Photographs by Jeff Hirsch
Professional organizer Jeanie Engelbach calls herself “a gentle drill sergeant” … and possibly sometimes not that gentle. The trouble is that people think they’re better at organizing themselves or their lives than actually are, at least that is what she has observed since she started her business some fourteen years ago. We need help and she is formidably here to give it.
Although her early ambition was to be a VJ on MTV and to work in the music business, she wound up working in visual display for both Bergdorf Goodman and ABC Carpet & Home. She started out with a sideline organizing people’s photo collections, calling it photojeanie and eventually turned it into a full-on business, adding apartmentjeanie and a party planning arm of the business, partyjeanie. Of her zeal and talent for organizing, she told us, “… it’s shy of compulsion, but I can’t think when there’s clutter. It weighs on me physically.”
So you can’t exactly study for what you do—what did you study in college?
Communications, radio and film [at the University of Wisconsin]. I started off studying behavioral science and law because I really like criminology but I didn’t want to be a lawyer. I just wanted to be a judge and my sister was like, “You just want people to raise from their seats when you walk in the room.” But then I was home one summer looking in the course catalog and I’m like, “There are courses on TV?! I love TV!” I did okay. My parents didn’t care what grades I got in college—didn’t care at all.
So are they very laid back, your parents? What do they do?
Yeah … my father is a stockbroker and my mother owned her own travel agency.
I think the thing was I’ve always been a self-starter—I never needed to be told to do my homework or tidy my room and my parents always thought I was going to super successful at whatever it was.
They had faith in you!
Well … I think they also just thought I was a mini version of them, and so how could that go wrong?
In the end the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
My parents are both accidental business owners, like myself. And they’re both very artistic. I had no desire to own my own business … I just couldn’t walk into ABC Carpet & Home one more day. I just couldn’t do it. It was a dream job when I got it …
So how did you launch your business?
Photojeanie was my first business—photo archiving and making photo albums—I started that in 2000. I started it on the side. People were still developing film at that time and there was a photo lab near University Place and I went there and said,” I want to make these flyers, can I put them out?” They said, “We’ll do better than that we’ll put them in envelopes for you.” One of the first people to get one was Danny Meyer’s wife. So it was word of mouth. All my business is word of mouth. It never occurred to me it would be a full time thing. It was like, I take all of your stuff, bags, boxes and folders and I send you back presents, basically.
So what is your process—you get a box full of random photos, where do you go from there?
Most of the time I get to spend a little time with the client and then it’s just separating, constantly whittling it down. My first client was my old boss. He has a very large Greek family and they go to Greece for the summer and he had like thousands of photos. I literally broke it down like, “Beach”, “Night”, “Daytime”. And then with “Beach”, it was “these towels are different from those towels; these chairs are different from those chairs; she’s wearing this bathing suit here …”
It sounds like detective work. So let’s get to some, I guess, “philosophical questions” … they’re not really … they’re psychological questions. One thing that interests me, is why do people find it so hard to tidy? For a lot of people, the idea of tidying up fills them with a bit of panic, a bit of dread … and it’s deeper than it just being a boring task.
First of all, it’s work. I am highly organized and for me, it’s still work. Like when I walk in the door, I take the leash off the dog. I roll that up and I put it away. I do it right away. My bag from the day is emptied every single day. I take out every single article. If you’re not emptying your bag as you put things in it all day—now you’re carrying yesterday’s, for lack of a better word, trash
But a lot of people aren’t work shy necessarily.
It doesn’t come to people easily. It becomes overwhelming because you don’t have proper systems. If you knew exactly where everything was going, then it would be easy. For me, it’s shy of compulsion, but I can’t think when there’s clutter. It weighs on me physically.
But why are so many people messy?
I think it’s because it doesn’t matter to them. And there are people who didn’t grow up in homes that were neat and tidy and orderly, so it is a learned behavior as well.
And then there some people would kill you if you tidied up their office—they need their mess.
But it’s not productive for the office space or for other people. If I’m out of office and you need to find something for me, you’ve got to sort through it. There’s no rhyme or reason in your mind but I think it all makes sense. Truthfully, I think people think they’re a lot neater and more organized than they actually are. But they just don’t have a system. People always overestimate how organized they are and underestimate how much stuff they have.
So your job is less to do with transforming and tidying up so to speak, but devising a system.
Yes. I think there’s a lot of shame behind having someone come in and professionally help you organize as opposed to a housekeeper who helps you clean. People are capable of cleaning their own home but they hire outside help. When it comes to professional organizing, they’re like, “Well I should be able to do this myself.”
I guess they just do not know how to devise a system.
They don’t. There’s no shame behind it. It’s how you see things in the world. When I walk into a kitchen, it makes clear sense to me as to how things should be organized—I don’t want to put glasses over a sink because I don’t want a glass to fall out and break in a white sink and then you can’t find the broken glass. But it’s so hyper-observant that people just don’t see it. Their brains are on something else. The other thing is that people lose steam.
Is it just self-discipline?
It is … but I don’t have great self-discipline with food for example … if I have food in my cabinet, the food gets consumed. I have a sugar addiction … I think that is [more] about allocating some time and focus.
Once you’ve organized someone’s home, how do you get people to sustain it?
Well we have an intake form and we ask a lot of questions about lifestyle: Are you a collector? Are you a hobbyist? Do you travel a lot? We go through their typical morning and weekday evening and their weekends to really understand how they operate in their homes. We take a ton of photos and maybe some video as well. I want them to give me honest answers. It’s like cleaning up when your housekeeper comes—no, I need to see exactly how you live in it. It’s taken me a while to temper this. I used to walk in and say, “Oh, we’ve got to fix this, this and this, and then, they don’t even see it—it’s not important to them.” I have to care what they care about. When someone calls, it’s because they’re struggling. The thing about organization is that you can’t have a family member help …
Why can’t you?
Because they’re going to implement how they do it: Do it my way! I’m organized! But that might not be the right way for the person who is struggling.
So if it is to last, you have to find a plan that is bespoke, in a way.
Exactly. I have to change things around if a client says, “That won’t work for me” even if aesthetically I don’t find it pleasing or functionally it could be better. But that person knows him or herself.
Why can’t people get rid of stuff that is clearly crap and hasn’t seen the light of day for years?
A lot of times people are barricading themselves behind their stuff. People have emotional and irrational attachments to objects, and they feel there’s a lot more financial value to things than there really is.
But if you are removing that barricade, how do people react?
People are fragile when you’re doing this. Sometimes they’re quiet; sometimes they get a little nasty. Sometimes they cry. People cry all the time. I’m not really great with the emotional outpouring of tears. I’m not like, “Come in here and let me hold you.” But I am guiding you down a path—I can help you get there. I will never make people get rid of something that has emotional value but I will challenge them in expressing to me, why do you need to hold on to it?
A lot of women hang to their wedding dresses, for example.
I had a woman who hung on to the suit she wore to her son’s Bar Mitzvah—and she’s a grandmother now. I said to her, “Look, you will never be more beautiful than on the day you that you wore it and were professionally photographed in it. It’s no longer in style. You’re not going to wear it out of the house.”
… and you’ve put on forty pounds since then …. you’re ruthless!
I am. When I walk into your home, I don’t judge. I’m seeing the possibilities and the potential. I’m a lifesaver.