Are cubbies right for you?

September 4, 2013

I understand why cubbies work in preschool. They provide an open, close-to-the-ground spot for large numbers of small children to store their backpacks, coats and lunchboxes. But in the past decade, cubbies have made the jump from something found only in schools to a sought-after amenity for the home.

People long for cubbies, thinking they will answer all their family’s organizational prayers. Because the design puts everything out in the open, people think their kids will surely hang up their coats, their spouses will definitely put their shoes where they belong and everything from umbrellas to sunscreen will be neatly categorized by family member, right? Not exactly. Don’t demolish that coat closet yet.

An online search will turn up hundreds of images of beautifully designed and organized cubbies for your entryway or mudroom. But when put to daily use, cubbies rarely resemble the pictures in a catalogue. There are drawbacks to consider, ones you won’t see in a staged magazine or Pinterest post.

One common problem is that the fixed hooks on most cubbies are placed too high for a child to reach safely, making it difficult for them to hang up their own coats. As a result, coats often end up thrown on the surface below the hooks. Or a child stands on the bench to dutifully hang his jacket, and the nicely painted, clean surface gets muddy and scratched.

Another frequent complaint is that the bench where you envision family members sitting to put on their shoes instead becomes the landing space for every bag that enters your house. The height of the surface makes it a naturally inviting space to unload, so most of the time there’s no room to sit down.

And that special cubby on the bottom for shoes? If you leave the shoes visible, they probably won’t always be neatly aligned or stacked. And if you add a bin to hide the messy stack of shoes, then no one can find them. Likewise, the shelf on top seems like it would be a great place for things you don’t want the kids to reach or for less-used items, but it often ends up being the land of forgotten items.

If you have reasonable expectations about their appearance and are comfortable seeing all of their contents all the time, cubbies can be useful. But they are not an organizational necessity.

A well-designed coat closet is a better idea. Not only can a closet hold more coats than cubbies, you can close the door, an important feature that should not be overlooked. And even if your home has only a tiny coat closet, there are ways to make it work by using a combination of accessories to optimize the space for your family’s needs.

To maximize the space in a traditional coat closet, consider taking out the original rod and shelf and replacing them with two rods. Adults can use the top rod for their coats, and kids will be able to reach the lower rod. Any overflow coats can be hung on wall hooks. And that one long winter coat can be stored elsewhere for most of the year.

Over-the-door shoe racks can hold up to 30 pairs of shoes or be used to store small items such as mittens or bug spray. If you choose to use that space for outdoor items, shoes can be stored in nearby shoe cabinets. They often hold up to nine pairs of shoes and are narrow enough to fit in any entry space.

A dresser in the foyer is the perfect storage solution for bike helmets and hats that might not fit in the closet, and it also works well to keep small items organized and out of sight.

Cubbies can be great if you’re already an organized person. But if you’re not, they’re not going to magically make you more organized. Being able to see where everything belongs does not ensure organization. Knowing where everything is, even when you can’t see it, does.

Anzia is a freelance writer and owner of Neatnik. She can be reached at nicole@neatnik.org.

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