Move Over, Marie Kondo: Janet Bernstein Is the Home Organizer We Need Now

If Kondo is all about discovering what sparks joy, then Bernstein is about what’s most practical.

janet bernstein

Janet Bernstein is the founder of Organizing Professionals. Photography by Jeff Fusco

Janet Bernstein’s got beef with Marie Kondo. Okay, maybe not actual beef. Considering her glossy chestnut bob and calm British lilt, I can’t imagine the Organizing Professionals founder actually arguing with anyone, so I’ll dial that down a bit. Janet Bernstein’s got a few concerns she’d like to politely address with Marie Kondo, and they begin with her wardrobe.

“I’d love to wear cute pleated skirts, but this” — she motions to a button-up tucked into dark jeans, an outfit not unlike what Kate Middleton no doubt wears on her off days — “is as good as it’s going to get.”

We’re standing in the vast open kitchen of one Susan Barnett, a former CBS 3 news anchor who’s now a Newtown Square mom, discussing a plan of attack. Barnett has brought in Janet and her team for a full day of closet clean-outs. Today we’ll be tackling a utility closet, a large toy and craft area, and Susan’s two walk-ins upstairs.

Which brings us back to the aforementioned beef. As she talks strategy, Janet, who in another life taught English as a second language in Russia and Kazakhstan and founded her first organizing business in New York in 2006, lets me know that we’ll definitely not begin by asking Susan to pull out everything in the house. “There’s not a single client that would not just burst into tears,” Janet says of Kondo’s signature opening move. “You’ve got to have a more controlled way of doing things.”

This makes sense. If Kondo is all about discovering what sparks joy, then Janet is all about what’s most practical.

She divides her team of four between the utility closet and the kids’ stuff. First, they empty shelves and drawers. Then they determine what goes with what. This is known as sorting “like with like,” and it requires more deductive reasoning than most paralegal gigs. “Are mini pom-poms more doll clothes or dress-up accessories?” “Would you say Frozen is a holiday movie?” These are the questions of the day.

janet bernstein

Janet Bernstein’s organizing at work. Photograph by Jeff Fusco.

We move on to the cull. Finally able to see just how many Nerf missiles and furniture polish sprays her family actually possesses, Susan moves efficiently through the piles. She ditches Swiffer pads that don’t have a Swiffer and wind-up cars her son aged out of more than a year ago.

Though there’s no thanking of objects (Janet nixed that Kondo-ism, too), the day isn’t without its own peculiarities. Items aren’t thrown out; they’re “released.” And we never, under any circumstances, accept anything as a gift from the client. That’s a central tenet of the code of ethics of the National Association of Productivity & Organizing Professionals (Janet’s been a member since 2007), and it’s one she takes seriously. “The client will wonder if I’m encouraging them to get rid of something because I want it,” she explains. “That breaks down the trust.”

If trust is the end goal for Janet, what’s the end goal for Susan? How, I inquire early in the day, will she spend the hours she won’t have to devote to organizing things herself?

“Go shopping to fill everything up again?” she laughs.

Later, though, after all is neat and tidy, she has a different thought.

“It’s not actually about time,” she says. “It’s a mental thing. This frees up my mind. I can plan my life better knowing what I’ve got to work with.”

And with that, even though we’ve been at it for six hours now, she jogs upstairs so we can start on her shoes.

Published as “Cleanup Time” in the August 2019 issue of Philadelphia magazine.