“What’s this?” asked professional organizer Drea Montali, picking up a playbill from a stack of papers on top of my desk.
“It’s from a show my sister stage-managed,” I said. “I’ve been meaning to send it to her.”
“Do you have an envelope?”
That’s when I knew Montali meant business.
The Astoria resident, who started her company Dream Organization in July 2017, was helping me organize my desk so I could get a taste of what it’s like to have a professional organize your space. I’ve never been the best at keeping my space tidy — my golden age of organization was the period after I read Marie Kondo’s book “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” a couple years ago. My desk bore the brunt of my clutter; it had long become unusable as I stacked it with papers and other things I didn’t know what to do with, until getting it in order felt like a mountain I didn’t want to climb.
That’s why, when Montali visited my apartment for my consultation, it became clear that my desk was the perfect thing to tackle.
“You’re a writer,” she told me. “You should be able to use your desk.”
The most stressful part of the process for me was actually before Montali arrived at my apartment on the designated organizing day. I wasn’t nervous about her seeing my desk; she’d already taken a look when she assessed my space during the consultation. Instead, as I looked through my desk drawers before Montali arrived, I was worried about how much work needed to be done.
But when Montali knocked on my apartment door, file folders in hand, she put me at ease. As stressful as organizing seemed to me, it was all in a day’s work for her, and she was ready to tackle my desk with me.
Montali said that some of her clients like to do the whole process with her, while others prefer to declutter and purge beforehand and then let her do her thing. In my case, she’d at least need me by her side for the first hour or two since I would be the one who knew what I could discard, and there are inevitably important papers to sort through. We started with papers, since those were the hardest items to declutter, she said. It was overwhelming at first for me, but Montali quickly developed a filing system tailored to my needs.
Then, she started deciding which categories of items should go in which desk drawers. While I sorted papers, she moved my stationary into my drawer of desk supplies and arranged everything neatly. At one point, I looked over to find that my drawer of electronics was now filled with neatly coiled and rubber-banded cords instead of a tangled, overflowing mess.
While we worked, I asked her what her favorite part of her job was.
“I love afterwards how people realize how life-changing it is,” she said. “I did some research on how much time organizing saves: in an article I read, it said we waste a year of our lives looking for things. In a year, I could travel the world. I love helping people save time. You can do something so much more fun with that year.”
Montali also loves that her organization helps de-stress people’s lives.
“When you wake up and you’re in a cluttered space, that physically can affect people,” she said. “It kind of puts your day out of wack. You might not eat right because of it, or you’re stressed because of it, or in the back of your mind, you can’t do XYZ because you have to go home and clean. And then you go home, and you’re too overwhelmed to clean.”
My appointment was on Jan. 2, so we talked about how people could best keep their New Year’s resolution to get organized.
“I think in the new year with all of the New Year’s resolutions, people get overzealous or ahead of themselves at first. When you start this, if you’ve never decluttered before or never organized before, start with one category. Go through all of your books.”
That means you shouldn’t target one cabinet that might have books in it; instead, go through all of the books in your apartment or house at once. Categorizing your things is one of Montali’s biggest tips. In a closet, you should keep pants together, shirts together and dresses together, for example, so that you’re not wasting your time searching through your closet for the item you want. Same goes for desks and pantry spaces.
Montali’s clients live all over Queens, Brooklyn and Manhattan, but a large portion of those clients are in Astoria and Long Island City. This area is special to her, she said, and she’s lived in several Astoria apartments herself, so she understands the specific challenges locals face: small closets, and often sharing a space with roommates, which means that you have to fit “all your life stuff in one room.” And working with couples is always interesting for Montali since there has to be compromise with storage space, and she helps couples use their space the best.
“Also, in older Queens apartments — this goes for Jackson Heights, too — a long time ago, closets weren’t really a thing. Everyone wanted armoires, and furniture was what you would use, so not all these older buildings have actual closets in them. Now, with new construction, people care about closets, so they’re getting bigger, but if you’re living in anything pre-war, you don’t have much closet space.”
Closets are close to Montali’s heart: before starting Dream Organization, she designed custom closet units for California Closets. That position would lead to organization jobs for Montali since once the closets were built, people would ask if she could put it back together, too.
Now, when her clients lack closet space, she helps them use wall space instead, or she’ll refer people to California Closets. Some people ask her to design them a closet, so she will measure the space, draw a closet design on graph paper, and then sell that design to a contractor to build it.
Montali said that one thing that sets her apart from other organizers is that she tries to be as eco-friendly as possible. She said that fashion is the second-most polluting industry, and with so many people buying throwaway clothes, what to do with old fabric has been a huge conversation. She’s noticed that a lot of her clients are sick of buying fast fashion that they’ll soon dispose of; instead, they’re ready to invest in more classic, quality pieces.
As we wrapped up the process, I asked Montali if she ended up getting close to her clients, since she would inevitably learn so much about them by going through their things. After all, we’d sorted through handwritten letters from friends, medical receipts, artwork I’d bought but hadn’t yet framed, internet bills and old photos. She told me that people tend to open up to her easily and let her into their lives once the organizing process starts, perhaps because going through someone’s belongings is an intimate process. And it was true: during our short, 3.5-hour session, Montali and I ended up talking about the book I was reading, dating in the age of apps, and how she met her husband.
The result of Montali’s desk organization astounded me: not only was my desk usable again, but it was in a better shape than ever. My files are neat, organized and alphabetized; my pens are all in one mason jar; and my desktop looks fun and welcoming, with some photos on display and all of my old copies of BORO Magazine, of which I am the editor-in-chief, standing up in a cute basket (in publication order, no less).
As I looked around my room, other areas — areas I’d thought weren’t all that bad — now looked messy.
“It’s addicting after a while, once you start,” Montali said. Her clients often hire her to organize one area, and then keep rehiring her to organize the other areas of their apartments. One man who made fun of his wife for bringing in a professional ended up hiring Montali himself once he’d seen the results of her work.
I could understand why. When you hand over your space to a professional, you feel safe knowing that you’re in good hands. And seeing your desk, long bogged down by piles of junk you never wanted to deal with, finally clear and tidy? It’s incredibly freeing.
See “after” photos of Montali’s other organizational projects below: