Tuesday, March 21, 2006

How I Live in 242 sq ft

Ok, it's not really that bad!

I've always liked small, cozy spaces. When I was a kid I was always making forts in the backyard, or walling off part of my closet for an "office" or a corner of the basement for a "laboratory." In college, I had some really nice dorm rooms, never large but always with some feature like built-in bookshelves, a fireplace or a balcony overlooking the main campus lawn, that made them feel special. And as an adult, I've shared some lovely and spacious apartments, but I've been happiest living alone in a small studio.
I think space is a little overrated sometimes. Sure, if someone wanted to give me a gigantic loft with minimal furniture placed here and there amidst empty expanses of floor, I wouldn't turn it down, and I think that kind of space can be beautiful. But in practical terms, who needs all that emptiness? Who wants to vacuum it? Who wants to have to walk half a mile to go to the bathroom? And who can afford it?
Of course that is one extreme and I'm at the other, and most people are somewhere in between. For a couple, or especially a family with kids, of course you need more space but let's think about what one person really needs. You need a place to sleep, and a place to keep your stuff. Nowadays most people probably also want bathing and cooking facilities, but in New York so many people eat out and do a lot of their showering at the gym anyway, I'm surprised people insist on these amenities. Then on top of that, you probably want the comfort of having a place to sit (that isn't the bed), and a place to eat (that isn't the kitchen counter, or, for that matter, the bed again). What else do you really need? And do you really need separate rooms in which to do all these things?
Here's what I have in my main room-- i.e., the one that isn't the kitchen or the bathroom:
--futon bed/couch (about $450, a fairly recent upgrade after ditching a 10-year old not-as-nice futon)
--2 bookcases (built to order then finished by me, about $800)
--cabinet desk for computer, stereo, & papers (gift, maybe about $300?)
--table with one chair (for dining) (maybe about $250-300?)
--armchair & footstool (for reading, watching movies, etc.) (free, from friends who were moving)
--dresser (maybe $150? bought unfinished, stained & varnished by me)
--small filing cabinet (maybe $25 from Caldor (RIP), years and years ago)
--small shelf for storage and microwave (about $50 from the unfinished bookshelf store)
--CD racks (maybe $100 total)
--metal stepstool being used as bookshelf (free from the apartment of some old guy who went into a nursing home, long story)

I don't really feel like I need much else-- I'm running out of room for my books and my back will probably thank me when I start sleeping on a real bed again... and my friends will probably thank me when they don't have to eat dinner picnic-style on the floor, but otherwise I feel like I've got the basics pretty well covered.

Some tricks to make it work:
You have to be able to put things away and minimize, or at least hide, clutter. My cabinet desk hides away some mess. And I have a good-sized closet with a lot of shelves, so I can stow plenty of stuff there. Also, when you have a lot of books, the trick is to organize them by SIZE before you worry about grouping them by subject. This allows you to fit more in the bookcase and it just looks neater. Keep them all pushed out to the edge of the shelf so it looks like a smooth wall of books-- this also minimizes dust. As for decorative items, keep them in groups rather than randomly spread around. I have all my framed photos grouped on one shelf. And I have a lot of weird little tchotchkes, but I keep them all on the mantel above my fireplace, so it's tightly controlled chaos. I also tried to limit the colors in the room-- none of the furniture was actually bought as a set but the woods are all a similar color-- same with the photo frames, they are all very different shapes, sizes and designs, but made of the same pewter-y sort of metal.

The most important rule is probably that whenever new things come in, old ones go out. I make trips to the Salvation Army and the used bookstore at least every time the season changes. You know that "touch it once" rule of organization? Well, for clothes, I have a version of that: if it hasn't touched my body once in a year, I get rid of it. Sure, I sometimes think "oh maybe I'll fit into that nice suit again someday" and I'll save things for a while, but I try to be pretty realistic about whether I really think I will ever wear something again, for reasons of size, style, condition, etc. Of course I tend to wear a lot of the same favorite clothes most of the time anyway, so I try to be ruthless about making room for whatever new ones I buy. The same with books-- this is harder, because I love books and like owning certain books that I may not crack for years at a time, but I also read lots of things that I know I won't really need to read again, so I get rid of them. Back to clothes for a minute, I also find that it helps to find ways to be able to SEE all the clothes you do have-- if they get buried you won't wear them and they go to waste. I started storing my t-shirts in semi-rolls in my drawers, so I'd have easier access to all of them instead of having to dig down to the bottom of piles. But with books I sort of do the opposite-- on most shelves, there is a 2nd row of books invisible behind the ones in front-- most of them are stacked horizontally, to make it easier to see what's there by just removing a single vertically-shelved book from in front of the stack.
Another tip is that you pretty much have to let go of the "stock up and save" concept. Unless it's something really small, or a really REALLY good deal, I buy things one at a time. Of course this doesn't apply to everything, but here's an example: shampoo. I've known so many people who have a gazillion bottles of shampoos, conditioners, bath gels, etc., cluttering up their shower. I have one shampoo, maybe 2 once in a while. One conditioner, one bath gel. When they run out, I buy one new bottle.
Knowing that I don't have much space for stuff really makes me think about whether I really want or need to buy it, and I think it does have a significant effect on how much money I spend!
Here's another space-saving tip: get rid of your TV. TVs take over so much space-- less so now that you can get the flat-screen models that can be mounted on a wall, but even with those, I think a TV can force a room to be organized around it in ways that aren't the best use of limited space.

