Interiors: Put it away, please

With 101 suggestions to put your life and house in perfect order, she's the goddess of storage, yet Elizabeth Hilliard lives in clutter, surrounded by boxes, coat rails and chaos. Ann Treneman reports

Ann Treneman
Friday 16 October 1998 23:02


lizabeth Hilliard has just written a

book called Perfect Order, which, the

front cover says, provides "101 Simple Storage Solutions". This implies that there are 101 Simple Storage Problems but I know from personal experience that there are thousands. The back cover is even more daunting. "Get Your Home in Perfect Order," it insists. "Regain Control. Real Homes, Real Storage Solutions." Doesn't that sound terrifying? Real Homes, Real Mess is my experience. And so I approached lizabeth Hilliard's real home, a detached 1970s job in the village of Scothern in the flatlands just north of Lincoln, with trepidation.

First, the prejudices. I once visited the home of a co-worker whose neat gene was so over-developed that she emptied the ashtray after every tap of every cigarette. By the end of the visit, the poor woman had run the equivalent of several miles from sofa to waste-basket. verything seemed to either be in storage or on its way to being in storage. But, really, wasn't I being just a bit ridiculous? After all, just because someone has 101 storage solutions doesn't mean she is going to be a neat freak.

And yet I couldn't help but fear the worst about lizabeth Hilliard's home. Never mind that she had assured me that she had just moved and everything was in chaos. I have friends who say things like this and it turns out that one of their books is a few degrees off kilter. Chaos? Hah! No, the Hilliard home would be whiter than white with alphabetically organised bookshelves. The wardrobes would be full of clothes hung according to length; the shelves lined with jumpers folded as if by an anally-retentive shop assistant. In short, I just knew this home would be full of solutions and no problems. I knocked. The door opened and the first thing I saw was a stack of boxes in the hall. Behind them was another stack of boxes. My eyes darted left: the lounge was a mess! I looked ahead: the study looked a mess! I started to relax. This felt familiar. Hello Chaos, Goodbye, Perfect Order.

lizabeth Hilliard is 37, tallish and constantly moving. If she had to be described with one word it would be enthusiastic. Her brown-grey hair floats around her face and she has a large smile and a dimple, too. She is wearing a red cardigan that seems to match her personality. She once met a burglar going out her front door as she was going in and decided not to be very polite about it. The tabloids called her a "have-a-go" heroine. Obviously just the kind of person to tackle storage.

She guides me past the most incredible amount of stuff in the hall, explaining that she and her husband and three children just moved here three weeks ago from Yorkshire. They have downsized from a five-bedroom to a three- bedroom house. She has thrown out a lot of stuff but has to throw out a lot more. That much was obvious.

Most of lizabeth Hilliard's books are about interiors of one kind or another. She has a degree in art history which she found dry, but appreciated because it forced her to analyse. "So that is how I approach interiors. An interior decorator builds things up, I break them down," she says. She was asked to do a storage book years ago but had to withdraw because of family illness. That book would have taken a room-by-room approach. It would have been about boxes and shelves and cupboards. But when she was approached, years later, to do another book on storage she found that she was no longer so straightforward. Over the years she had combined two households (getting married), incorporated two other households' worth of possessions (inheritance) and acquired loads of childish things (giving birth). Storage was no longer a matter of cupboards, it was about life catching up with you.

"It's all to do with attitude. It's a lifestyle approach to storage, not just a categorising of things," she says. So, first of all, you have to find out what you have. I start to fidget. So does that mean that tackling the under-the-stairs cupboard, getting everything out? "Yes, everything!" she says. Then you need to edit your possessions. "Free yourself from the clutter of decades," she says, "and then organise what's left." lizabeth Hilliard has lots of ideas about how to organise - she has invented words such as "upstorage" and "downstorage" and is positively effusive about the likes of cup-hooks and labels. But I can't really think about that because I'm in the grip of an emotion I recognise as fear. It's the under- the-stairs cupboard. I'm afraid of what is in there. This makes lizabeth Hilliard laugh and tell me a story or two.

The first is about being brave. She takes me to her study to explain that she is no minimalist. This is clear from the fact that she has 10 years' worth of Homes and Gardens magazines on her shelf. "I'm not sure I need the 1988 ones anymore," she says. "I'd love to be a minimalist. It would be so simple to have no references," she says. But she has been brutal on occasion. Once she found a trunk full of her t eenage life. "Letters and diaries, oh, just soooo excruciatingly embarrassing," she says. "I kept a few things and then I filled my car. It sat there overnight and, you know, I felt as if it were glowing." She woke up several times, worrying, but decided in the end to dump the lot.

