among people with different opinions to be very important, because it’s only through such discussions—and through the process of tidying—that we discover what’s important to us individually.
Since you live in L.A., do a lot of celebrities ask you for personal consultations? Or do you sometimes find yourself invited to a dinner and then all of a sudden someone shows you a room of their house that looks messy and asks you for advice, and you’re like… I thought this was just dinner.
[Laughs] Not yet, actually! If it’s been part of a project or collaboration then I’ve had that experience, but not personally have I received an invitation like that!