“A place for everything, and everything in its place.” Growing up, this was a phrase I heard more times than I cared to. My father, a career naval officer, spent years aboard ships, and liked his home to run on the same principles of discipline and order that worked so well when he was at sea. Though he met with varying degrees of success (and eye-rolling, and dramatic sighs) at home, I can say that in retrospect, he taught me a good foundation for starting a home of my own, even if ours isn’t quite as tidy.
My own family has put down more roots. Because we don’t move every few months, it’s been much easier to accumulate, well, stuff, and much of it ends up in the vicinity of the hall closet. By virtue of location, usually near one of the home’s entrances, hall coat closets can quickly become the repository of practically everything a family hauls in and out. It’s no small wonder that many of them, including mine, tend to get a little out of hand.
Make a List
“Coat closets are challenging because they are often small, but they need to hold a lot of stuff,” says Peggy Woodall, of The Closet Factory in Charlottesville. Therefore, planning is very important. Once you’ve decided it is time for a closet makeover, the first step is deciding the closet’s true purpose. Perhaps that means just coats, or depending on space, you might want your coat closet to play several storage roles. Make a list of each of the “jobs” you want to your coat closet to fulfill. Coats? Sporting equipment? Cleaning supplies? Be realistic. If things are crowded, some items may need to be relocated. It will also depend on where your closet is located. A closet by the front door will often be used differently than one by the garage door that the family goes in and out of regularly. “This is a little tongue in cheek,” Woodall laughs, “But the ‘ideal coat closet’ is reserved for guests. If there is room in the house for a mudroom bench that can house shoes, coats, and backpacks, it’s easier to keep the clutter away from the front door.” This is a great concept, but not everyone has this option. What if the coat closet must accommodate families and the occasional guest?
A Clean Slate
Experts recommend taking everything out of the closet initially so that you can properly measure the dimensions, and also give it a good cleaning. This is a great time to make any necessary repairs: oil the hinges, patch any dings in the walls, replace lighting, maybe even give it a fresh coat of paint. Consider painting the closet interior the same color as the paint on the walls of the room or hall where the closet is located, or even use a complementary or accent color. A new coat of paint provides a fresh, clean backdrop for closet contents.
Next, consider what came out of that closet. Purge all items that are not on your list. If you’ve decided that your coat closet should house only coats and other outerwear, then find other locations to store the vacuum, pointe shoes, lacrosse sticks, and other detritus that has found its way in there.
Once you have whittled down your closet contents, analyze what you have, and get rid of what you can. In times gone by, most adult coats were long, well below the knees, and older homes generally have coat closets designed to accommodate them, with a single hanging bar at approximately eye level. If you are lucky, there may be a shelf above this single bar, presumably for hats, which everyone used to wear every time they went out. Times have changed!
Today’s coats, however—with the exception of a single dress coat perhaps—are generally shorter, and children’s coats of course are shorter still. Take advantage of shorter lengths by replacing the single eye-level pole with a combination of double, or “high-low” poles that will maximize your hanging space: one pole hung approximately eye level, and the other about 30 inches lower. Voila! Twice the hanging space. Hang adult coats, or those more frequently worn, at eye level, and children’s coats (or coats that get less frequent wear) on the lower pole. Unless you have a very large coat closet, plan to switch items in and out with the seasons, putting off-season gear in less-convenient storage elsewhere in your home.
Analyze ways that you can make every inch of this premium closet real estate work for you. Over-the-door shoe holders make great storage for small items such as mittens, scarves, sunscreen or swim goggles. Large plastic tubs set underneath the hanging clothes can hold shoes and boots. Hooks or different-sized baskets can be attached to the back of the closet door, or even the inside walls if there is enough depth, to hold everything from school bags to car keys in an easy-to-see, easy-to-access way. If you have room, you may want to consider adding built-in shelves. Nowadays there are many options to choose from—basic shelving of wood or wire, attractive baskets, and shoe organizer pieces. You can explore closet “systems” at local hardware stores, or opt for the professional help of a carpenter or professional closet designer who can design and build a system for your specific needs.
If you are installing shelves, consider using baskets to keep the look uniform. Ideally baskets will use up all of the shelves’ square footage to maximize space. Consider this handy tip: purchase baskets first, then configure shelves to fit—it’s much easier to build shelves to fit baskets than to spend hours shopping for baskets with the exact dimensions to make the most of your shelf space. Designate and label the baskets, so that all family members know where to put their things. Always keep in mind that items used more frequently need to be the easiest to reach.
In other words, the closet’s design (be it professionally designed, or designed by you) needs to make sense to the users if the closet is going to stay neat. Woodall says of her clients, “If I’ve done my job designing to their needs, then it’s easier for them to maintain and keep the closet tidy.”
Once that closet is organized, keep it that way! This means running a swift mental checklist as you walk in the door, and putting things in the places you have designated right away. Hang up your coat and keys, send the lacrosse stick up to the player’s bedroom. Have a place for everything and put everything in its place. It turns out, my father’s tight-ship method just may have been wise after all.