Are Yours a First Cousin to Fibber McGee's?

By Rosalie E. Leposky

To some folks a clean desk top is the sign of a well-organized workplace, but has anyone looked inside the closets of these people?

The terrible state of Fibber McGee's closets was a source of humor in the early days of radio, and with good reason. When was the last time you cleaned out or even organized your closets? Most people do it only when they're preparing to sell their home.

The very existence of closets is almost an accident. "In England and the British colonies, closets seldom were built because they were taxed as a room," says Brian L. Peterson, Ph.D., associate professor of history at Florida International University. Our colonial ancestors used armoires to hold linens and clothing -- and had the same organizing problem as today's homeowners.

Today a standard closet is 85 inches from floor to ceiling. When a single hanging system is used, the bar is placed 65 to 67 inches above floor level, with generally two shelves on top of the bar, and a triple shoe rack set at an angle beneath the single hanging.

Nothing Is Impossible

Most closet companies offer a free, personalized closet-design service. Some even offer planning assistance over the telephone. Nothing is impossible for professional closet designers, who have been called upon to incorporate almost everything imaginable -- including entertainment centers, hidden cameras, refrigerated areas for furs, individual sleeping shelves and scratching post for family cats, space for thousands of pairs of shoes and cowboy boots, extensive collections of ball gowns, false walls to hide safes and valuables, and a dresser with mirror and lights.

The closet-organization business has escaped the bedroom and now is offered for kitchen pantries, home and professional offices, linen closets, and garages and storage areas of all kinds, with racks designed for sports equipment for bicycling, diving, golf, skiing, and tennis. A Texas archaeologist came to The Closet Store to design flat pull-out shelves to hold clean specimens. The University of Texas biology department wanted pull-out trays on which to grow grass for geckos.

White Home Products, Inc., in Atlanta has had so many design requests that it now offers free computer-designed systems. Homeowners or contractors send White the inside dimensions of their closet, ceiling height, and door location. "From there we try to offer homeowners as many options as possible," says Tamara Owens, White's president. "We even show how during remodeling walls can be moved to add extra space. Sometimes something as simple as the direction a door swings will add three extra feet of closet storage space."

Now closets, like bathrooms, are becoming a part of the household fashion statement, says Owens. "When the children move out, closets are often one thing parents finally modify to meet their needs. When bedroom-bathroom suites are remodeled, the new design frequently includes a walk-in closet."

Deciding What To Wear

Today's double-career family has more clothes, and more decisions to make. An average person decides daily what to wear to work, and an organized closet with everything in place may shave as much as 20 minutes a day off the time it takes to get dressed.

Most closet companies offer closet components of metal or wood. California Closets uses three-quarter-inch, 45-pound-test board made of 100-percent wooden materials covered with a scratch-proof melamine. The firm uses a European hang-rail system that allows the closet components to be taken down and reassembled in another closet.

California Closets says it has built and sold over two million closets in 15 years, and has experienced no problems with moisture, rotting, or sagging. Do-it-your-selfers can save 15 to 25 percent of the cost of a California Closets project by doing their own installation.

No average-sized closet exists; every house and every closet is different. A new house is just as likely as an older house to be short on storage space.

Not all closet organizing systems hang from the ceiling. Some sit on the floor, including those produced by Closet Unlimited, Inc. "We use Formica-covered laminated birch plywood," says co-owner Robert A. (Bob) Armas. "With today's construction, metal screws in wall studs can break, so we like to put the weight of our closets directly on the floor, and screw them to the wall so they don't tip over. All of the closet pieces are screwed together so the closet becomes one piece."

In humid locales such as Houston, Texas, and the Florida Keys, high humidity causes green mold to grow in closets. "New products have been invented to absorb moisture from whole closets, and from drawers," says Jane Dunnington, store manager for The Container Store outlet in the Tysons Corner area of northern Virginia. Her firm has 11 stores in Georgia, Texas, and Washington, D.C., and an active mail and telephone ordering system.

Each year, Home Office Computing Magazine runs a contest to find the most disorganized home office. This year's contest, which ended April 30th, offered as first price a $4,000 California Closet Company home office. Part of the second price was two sessions with Lisa A. Kanarek, author of Organizing Your Home Office for Success (Penguin Books, USA Inc., 1993). Kanarek says that bedroom closets, kitchens, and home offices should have a place for everything, and that similar things should be grouped together. "It's important to take advantage of normally wasted space," she said in an interview. "The cost of closet organization is worth the reduced aggravation and time lost each morning."

