SoCal Connected on KCET

Material America: Cluttered Homes

Original Airdate March 11, 2013; Updated August 27, 2014

Val Zavala: High-end magazines filled with classy photos of professionally-staged layouts of lovely homes. But there’s none of that in this book: “Life at Home in the Twenty-first Century” is the anti-architectural digest. Not house beautiful, but house bountiful where typical, middle-class families live. Homes where cats jump on tables and laundry is stored in a shower stall.

Jeanne Arnold: This is the first study that offers a really truly unvarnished, unstaged look at American homes.

Val Zavala: Professor Jeanne Arnold is an ethno archeologist. She led a team that spent 10 years documenting all the stuff that accumulates in typical L.A. homes.

Jeanne Arnold: Our society has the most material possessions per household in global history.

Val Zavala: Participating families numbered 1-32 are totally anonymous. But tonight, this family is revealing their identity.

Family #28: We are the most uncluttered family that is in the study.

Val Zavala: The Spickers, like all the other families, shot and narrated their own video tour. Aaron Spicker recently shot new footage and sent it to professor Arnold.

Jeanne Arnold: This is what he described as the jungle of the girl’s bathroom. His girls are now teens.

Val Zavala: I just counted 35 objects on this small bathroom counter.

Jeanne Arnold: When these girls were quite a bit younger, this bathroom was quite tidy.

Aaron Spicker: I actually have a goal of getting one car back into the garage.

Jeanne Arnold: 75 percent of Angelenos are parking their cars in the streets or in the driveways. And they’re using their garages as storage units.

Val Zavala: So basically the old junk and the Christmas ornaments are getting shelter, and your $35,000 car is out.

Jeanne Arnold: Sometimes there are whole armies of little framed photographs on cabinet tops. We’ll find them everywhere. In Italy and in Sweden, we had sister projects going on and there was much less personalizing that really stands out.

Val Zavala: And a favorite place Americans personalize is on the family fridge.

Jeanne Arnold: I can tell you quite a lot about a family from their fridge. Tolerance for clutter is the best way for characterizing it.

Merrill Spicker: I keep saying I’m going to clean out my closet, and I keep adding to it and I haven’t decluttered it. I just don’t have time.

Aaron Spicker: We’re blessed to see the world in a way that the things we value will not necessarily things despite the clutter.

Val Zavala: In the nearly nine years since they were studied, the Spickers still have the same furniture except for that kitchen remodel, it’s essentially the same place. But another family changed everything.

Family #1: Hi, I’m Rhonda. I’m Eric. And we’re family number 1. Why did we do this? Because I was screaming, we have to get rid of all this?

Rhonda Voo and Eric Alan: We did this because we saw ourselves on film in this study and we thought, why are we living like this?

Val Zavala: The home of Rhonda Voo, Eric Alan, and their three daughters was once a lot like the Spickers, colorful walls filled with family photos, a magnet mania fridge, jam-packed shelves, and a tower of toys. A few years after the study, Rhonda and Eric had it with the clutter. They moved out for a year and a half of construction, keeping only the front façade the same.

Jeanne Arnold: The whole back half of the home is this ultra modern wall of windows looking out onto the backyard. It’s this very pristine living room and bedroom.

Eric Voo: Not only do I not miss this stuff that is gone, I don’t even remember the stuff we used to have. I’m looking at the pictures and I’m like we don’t have that, we don’t have that.

Val Zavala: The family that once had 97 items on the refrigerator door now has a hidden dishwasher and fridge. The family photos are off the wall and in the computer. The toy towers stands only in videos of when the girls were little. Eric and Rhonda realize very few families can do what they’ve done. Their advice? Take small steps. Look over some of the stuff that’s accumulated and find just one thing you can get rid of today.

I’m Val Zavala for “SoCal Connected.”

Material culture has become a staple for Americans so it's no surprise that an abundance of toys, DVDs, and piles of unfinished laundry on the floor are enough to create clutter in an average middle-class home.

In this 2013 "SoCal Connected" piece, host Val Zavala talks to experts and families to find out more about the most common material items found in homes.

On the forefront of research on modern-day homes is UCLA professor and ethnoarchaeologist Jeanne Arnold. She spent 10 years collaborating and researching her latest book, "Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century," which provides an in-depth look inside cluttered American homes.

As a result of the research, 32 Los Angeles-based families were invited to participate in the study. Part of the study also involved taking saliva samples from participants to determine the amount of cortisol levels -- an indicator of stress.

What type of items are responsible for the clutter in your home? Have you taken any steps to address the issue?

SoCal Connected on KCET

Reporter Val Zavala speaks with Social Media Editor Amy Lieu about the clutter that accumulates in the homes of Southern Californians.

Featuring Interviews With:

  • Jeanne Arnold, ethnoarcheologist, UCLA
  • Aaron Spicker, research family #28
  • Rhonda Voo and Eric Alan, research family #1


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