I wish I had more space. I live in a small space. It’s about 650 square feet that I share with my boyfriend. It’s technically a one bedroom, but with french doors separating the two rooms, it might as well be a studio. Both of us work from home, so you can imagine how the place might occasionally cramp our style.
I read the real estate section of the newspaper and daydream about all of the roomy apartments we could have if only we had an extra million dollars. I pore over stacks of West Elm and Crate & Barrel catalogs as if I haven’t seen these artful tableaus a million times before. I imagine how I might one day achieve the platonic ideal of a home.
I yearn for a backyard so I can hang tea lights and create a colorful but comfortable alfresco dining space. I crave a large dining room that I can fill with a sturdy table and chairs and, while I’m at it, a cute bar cart. Because who doesn’t want a perfectly curated bar cart for their spontaneous dinner parties which would definitely happen regularly if only they had the right space?
In the home, it’s easy to want more. More nice things, more space to fill with more nice things. But having too much stuff can be oppressive. Sometimes having just enough is all you really need.
I think back to my childhood home. It was a big suburban house with a huge backyard and a grape-vine covered deck. In an alternate universe, it could have been the perfect stage for my West Elm inspired fantasy (minus the suburban part).
But people don’t live in catalogs. They tend to accumulate way more stuff than they need. In my family’s case, every surface was covered with knickknacks. Dirty dishes were piled up because there was a bottomless supply of clean ones to use instead. The pantry was stocked with bulk quantities of packaged food from Costco. Because if you have a pantry, you’re probably going to fill it.
I found this over-stuffed environment stifling. I needed negative space to breathe in. As an adult, I’ve always tried to keep visual clutter to a minimum. This is a big challenge in a small space, but it is possible.
One of my favorite apartments was in Japan. I taught English there for two years, and I lived in a tiny but surprisingly comfortable apartment. It had a kitchen, a bathroom and two tatami mat-covered rooms that were separated by sliding paper doors. I folded the futon and stored it away every morning which freed up a whole room that would otherwise be consumed by a bed. Instead of filling the living room with a couch, I lounged on the tatami mats with a few pillows.
Even though the space was small, it felt airy, clean and literally grounding. The absence of furniture helped me tune into my posture, and it inspired me to engage my body instead of seat backs for support. The firm but smooth texture of woven straw on skin connected me intimately to the floor. In this context, the floor wasn’t a neglected surface that you’d cover carelessly—it was the very essence of the space.
I realized that it’s usually stuff that makes a place feel cramped, not the space itself.
My current apartment isn’t anywhere near as minimal as my Japanese one, but I still try to be mindful about what I accumulate.
Here are some ways that I try to minimize clutter:
- In the kitchen, avoid appliances or utensils that only serve one purpose. Do you really need a rice cooker or a pizza stone, or can you get by with other tools? Choose well-made objects that feel good to hold. Tools with the right weight and the perfect fit to your hand are infinitely more fun to use (and even to clean afterward).
- Limit your collection of dishes so you have enough to entertain, but not so many that you take anything for granted. I have about 6 mismatched bowls and plates that I’ve acquired at different stages in my life. Some are heavy dinner plates that I use for staple meals. Others are more delicate and refined which I use for fancier moods. Some are handmade gifts from friends with an entirely unique design. I love that each item has its own shape, weight, and story.
- When you buy something new, get rid of something else. A simple, yet powerful practice for keeping things streamlined.
- Don’t hang on to stuff that you don’t love. If you get a gift that you enjoy in-the-moment, but don’t see yourself using in the future, pass it on. I have a shoebox of special cards that I’ve received over the years. I like having this archive of visual ephemera, but in other areas, I try to let things go.
- Choose functional objects that are also beautiful. Then you won’t need as many purely decorative objects to create visual texture on your shelves and surfaces.
The limitations of my space force me to be hyper-efficient with each nook and cranny. They also make me appreciate each object that I own. In the same way that a meal made with a few high-quality ingredients is more satisfying than a buffet comprised of mediocre different dishes, having a few of the right things is much more fulfilling than having too much.
Sure, I’d still like a slightly bigger space someday. But for the moment, I’m grateful for what I do have: a little corner of the world that’s designed just for me.
What are some of the ways that you minimize clutter and keep your space feeling good? Do tell. Leave me a note in the conversation section below.
Photo by Breather