"I'm not saying you should throw everything away, though," she says. "I'm saying: edit. I'm also very keen on a probationary period when you put these things that you don't really use, or don't really like or feel guilty about giving away in boxes, clearly labelled with the date, in the attic or somewhere. Then in a few years time, when you next come back to that box, you may well feel differently. Of course, you may not. If you still feel too upset and guilty about it, then put it back," she says.

I am now treating lizabeth Hilliard like an agony aunt. What, I ask, to do with the wedding photographs if you are divorced? "Difficult," she says briskly. "motional. I'm assuming everyone has such things. It comes back to: time is a great healer. Put these things away, label them, tape it up. So that if you decide one day, I want to burn them, you can find them!" We talk about wedding presents and photographs in general. "I've made a policy decision which I'm finding quite difficult to maintain which is that, at the end of every year, I do one album. The rest go into a box. I have an exercise book and write down the dates. Otherwise, it is easy to lose track and photographs become meaningless."

Some feng shui types believe that we are connected to all our possessions by invisible strings of energy or whatever. It sounds fanciful, but anyone who has inherited furniture, china, etc, knows how those strings can pull. Certainly, lizabeth does. It has taken 15 years to sort through the guilt and love and to find out what she really wanted to keep. "At last I was able to say that I prefer these old school chairs," she says thumping a chair-seat, "then the dining chairs that I inherited. I had never really liked them, but they represented a great burden of guilt and love. It takes a while to reach the point where you are able to do that. Doing this to your home and your life is a mental commitment. It's like quitting smoking or sticking to a New Year's resolution or deciding to lose weight - once you've decided to do it, then you can."

We are sitting in lizabeth's sky-blue kitchen. It is the only room that has been "done". She is on a budget and does all her own decorating. On the other side of the room, there are open shelves for her dishes. She says this required a leap of imagination. Her book is keen on finding storage solutions via such leaps, but in the book these tend to be rather extravagant: such as the man who put his kitchen in two cupboards and the one who hid the bathtub under the bed. Her shelves, though, were not so much a leap as a shuffle. "It took a few mental stages to do this," she admits. "First, we thought we'd get rid of the wall cupboards. then we thought we'd get rid of the cupboard there to put in the dishwasher. Then we thought, GT RID OF THM ALL. If we had the money we'd like to remodel the whole kitchen. But we don't."

Above us is a perfect example of "upstorage" - a shelf that runs pretty close the ceiling. On it, she has lots of old sweet jars that were going to be thrown out by her village shop in Yorkshire and that now contain various types of pasta. Instead of curtains, there are rails on which hang kitchen utensils. "Some people never look above eye level in their own home. So there is all this wasted space up there. I have this compulsion to get things off the floor. I just love hooks and racks and shelves so that you can actually see your things," she says. We move over to the shelves and lizabeth picks up an errant cup-hook. "These give me such intense pleasure," she says, holding it out for me to look at. "They have been in existence for hundreds of years and they are still so useful."

She considers plastic boxes to be one of the great inventions of the 20th century, and hers have very bossy labels. "Dolls and Duplo only!" one demands. "Small vehicles only," says another. The garage is a mass of boxes. "Kites and stuff," one says. "Rocking-horse mane," announces another. I raise an eyebrow. "I took it off when the children were little," she says. Clearly, there is an organised mind at work here somewhere.

Her goal is to have the house in full up-and-down storage mode by Christmas (the very mention of which leads us on to the tangent of storing decorations etc). There is one bit of her book that does seem anal to me - the scarf drawer organised via a paper honeycomb made me laugh out loud. lizabeth did not join in. She describes herself as a medium-tidy person. "It's a constant struggle against chaos. The trouble with tidiness and having a family is that you have to work so hard to keep the status quo, which is a reasonably tidy place that is a pleasure to sit in. It is such hard work sometimes." She sighs.

But, I say, I think I read in Wallpaper that storage was sexy. "Well, that's the glamorous aspect, but what it comes down to is the slog of basically keeping control of stuff in a house. It's damn hard work." Which brings us back to the idea of creating order. "I love the title Perfect Order. Fantastic. That doesn't mean anal minimalism, it just means orderliness that is perfect in that it is the way you want it." It sounds so comforting and, with that, we head outside, squeezing back through the hall of chaos

Interior photographs taken from `Perfect Order: 101 Simple Storage Solutions', by lizabeth Hilliard, published by Kyle Cathie on 29 October, price pounds 16.99.

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