'Messiest Room' makeover unearths new office in Farmington Hills

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

Somewhere beneath the boxes and boxes of crafting supplies, candles and mementos in Mark Steele’s Farmington Hills home was an office. He just needed to find it.

But he needed help. The crafting supplies had emotional strings. They belonged to Steele’s late wife, Judith, who died last March after a battle with cancer.

To help sift through it all, Steele, 64, turned to a team of professional organizers from the Michigan chapter of the National Association of Productivity and Organizing Professionals. As the winner of Homestyle’s “Messiest Room” contest late last fall, five organizers worked with Steele earlier this month – January is GO or Get Organized month – to help weed through the clutter, organize the room and convert it back to a functional space.

Mark Steele of Farmington Hill is delighted with the transformation of his former "messiest room." "This feels great," said Steele. "I can finally see all four walls."  The prize for winning the Detroit News Homestyle Section's Messiest Room Contest was getting a team of professional organizers from the NAPO-Michigan chapter to clean out, redesign and organize his home office.

And after hours of work, Steele now has an office again. 

“It’s like night and day,” said Steele, an engineer. “I even had my neighbor over – his wife brought some leftover lasagna – and I sent them a before and after picture. I showed him the room and he said, ‘Holy cow!’”

The goal was to help Steele reclaim the space, said Betty Huotari of Logical Placement LLC in Fenton and one of the five professional organizers from southeast Michigan who worked with Steele.

“It came down to making the room his room and not his wife’s room,” said Huotari.

Reminders of past

Steele beat out roughly two dozen other Detroit News readers who applied to win the “Messiest Room” contest. He found out about the contest from a friend who read about it in the paper and suggested he apply.

In his application, Steele said he feared going through all the clutter because “of reminders of the past or not being able to let things go.”

He said the space had started as a computer room but his wife’s hobbies took it over. Knitting and beading supplies cluttered the space, along with her collections of unicorns, angels, sea shells and pens. 

“Slowly but surely my wife took it over,” he wrote in his application.

To reclaim the room, which had two desks and at least two sets of bookshelves filled with everything from Christmas bags to candles and beading, Huotari said she and the team first gave Steele some homework.

“Prior to us coming, he assembled some bookcases from IKEA and cleared out an area so we could assemble extra tables to sort things,” said Huotari. “That was homework.”

To conquer the clutter, the team asked Steele to divide items into several categories: A “Keep” category, a “donate” pile for items he wanted to donate and another for garbage. They used boxes to carefully transfer everything out of the office until it was empty.

The next step was deciding what to bring back in.

Steele was very pragmatic about what to keep. Some items were in boxes that never been opened. Others were things he’d either never seen or hadn’t seen in more than a decade. 

“His motto was ‘If I haven’t seen it in 15 years, why look at it now?’” said Huotari. “That made the sorting process easier.”

Steele said he’d already removed some sentimental items and invited his daughter to also see if there was anything she wanted to keep. Everything else was stuff.

“Everything I need to remember about my wife is either in my head or in my heart,” he said of Judith, his wife of 18 years.

A new echo

By the end of the makeover, Steele and the team packed up 38 boxes of items to donate to a local charity, 28 of which were crafting supplies. All went to Veteran Charity Services in Westland.

And rather than have two desks in the room, which they were originally, today there’s only a rolltop desk and one office chair. The new IKEA bookcases are filled with magazine holders of Steele’s Corvette magazines – he’s a big Corvette fan and has his own Corvette – and some of his model cars.

Before he could only display a few of his model cars. Now there are nearly a dozen out and displayed.

“He was ready to make this room his, and have access to his things and look at items that he loves,” said Huotari. 

And there are some sentimental items. A model pink Corvette that was Judy rests on the shelves. An old desk chair can now be used in the office by Steele’s grandkids. And there’s a vintage piece of luggage in the office holds key chains from main of the places he and Judith visited during their travels.

The chair and key chains “both held special meaning to him so it was nice to incorporate them so he could enjoy them more,” said organizer Leigh MacCready with Re-Nest LLC in Jackson. 

When it comes to tackling clutter, MacCready says clients have to be ready. And Steele was ready.

“Don’t have us (an organizer) come and wait for you to be ready,” said MacCready. “In this particular situation, we had one day to get the job done.”

Looking at his newly reclaimed space, Steele says his new office has something it never had before: an echo. “It never echoed before,” he said.

The makeover, meanwhile, has spurred him to keep de-cluttering, tackling other parts of his home one at a time.

“You just have to start and stick with it,” said Steele. “Even if you just come home every day – my sunken living room had a table full of stuff to go through – I’ve been literally going home every night for an hour and half or two, taking stuff and figuring out where I want to put it.”

Clutter Control

Need some help reclaiming your own home? Here are some tips from Betty Huotari of Logical Placement LLC for conquering your own clutter:

  • Have the tools and supplies on hand such as boxes, labels, sharpie markers, packing tape (to assemble the boxes) and newspaper or other items to wrap breakables with.
  • Call your local donation place and see what they take and will them come and pick up the items. Some non-profit agencies can remove items from your front porch or garage.
  •  Separate items into categories. If you have a lot of art/craft supplies, check with your local schools and see if they are interested.
  • You may want to chose a non-profit that accepts a lot of different items so you don’t spend the next day making five different trips to unload the boxes.
  • Look at the items you are keeping. Just like Japanese organizer Marie Kondo, ask “Does the item still bring you joy?" If not, thank the item and let it go.
  • Schedule time to do the project and notoriously we under-estimate the time so if you think it is going to take 2 hours, schedule 4 hours to do it.
  • Set timers to keep you on track so when the timer sounds it can remind you that you organizing your closet and you shouldn’t be doing laundry or the dishes right now.
  • Have an accountable partner. You can check-in with that partner throughout the day and be each other cheerleader.
  • Start your project with a positive attitude and give yourself a reward at the end of the project. Experts agree you are more likely to stay with the project if there is a good reward.
  • Have childcare arrangements made so the little ones don’t distract you.
  • Have snacks, lunch, drinks on hand to keep you moving in a forward position. Maybe that is the night you order take-out for dinner so you don’t have to worry about that item either.

Twitter: @mfeighan