life in a tiny apartment.

September 5, 2012

Tip #29: Keep your surfaces clear. mostly.

now i should start off by saying that i know this one is a real matter of preference. and i’m not advocating the wholesale removal of every bit of sentimental or meaningful artifact in your house. i studied museums in graduate school. i worship my great grandfather’s doctor’s bag like it’s going out of style. i like stuff. especially old stuff. a lot.

but still.

in a tiny apartment and in homes in general, i like to be able to breathe easy. some people live beautiful lives in extremely compelling houses that  are stuffed to the gills. i like to look at these spaces, but i don’t think i could live in them. to each her own.

for me, keeping surfaces clear is mostly a practical measure. the different surfaces in our aparment have to do double and triple duty and weighing them down with too many miscellaneous things means trouble when the kitchen table needs to double as a desk, or, say, an ironing board.

most days, i move my computer from its usual haunt on the dresser to the kitchen table so that i can pull up my chair and actually get some work done. it’s nice to have the flexibility. at the end of the day, the computer goes back to the dresser and the table becomes the prep area for dinner. one of us cooks, the other cleans, and by the time the meal is finished the table’s clear once again and we’re eating dinner at it.

ps. tell me, did you all read this? what did you think? i understand what she’s saying. mostly i do. but there is this to know: cleaning out my grandmother’s basement at the age of 12 has left a lifelong impression. too much stuff can be a burden and the experience of unpacking 40 years worth of souvenirs is not one i’d want to revisit on any progeny of mine. or on perfect strangers for that matter. everything in balance.

pps. i’m also contemplating shelves. for stuff. so there’s that.

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  • Reply J+H @ Beyond The Stoop September 5, 2012 at 1:12 pm

    i SOOO agree on this one! but, it's so difficult sometimes. i am a fan of everything having a "place" and that "place" should typically not be just sitting out unless it's for decoration (or kitchen shelves).

  • Reply Jay September 5, 2012 at 1:14 pm

    This is one of those battles my husband & I have. I don't like things to feel cluttered and I try to clear off countertops & tables yet when he comes home, he drops everything all over the place! I'm thinking of finding some baskets or some way of keeping it tidy.

    • Reply Erin September 5, 2012 at 1:29 pm

      harumph. cohabiting can be tough, eh? the little box under our couch saves us (and the mail).

  • Reply Kate Fitchett September 5, 2012 at 1:25 pm

    Oh my goodness. I just looked at the ford wheeler link and it made me motion sick. So much stuff! I agree with you, having a clear surface for me means having a clear mind.

    • Reply Erin September 5, 2012 at 1:28 pm

      fascinating, isn't it? for one person being surrounded by so much feels hemmed in and for another, not at all!

  • Reply ashley faye September 5, 2012 at 1:25 pm

    i thoroughly enjoyed this post. i am often called out as a "hoarder" by my friends, but i know for a fact i am not at all! i just like my stuff and happen to live in a tiny little apartment! until the times comes where i can spread out in a house, i'm not sure what to do with it all except pile it all together in random batches and stare at it lovingly. luckily my roommate decided to move to kansas city so i now have a second bedroom at my disposal, which will soon be turned into an office / flamboyant display of all my kitsch. x ash (

    • Reply Erin September 5, 2012 at 1:28 pm

      i say, if it makes you happy, display away!

  • Reply Alexa September 5, 2012 at 1:39 pm

    on any given day in my little studio, my kitchen table is an ironing board, a desk, a prep station, a place to stash mail/bills to pay/the granola i need to remember to take to work tomorrow, the surface to paint my nails on, and where my laptop lives. and at the end of it, i find myself returning everything to its proper place so that only the mason jar of flowers remains. essential to my clear mind indeed.

    happy to know i'm not the only one! 🙂

  • Reply Meg September 5, 2012 at 1:56 pm

    interesting nyt article… i think there is a difference between "stuff" and "treasures" and as i live more, i have begun to replace the stuff i have purchased out of necessity for comfortable life (much of it from ikea) with the functional stuff that i treasure (much of it from my travels and local adventures to independent shops). the trick is that as you collect the meaningful stuff, you give away the cheap box-store stuff. and it's so important to differentiate between one or two amazing treasures from you travels, and a huge bag full of random shells from the beach, or a fridge magnet from hawaii that was actually made in china. the former becomes a well-loved part of your history, while the latters become junk in the basement that your loved ones have to clean out after you go. be mindful in your collecting & keep the pieces that are truly meaningful to you (like your grandfather's medicine bag) and your home will be just the right amount of full, as will your heart.