Closets for the Handicapped

The closet requirements of the physically-handicapped challenge closet designers, who have responded with racks and shelves that are mounted closer to the floor or can be raised and lowered easily.

"We like to design closets for the physically handicapped that leave everything at normal height," says Tamara Owens, president of White Home Products Inc. "Our designs use extra storage space at the top, and assume that the disabled will have someone to help switch around seasonal clothing so there is no wasted space on top."

"Our designs for the disabled position hanging shelves at different levels for the disabled person than for the normal person, and allow more space to maneuver a wheelchair," says Jane Dunnington, store manager for The Container Store. "Sometimes the available closet is inadequate, and we design essentially a free-standing closet in the middle of a room."

Closet Unlimited, Inc., has designed closets with pulldown bars that allow the closet user to bring clothing within easy reach, says co-owner Robert A. (Bob) Armas. "The clothes come down, the system locks in place, the owner makes a selection and pushes the rack back up. We've used the same system in a house in the Keys with ten-foot ceilings, to improve access and to take advantage of the extra space without resorting to a ladder."

Closet Extras

If you are planning a closet, think about extras. What you select is limited only by your imagination and budget.

Extras include shoe holders, drawers and drawer coverings, or even -- if you have the space -- an automated closet carousel.

Fifty years ago, Mort Weiss invented the conveyor systems still used in neighborhood dry cleaners. "The average life for the White Conveyor Company dry-cleaning system which receives heavy use is 40 years," says Bill Steiner, chairman of Steiner-Atlantic Corp. in Miami, a supplier of industrial equipment. "The same technology is now used in home systems, and there is no way of telling how long they will last. Perhaps a hundred years."

Five years ago Donald Weiss at White Home Products Inc. introduced home-closet carousel systems.

"We sell carousel systems through local dealers and distributors," says Tamara Owens, White's president. "Our nylon and ball-bearing self-maintenance product requires no greasing. Systems sell for $1,000 to $1,700. On average it takes general contractors about an hour and half to install one of our closet carousel systems. They are simple enough to install that I install them at home shows and trade shows. (For more information on this system, contact The Closet Carousel, 2401 Lake Park Drive, Atlanta GA 30080, phone 404-431-0900, fax 404-432-3778.

The Container Store, founded in Dallas in 1978, sells some 10,000 organizing products to help put things away and reduce clutter. "We offer a broad range of products that allows the consumer to customize organization to the way you live," says Jane Dunnington, manager for The Container Store outlet in the Tysons Corner area of northern Virginia." The Container Store offers customers a lifetime warranty on their Elfa metal shelving, a Swedish product with a bonded, baked-on epoxy finish. "Our Elfa never cracks or rusts in humid climates, and if you have any problems with any of our products that don't fit or work, they can be returned."

Hints For Dorm Living

The Container Store offers free to all college-bound students The Container Store Organization University with hints on dormitory living and how to maximize the limited desk, closet, and wall space in dorm rooms. Free copies are available by calling 1-800-733-3532. The firm also mails seasonal fliers of 15 to 20 pages four times a year.

In the early 1980s, Charles E. "Chuck" Williams, founder and vice chairman of Williams-Sonoma, Inc., was impressed with the original The Container Store operation in Dallas. He thought the concept would adapt well to catalog marketing, and in 1983 he created the Hold Everything catalog. The first Hold Everything store opened in 1985. Today there are 38 Hold Everything stores specializing in home organization and storage needs with an inventory of about 2,000 items, and a quarterly catalog with about 350 items. To obtain a free catalog call 1-800-421-2264.

"Every product sold by Hold Everything will hold or store something, and our clothes hangers are ergnomically designed to hold modern-shaped clothing," says Jennifer K. Ellsworth, vice president of merchandising-retail and mail order.

In 1990 Williams-Sonoma, Inc. acquired California Closet Company, the largest national franchiser of closet stores with a hundred stores worldwide. In 1992 Williams-Sonoma began producing a Japanese version of the Hold Everything catalog.

Most closet stores sell a variety of items that can be used to personalize each closet, including stepstools, drawer and shelf dividers, special sweater and shoe drawers, wall safes, and a variety of kinds of hangers for people who like to hang pants lengthwise, and for others who fold pants overhangers.

Rosalie E. Leposky is managing partner of Ampersand Communications, a news-features syndicate based in Miami, Florida.

Ampersand Communications


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