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Living in Small Spaces

Size Need Not Inhibit Personal Expression

Even if you travel light through life, accumulating few possessions, these still need to be kept somewhere. And when you do not have much room at your disposal, every square foot has to earn its keep," writes award-winning designer Terence Conran.

His new decorating tome How to Live in Small Spaces, published by Firefly Books, takes on the challenges of designing, furnishing and decorating smaller spaces. Lavishly illustrated, it makes living, cooking, entertaining, working and sleeping in less than 1,000 square feet easy and even desirable.

He notes that the historical pattern of moving up the property ladder from student apartment, to one-bedroom, to large family home is an increasingly outdated notion as the cost of space, particularly in urban areas, is forcing many people to rethink their spatial requirements and downsize their expectations accordingly.

In response to this growing trend are many lifestyle changes and innovative ways of utilizing space, along with different attitudes about accumulating stuff.

But, according to Conran, "Size need not inhibit personal expression."

There are real advantages to living in small spaces, and Conran says to focus on these rather than on the scarcity of space. For example, living in a smaller space may allow you to live in a better location, and smaller spaces are more reasonable in terms of fuel bills, utilities and taxes. You can also afford higher quality materials in your space, which on a smaller scale is easier to maintain and requires less cleaning and other chores, creating more free time. It also makes tasks easier to perform because it requires more economy of movement, and you can save money because you need to be more selective in what you acquire.

Getting Started:

Downsize and De-clutter

All this might be easy for Conran to say. The gargantuan task of paring down and parting with years of material treasures is a difficult process for most people. But Conran advises to be as "ruthless as you dare" and enlisting a friend or family member to lend an objective voice to the emotional attachment that bonds us to our belongings.

For many people, this can be such a daunting process that the ordeal of eliminating the clutter and getting organized has sprouted into an entire cottage industry of organizing experts ready to jump in and help. Books of instruction and advice are everywhere, and the internet has

an endless array of websites giving helpful hints to the confused and disorganized.

"Major clutter causes shame," says Erin Kelly of Arranged by Kelly, an organizing company in the Chicago area. She notes that

these days many people are pulled in so many directions that there's not a lot of time to get organized, which results in wasted time, stress and financial problems.

"Getting rid of clutter takes a lot of stress off you," says Kelly, who has found money and un-cashed checks amid piles of papers on several of her clients' desks. A major roadblock to success in staying organized is the lack of personalized systems.

"Organization is different for everyone, says Kelly. "You give someone your expertise and then find a level of organization that works for them. In order to be successful in maintaining order, a period of getting used to that system needs to pass before starting on another area."

Kelly says attics and basements tend to be the "dark hole of no return" that causes duplicate buying. For example, never keep an old phone or television. When you buy something new, sell or give away the old item immediately.

Fashion consultant and organizer Eileen Dahm takes closet organizing one step further. Dahm helps women narrow down their wardrobe to workable outfits. After mixing and matching what the client already has, she says they often only need a few new pieces to update a look for the new season.

In addition to paring down wardrobes, Conran advises downsizing collections of books, CDs, DVDs and videos to a manageable amount. Ditch any sporting gear you no longer have enthusiasm for, along with gardening tools you probably won't need in your smaller space.

Furnishing Small Spaces

The book shows that one of the most effective ways of making your space look larger is to keep the floor as clear as possible. Under-furnishing is the key. That requires proper storage systems to keep the piles out of sight. Try to use built-in storage rather than freestanding pieces. One or two sofas may work better than armchairs and side tables. Extra chairs can be used from the dining area if necessary, as well as floor cushions and  ottomans. Stacking and folding chairs, tables and stools are easily stored when not in use.

Be careful when considering a sofa bed as an option. Make sure it is comfortable when used in either mode. Wall beds have come a long way from the old Murphy bed, with some even morphing from a desk to a bed. A floor bed is a mattress and platform that slides out from a step to create a sleeping area. This provides added dimension to a small room.

Furniture with long horizontal lines and low backs will make the room seem larger. Avoid fussy detail or busy upholstery. Contemporary furniture works well in small areas. Position lighting to reflect from the walls and ceilings, not the furniture. New media systems have made living in small spaces much easier. Flat screen TVs and MP3 players hooked up to small speakers take up little space.

