This Month’s Featured Article

Sisyphus Design

By Published On: October 31st, 2018

By Mary B. O’Neill, PhD |

This area abounds with design professionals to help you create a lifestyle through design choices. Main Street writer, philosophy lecturer, and employee engagement consultant Mary B. O’Neill has turned her hand to lifestyle and interior design with the founding of Sisyphus Design, devoted to aspirational cluttered living. Main Street caught up with her for a conversation about her influences and design vision.

Tell us about the name of your firm, Sisyphus Design. Where did it come from?

The name of my design firm is drawn from Greek mythology. Sisyphus was the rather naughty king of Ephyra. He played tricks on the gods and was sentenced to a life of hard labor. Each day, his task was to roll a huge boulder up a mountainside, only to find it back at the bottom the next morning. His personal hell was the repetitive and futile nature of this task.

It’s easy to see life and home interiors in this light. Complete a task – and then do it again. Make a room just so – and the next morning kids and spouses have undone it all. And so you begin again, that same exercise in futility.

Life, interior design, and maintaining the “look”of it all have a Sisyphean nature to them. The act of living creates chaos and clutter, and each moment we are forced to confront those twin forces and restore order. My vision exposes the quotidien ennui of our human existence.

I’ll give you an example of what I mean. In my own home entry, I have a lovely designer shoe rack to hold my family’s shoes. I sourced it at a darling blue and yellow Swedish boutique and café in New Haven. They also have amazing meatballs!

Each night, I artfully arrange sneakers, shoes, and boots in a symmetrical and tasteful way, only to find by the next evening, when my family is home and shoes are off, the rack sits empty. Shoes are carelessly strewn on the floor around it.

Now, I am presented with the Sisyphean task of recreating that tasteful shoe display once more. This task, repeated every day for 11 years, has become a version of boulder-rolling hell, and so Sisyphus Design was born.

Who are your muses, your inspirations?

Interesting question. My muse is at the same time no one and everyone. I am part of the interior avant-garde that outstrips the current design vernacular, and yet on a basic level we all live cluttered lives. I believe I’m a pioneer in celebrating that and coining the concept of aspirational cluttered living.

But if you pressed me for an inspiration, I’d have to say that it’s Jeff, my husband. After nearly 25 years of coping with his hoarding ways, he has led me to where I am now.
Just the other afternoon, we shared an intimate moment over Harney tea at our sunlit dining room table. Papers, laptops, and last night’s dinner crumbs were pushed to the side as I coquettishly teased him. I declared that life without me would find him buried under decades of The New York Times, only to be discovered when the smell of putrefaction worked its way through the layers of newsprint. Then we laughed, like young lovers – as we often do – about his compulsion to collect.

But what about Gywneth and her Goop lifestyle empire? Surely, she inspires you.

Ah, Gywnnie Paltrow. I consider myself everything she is not. Her aspirational living philosophy is for the .00001 percent of society. I aim for everyone else – the ones who must live in the homes they decorate. The ones with children who win athletic trophies just for showing up for a game and then display them in their rooms for a decade, dust collecting in the grooves of the tiny metallic plastic soccer ball. The ones who are awash in laundry, meal prep, and bill paying that must all be done under one roof, and can’t be farmed out to the laundry service, personal chef, and accountant.

While Paltrow addresses aspirational living that thrives to transcend human limits, mine is aspirational living for those who are seeking to survive the everydayness of their lives on a strict budget.

In the long run, my commercial potential for design influence is much larger than hers. This January, Henri Bendel is closing all of its 23 stores. But dollar stores are the fastest growing retail segment. Seventy-five percent of the US population lives within five miles of a Dollar Tree. Can you see my potential?

And while our approaches are quite different, I’m not ruling out a collaboration with her in the future. I’ve pitched an Odd Couple lifestyle show to her people called Goop Gets Real. I’d be Oscar Madison to her Felix Unger. The demand is there. The movement is rising. We could really change lives for the better.

Your background is in philosophy, how did you make the change to design?

Hmmmm… well, interiority is a rich philosophical concept pertaining to one’s inner life, one’s subjectivity. One of my design goals is to bring the cluttered interior existence of one’s mind to the exterior and into one’s home.

