By Request: When Minimalism Isn’t a Choice

In my twenty-seven years on this earth, I’ve never lived in a space larger than a two-bedroom apartment. My current apartment measures 271 square feet (10 square feet per year of life, plus one to grow on), which is actually an upgrade in size from my previous place. It’s fair to say that I’m used to coping with limited space. In the comments of her recent post about moving into a smaller apartment in New York, Monika asked me if I’d be willing to write my own post about how I organize my stuff in my miniature apartment, and I’m happy to oblige! This post would have gone up earlier, but I managed to delete the first draft entirely, ugh.

A couple of caveats here. First, I’m a bit of a slob. I try to keep my slobbish tendencies in control, but I’m never more than one step ahead of entropy. My preferred method of “tidying up” involves tossing more and more things onto the futon until there’s almost no room for me to sit. Do you really want to take organization advice from someone who sleeps on a mattress on the floor? Maybe, but be aware that few people would describe my lifestyle as “aspirational.” Second, I live on a graduate-student stipend in an area with a high cost of living, which means that I have very little disposable income. I’m not sure how much advice I can give about limiting the amount of new stuff you buy, since my own limits are imposed by my budget and not my living space, but I’ll do my best.

Anyway, let’s take a tour of my apartment!

Here’s the living room, which contains my futon, my dresser, and my kitchen area.

The robot pillow presides over the “traveling pile”: a heterogeneous and constantly changing assortment of objects that migrates from the futon to the bed to the floor to the top of the dresser.

My apartment was listed as a studio, but it has two rooms–I assume there’s a law that prevents landlords from advertising an apartment under a certain size as a “one-bedroom.” The bedroom contains my mattress totally legitimate bed, my desk, a tall bookshelf, a sort of nightstand/low table thingy that I use as a bookshelf, and two built-in shelves, one for my nail polish collection and one for my makeup and more books.

The bedroom also contains the only closet in my apartment. It’s a really small closet; it extends farther to the right than you can see in this photo, but not much farther. The black Urban Outfitters tote bag is my “extras bag,” which holds contains a jumble of toiletries and household stuff that I don’t have room to store elsewhere.

In my previous apartment, I had three closets: one for my clothes, another for my coats, and a third where I stored my suitcases, my cleaning supplies, and the miscellaneous crap that follows me around from one residence to the next. When I moved to this apartment, I had to get rid of most of the stuff from the third closet: old notebooks and magazines, clothes that I hadn’t worn in five years, etc. But what about the items that weren’t miscellaneous crap? Well, I had to make do. My smaller suitcase fits in the closet, but my larger one now lives in the space between the refrigerator and the wall, and has itself become a shelf for my bag of bags (don’t lie, you have one too).

I store my household tools and cleaning supplies in a dresser drawer, in the aforementioned UO bag, and under the bathroom sink. I donated the unworn clothes that were still in good condition and tossed the ones that were ripped or stained.

Finally, the bathroom. My previous apartment was in recently constructed graduate housing, and all of the apartments in the building conformed to modern disability codes, which meant that my bathroom occupied about a third of the interior space. My current building is much older (I’d guess that it was built in the ’20s, but I can’t find any solid information), and like many decades-old buildings, it seems to have been constructed as a giant fuck-you to people with disabilities. My bathroom is literally the smallest I’ve ever seen outside an airplane:

Notice how the door takes up a good portion of the bathroom when it’s open? It’s actually about half the width of a regular door.

Since Monika asked specifically about how I store toiletries, here’s my medicine cabinet:

For the overflow of products, the top of the toilet has to suffice. Here are the rest of my lotions, plus a catch-all basket for bobby pins, earrings, combs, etc:

And now, a few general rules that have helped me live in my dollhouse:

1. Fuck Pinterest.

Pardon my language, but seriously, fuck it. Pinterest exists to make you feel bad about not having more money. Before I moved into this apartment, I spent hours on Pinterest looking at artfully cluttered interiors like this one:

Source–read it and weep (with envy)

There’s nothing wrong with using Pinterest (or interior-design magazines, or whatever) for inspiration, but you also have to accept the reality that your own apartment will probably never be Pinterest-perfect. And honestly, have you ever been inside one that is?

2. Your minimalism may not look minimalist.

It’s a cruel paradox: the smaller your space, the less “minimalist” that space will look. I probably have fewer material possessions than most people my age, but my apartment will always appear cluttered because of the lack of storage space. One way to remedy this is to designate one area–a drawer, the top of the dresser, whatever–as the place to toss things that don’t have any obvious home. Establishing a sort of “nature preserve” for clutter will help you keep the other areas tidy; at least, it works for me.

