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Organizing Principles 

A pack rat deals with a packed space

If you drive by Michelle Lee's house in Durham at night, you will see Jesus through the trees. To the left of the trampoline in the front yard and above the scattered Big Wheels, his profile is reflected in the window of her sunroom--the product of a small white porcelain lamp sitting on a ledge inside the house. Michelle's one-story brick house is intriguing, even in the daylight. It looks lived-in. Only after walking inside though, into the large living room decorated with 1960s vinyl furniture, past the leopard-print themed dining area and through the hallway of religious artifacts do you begin to get a sense of Michelle's quirky personality. There is religious artwork everywhere; pictures of Jesus and Mary hang in each room. On one of the kitchen walls a sign in the shape of a scroll reads, "Church Hours: Monday-Thursday 9-4:30." There are other collections. Snow globes line shelves around the bathroom mirror. A collection of small plastic toys lines the kitchen windowsills.

Admittedly, Michelle is a pack rat. Her garage and attic are filled to capacity, along with the basement of a duplex down the street. "They are packed," she says emphatically. "Packed. Not one more box."

Michelle is the type of woman who will fill whatever space she lives in. Few walls or tabletops are left bare, but the house doesn't feel cluttered. By staying organized and using her home's nooks and crannies to her advantage, Michelle is able to make her belongings fit in limited space, giving the house a rich, comfortable feeling, without seeming cluttered.

She uses small sections of hallways and window ledges to group collections, doubling their visual impact while using space economically. The bathroom has become a shrine for religious artifacts. In a little niche against red walls, there are an assortment of candles and prints of Mary and Jesus rising from behind the toilet. A surprising scene when you stumble upon it, but it seems that any space is fair game.

Growing up, Michelle spent most of her Friday nights sitting at auctions with her mother, who owned an antique shop. Michelle says her own home is a direct reaction to growing up in a house that she says felt like a museum. "My mother's house was cold. It was full of antiques and you couldn't touch anything," she says. "This is my version."

Her version also carried over into her own antique shop, The Untidy Museum, also a reaction to the stuffiness of her mother's home. Michelle is co-owner of The Untidy Museum, which opened last year across from Lakewood Shopping Center in Durham. Like her own home it is filled with retro furniture, clothes and memorabilia. The name is fitting because, like her mother's home, the shop is like a museum, but relaxed, with a hands-on quality that Michelle didn't have in her house as a child.

The shop evolved after Michelle scaled down to leave Richmond, Va., and move to the Triangle. In preparation for the move, her husband James bought her a book titled How Not to be A Pack Rat and the couple had a sale. "We had an estate sale. That is what we called it because there was so much stuff," she says. "I had a three-story house that was filled. I think there were six couches in the garage when we had the sale. Everyone that came just assumed that I was selling my grandparents' estate. People would walk up and ask, 'How long did your grandparents live here?' I would just smile and say, 'All their lives,'" Michelle says. "It still took two U-Hauls to move down here, but it probably could have taken five."

The house that the Lees moved into, 2,800 square feet of space in Durham, is not small in terms of space, but it is a challenge in terms of the amount of stuff they own. The basement, which operates as a recording studio and office where James runs his business, Replay Records, occupies approximately 1,000 square feet, and the family of five (the Lees have three kids, ages 1, 2 and 3) lives mostly in the remaining space.


rouping the collections together is one way that Michelle stays organized. The best example is a short hallway linking the bedrooms and bathroom to the rest of the house. The 15 feet or so of hallway is the repository for most of the religious artifacts--both family heirlooms and those that Michelle James have collected. Dozens of paintings and prints hang from floor to ceiling: Last Suppers, the sacred heart, Mary and Jesus, crucifixes and rosaries and holographic prints with their own display lights. "I like having all of the religious stuff grouped together, I think it has more of an impact," she says. There are probably 50 items in the hallway that Michelle has acquired in her lifetime. Michelle says she was drawn to religious imagery early in life and has been collecting religious prints and artwork since she was little. She jokes about marrying James, who is the son of a Virginia bishop.

The dining area is like a meditation on leopard print--with orange walls. A large leopard print rug marks the space, separating it from the rest of the living area. The dining room table rests on the rug in front of a huge window dressed with sheer leopard print curtains. There are leopard print place mats on table. The window is flanked on one side by an open wooden armoire filled with leopard skin coats and on the other side by shelves of leopard-print hat--all faux fur, mind you. There are more than thirty coats, all folded on the shelves. The way she organizes the space is wild, but practical. It creates a visual distinction between dining area and the rest of the living space, and it keeps the coats and hats out in the open, ready for playing dress up. "I didn't want them to be stuck in closets. Plus, they would have taken up all of my closet space," Michelle says.

Hardwood floors, high ceilings and lots of windows give the dining and living space an airy, open feeling that helps balance the intensity of the leopard print. The Lees say the large open room was a big selling point. "There has to be room for the kids to ride their Big Wheels through the house," Michelle quips. The shocking thing is that there is actually enough room to pedal a Big Wheel through the living and dining rooms, into the kitchen and back again. Of course, Michelle takes a few precautions. "I don't have anything that is breakable. All of the furniture is either leather or vinyl. I learned very quickly not to have cloth furniture with young kids. And I hang things up high," she says.

The bottom line for Michelle is that she wants to make her home fun--for the entire family--without denying herself. And she is able to pull it off by utilizing the small spaces. "Oh it's a mess," she says. It is full, no doubt about it. "It is all play space--for us and the kids. Nothing is off-limits. I think people should be comfortable. I love my space." EndBlock

  • A pack rat deals with a packed space.

More by Clancy Nolan


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