The externalizing of interior mental clutter through décor and lifestyle design is something I’m always exploring in my work. I’m constantly pushing boundaries, pushing my clients to give physical expression to their confused and anxious minds through the design choices they make.

In another way, interior design is about existential choices and radical freedom.

Here’s what I mean. Each day, I walk up my very open and very visible staircase that leads up to my children’s rooms. And each day, I choose to leave the cleats, clothes, bags, and books where they are instead of robotically taking them up with me.

In that moment, I choose myself, I choose to not succumb to societal pressure to declutter, to enslave myself to my children. In that moment, I’m also filled with the existential anguish of what will happen if someone rings my doorbell and I’m subjected to the look of disdain that existential philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre explores in Being and Nothingness.

Wow, that’s a bit heavy. Let’s move onto something easier. What projects are you working on now?

In my own home, I’m working on a clean laundry installation in my living room. Inspired by artwork at MASS MoCA and MoMA, I’m using life to imitate art by larger 3-D projects that inhabit a space. I want to playfully explore the boundaries of life and design.

I’m experimenting at the inflection point when clutter becomes a bold statement. What I mean is this, I’ve long wondered when perusing issues of decade-old Architectural Digest in a doctor’s office, why a stack of coffee table books against a wall or a series of unhung framed pictures is considered a design statement in a posh Paris pied a terre, but clutter in my own. What is it that causes that metamorphosis? When does that moment occur?

It’s this moment that I’m exploring in my laundry project. Through baskets of clean laundry dumped on the floor in the hope that someone will come along and fold it, I’ve discovered design potential. That mound illustrates the tension between wrinkled clothes and abstract art, between a manifestation of exhausted laziness to a bold aesthetic statement. The texture and undulating surface hold the eye and give the room a focal point. And with the pile alternatively expanding and shrinking based on the day and who needs to wear what, the look never gets old.
When I need a pop of color I install my dark laundry. When the tranquility of white is in order, undershirts, towels and sheets make their way into the pile. If I need a fragrance boost, I switch up my detergent scent. My living room is never static, never mundane.
This groundbreaking work is so laundry forward. It’s an unexplored genre and MASS MoCA has approached me to cross over into the world of laundry art in their new textile wing. Those conversations are ongoing and quite hush-hush.

Where do you source your materials and clutter?
I have two local spots that I use regularly – the Salisbury/Sharon Transfer Station Swap Shop and the Habitat for Humanity of Northwest Connecticut This-n-That boutique.
Swap Shop curator Brian Bartram has a keen eye for design pieces I’d be interested in. He’s always there to comment on a piece and guide me to it. The Swap Shop is so well known as THE place to shop in my town that clients bring him new inventory every day. Sometimes he must shutter his shop and turn the public away because the volume is too large.

His pieces move fast, which means that Jeff or I, but mostly Jeff, must visit it regularly. Recent finds include a classic set of plastic wine goblets and substantial brass bookends from the Library of Congress. While I don’t use bookends since my paperbacks are tastefully stacked against my gallery wall, I just couldn’t pass them up.
Judi Moore of This-n-That has a designer’s eye and sources material from all over Northwest CT. Again, inventory moves quickly. When I’m in the shop, I close my eyes and I’m transported to Paris’s Les Puces de Saint-Ouen iconic flea market.

Do you have any advice for the budding aspirational clutterer?

Well, normally I only give advice for a fee, but with the business I’ll generate from this interview, I can give you a soupçon of gratis design counsel.

If I’ve learned anything in recent days, it’s that if you think it, then it’s true. If you perceive stacks of mail, cobwebs, and cans of soup on your kitchen counter as clutter and mess, then it will be so. If you change that perception to see these items as a visible filing system, living string art that allows for the interplay of the natural and manmade, and a Warholesque take on dinner preparation, then clutter disappears.

Clutter becomes an aspirational design choice. It’s no longer a manifestation of the middle class struggle to gain and maintain an economic security and have an ordered life with house beautiful at the same time.

Follow Sisyphus Design on Instagram @sisyphusdesign