Huffpost Style
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Kathryn M. Ireland Headshot

Hoarding Versus Collecting

Posted: Updated:

As an interior designer, I live and work in the world of decorative objects and therefore understand the appeal of collecting objects of beauty. I've worked with very wealthy clients who've gone on manic sprees of indiscriminate acquisition, accumulating a stockpile of furniture and furnishings that filled several off-site storage containers. This is a compulsion I've seen before and understand. Imagine a gin rummy hand right after the deal. Until you build a winning hand, you're trying to assemble sets and runs by drawing cards and discarding others, before you even know what you really need. You either pull it off and every card is a keeper or you're stuck with deadwood. Expensive deadwood. Someone with less means and more impulse control has to deeply consider each additional occasional table, settee, or portrait haggled for at the Marche aux Puces in Paris (St-Ouen de Clignancourt). But if you have enough money you don't have to choose. You can buy it all and then pay someone to edit for you. During this job, I found myself wondering about my own life and the lives of people I've worked with in the past... if your finances don't limit your choices, how do you say no? When does more moreness become too much muchness? How does one recognize the line between collecting and hoarding?

I'm prone to flirtation with excess myself (I'm a self-described bohemian but even the most die-hard hippie doesn't need 15 handmade Moroccan caftans) but fortunately I've learned to jerk myself back from the cliff's edge before the thought of losing or missing out on an object causes me more panic than pleasure. Material culture can be a delightful playground but there's a Rubicon to be wary of and we all confront it. Whether it's food, clothes or men, everyone wrestles with the excitement of possession versus the agitation of gluttony. When the serendipitous delight of finding something you come across is replaced by a nervous obligation to acquire it because you believe there's a world of scarcity and that if you pass up this Salvador Teran box today you'll never see it tomorrow, then you're starting to cross over from collecting into hoarding.

I've frequently had clients ask me to incorporate various meaningful collections into my design for their homes -- from California Plein Air landscapes to tabletop cigarette boxes, art books, and even vintage fishing creels. I love to integrate pieces in my design that have personal meaning to the client. Most people are passionate, even gushing, about where and how and when they found something they love. But if you can't recall an item's origin, then maybe it doesn't belong in your world. When your eyes scan your living room, you should be reminded of pleasant experiences, not the feeling of "this room is filled with furnishings of unassailable taste. They exist and I own them." That's no accomplishment.

I traffic in a world of excess, bought or inherited, due to hard work or good fortune. I'm dealing with the people who are the Joneses, who have what other people think they want. Anyone fortunate enough to have disposable income can spend it on experience or possessions. I'm no psychiatrist so my insights are instinctive and emotional rather than academic and clinical, but if the balance of your life is tipped in the category of possessions and you don't go out to a friend's birthday because you might miss out on an eBay auction or you find yourself afraid to serve Spanish red wine or to allow your friend's child in your living room because it's filled with fragile objects, then your possessions are dictating your life. If you have imprisoned yourself with objects that have elaborate care and feeding requirements, then you're crowding out experience. You can only cherish so many things at one time; the rest is a burden. A collection ends when the obligation to collect outweighs the joy. If you continue to collect once it becomes a compulsion, you're hoarding. If you have more than you can possibly love and cherish, then you're depriving someone else, a fellow traveler, of the pleasure of stewardship, and you're a hoarder. Whether it's Biedermeier furniture or comic books, if you don't know when you're done and you don't know what game you're playing but you keep on accumulating and, after a point, the weight of the collection prevents you from moving or traveling or skinny dipping, then you've entered the realm of the hoarder.

However, if each component piece of your collection provides you with pleasure and you want to show it off with great pride, you are a legit collector. A collection is more public. Collectors enjoy sharing it and educating others. But if you've forgotten what your inventory is, or you have to keep it in second and third locations, you're hoarding. Hoarders are generally furtive and secretive about their excess. They're content to have things packed away and out of sight. Hoarders are vulgarians, taking things out of the public domain and saving it for their own private creep show. They don't want people to know about their collections, because they don't want the competition.

My choice is to err on the side of life and not stuff because obviously you can't take it with you. That's not to say I don't love objects; I do. I'm just saying only put as much on your plate as you can eat. If you take more than you have room for and it becomes waste, then you're hoarding and it's disrespectful to the cosmos.