Leave some room for personal items. Treasured photographs and other possessions make a house a home rather than a hotel room.  Try to group decorative objects in a single space and group pictures on a single wall. Stand-up pictures are easier to move around than pictures hung on a wall.

Kitchens and Eating Areas

Surprisingly, many professional cooks prefer smaller kitchens because they are easier to control. Everything they need is within easy reach. If you eat out a lot, it's better still. Either way, you will have less counter space and storage.

Once again, Conran's ruthless approach to possessions applies. All of those specialized utensils and gadgets may not be part of a small space lifestyle. One of the solutions may be to update your cooking skills. According to Conran, "Seasoned cooks can produce exceptional results using only the most basic equipment--a set of good knives, a couple of good saucepans, a frying pan, a casserole dish and the like. Review your batterie de cuisine and try to reduce pressure on storage and counter space by discarding what you rarely use."

Forget about the everyday dishes and the dishes for entertaining. All-purpose cookware, tableware and glassware make storage easier. Buy glasses that can be used for water, wine or juice and stack easily. When shopping for groceries, buy only what you actually cook and consume.

All of this austerity does not mean you cannot entertain. The absence of a separate dining or eating area needn't preclude feeding your friends and relatives. Use tables that extend or have additional leaves. If your eating area also works as your desk between mealtimes choose a table and chairs that are simple and generic in design. An L-shaped room is easily converted into a dining area. Make sure the kitchen lights have dimmer switches so the light does not detract from the dining area. If you have outdoor space, take advantage of entertaining in the good weather.


You can sleep just as easily in a small space as a large one. Conran says, "All creatures seek out enclosed spaces to sleep in, where they will feel less vulnerable and exposed. We have similar instincts, which is why small bedrooms can be surprisingly appealing." We do, however, need to store clothes and shoes and dress and undress.

Falling asleep or waking in a serene space versus a mountain of clutter can affect your overall well-being. Other factors can affect moods. To make the bedroom as comfortable as possible, avoid central overhead lighting to prevent glare. Use sidelighting, uplighting or  a shaded bedside lamp. Low-level beds enhance the space of the room or area.

"It is estimated that we wear only a fifth of the clothes we own, which effectively means that 80 percent of the area given over to clothes storage is wasted space," writes Conran. What remains should be in built-in storage, rather than in traditional storage furniture that is visually intrusive and less spatially efficient. He says that clothes remain in good condition for longer and are less susceptible to moth attack if they are kept in drawers, closets or wardrobes.

Other storage tips include high shelves for items like luggage. Customize the insides of drawers and cubbyholes with containers and dividers to maximize space. The back of closet doors can be used for full-length mirrors and storing belts, ties and scarves.

The Home Office

The trend of working at home continues to be popular. If you are largely computer-based, setting up an office in a small space should not be difficult. Even if you live alone, a workspace should provide some psychological separation from the rest of your life.

Working from home can increase the risk of repetitive strain injury, back pain and other work related problems. The dining room table may be okay for some projects, but if you are working steadily for a long period of time, an ergonomic chair and work surface of the right height is essential. The computer requires three levels of work surface, the lowest for the keyboard, middle for general work and a higher level for the screen. Lighting should be up to four times the level of light used for relaxation. Natural lighting is best.

Office clutter can be one of the hardest to control so having adequate, yet compact storage space should be carefully considered. One storage space should have work in progress and immediate supplies. Another storage space should be used for reference materials, recent projects and other supplies. Lastly, you need storage for other documents related to your work, as well as tax returns and account information.


Even the bathroom requires special consideration. Try to coordinate colors and materials rather than over-decorating. Mirrors can enhance a sense of space. Stainless steel, glazed tile and glass bounce light around the room. Always extend tiles from floor to ceiling.

Build in storage wherever possible and keep clutter to a minimum, leaving only essentials like towels and soap in view.


In small spaces, lighting is crucial. "Light and its partner, shadow, are the means by which space is revealed to us," writes Conran. "You can plan and decorate your home with utmost care, but without proper lighting the result will be sterile and charmless--and the space will appear even more cramped than before." Learn everything you can about the different kinds of lighting and don't cut corners with this design element.

Despite the challenges of living in a small space, Conran points out, "At their best, small spaces can be both inclusive and flexible, which is perfectly in tune with the relaxed and informal way we want to live now."

Published: May 28, 2007
Issue: Summer 2007 Urban Living