My pal, Brenda, recently moved into a little house. Correction: an older little house. She is facing many of the same problems that I have coped with for years: not enough cupboard space, tiny closets, small rooms. We’ve talked about this in our phone conversations and I thought I might share some of my ideas with you.
First of all, I have never not lived in a small space. The house I grew up in wasn’t much bigger than Brenda’s and there were six of us. I shared a bedroom with my two sisters for much of my young life. We had one bathroom. After I left home, I lived in dorm rooms and then moved on to studio apartments. It was a big deal for me when I graduated to a one bedroom apartment. It was still small, however. The house that Don and I lived in when we were in San Diego was small, the cottage we rented when we first moved East was smaller than MHC, and MHC is Small, with a capital S. It only makes sense that I’ve figured out ways to deal with small space living over the years. Here is my personal set of ‘rules’ for living in a small space:
1. Do not fall into the trap of buying apartment-sized furniture.
2. Have many pieces of furniture that can do double duty.
3. Find inventive ways to work around storage problems.
4. Think ‘outside the box.’
5. Have what you love around you.
I’ll now go into a bit more detail.
Rule #1: Do not fall into the trap of buying apartment-sized furniture. By that, I mean those pieces that are designed and advertised for small space living. Unless you’re living in a closet, it is much better to have normal-sized pieces of furniture in your home. In fact, a few big and/or tall pieces will make your room look even larger. I guarantee it.
I bought this large cupboard at auction a couple of years after we moved to MHC. It has a big presence in the room. I knew it would work and I knew it would make the room seem larger. It does.
We also have a piano in our living room. Would I like it to have its own wall in a larger room? Sure, but it works just fine in our cozy living room.
Back to the cupboard. When you open that door you will see lots of shelves which provide valuable space in which to store paperwork, light bulbs, pay stubs, office supplies, etc. That brings me to my second and most important tip.
Rule #2. Have many pieces of furniture that can do double duty. Except for chairs and sofas, almost everything we have in this house functions in more than one way. In addition to the table top, all occasional tables in this house have either a lower shelf or drawers, providing additional storage space. And the table next to our loveseat is really not just a table, it’s a vintage stool that I commandeer quite often in order to reach high places. Here are some examples of double duty pieces:
This vintage sideboard has lived in all of our houses. It’s just inside the front door here at the cottage. It no longer functions as a sideboard but as a valuable (and beautiful) storage piece in our living room. In addition to the top surface, there are display shelves where pieces of McCoy Pottery do double duty as well. One holds car and house keys. One holds sunglasses. One holds the key to wind the clock. Those 3 drawers provide a lot of storage space. One functions as a file drawer, the others hold a host of essentials.
I knew I wanted a bench in the kitchen but I was very clear that it had to be a storage bench. Why waste valuable space? Inside this bench are all sorts of tools and DIY supplies. I don’t know what we would do without it. It’s attractive and functional. We also store dog towels in that basket underneath the bench.
We bought this music cabinet at auction right after we moved in. My first thought was to use it for what it was intended – to hold my collection of sheet music and music books. But in addition to that, it now holds many things we want to keep flat: maps, vintage movie posters, large photographs. This little cabinet has proved to be invaluable for a whole host of hard-to-store-properly items.
And, apparently, some old remotes.
We have no space to store linens here. There is no quaint built-in linen closet like so many older homes have. Here’s another piece we bought at auction for $20. This cabinet is upstairs in the guest room. It took about a year for me to realize that the two shelves inside those doors would be perfect to store linens and towels. So our ‘linen closet’ isn’t conveniently located next to our main bathroom. In fact, it’s on the second floor. But it solves a major problem, as well as providing additional storage for quilts in the basket on top. (That’s a guitar case on the right. Guitars are everywhere here at MHC.)
Rule #3 – Find inventive ways to work around storage problems: This cottage was completely gutted and remodeled in 2000 by a previous owner. That gave us up-to-date wiring, a skylight, and a couple of neat ideas in the kitchen and bathroom. (I can’t take credit for these. I’m grateful for them every day because they have been lifesavers for us.)
