"I think people don't understand how little space they really need, and how few things they really need," Anne Hughes reflects at 63. The Portland fixture—who founded the coffee shop inside Powell's City of Books and ran it for 18 years, then opened her own establishment, (the now closed) Anne Hughes Kitchen Table Cafe—has made streamlining and minimalism her second (third? fourth?) career.
It was after her stint as a restaurateur that Hughes took notice of hordes of friends who had been downsized, or who decided to retire, and were "moving home" from downtown offices. It wasn't the transitory nature of employment that struck her (or that stoked in her an entrepreneurial spirit); it was the fact that all these intelligent professionals weren't terribly good at setting up their own offices.
But for Hughes, organization was instinctive.
"One thing led to another," she says. "I'd get a client interested in having me just redo the office at a company, or someone who was just overwhelmed with papers. Then I'd get someone who would want me to help them reorganize their kitchen. Then somebody would ask if I could help her 92-year-old father organize his photographs, and then in the meantime with him I reorganized his apartment into something that was much more accessible for him, since he had shrunken a bit."
Her approach is perceptive or, as she prefers to call it, personal. After a cursory glance over the living or work space she's hired to revamp, she asks simple questions about the purpose of the space and the inhabitant's own perspective.
"I don't think anyone can impose their sense of order on someone," says Hughes, who eschews organizers (namely those promoted on cable networks) who force their systems on hapless clients. "I think it's extremely important to understand how people think and work, and to establish rapport."
After her initial hour-plus visit, Hughes susses out the thought processes and, often, lifestyle choices of her clients. She writes a proposal containing time estimates, then gives clients assignments between meetings. Most of her jobs take no more than three or four hours, generally spread out over a couple of weeks.
"I watch people physically and mentally change as I go through this process for them," she says. "I think they get lighter. You can see how the clutter or the lack of organization weighs on a person."
In keeping with the green mentality of the region—but running counter to what Hughes identifies as a uniquely American problem—she has found she can mitigate her clients' sentimental attachments to inanimate objects by pointing out they are simply passing unnecessary things on for someone else to use. Hughes herself can walk into many a Southeast dining establishment and see remnants of her cafe—the odd oven, table or chair—put to good use.
Hughes likens the purging process to therapy—people seek counseling to clear their heads during times of stress, crisis or flux. Similarly, erasing chaos in the home can be cathartic.
"I keep learning every single time about how people react to their environment. It's just a fascinating world to me," she says.
Among her many clutter-crushing victories, Hughes remembers client Christine Toth's case in particular. The young mother of three came down with pneumonia soon after relocating to her new digs. (Hughes and Toth are now close friends and near-neighbors.) After three months of living out of moving boxes, Toth called Hughes in. Together, they unpacked a house worth of stuff.
Beyond the hearth, the two concentrated on arranging a workspace for Toth, a poet and artist. Soon after, Hughes was gratified to learn that Toth's 10-year-old daughter had been caught playing "Anne Hughes" at a friend's house, instructing a schoolmate on how best to optimize her bedroom space.
Now Hughes is embracing her philosophy of simple, efficient living by renovating a double-wide garage on her son's property, and will soon move herself into a 20-by-20-foot home, much to her clients' amazement.
"It's sort of the ultimate of what I've been doing anyway," she says. But with downsizing as her profession, Hughes has found herself reflecting on the simple question of how much a person really needs.
"When you go the beach, you rent a little cabin, you stay there a week, you're perfectly happy," she says. "You're in this little space, you have just what you need; why couldn't you just do some variation of that in your own personal life?"