Erin Boyle, of Reading My Tea Leaves and the new book Simple Matters, lives in a 500-square-foot Brooklyn Heights apartment with her husband and one-year-old daughter. Two years ago, she shared 15 tips for living in a tiny apartment. Since having a baby, she’s learned even more about navigating a small space (and staying sane along the way). Here are her tips…
1. Don’t be afraid to move furniture around. When we moved in, we initially shared the (one) bedroom with our 19-month-old daughter. In order to get more privacy (and read in bed again!), we recently moved our bed into the main room of our apartment, and our 19-month-old daughter now has the bedroom to herself. There’s nothing like welcoming a baby into a house to make you realize your space holds all kinds of opportunities for change.
2. When you can’t be with the room you love, love the room you’re with. We joke that the main room of our apartment includes a kitchen, office, dining room, living room and bedroom. But we’ve found ways to make them feel distinct. We carved out an “entryway” by hanging a horizontal mirror with a bookshelf below. In our new “bedroom” set-up, we created a room-within-a-room by orienting the bed to face the dressers. That way, when we’re in bed, we’re looking at our bedroom furniture and not… the fridge.
3. Get a magnetic thingy for your knives. The funny thing about getting married is that suddenly people want to give you knives. Really nice knives. Instead of taking up limited counter or drawer space, your knives can live on this strip and be right there when you need them.
4. Indulge in a moment of solitude. While getting out of the apartment is a pretty good bet for clearing your mind, sometimes it’s staying inside that feels just as good. Let the people that you live with know when you need a few minutes to yourself. I’ll ask my husband to take a walk with the baby so I can pour a glass of rosé and relish in the time alone. It’s important to steal a few quiet moments and feel everything reset.
5. Have friends over. You might be worrying about where everyone is going to eat. And the answer is on the floor. Or on a cushion. Or on the sofa. Place coats on the bed, or otherwise away from the “kitchen.” Guests love to hang coats on the backs of chairs and dear lord if that doesn’t make things crowded, fast. Cover your couch with a sheet (especially if one of your dinner guests is a year old and flinging penne across the room…). I know it sounds grandmotherly, but upholstery is a beast to clean, and this way you won’t have to worry.
6. Try a new position. People wondered how our sex life fared while we were sharing a bedroom with a baby. As Faye got older, we sometimes found ourselves in the mood after we’d gotten into bed — but by that time we were afraid of waking her up. So we learned to embrace a slightly more “now or never” approach pre-bedtime. That being said, I don’t think it’s ever hurt anyone’s love life to get a little creative in the bedroom (or lack of one). Turn on the sound machine and go crazy.
7. Keep it down. Speaking of sound machines, whether you have a baby or not, using white noise — or quiet — to create a bit of private space can be helpful. We use our compact sound machine as a way to get sleep, as a way for one of us to hole up and work on a project while a certain toddler is playing the harmonica in the next room, and as a way to minimize the sounds from our Netflix habit when that same toddler is sleeping.
8. Call a spade a… salad server. Get creative and repurpose things to fit your needs. Surfboards become artwork, dressers become TV consoles, stools become plant stands. A cast-iron skillet can be used on the stovetop or in the oven. A baby swaddle can serve as stroller sunshield, play mat and lightweight blanket. Sturdy glass tumblers can hold water, milk, wine and cocktails.
9. Curate mini exhibits. Sometimes we have more things to love than we have room to display them. Opt for a seasonal display instead! Maybe you’re like me and are sentimental about a collection of glass bottles. Keep some tucked away, and leave a few out. Then swap them when you’re ready for a little change.
10. Cover your ugliest books. I’ve been known to cover offending book covers with brown paper. I can see where you might think that’s a little excessive. Or obsessive. Or both. But maybe you have not also been stared down by Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything. Have you seen the book? Our edition is large and bright red and for two years its brashness beamed down on us from our one measly bookshelf. Until, of course, I covered it.
11. Be the boss. When you find yourself overwhelmed, remember that you’re in control. For me, that’s keeping a straw market basket by the front door, in which I immediately stash junk mail, or recycling, or other things I don’t want to have hanging around. I bring it downstairs when I leave the house so that nothing lingers for long.
12. Do a toy shuffle. Limited by space and my incapacity to cherish large plastic things that make noise, we’ve kept Faye’s toys constrained to what fits in these wooden wine and fruit crates. If you have more toys than feels manageable in a small space, storing some of them away and periodically swapping the toys you leave out is a game-changer. When we reintroduce a new toy (even one that she’s seen many times before), joy abounds and a sense of novelty is regained.
13. Skip curtains. Window dressings aren’t always necessary. More than that, the wrong curtain can make a room feel cluttered or stuffy; grimy shades can feel downright gloomy. In our apartments, I’ve had the best luck hanging simple curtains made from cutting up old tablecloths or linen shower curtains, or lengths of plain white cotton. Or skipping them entirely.
14. Enjoy it. There’s something about the proximity of everything in a small space that I find really comforting and, honestly, easy. The other day we had friends over for dinner and James and I got into pajamas as soon as they left. Our dressers are right next to the kitchen table, so we hadn’t even cleared the dishes yet. It occurred to us that in a larger house you’d likely stay downstairs, cleaning up dinner and getting the house back in order, and then get cozy. We were in pajamas before our friends made it down to street level. I’ve said this before, but I think the most important survival tip for living in a small space is to embrace it joyfully, every last square inch.
Thank you so much, Erin! Your home (and book) are beautiful.
P.S. Erin’s former (250-square-foot!) apartment and 13 brilliant tips for decorating a small space.