Correction: An earlier version of this story gave an outdated rent amount for Vina Lustado’s land in Ojai, Calif. It is $500 a month. The story also gave the incorrect square footage for her office, which is 115 square feet. This version has been corrected.
For the past 12 months, our small-spaces column has offered dozens of tricks for making the most of a cramped, confined apartment, such as using frameless mirrors to open up a hallway or bold bar stools to brighten a kitchenette. But the bigger question, of course, is why we opt to live in small spaces. For most people, it’s all about location, the chance to live on a busy city block in the center of the action. But for others, it’s about the freedom of living light.
Nobody understands the ethos of small-space living better than proponents of the tiny-house movement, who opt to live in homes that average around 200 square feet. Their choices, much like those who live in a studio apartment, are often framed as sacrifices. But Vina Lustado, an interior designer in Ojai, Calif., who lives in a 140-square-foot home that she designed two years ago, says that thinking is all wrong.
“There’s a whole emotional side to ‘stuff,’ ” she says. “But living with less is not about what you lose. It’s about what you gain.”
Lustado adapted her philosophy about small-space living from Marie Kondo, a Japanese organization expert who has written four books about doing more with less. But what makes Kondo’s approach different from the scores of other decluttering coaches is its positive framing. Lustado explains, “Rather than saying, ‘throw this out, throw that out,’ she teaches you to find joy in what you own. If it doesn’t bring you joy, maybe you don’t need it.”
The obvious perk is her low cost of living. Lustado’s home cost $40,000 to build, including solar panels and interior furnishings, and the acre of land it sits on is an additional $500 a month (the average home in Ojai costs about $550,000). But she doesn’t find it stifling. She entertains frequently and said that, for a designer, decorating the space was the most fun she’s ever had. “This movement, ultimately, is all about smart design: light, materials, strategic layouts,” she says. “It’s the exact same principals, and it’s way more challenging to do it sustainably, affordably and beautifully.”
Of course, there are hurdles. Paring down her wardrobe took months and she’s become a very resourceful cook. And, more than a year into living in her home, she still returns a lot of things she buys. It’s worth it, she says, because of the peace of mind she has found.
After speaking with Lustado, I looked around my tiny apartment and wondered whether there were items I was hanging on to for no reason: candles I’ll never light, old laptops that don’t turn on, leaky rainboots that certainly don’t bring me joy and take up precious closet space. Kondo’s voice crept into my mind, urging me to weigh quality over quantity.
Inspired, I did a gentle sweep and set aside two full bags for donation and lugged them to a nearby drop-off center. It’s nothing compared with Lustado’s Ojai minimalism, but after a few days, I realized I didn’t miss any of the items I parted with. In fact, I was glad to have cut the cord. “Maybe she’s onto something,” I thought. This Lustado already knows.
“I’m building a tiny office as we speak,” she says. It’s 115 square feet, solar and on wheels, and will be the new headquarters of her firm, Sol Haus Design. “I’m not looking back.”
If downsizing is on your agenda, here are a few of our favorite multifunctional furniture pieces from past columns that offer a lot of bang for their buck. A room divider that doubles as a bookcase? That brings us joy.
“They’re the opposite of frivolous,” says Jonathan Yaraghi, the creative director of Safavieh, a furniture store headquartered in New York. The retailer’s most popular garden stool is shaped like a gold, glazed elephant ($195, www.safaviehhome.com). “They can be used almost anywhere as a table or extra seat, and they’re a high-impact design piece. They’re a little piece that packs a lot of style.”
The biggest misconception about sectionals? That they’re big. “Whatever your hesitations are, get over them,” says Liz Levin, a designer based in Bethesda. “Especially if you’re in a small space, it’s probably exactly the solution you’re looking for.” Levin recommends an eight- or nine-foot sofa with a 60- to 72-inch chaise, which should allow you room for a practical coffee table. CB2’s Lotus sectional ($499-$799 per piece, www.cb2.com) is sleek but still comfortable.
Rental contracts don’t often permit custom woodwork to add privacy to a space, so invest in a room screen or tall shelving unit instead. Most pieces measure between five and six feet tall, allowing some space between the top of the unit and the ceiling, which lets light through. Your safest bet is a modular-style bookcase that looks like open square boxes stacked on top of one another, such as Ikea’s Kallax Shelving Unit ($139, www.ikea.com), which comes in white, black and birch finishes and has 16 cubes.
“If a room were an outfit, the accent chairs would be the jewelry,” said Alexandria designer Betsy Stires. “It’s the spark. It pops from the rest of the palette but also ties it all together.” Look for chairs that fall between 25 to 32 inches wide and have a seat depth of 20 to 22 inches. Room and Board’s Celeste Swivel Chair ($749, www.roomandboard.com) measures 31 inches wide and is low to the ground, so it can visually open or close a seating area depending on which direction it faces. Ikea’s ($69-$149, www.ikea.com) is affordable, comfortable and lightweight.
“Decorating small spaces is 75 percent visual manipulation,” designer Coleman Riddell says, “and mirrors are hands-down the best way to trick the eye. They can make it seem like you’ve got way more square feet, height and light than you paid for.”
A pro tip: Go big. “The smaller the space, the bigger the mirror,” says Rockville designer Kristin Peake. “With mirrors, you can never, ever, go too big.” Pottery Barn’s 3-by-6.5-foot Berke Oversized Leaning Floor Mirror ($799, www.potterybarn.com) would be an elegant addition to any room.
Buerger is a freelance writer.