  • Reply Veronica Funk September 5, 2012 at 2:02 pm

    I disagree with the writer about our children inheriting those 'treasures' – I think, because we are all unique with different interests, they often become a burden for those left behind. I prefer photos and memories rather than so much stuff. And I dream of living so much simpler – log cabin in the woods – but instead will continue to work on my family of four.

  • Reply Kristen September 5, 2012 at 2:14 pm

    This is my life right now! Our house is small and my boyfriend is a pack rat! I'm all for keeping meaningful stuff, but not crap! I can't stand clutter! I love your posts on living in small spaces! So helpful!

  • Reply Katie September 5, 2012 at 2:40 pm

    Shelves…I have a small stack of them that I've been collecting sitting in the basement. For some reason I still cannot commit. Vertical clutter, perhaps?!

  • Reply Elizabeth September 5, 2012 at 3:11 pm

    I am all about the shelves, but in moderation. I've posted before about my floating bookshelves, but I also have a small (4" deep by 36" long or so) white shelf that is pretty much the only 'display' surface in our little house. My old house had a fireplace with a mantle and I loved decorating it seasonally, so this little shelf is my 'mantle' to display a few pretty little things where they are safe from dog/ cat/ husband. Next up are a couple shalow shelves above the desk, which will soon go from work/sewing space to work/sewing/changing table space. As long as shelves stay well-edited, they're the bomb, especially since I love a nice, big, empty table to work on.

  • Reply Elizabeth September 5, 2012 at 3:11 pm

    I am all about the shelves, but in moderation. I've posted before about my floating bookshelves, but I also have a small (4" deep by 36" long or so) white shelf that is pretty much the only 'display' surface in our little house. My old house had a fireplace with a mantle and I loved decorating it seasonally, so this little shelf is my 'mantle' to display a few pretty little things where they are safe from dog/ cat/ husband. Next up are a couple shalow shelves above the desk, which will soon go from work/sewing space to work/sewing/changing table space. As long as shelves stay well-edited, they're the bomb, especially since I love a nice, big, empty table to work on.

  • Reply Abby September 5, 2012 at 3:38 pm

    I'm with you on that article. I appreciate a certain amount of souvenirs and keepsakes, especially if they're beautiful or have special memories attached to them. But having cleaned out my own grandparents' house before college, I can see how too much stuff becomes a burden. Even my recent move has led me to purge a lot of miscellaneous things that I thought I needed but actually didn't. It's so easy to become attached to things for no particular reason. But while I appreciate certain souvenirs and keepsakes of my grandparents', most of it seems outdated to me. I'm not sure how to use it, either because the china isn't my taste or because no one uses real silverware anymore. I'm torn on this one, and I've been thinking about it for years. No answers yet…

    • Reply Erin September 5, 2012 at 3:45 pm

      I hear you. Though I can be pretty ruthless with the 'keep only what you love' rule. As for the silver: girl! Are we talking cutlery? Use it! If you use it daily you never have to polish and you feel fancy every day!

  • Reply Rebecca D. Martin September 5, 2012 at 4:54 pm

    Oh, we are so kindred in this way! I love – no, need – clean, clear surfaces. Lack of clutter. (Which is a sadly difficult state to maintain with a one-and-a-half year old.) Back in single, apartment renting days, roommates and parents of roommates were always commenting about how bare my surfaces (and walls, too) tended to be. Some liked it, some didn't.

    And that article – interesting. I definitely hear what she's saying, but it seems extreme to assume that everyone is so attached to souvenir type items. And those final sentiments about expecting her children to keep all her stuff?! That's a burden waiting to happen right there.

  • Reply Rachel September 5, 2012 at 5:05 pm

    Oh, interesting! I am torn because I love our little treasures (and yes, we do have lots of little treasures, picked up in special places or at special times) but I am easily overwhelmed by clutter. My feeling is that if you have too many beautiful things, you can't really see any of them.

    Also, I think it's really unrealistic to assume that anyone else will ever be as attached to your stuff as you are. Like you, I've seen the burden that stuff places on relatives and I honestly don't think there is any situation where everything is wanted. With the exception of my grandmother, who had downsized significantly on her own, and essentially only kept things that people had mentioned wanting.

    Maybe people are hardwired differently? Because when I remember home, I think of the smell of bread dough rising in the car while we ran errands and then baking in our oven later on. I remember the sounds of Leonard Cohen albums playing late at night. I love my mom's old mixing bowls and records and there are a few things I'd cherish, but most of my memories are based on the experiences, not the stuff. If it all disappeared suddenly, I'd be hard pressed to remember what all I was missing.