3. Embrace the steampunk ethos.

Not necessarily the steampunk aesthetic (unless that’s your thing), but the idea that the inner workings of your life might have to be out in the open, like the gears of a steampunk watch. I don’t have enough storage space to hide all the unsightly but necessary objects that are always out of sight in Pinterest photos.

(That aspect of steampunk has always confused me, by the way. Surely the pseudo-Victorian societies imagined in steampunk fiction have the technology to develop a protective case for all those gears and tubes and screws? But I digress.)

4. Don’t be afraid to put furniture to unaccustomed uses.

The most pertinent example in my own apartment is my dresser, which often turns into an extension of the kitchen counter when I’m making something that requires more space than usual–pizza, for instance:

Pizza with roasted asparagus and caramelized shallots, to be precise.

5. When buying new clothes, enter a store with a specific goal in mind (don’t go shopping just to see what’s new), and choose items that can serve as the basis for several different outfits.

I don’t want to generalize too much here, because everyone’s style is different, but I do think it’s important to develop a kind of uniform. The components of my wardrobe can be grouped into two categories: versatile pieces that can blend into almost any outfit (don’t ask me how many gray v-neck shirts I own) and statement pieces that can make those unassuming pieces interesting, like this floral blazer from Zara:

What you want to avoid are pieces that look like they should be basics but don’t actually go with your other clothes. Case in point: this Anthropologie skirt that I’ve owned for, no joke, an entire decade. I’ve worn it once, to my high school graduation, but I’ve never been able to persuade myself to get rid of it because it’s so pretty. Don’t put yourself in this painful position.

In her post, Monika asks if people who consider themselves minimalists wear their clothes until they fall apart. In my case, the answer is yes, though I’d replace my clothes more regularly if I could afford it. But honestly? You should be buying clothes that you can imagine yourself wearing until they fall apart, even if you have no financial need to do so. We all buy makeup that we anticipate wearing only a few times, and in some cases, those few times are worth the money we spend. I’ve worn NYX Castle exactly twice–last Halloween and when I went to see the new Hunger Games movie–and I still think Castle was worth the $4 or whatever. But it’s risky to apply the same principle to clothes, unless you’re buying a wedding dress.

6. Avoid temptation.

To keep yourself from buying too much new clothing or makeup, stay away from company websites (unsubscribe from emails if you have to), from blogs that continually review new releases, and from forums that enable feeding frenzies over new collections. And don’t buy backups of makeup, EVER, unless your very favorite product is about to be discontinued. You won’t get through three tubes of that limited-edition metallic copper lipstick, I promise.

Well, maybe you will.

I hope this was somewhat helpful! Do you have any tips for living happily in small spaces?

11 thoughts on “By Request: When Minimalism Isn’t a Choice

  1. I had a little revelation partway through writing my MFA thesis that the reason my apartment was so cluttered was that there was just nowhere to put all my library books. There was no way to have them around without having them be in the way. This made me feel better, but I didn't actually find a way to deal with it.I have been trying to get myself out of the habit of keeping every printed-out draft of everything I've written. (There are always handwritten notes! But I don't actually need to refer back to them once I've incorporated those changes.) Putting magazines in a magazine stand also helps (and thinking hard about whether there's anything in that issue I'll want to revisit–I have a lot of literary magazines kicking around that I've kept for the sake of one essay or poem or story–it would probably be more efficient to cut those out and toss the rest, but I don't have a system for doing that yet).Basically I don't have an office, so keeping my apartment tidy is a matter of keeping the office paraphernalia from taking over all my sleeping and eating and leisure space.


  2. I'm ridiculously attached to my bag of bags. Life would be a mess without it!I don't think that your place looks slobbish at all, and I'm actually dying over envy of that built in shelf. The tiny bathroom would kill me though, like literally, because I have a terrible habit of stubbing my toes everywhere and that door would murder me within a week. I don't have any tips and I'm not a minimalist, but this post was fun to read and fascinating because it gave us a huge glimpse into your day to day life…. and also mostly because I'm a very nosy person. 🙂


  3. No tips, because I've done pretty much the same thing as you in the past. Including the dresser as kitchen counter top. My last place was teeny and dark and gloomy, but a 7 minute walk from work. It wasn't worth it – I think it at least partially fueled my depression, or at best, didn't help. Now I am a 40 minute bus ride from work, but I have 2 bedrooms to myself. It's amazing, and the bus ride is worth it. But it also means that the second bedroom has become a junk closet, because I don't have time to fully unpack, and since my last place was tiny, I don't have the equipment to actually store things properly. I'm probably going to move in a few months, so I don't even see the point of organizing anything. But your small place looks bright and cheery and homey! Thanks for the tour.