Our kitchen is big. It’s filled with light. We love that. Unfortunately, that means that most of the wall space is taken up by windows. We have very little cupboard space. Thank goodness for this tall cupboard which is just inside the kitchen door and is about a foot deep.
See? Pretty narrow. But when you open it up, here’s what you get:
Shelves, shelves and more shelves – on both sides. There is a lot of storage packed into this narrow space. What a great idea for small kitchens – in very little space you can get a great deal of storage. I don’t know what we would do without this pantry. It’s Don’s favorite thing in the kitchen.
We have no basement. We don’t have a laundry room. (Having a laundry/mud room is a little dream of mine.) In the meantime, let’s take a trip to the downstairs bathroom.
Right inside the door is another door. If you didn’t know better you would most likely assume it was the linen closet. But you already know we don’t have a linen closet.
It holds our washer/dryer. This little closet is a great way to incorporate extra space in a useful way – especially in a bathroom where there is already plumbing installed.
This last one was my idea. I bought this kitchen cabinet when we lived in our first tiny rental here in the East. There was even less cupboard space there.
It’s not a very deep cupboard, but it holds quite a bit of china. And I store cleaning products and dog grooming essentials inside those lower doors. When we first toured this house, I made sure there was enough wall space in this corner of the kitchen for our little cabinet. Find storage where you can. If you don’t have it and like us, don’t have the money to completely remodel your kitchen, be creative. Haunt auctions, look at pieces with a fresh eye.
Rule #4: Think outside the box: Find inventive ways to use space or the lack thereof. I have two examples. The first has received a lot of play already on this blog and in a national magazine, so I won’t talk too much about it. Briefly, I needed space for me. I wanted to sew, to craft, to have a sort of studio space. There are only two bedrooms in this house and they’re both booked. So, I thought outside the box and made the upstairs hallway my studio. You can click on “Studio” at the top of the blog and you will find a link with all sorts of photos. To give you an idea of the space, here’s one photo:
It solves a lack-of-space problem and adds a lot of personality to that formerly bland upstairs hallway.
The other example takes us back to the kitchen. I’ve already said we don’t have enough cupboard space. We also don’t have enough counter space. To solve both those problems, I trotted off to my trusty friend, the auction, and for $60 bought an old, darkly stained sideboard. I painted it, added beadboard to the back and now I have a kitchen island.
The top provides valuable work space. The cupboards and drawers provide valuable storage space. What did I do before this kitchen island came into our home?
Rule #5. Have what you love around you: Yes, some editing is usually necessary. Every once in a while, I edit. But, I am a believer in having what you love around you. In your small space, make sure to have the things you treasure, that make you smile, that warm your heart in every room. If it gets a little cozy, so what? I would not be able to exist in a space that had been purged of my favorite things in order to look more spacious. Let me tell you a quick story.
In our first little rental out here in the East, we lived in a cottage on the grounds of a larger home. This place was tiny. I did my usual thing of filling the space with things we loved: quilts on the wall, the piano, cozy throws everywhere. a china cabinet, photos and framed art. Our first landlord had to sell the property. Consequently, a lot of prospective buyers traipsed through our house. What did we hear repeatedly? This place is so charming! Oh my god, I love this little cottage! How did you make it so homey? The cottage got more compliments than the big house!
Believe me. We used every inch of space in that house. But it was filled with color and beloved treasures and cozy furniture and that made all the difference. If you love what you have around you, it will make all the difference in the world. Even if it’s in a small space.
Whew! This was a long post. I hope that some of these ideas help those of you who are trying to find ways to make your small space work for you. It can be done.
Hey, we’d love a slightly bigger space. There are two of us. I’m 5’9″ and Don is 6’4″ – we could use a bit of extra room. But we cope. And frankly, I think living in a small space forces you to be creative. I’m always thinking about ways to make this space work for us.