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The Art of Clean Up: Making Disorder Beautiful

How Ursus Wehrli began tidying up parking lots, fruit salads, and a lot of other messy things.

People often ask me how I got started cleaning up. I was always interested in looking at things differently, seeing things from a different angle, and turning things upside down. So I started to look closely at Modern Art. I took some famous paintings and copied them and put all the different forms, shapes and colors in another place on the canvas. I started to tidy up all the objects in a painting and arranged them in a new way. I collected all the different squares in a painting and piled them up: The green ones went in one pile, the red ones in another. And so on. What came out were fascinating new pictures. I created books from these, mostly about tidying up art.

I discovered that once you are in the “tidying up” mode you walk through the streets and wherever you look, there are things you can clean up. After that I began to devote myself more to everyday situations, and I tidied up parking lots, fruit salads, and a lot of other messy things.

I began to notice that everyone has different ideas of what tidying up means. For example, while on tour to promote my book, I often stay in hotels. This is a big relief, because in hotel rooms you don't have to tidy up yourself. You just put that little sign outside the door that reads “Tidy up my room.” How great is that? I always wondered why the cleaning staff would clean up this or that, and who was the one to decide what’s neat and what's not.

After a while I decided to have a little fun. Before leaving the room each day I’d scatter a few things around the room—shoes, newspapers, toothbrushes, etc. To my surprise, when returning to my room all the things had always been neatly put back in their places. But I learned a lot about putting things in order: I realized that there are different ways people clean a room. One way is to follow logical criteria and put the stuff back to the place where you expect them to be: the toothbrush back in the bathroom, the shoes next to the door, and the newspaper neatly folded on the desk. What was much more inspiring to me was when cleaners tidied up things in a more, let's say geographical way: they left the things where they were, but just set them straight. The toothbrush, which was lying on the bed, was now lying on the pillow, exactly in the middle...The pair of shoes, which were sitting on the desk, stayed there, but were now perfectly parallel!

I love to discover new ways of looking at the world and playing with people’s expectations of how things should look. Our everyday lives are so complex. We long for simplicity and order. And one way to organize your thoughts is to tidy up, even if it's in places where it makes no sense at all.

Ursus Wehrli is author of The Art of Clean Up, Life Made Neat and Tidy

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