I’ve recently returned from organizing a dressing room/closet in
the colonial Mexican town of San Miguel de Allende. Now a UNESCO
heritage site, San Miguel is beloved for its narrow cobblestone
streets and colonial buildings painted in sun-drenched colors of
ochre, red earth, avocado and rose. Behind carved and brightly
painted doors are gardens blooming with orange clivia and lavender
jacaranda. Not only is it hard to find clear plastic bins in San
Miguel (and they are three or four times more expensive than in the
States), Rubbermaid and Sterilite seem very out of place there.

In a place such as San Miguel, or for any client who places a
higher priority on charm than efficiency, I’m forced to get more
creative with furniture, baskets and unusual boxes or custom-made
containers. For my San Miguel client, we used a decorative painted
bookcase against one wall for shoe storage. Two ornately carved
armoires served for hanging and drawer space. A hand-made Mexican
ladder was propped against a wall and the client’s colorful
collection of rebozos (Mexican shawls) were hung on the rungs. It
is not only an attractive display, she can also see what she has at
a glance and is likely to wear them more often.

Baskets are plentiful in San Miguel, and although I am not a big
fan of baskets for storage, we were able to find some made of
tightly woven grass (to keep out dust). They are rectangular and
have lids, which make them stackable. You can also line baskets
with fabric to keep them from snagging anything delicate you might
want to store. We used plain, inexpensive muslin. The baskets,
which are about 18 by 30 inches, work very well for sweater,
T-shirt and workout clothing storage. We also used a large open
basket to hold a bunch of hats.

Think how you might repurpose furniture or containers to better
organize your space. I have an artist client in Napa who lucked
into purchasing beautiful wood card catalogs from a library that
was switching over to computers. Once we labeled the drawers, she
was able to organize dozens of small, miscellaneous art supplies.
The card catalogs would have been great as a huge jewelry box too;
there are so many possibilities for all those little drawers.

Unfortunately, a bank of card catalogs is a rare find. A more
common piece of furniture, the nightstand, makes a terrific side
table for the home office. A printer or scanner can sit on top and
nightstands usually have drawers and niches that can be used for
paper storage, manuals, and other supplies. A little paint and new
hardware can totally transform a hum-drum piece of furniture for a
new purpose.

Here in wine country, cardboard and wooden wine boxes are easy
to come by and can be excellent organizing tools. Paint them, paint
collages on them or cover them in fabric and they become highly
personalized storage containers. The dividers in cardboard wine
boxes are awesome for protecting Christmas ornaments and other

Remember that if you can’t see at a glance what is inside a
basket or box it will need a label for you to get that streamlined,
“Domestic God” or “Goddess” feeling. There are nice ways to label
things that don’t require my constant companion, the Brother
 P-Touch labeler. Stickers, appliqués, mailing tags and laminated
pictures fastened to baskets with key rings are some fun ideas.
Hardware and office supply stores can trigger more ideas. 

For paper files, I insist on file cabinets 95 percent of the
time, and for garages, basements and attics, plastic bins will
always be my first choice. For everything else, organizing
solutions that add style and beauty, as well as order and sanity,
is a key service that I bring to House in Order clients. Look at
your furniture with a fresh eye and browse second hand stores, your
own garage and the basket aisles at import stores. You, too, can
start thinking outside the plastic box.