Of course, these tips only go so far-- the space itself matters. Not just the square footage, but how it's laid out. If I had rented the mirror-image apartment next door, I couldn't make it work-- it might seem like a little thing, but in that one, the swing of a door happens to wipe out the wall space I'd need for bookshelves, so the bookshelves would have to go where my futon is, and the whole house of cards would collapse! I have a good closet, good kitchen cabinets (which matters to me because I do cook), and a huge medicine cabinet, which means I don't have to have cluttery little baskets of things all over the bathroom. There are odd things I don't have-- for instance, kitchen drawers-- but they are things I can live without (cutlery goes in a little basket in one of the cabinets). But I do have an overall layout that works, halfway decent storage, and equally important, a certain degree of charm. I won't be entering my studio in any Apartment Therapy contests, but it's not a dump-- the fireplace is a nice feature, and the windows let in tons of sun all day. They overlook gardens and a churchyard, so it's quiet and I often wake up to the sound of birds, or the church choir on Sundays in the summer, when I can hear them through the open windows.

I'll have more than twice as much space after I move, plus a basement storage unit. But I'm planning to try to stick with more or less the same minimalist philosophy-- I don't want to just fill up the space with junk. It will just be nice to have a little more space to stretch out in, and to entertain friends in. My windows will still overlook gardens, as will my little terrace. I'll miss the church, and I'll miss my fireplace-- and in some ways, I'll miss the coziness of this little room. One of my friends said the way I live was "a bit collegiate" and I really took issue with that-- collegiate, to me, means milk crates, laundry on the floor and posters put up with fun tack. My apartment isn't like that-- it may be sort of spartan in some ways, but it's very comfortable in others. It doesn't feel temporary or cheap, which is important to me. If it had a regular couch instead of a futon, (and if the microwave was actually IN the kitchen instead of on a shelf right outside it) it would feel like the living room or library you'd find in the home of an adult. I've actually had people come over when the futon is folded up into a couch, and walk into the bathroom thinking there must be a bedroom in there.

Anyway, I guess all that is my way of saying that a space is only as small as you make it feel.


mapgirl said...

This is a wonderful post. I sometimes look with envy at the larger spaces my friends have, but I've been pretty happy with my studio too. It's all about organization if you want to keep more stuff. The lady I bought my home from had way more stuff than I did, but she artfully packed it all in with plastic boxes and organizers. Just think of it as another way to express your creativity. It's not what you have, it's what you do with it.

Finance Junkie said...

Good post. Another class of individuals that can readily identify with your cramped quarters are those that live and travel in RVs (retired set).

IRA said...

Wonderful post. I've been trying to declutter my life lately, but I was raised as a packrat. And its been a struggle. It's true that the less space you have, the more you pause to think before you make a purchase.

~Dawn said...

I like small as well, roommate doesn't, so we compromise.
Definately don't like "walking a mile to the bathroom".

Jonathan said...

I wish I could live as simply as you...

Dave said...

I absolutely love the minimilistic look, the modern way of living is definately for me. However, I live in quite small house now and although it is a gorgeous house I would prefer a larger house with the same furniture in it, more space to do....errr...cartwheels I guess!

I can agree with you on the costs, running costs of a small place are much cheaper, perhaps that is why it is classed as modern living, perhaps people are becomming more financially aware.

inagm said...

I think it takes a lot of creativity to live well in small spaces. I really like looking at pictures of people's small apartments in magazines, and also on apartmenttherapy.com (the contest). It amazes me how creatively people utilize space.