Ruly Bookshelf: A Perfectly Kept House is the Sign of a Misspent Life

To give the contrarian perspective on this month’s cleaning theme,  I was intrigued by the title of Mary Randolph Carter’s latest book,  A Perfectly Kept House is the Sign of a Misspent Life. Unexpectedly,  this is one of my favorite organizing books of all time!

Who is Mary Randolph Carter?  Carter,  as she is known to friends,  grew up as one of nine children in the historic Monument Avenue neighborhood of Richmond,  Virginia.  Her childhood role in the family led ultimately to her future career:

“When I was growing up, I was in charge of ambience.  Possibly the task fell to me because, of the nine of us, I was most helpless in the kitchen and had a knack (along with others) for pulling a room together. To create a mood for rooms already burdened with the character of so many years of living was more of a supporting role for sure.  My task was to garnish each, in summer, with cut herbs from the garden, and in winter, pewter pitchers filled with holly, bayberry, and branches of magnolia; to light candles tipped into tin chandeliers dangling from the dining room ceiling and in the wobbly silver and pewter candlestick holders scattered everywhere; to see that fires were crackling; and to ensure that Frank Sinatra crooned out a welcome as the first guest walked through the door.”

–Mary Randolph Carter, A Perfectly Kept House is the Sign of a Misspent Life

She went on to become Vice President of Advertising for Ralph Lauren’s Polo brand and supervised all of the brand’s photoshoots. She has written several books on interior design and a series of books on “junk.”  She has a website at chronicling her “junking” activities.

First of all, this book has one of the most beautiful layouts I have seen.  It feels like an art book as you page through it.  Carter takes us to visit eight of her close friends and family and lets us in on how they live interesting lives while surrounded by lots of stuff.  Many are professional artists whose homes serve a dual role as studio space.  Every single one of these people has a creative bend in some way.  Most are surrounded by lots of physical objects and some have lot of animals. One home housed 4 dogs and another 8 cats!

The biggest challenge to describe to you is the main point of this book.  I am not sure there is just one.  Based on the title alone, you might think it is entirely about how you can be as messy as you want to be and have the freedom to do whatever you want in  your own home.  It is,  but not entirely.  Even Carter and all her friends acknowledge there are limits on how you have to keep your house.  She wants you to make your bed every day and never leave dirty dishes or party debris sitting overnight.  She wants you to make extra effort to set out candles, put on music and whip up great food when guests come over.

There are a couple of key messages I took away from this book that make this a standout from most books on organizing and interior design:

1.  All mess is not equal.  There are those that know how to give their homes an “it” factor by displaying treasures in a beautifully cluttered way. This type of display is often more appealing to the eye than a sterile,  plain,  perfectly organized home.  Carter is queen of this style.

“There is mess and there is clutter.  If you grew up with the former . . . you probably make no distinction.  Clutter vigilantes contend that clutter is always a mess;  clutter connoisseurs contend that clutter is liberation from the rigidity of over-organization.”

–Mary Randolph Carter, A Perfectly Kept House is the Sign of a Misspent Life

2.  We all suffer from a continuing tension between wanting tidiness and wanting to surround ourselves with treasures we discover.  For Carter and her friends you tend to see a perfectionist all-or-nothing streak where they either want lots of artful clutter or a zen-like space with none at all.  The tension is ongoing and unresolved with some moments calling for clutter and others for zen.

“I have always worked in the comfort of personal clutter both at home and at work.  . . . When colleagues pass by my office door . . . I hear them whisper ‘Oh,  this is Carter’s office–she’s creative,’ as if that is the best excuse they can offer for what lies inside.”

–Mary Randolph Carter, A Perfectly Kept House is the Sign of a Misspent Life

Just how cluttered is her office?  If you want to see pictures of Carter’s office you can click here to view them at

Yet even Carter has her limits and you will be shocked to see the studio she creates for herself at the end of the book.

3.  The biggest lesson in this book though is that too much organization and tidiness is not human.  Rather than making us feel relaxed it makes us feel tense, inadequate, and nervous about messing things up.  When you aim to clean to welcome others into your home, give them a little artistic mess to relate to.  Let them see your human side.

As Italian photographer Oberto Gili shares:

“[T]hough he understands the hygienic case for cleaning,  he hates everything about it,  mostly the sound of the vacuum cleaner.  . . . He tries to do a little cleaning up when company is coming,  but if he can’t get to it,  well,  a little mess isn’t so terrible.  ‘If someone comes to my house it’s because he or she truly likes people,  and I try to make my home as friendly as possible.’ And that he does by allowing friends to share his life whether at work or at play, perfect or imperfect.”

–Mary Randolph Carter, A Perfectly Kept House is the Sign of a Misspent Life

Come visit Oberto and he will treat you to handmade pasta while you peruse his latest photography stills stacked in artful boxes around his home.  Sounds pretty heavenly,  eh?  I wouldn’t notice his lack of cleaning either.  If you can’t be tidy, be interesting!

This book has tips and ideas mixed in with stories, beautiful photography and charm.  It would be a delight to meet Carter and all of her friends. They have amazing and interesting lives which they reflect in their avant garde homekeeping.

Even if you disagree with the basic premise of this book and your own style leans toward a sterile zen-like space you can learn a lot from this book about creating warmth through picking the right combinations of beautiful objects.  Accessorizing a room is a complex art and this book has many inspiring photographs to show you how.   You don’t have to take it to the extremes of some of the homes profiled. Most of the homes you will encounter are not hoarders’ paradises but rather relatively tidy homes but with lots of visual interest.  I know my own home could benefit from these tips and I intend to return to this book again and again for inspiration.

Do you agree that a welcoming home needs a little artful clutter or does Carter’s style turn you off?  Please share in the comments.