CHRISTINA LARSON had a problem. Her closet had turned into the Bermuda Triangle. Things went in, never to come out again.
But there wasn't much mystery to it. The culprit was clutter.
So Ms. Larson, a busy hospital administrator, contacted Mary Lou Andre, a professional organizer. After spending seven hours with Ms. Andre sorting and organizing, Larson says she can now get up in the morning, pull an entire ensemble off one hanger, and be dressed ''in seconds.''
''It was the best thing I did for myself in years,'' Larson says.
Larson is not alone in her quest for more control over her closet and her time. By all indications, Americans' desire to organize, categorize, and compartmentalize is on the rise.
From stores and catalogs that sell bins and baskets to closet designers and home-office consultants, organization is a bona-fide commodity and a growing industry.
Reasons for the trend include:
* Economics of space. People have to pay more for space, so they must do more with less of it.
* Time is money. Americans don't want to waste time looking for things they've misplaced, wondering what to wear, or picking up after themselves.
* Dual-income families. With nobody home full-time, families crave help on the home front.
* Busy baby boomers. Now considered the ''sandwich'' generation, they are either willing or finding it necessary to pay for special services, from moving an aging parent closer to home to helping a child set up a college dorm room.
* Focus on home. Downsizing and telecommuting has yielded home offices. People are spending more time - even vacation time - at home.
* Less is more. Americans still have too much stuff, but slowly they are becoming interested in decluttering and buying things that will last.
The organizing industry enters the picture having changed with the times. What was once considered a luxury, called custom design or management services, is increasingly seen as a necessity, called clutter control.
Put another way, the same organizing industry that made way for more material possessions in the ostentatious '80s has, remarkably, found a niche in the ''simplify'' '90s.
Perhaps no one knows this better than Neil Balter.
Mr. Balter started California Closets in 1978 at the age of 18. He sold it in 1990, only to find that early retirement was boring and that he missed the business. Now, five years later, he's back, this time with Organizer's Direct, ''custom closets at a price that makes sense.''
Home storage is a $1.5 billion industry in the United States; within that, closet design is a $600 to $700 million industry. In most metropolitan areas, if you look in the yellow pages after ''Clocks,'' you'll find two pages of listings for ''Closets.'' Competition has grown since the late '70s, but demand is still high. Balter says: ''Mess equals stress. People want to simplify and deal with clutter in their lives.''
Kathy Waddill can attest to that. A few years ago, the mother of two quit her job as a systems analyst to be a full-time professional organizer because demand was through the roof. Today, her business, the Untangled Web, in Medford, Mass., is thriving.
Almost all of Ms. Waddill's clients are mothers who work full time. ''Usually people call me because there are these piles, and they don't know where to start.... They're not chronically disorganized, they've just gotten behind and can't catch up,'' she explains.
Waddill does not clean up for them, rather she goes in and asks them questions. ''Then I give them a set of skills to help them stay on top of their life.''
The number of professional organizers in the US has more than doubled in the past five years, according to The National Association of Professional Organizers (NAPO). NAPO's membership - organizers who are now starting to specialize in anything from estate sales to kids' rooms to law offices and, of course, closets - is just over 800 and is expected to reach 850 by March.
While most professional organizers are women, NAPO reports that referral requests come from an equal number of men and women. Training is through on-the-job experience, though NAPO is in the midst of establishing a certification process.
More often than not, word-of-mouth fuels business.
''Organizational services are moving from the realm of being discretionary to being more key, more critical to an improved quality of life,'' says NAPO president Paulette Ensign.
Plastic bins, wire boxes
On the retail end, stores are basically selling the same thing: control. Company names and slogans imply it, such as Hold Everything, and Contain Yourself! (The Container Store). Such stores have also begun to offer in-home and over-the-phone consulting services.
Wholesale sales of organizing products grew in the vicinity of 10 percent from 1993 to 1994, according to the Home Furnishings Network in New York. These products range from plastic shower caddies and garment bags to elaborate wire-basket and hook systems.
Sales may be up, but are Americans any more organized?
''I'd like to think we're being more sensible, but I'm not sure that's the case,'' says Lu Wendel Lyndon, president of ''Placewares'', a five-store retail chain in Boston since 1978. ''At least ferocious consumption has, thank goodness, fallen off. Somehow people are beginning to learn that less is more.''
Time is luxury
But in defense of modern lifestyle, Ms. Wendel Lyndon continues, ''the variety of things we do requires more equipment.'' From sports gear to home offices (the next frontier for organizers, she says), houses are loaded with stuff. ''A baby is a phenomenal event in terms of equipment, for example,'' she adds. All this stuff needs a place.
Jeffrey Mayer, author of ''Time Management for Dummies'' and other business books, offers a broader view.
''People really don't want to be more organized. They want more time. They want more money. They want to be able to enjoy life more. And all their clutter is getting in the way.
''The issue is not 'how can I organize,''' Mr. Mayer says, ''it's 'what can I get rid of that's slowing me down?'''
Beyond time, organizers note, there's an aesthetic to consider.
''People are spending more time at home and they want to feel better about themselves and their homes,'' sums up Anthony Vidergauz, president of California Closets. ''It's a pleasure to wake up in the morning and know where everything is.''
Pay for a 'personal trainer'
But organizational peace of mind doesn't come cheap. California Closets caters to the high end of the custom-closet market (clients include Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jordan, and Elton John). Prices start at $600 and can go into the thousands; lower-end closet makeovers, such as Organizers Direct's, start at around $200.
Professional organizers charge between $25 and $125 an hour for their services, with the average visit lasting several hours.
Consumers have high expectations when they drop a good amount of money on such services. But the organizers can only help get them started - the rest is up to them. Organizers always stress the upkeep, saying ''in order for this to work, you need to change your habits and work with the system.''
For this, they are likened to personal exercise trainers. Or, as critics say, people you pay to make you do what you won't do on your own.
Laura DaSilva, a marketing executive of a publishing company in New York says, ''Would I pay $200 to have my closet done? That would be a big 'No.' These companies prey on stressed-out, overworked, overwhelmed people. I'm a creative, common-sense person. I can do it myself.''
To that end, organizers acknowledge that many people are very good do-it-yourselfers.
But other people want someone to come in and tell them what to do, points out Andre, whose business, Organization By Design, in Needham, Mass., caters to busy female professionals.
''They need that fresh eye,'' she says.
California Closets's Vidergauz adds that sometimes it's the investment that makes people hold to a system.
Of course, no amount of money can guarantee total control, which brings up an important point: ''We're professional organizers, not perfect organizers,'' Ensign says.
''We also give customers permission to be human, which is important,'' she continues.
Just the other day, Ensign admits, she misplaced an important NAPO document in her office. ''It was orange,'' she sighs. As it turned out, the paper had been misfiled.