Elizabeth Mayhew on living in small spaces

I was surprised that New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s recent proposal to create affordable micro-apartments (only 275 to 300 square feet each) in a city famed for its enormous price per square foot made national news. Newscasters across America covered the story with a disdaining “as if” tone — one brassy anchor went so far as to claim that such a space wouldn’t even be big enough to store all her shoes. But ask anyone who lives in a really small space and she will tell you that it is not so terrible. In fact, if done well, it can be quite rewarding.

Small-space living is what I affectionately call “Rubik’s Cube living.” Just like the iconic puzzle, small spaces force you to constantly rearrange and rethink your stuff. You have to be organized and disciplined. You have to be aware of every move, and you have to maximize every corner and every inch.

I have had a lot of experience in the small-space department. For 30 years, I have lived in either dorm rooms or apartments that have ranged in size from 180 square feet to 2,000 square feet. Although my current apartment is on the larger end of the spectrum (about 1,900 square feet), it is smaller than America’s average home size (about 2,300 square feet). Unlike many of my suburban friends, I have no basement, no attic and no extra storage. I do not rotate my clothing seasonally because I have nowhere to rotate to. I do not hold on to the clothing that my kids have outgrown, and I do not keep the smaller-size dresses that I hope to fit into again one day. When I buy something, I get rid of something. I do not buy in bulk. I maximize both horizontal and vertical space — my kitchen cabinets go all the way up to the ceiling, as do my closets and bookshelves. I use under-the-bed and over-the-door storage. I have boxes, bins and baskets — all labeled so I can find what I need when I need it. I don’t let paper accumulate: My husband scans and stores important papers on Evernote, a digital archival system. We have converted to almost all electronic billing. I shred paper regularly, and when it comes to mail, I try my best to remember OHIO, which stands for “Only Handle It Once.” I hold on to the best of my kids’ artwork and use it as wrapping paper or greeting cards. I do not keep magazines or catalogues — at this point I can find whatever I need on the Internet. I do not save birthday or holiday cards unless they include a special personal message. To sum up, I constantly edit.

Sound exhausting? Well, I can tell you that small-space living is a challenge and that some days I am more disciplined than others. But if you think of it as a game, just like the Rubik’s Cube, you just might find that the challenge is fun, and gratifying. Small-space living teaches you to live with less space, but also less stuff — something that many of us could benefit from.


Elizabeth Mayhew's living room. (Annie Schlechter)
Checklist for small spaces

Whether you live in a small space, are moving into a small space (hello, college dorm!) or just want to adapt some small-space diligence, you have to start by editing and organizing. Over the years, I have helped countless people pare down, and when we start sifting through their stuff, they are always surprised (and often embarrassed) by how much they have squirreled away.

How many times have you gone looking for an item, couldn’t find it and then just went and bought a new one? Part of the problem is that many folks haven’t set up the right systems and framework; you have to have a place to store things. This usually means an investment in shelving, boxes, bins — basically a quick trip or two to the Container Store, Bed, Bath & Beyond or Target. Here are my top small-space must-haves, but before you shop, make sure you measure — the last thing you want are boxes that are too big for your shelves or shelves that are too big for your space.

Shelving

My mother bought me my first Elfa shelving system for my dorm room in 1982. Since that time, I have used the Swedish modular storage system for laundry rooms, home offices, closets, kitchens, garages and family rooms. It’s easy to install (and disassemble, so you can take it with you if you move), and you can customize the shelves and bins to fit your space and your needs. Just bring your dimensions to the Container Store, which has owned the storage line since 1999, and the staff will help you design the right shelving configuration.

Boxes

It is true that an empty shoe box is as good as anything to organize your stuff, but I would argue that the better your boxes and bins look, the more likely you will be to use them. Ikea always has a number of stylish boxes to choose from. I use them to store everything from photos to hats and gloves. Just make sure you label each box so you know what’s inside.

Canvas closet/shoe bags

The easiest and cheapest way to outfit your classic pole-and-shelf closet is with canvas shoe and closet bags. All you have to do is attach their Velcro tabs to your pole and you have instant vertical shelving. I use the sweater bags to store clothing, linens and board games. On the inside of all of my doors I have hung canvas shoe bags that, depending on the location, have shoes, accessories, kid’s toys, canned goods, tools or wrapping supplies.

Hangers

I resisted investing in Huggable Hangers for the longest time, but I finally broke down and bought them — and I am glad I did. The quarter-inch-wide hangers allow me to fit much, much more into my closets — more than double — and their velvety surface keeps my clothes from falling on the floor.

Belt hangers

I know this is a seemingly small and very specific item, but belt hangers help keep certain items from getting tangled. I use them to hang belts, ties, handbags, necklaces, lingerie and anything else that is long or has a strap.

Mayhew, a “Today” show style expert and former magazine editor, is the author of “Flip! for Decorating.”

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