No Space Too Small is a brand new column by Laura Fenton that celebrates the idea that you can live well in a small home. Each month, Laura will share her practical findings from years of observing how people live in tight spaces, and her own everyday experiences of living small—from the hunt for the perfect tiny desk and managing everyday clutter to how to smooth the frustrations out of cooking in a galley kitchen.
I live in a small space by choice. My 690-square-foot apartment is not tiny, but it is relatively small for a family of three. (The median house size in America is about 1650 square feet, and the average size of new houses exceeds 2,000 square feet.) I chose to live small so we could stay in New York City and not go broke.
Throughout my more than twenty years in New York I’ve chosen location over space. As a result, I’ve lived in a series of small spaces, including an unairconditioned dorm room shared by three girls, a 6 foot by 8 foot bedroom in an apartment with no living room, and a teeny-tiny studio that was made livable by a Murphy bed. I’ve tinkered and tweaked to make each of them work for myself and my family.
Over the years, I’ve become something of a small-space wonk. As a journalist who writes about homes, I’ve spent a lot of time observing how other people live in small spaces—I even wrote a whole book about it, The Little Book of Living Small. I keep tabs on the latest space-saving innovations and trends.
Being a home writer means I get to call up experts to ask them for advice. Among my favorites to call on are professional organizers. I am not naturally organized in an everything-labeled way, nor am I likely to ever hire a professional organizer to get me to be. But I love the way pro organizer’s minds work: They’re not just thinking about Tetris-like solutions to cram it all in (my default!)—they’re thinking holistically about the systems in homes, and how we use them. Professional organizers are problem solvers who know how to make the most of every inch, making them ideal experts for small spaces. Plus, they truly believe less is more and help other people pare back to what is essential.
Here are 11 small-space ideas I’ve stolen from organizing professionals over the years that have made my small space function better, and in turn, look nicer, too.
Let function be your guide
Organizers are always encouraging you to set up your home based on what needs to happen in a space—and relocate or eliminate the things that don’t support that task. This function-first mentality helped me decide to give my son the bigger bedroom in our apartment: My husband and I didn’t need more space to sleep, but our kid did need the extra square footage to play.
Pay attention to visual clutter
I’d written dozens of stories about tackling clutter before Shira Gill, an organizer in Berkeley California, whose home appeared in my book, introduced me to the idea of visual clutter. Sometimes what’s making our homes feel cluttered isn’t just too much stuff, it’s the visual effect of our stuff. You might technically have room for all the things that are displayed, but putting a few things away could be worthwhile for the aesthetic effect it has on your home. In my house, I moved the cooking utensils from a crock to a drawer and my kitchen immediately felt calmer.
Reduce the volume
Interviewing an expert for a home organization article, an organizer once told me that it’s important to reduce the volume of things in your home. Somehow that word, “volume,” really helped me. When your home starts to feel cluttered or just, well, full, start chipping away at things with the goal of reducing the noise of stuff: Gather up your pens and whittle down your collection to the best ones, go through your sock drawer and pull out all the singleton, holey or stretched out socks, streamline the items stored in your medicine cabinet. Every time I try to turn down the volume, it makes my home feel more peaceful.
Don’t blame your roommates
The most surprising thing I learned from Marie Kondo is not to give the side-eye to the rest of my family’s clutter. Kondo says to confront your own stuff first. You may think it’s the kid or spouse clutter that’s driving you crazy, but writes Kondo, “The urge to point out someone else’s failure to tidy is usually a sign that you are neglecting to take care of your own space.” Plus, she points out that tidying up your own stuff gives you “the ability to tolerate a certain level of untidiness among your family members.” With my own drawers under control I tend not to mind as much if my husband’s desk is a mess.
Store things where they accumulate
Katie Tracey, the organizer behind New Jersey’s Simple Spaces taught me that there’s often a disconnect between where we store things and where we use them, which explained all the shoes flung around the entryway to my apartment. For me, the fix was to store our most frequently-worn shoes near the door in a basket, instead of imagining we’d put them in the closet each night. Take a look around your house and observe where clutter builds up: Instead of fighting it, find a way to store those items near where they naturally gather.
Make measuring easier
Master Cruz, an organizer in Valencia, California who specializes in custom closets convinced me to buy a laser distance measure and I’m so glad she did. You get exact measurements with the push of a button, which makes planning big home projects so much easier—and in a small space, every inch counts! I’ve used mine for everything from planning our kitchen renovation to assessing a closet shelf that needed new bins.
Use a litmus test for “maybe” garments
Cruz also taught me a fantastic trick for editing your closet (an ongoing process for us small-space dwellers!). When Cruz’s clients are on the fence about a garment, she’ll ask, “If you ran into your ex-boyfriend while wearing this, would you feel embarrassed or great?” This is such a great way to be more subjective about the things I am reluctant to donate.
Opt for wooden hangers
Another closet tip came from Martha Stewart, who insists on wooden hangers for all her clothes. Years ago I embraced Huggable Hangers, those slim velvet flocked hangers that help you fit even more things into my small closet. But as I’ve gotten older (and maybe wiser), I tend to agree with Martha, who reasons is that the closet gets too crammed with the slim hangers—sometimes saving space isn’t really the solution! Plus those slim hangers were always breaking and wood ones seem to last forever and look much nicer.
Use shoe drawers for anything but shoes
Organizers are always singing the praises of clear plastic shoe drawers, but it was an organizer who suggested using them for kids toys that got me thinking about all the different ways I might use these in my home. I bought enough to fill one shelf in my hall closet and those drawers are now our “utility closet” where we store picture hanging supplies, lightbulbs, spare cords, and the like.
Set up an “outbox”
Stephanie Peace, founder of The Organized Chick in Atlanta, taught me the value of creating an “outbox,” a dedicated space for items that are on their way out or not quite gone yet. Think packages you need to send back, items you borrowed that you need to return, and library books. It doesn’t need to be fancy: Mine is a humble cardboard box in the bottom of our front hall closet.
But, remember: there is no magic container
While I've mentioned a couple specific things that have helped me in my small space, Gill reminds me and her clients that you can’t buy your way to organization. You have to do the work of editing, sorting, and finding a place to store things before you buy any hooks or bins. Whenever I find myself itching to shop to solve my problems, I remember Gill’s advice and try to make things work with what I already have.
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