  4. Great post as usual and your place looks really cute! It makes me feel more at peace thinking of the jumble of crap on my dingy pull-out as a travelling pile that has migrated from the boundaries of its designated nature preserve. I've started to do the capsule wardrobe thing which not only saves space, but stops me from any casual shopping. I agree with Marjorie that the colonisation of my apartment by library books and papers is my biggest small space problem.


  5. I LOVE your \”Nature Preserve\” strategy. I really AM a slob and my nature preserve is the floor next to my bed. Why stick things into the hamper one by one when I can do it all by a giant armload once a week?When I was 27, I lived in an adorable studio in an Art Deco building. It had an obnoxiously large kitchen (but not enough cabinets and no oven) and a really small sleeping/living area with very little closets. By necessity I had very few posessions. I only got books from the library, not so many clothes and the only makeup I had fit into a small makeup bag.I think I am definitely NOT a minimalist. Every time I move into a larger space and now in a home with lots of areas to stow things away, everything expanded. I used to buy hardcovers but trying to get back to the library and also only buy e books. I only buy real paper books for cookbooks now. And my makeup is out of control. Allowing myself the second set of short ALEX from IKEA was a TRAP! D:


  6. I had a huge library-book problem until I got a locker in the library last semester. Since I find it hard to work at home anyway, I'm taking home fewer library books these days, which has cut down on the clutter. It also means that I'm more likely to return the books on time (in my first year here, I received a late-books fee of $150, which the librarian halved when I almost broke down sobbing).Where does one buy a magazine stand? I've been looking for one for ages. Though my failure to find one has resulted in my throwing away lots of old New Yorkers I probably wouldn't have reread anyway, so maybe it's for the best.


  7. I recently saw a New Yorker cartoon in which a woman was telling someone on the phone that she and her husband were \”editing our collection of plastic bags.\” We've all been there. My mom has MULTIPLE bags of bags, but I haven't gotten to that point quite yet. I fear it's coming, though.I'm quite clumsy too, and the size of the bathroom is really frustrating. The worst part is getting it clean, because where the hell can I stand, let alone kneel when I want to clean the floor? I usually just position myself outside the bathroom and reach into it awkwardly.I'm glad you enjoyed this post! I love looking at other people's living spaces, too–nothing gives a better sense of what someone is really like. 😀


  8. I probably used the wrong term–I have a number of little magazine shelving units that are supposed to go on a bookshelf but instead are lined up on the floor next to my filing cabinet. Kinda like this. In my childhood home we had a 3-foot-high shelf next to the piano that held music but would have worked well for magazines–but I just did a Google search for \”sheet music storage\” and found a bunch of astronomically expensive library-grade storage equipment, so that may not be the way to go.Re: your comment about steampunk, I think of it as a culture that just discovered a technology being smitten with how that technology looks. It seems like in the 90s computer equipment and software was sold with colorful designs of computers and floppy disks and processing chips on the box, before Apple made it so common to make a device look like it has no component parts at all.


  9. It sounds like you made the right choice by moving! Natural light makes a huge difference in how happy I feel living somewhere, and I assume the same is true for most people. My living room faces west, so it gets lots of light in the late afternoon, and I just sit on my futon and soak it in (as I'm doing now).The space under my futon is still a junk closet, and I've been here for a year and a half. I left that area out of the tour…


  10. Metaphors make life so much easier, don't they? And old papers are truly a bane. I never want to throw them out, because they have words on them, and words = knowledge = value…and so my apartment becomes more and more of a fire trap.


  11. Aww, an Art Deco studio! That sounds amazing. I don't actually buy many books, either. I've had access to university libraries for the past nine years, so I've never seen the point of buying huge quantities of books. In college, I had friends who would bring hundreds of books from home and humblebrag about how they just had no SPACE for all the BOOKS and needed to buy TWO NEW BOOKSHELVES!1!1! and I would just kind of roll my eyes.Yes, the more storage space you create, the more your possessions expand to fill that space! I feel lucky that my built-in shelves limit the amount of makeup I can amass. In fact, I might have a blog sale soon and get rid of a few nail polishes, since I have two Butter Londons on their way from Ulta…


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