Another ‘ism’ has joined the fray, or in this case, perhaps the frayed. It celebrates the normal, chaotic and cluttered way most of us live, writes Anna Tyzack.

Emlyn Rees and his wife Josie Lloyd will not be investing in an open plan kitchen extension. Nor will they be rationalising their wardrobes, digitally storing their music or replacing the paperbacks on their bookshelves with a curated arrangement of blue china owls. Their house, they've decided, is good enough as it is, even though the garden fends for itself and guinea pigs roam free in the laundry.

"We spend our lives being told to be better, be more perfect," Rees says. "But aspiring to be shiny people in shiny houses is not an attainable goal — it's not making us any happier. It's putting us on edge."

Shabbism, the lifestyle advocated in the couple's new book, Shabby, is the antidote to hygge, the Scandinavian preoccupation with cashmere throws and log fires, and a reaction against the forced de-cluttering and rolling of clothes advocated by Marie Kondo in her bestseller The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying. It's permission to be as you are: a celebration of the normal, chaotic and cluttered way that most of us live.

Shabbism can bring a greater sense of fulfilment and purpose, says Lloyd, while it also means less time spent tidying and fussing. "Let's stop trying to pretend that we have pristine and immaculate homes," she says. "They're not shops. It doesn't matter if there are crumbs on the kitchen table if it means you have time to enjoy a cup of coffee and a conversation."


This is what we're doing now, in the house where they live with their three daughters, Tallulah, 17, Roxie, 13, and Minty, 12. It's a well-worn family home, which doubles up as their office — Rees and Lloyd are novelists who have teamed up on a number of parody books over the years, including We're Going on a Bar Hunt and The Very Hungover Caterpillar. Shabby was inspired by the bossy clean-living manuals and minimalist interiors books on our coffee tables that promote what they call a "shiny" lifestyle.

"We realised there is so much you can achieve in life if you lose shininess as an ideal," says Lloyd, whose hair is growing back following treatment for breast cancer. "Shabbism is being comfortable in your skin, embracing the fact you're going to get wrinkles and not looking in the mirror too much."

She doesn't blow-dry her hair in the morning and Rees' glasses are coated in a film of dust, but shabbism is not, Lloyd points out, an excuse to be dirty. Or sloppy, lazy or unwholesome. "We tidy up after ourselves; we're not scuzzy but neither do we bleach every surface every day. We live with a dog, we embrace germs and we are robust as a result."

There comes a time, once every couple of weeks, when the whole family rushes around cleaning up. Rees refers to this watershed as "tipping over into crustiness". "No one likes living in a pig-sty but we wait for that moment to occur rather than keeping on top of it all the time," he says.

A quick tour of the Lloyd-Rees residence reveals a tidy but cluttered kitchen, with one of those miscellaneous drawers we all have bearing dispensers, string, old takeaway menus and loose batteries. Upstairs, cupboards groan with clothes and shoes and the beds are vaguely made, but there are no decorative cushions or headboards. The house is dry and warm but the carpets are fraying and damp bubbles through the paintwork in a couple of places. Outside there's a half-deflated canoe and a garden shed that is not some swanky home office but storage for furniture, plant pots and disparate sports kit.

A shabbist's goal, they explain in the book, is maximalism. "He or she seeks a life that is not empty, but splendidly cluttered and full." It's enough to give Marie Kondo kittens — she proposes keeping only those possessions that truly bring us joy — but Lloyd and Rees are proud of their clutter. They've both lost parents recently and believe that our things define us in certain respects. "One of the saddest things about losing someone is clearing out their house," Rees says. "It's a diary of their life and removing all those stories is upsetting. But it would be so much worse if you didn't have anything left to remind you of them."

Josie Lloyd and Emlyn Rees at home with their children. Photo / Andrew Crowley
Josie Lloyd and Emlyn Rees at home with their children. Photo / Andrew Crowley

Tom Hodgkinson, editor of The Idler and author of How to be Free, agrees that excessive decluttering can be just as oppressive as living with too much junk. "Who wants to live in an empty glass box designed by the same architect as everyone else's glass box?" he asks.

Social media — as usual — is to blame in part for our obsession with cleanliness, organisation and how we appear to others, Lloyd says. She refers to Instagram as a "tsunami of perfection" — images of immaculate kitchens, yoga-toned bodies and kale smoothies — that is distracting us from the bigger picture. "In my 20s I always wanted a kitchen table with lots of children around it, and now I have that I'm not going to be trying to improve myself all the time," says Lloyd.

Parents are in danger of passing unrealistic "shiny" ideals on to their children, she continues. "I know of parents who shout at their children when they get home from school because they haven't put bags away or taken off their shoes but I'm not going to give my children that stress," she says. Of course, there's a fine line to be struck between shabbism and hoarding. Both Lloyd and Rees are keen not to burden their children with a load of useless junk, but neither do they have much stomach for throwing things away. Who knows, it might come in useful one day. "I feel as if we owe it to them but whether we will manage it remains to be seen," Lloyd says. "We both grew up with that ethos that you don't chuck things away; you use them for another purpose. Our parents could have survived a nuclear war with the contents of their garage."

The Queen evidently shares this philosophy. A recent photograph of her in a sitting room at Balmoral showed chintz sofa cushions, perhaps fashioned from a previous sofa cover, an aged electric heater and books that seem not to have moved since the 1920s, along with modern gadgets such as an iPod and a Sky box. Lloyd and Rees are keen to show their children that new does not necessarily mean better. Over the past few years they have been buying back, one by one, all the vinyl records they sold or threw away and now have a record player in the kitchen. "Records are beautiful pieces of artwork that someone has thought carefully about — they enhance a room," Emlyn says. Their book, which outlines the four pillars of shabbism — messiness, dilapidation, clutter and bodged works — was intended to poke fun, but as they wrote it they realised they had hit upon an element of the zeitgeist. Organisations such as Google are becoming less clinical and structured in their office design and the way their employees work. "When I was working in offices in the 90s they were like veal fattening pens but now companies are realising the benefits of the corridor meeting," Rees says. He has never been the type to respond instantaneously to emails and sign up to every project but now his "shabbist" approach is being encouraged. "It's not good to be flaky but putting your hand up for everything does not make you more efficient or creative," he says.

The couple refuse to believe their home could ever be considered trendy but they're not surprised that designers have cottoned on to the fact we like to be surrounded by things. "When you leave home, you have nothing, but then you start to gather stuff and by the time you reach our age a lot of it is very precious to you," Emlyn says. It heartens him when he sees an old picture to know that the jumper he was wearing still hangs upstairs.

Do they ever wish their lives were just a little shinier? Both concede that when they go to a friend's house with a sparkling new granite kitchen or to a minimalist hotel, they feel as if they are truly on holiday.

But shinism is not real life. For them — and most of us — the most reliable, comforting, and joyful way to live is unashamedly shabby.

Shabby: The Jolly Good British Guide to Stress-free Living, little, brown book group, $25.