Laura Fenton lives in a 690-square-foot Jackson Heights apartment with her husband, Weston, and four-year-old son, William. “We’ve lived here since I was pregnant,” she says, “It has been five years this spring!” She is also the author of The Little Book of Living Small (Amazon/Indiebound). Here are her brilliant tips for living comfortably in a small space…
Sideboard: Paul McCobb.
1. You need to tidy every day. I wish it weren’t true, but a house does not keep itself. The secret to a happy home is for everything to have a place and to do the work to put those things back in their homes.
Couch: Room & Board. Pillows: Rebecca Atwood. Print: Vintage, similar.
2. Just because you live in a tiny space doesn’t mean you have to have small-scale art. I spent years scouring eBay for this huge, vintage Rand McNally star chart. Now it’s the focal point of our living room.
Chair: Paul McCobb.
3. Don’t rent offsite storage space. I’m really passionate about this! If you already have a self-storage unit, I’d recommend tackling this before you start in on your home. Think of it as a debt that needs to be paid off. And if you’re thinking of renting storage to make your small space work, know that the costs are likely to quickly add up to more than the value of the things you plan to store.
4. Rooms can multitask. Weston’s ‘office’ is tucked into a corner of our living room. The corner desk unit is a hand-me-down from my sister’s bedroom growing up that fit perfectly into the space. Because it hugs the wall, the desk takes up very little floor space while offering storage and surface area of a much larger desk: I don’t know why more people don’t have these!
Chairs: Paul McCobb. Bookcase: IKEA. Vase: MoMA Design Store.
5. Have people over. Once quarantine is over, this is one of the things I am most looking forward to. When friends and family come into your home, you get good energy. What you serve can make a big difference, so opt for things that can all be on one plate, so you can squeeze everything onto the table. We also host people more casually, versus a sit-down meal. We’ll place the food on the dining table with a help-yourself kind of set-up. That way, we can invite more people. For dinner parties, you can borrow what you need — a folding table, extra chairs, etc. — instead of having to buy stuff and worry about storage.
6. But throw the big parties somewhere else! This tip came from Alison Mazurek, who refers to this as ‘outsourcing’ space. Yes, hosting in a venue or a restaurant will cost more than having a party at home, but a few hundred dollars a couple times a year is nothing to the larger rent or mortgage payment you’d be making on a home large enough to host big celebrations.
Cabinets: IKEA. Light fixture: Schoolhouse Electric.
7. Don’t be afraid to renovate. We renovated our kitchen on a teeny budget, with cabinets from IKEA. The redesigned kitchen layout has standard 24-inch deep cabinets on the stove side but only 15-inch deep ones on the opposite side. We also added an under-sink dishwasher (the genius Spacemaker by GE) after seeing one in a house we rented.
8. Daylight always makes a space feel bigger. So, consider skipping blinds or curtains. For rentals, I’m a big fan of self-adhesive privacy film: You can obscure the view into your home without losing any daylight. Basic options like a frosted glass lookalike are available at hardware stores and Stick Pretty sells sophisticated patterns.
Barn doors: HomCom Modern.
9. Get a hard-working bed. Our bed from Gothic Cabinet Craft has six built-in storage drawers where we store all our folded clothes, but a Murphy bed or a loft bed can also be a great way to use your space. Speaking of Murphy beds or other pricey furniture — these may seem too big an investment for a rental, but consider the costs over time. If you could save $400 a month by renting a studio instead of a one-bedroom, and a Murphy bed will make the studio livable for two people, think of an investment of $1,200 as the equivalent of three months of the cheaper rent.
Custom bedside table: Tim O’Brien Woodworks. Basket: World Market. Lamp: Visual Comfort. Pillowcase: Parachute.
10. Put all lights on a dimmer. Lighting is critical for a cozy feeling in any space, and especially in the bedroom. For bedside lighting, you can save space on your nightstand with a wall-mounted sconce. We bought plug-in models — no electrician required.
11. Sometimes it pays to go custom — and with vendors on Etsy, it’s actually affordable! We had the floating nightstands made for our 8’ x 10’ bedroom by Tim O’Brien Woodworks after we couldn’t find off-the-shelf ones that would fit the space.
12. Get out of your tiny house. The library, the park or grandma’s house are all places we escape when we need a little breathing room. When my husband and I were in the early, sleep-deprived days of parenting, we’d take turns taking our noisy toddler out to a diner in the morning, so the other parent could sleep in our tiny apartment. I also wrote much of my book in the library and coffee shops.
13. Give differently. You can stop the culture of living large by giving experiences instead of things. Museum memberships are great for families, and the gift of babysitting is a big one. One of the best gifts that my parents ever gave me is a theater ticket subscription, where you had tickets to a whole season of plays. Or, if you prefer to place something in someone’s hand, consider something consumable, like food, flowers or fancy soaps.
14. Choose a clear shower curtain. Our bathroom is tiny, and when we hang a shower curtain it feels downright claustrophobic. Someday we might invest in a glass shower door, but our solution for now is to use a clear shower curtain, which leaves the room feeling more open and airier.
15. Remember the long view. Life’s stages come and go (the space-hogging bouncy seat and the stroller will be gone before you know it, I swear!). If your space has begun to feel too small, take a step back and examine what’s happening now. Don’t let today’s temporary discomfort force you into moving into a space that’s bigger than you really need.
Thank you so much, Laura! Your home is beautiful.
Update: A few people asked to see the layout, so here it is!
P.S. 13 tips for decorating a small space and a 175-square-foot NYC apartment.
(Photos by Weston Wells.)
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