    I treasure my things, but I'm constantly editing, re-evaluating and most importantly, really considering BEFORE purchasing. I want to keep loving my stuff, which means it can't start to feel like a burden.

    And, just to make this my longest comment ever, one way we deal with our desire for souvenirs is by purchasing very tiny things that can be used as Christmas tree ornaments (almost anything can have a hook put on it!). You only get them out once a year, so they feel fresh and exciting and also comforting each time you open the box. They don't take up much space because we avoid having any filler ornaments. It works pretty well for us.

    • Reply Erin September 5, 2012 at 5:18 pm

      yes, rachel. to your point and to rebecca's above: it's totally incredible how some of this seems a question of simply seeing differently and more importantly valuing differently. for me it's all smells and sentiments and stories so much more than the objects themselves. i could go on for days (and often do). the bottom line: none of this stuff is easy and certainly we are all different in our approaches. don't get me started on the right thing to do with ephemera…

  • Reply Joyful September 5, 2012 at 5:34 pm

    I really hear your on this one. I have too much stuff but probably a lot less than some people I know. I am trying to get rid of as much as I can because I too had the unpleasant experience of needing to get rid of someone's personal stuff in a very short space of time because they were unable to do it themselves. Their stuff and mine combined is a burden. I will freer the less stuff I have but I can't seem to help myself from buying books 😉

  • Reply Amielle September 5, 2012 at 7:43 pm

    That's exactly how I like my space as well. A place for everything and everything in its place is how my parents have raised us kids. And I've stuck to it very well, making sure, at the end of the day, everything goes where it's supposed to. Just as it should be. 🙂

  • Reply Cindy September 5, 2012 at 8:07 pm

    i definitely like to keep things clear or at least neat. it's a lot of work though … fussing, fixing, dusting things so they are just so. getting rid of stuff helps alleviate the fussing as there is just less of it :).

    i read the article and agree with you. i know it's just one point of view, but sorting thru the souvenirs of others is overwhelming and exacerbates the grieving process, especially if there is a time pressure. and, it's not so easy to get rid of stuff whether you throw it away, donate or sell it. some organizations will have you wait three weeks for a pick-up only to reject the item after they inspect it. oy!

    i love your tips as i see so many young people these days with massive amounts of stuff and can only imagine what they will be like in 10, 20, 40 years.

    • Reply Erin September 5, 2012 at 11:08 pm

      thanks, cindy. i had a feeling you would understand.

  • Reply September 5, 2012 at 10:45 pm

    Hi Erin! This is my first time commenting, but this post really hit home (pun intended :)). Since moving to NYC, I've definitely learned to reevaluate my relationship with things. Faced with limited square footage, I realized just how much of my "stuff" was so unnecessary. And, actually, paring down my possessions has felt liberating! Of course, it's an ongoing project…

    • Reply Erin September 5, 2012 at 11:07 pm

      why hello, erin! so glad to have you reading. yes. always ongoing.

  • Reply atlanta apartments midtown September 6, 2012 at 2:03 am

    I agree that renters should always keep surfaces clear. Clean surfaces help make the apartment space look bigger.

  • Reply minify September 6, 2012 at 3:06 am

    I thought the souvenir article was particularly interesting because of the way she cast retaining or shedding one's stuff as a moral dilemma…I think that's nonsense. Minimalism isn't morally superior because it advocates getting rid of stuff – nor does it claim to be. I think minimalism is not for everyone, and that's fine (although it is, within reason, for me). But it's in the not acquiring stuff – the avoiding (or accelerating) of resource depletion, and of ecological degradation, that we find what I would call a moral dilemma – and I think she could have delved more deeply into that point. Buying stuff on vacation isn't actually "part of the experience." It is actually possible to go places and take only pictures (and leave only footprints) as the leave-no-trace folks have been advocating for years. It's also possible that as a society we're going to have to reconsider our level of consumption. Soon. I think that minimalism's rising popularity might be facilitating that – and I'm all for it. It is, in the end, about so much more than personal preference, or individual lifestyle.

  • Reply Mefi September 6, 2012 at 5:40 pm

    love your space. clean is definitely lovely. too much stuff is overwhelming. i have to remind myself too keep clutter away. off to de-clutter.

  • Reply Sal {Daniel and I} September 8, 2012 at 6:25 am

    We lived in a tiny one bedroom for years and years too and when we moved I could not get over how much we managed to stow! It is totally amazing what you can do with space (or lack thereof) when you need to. Having said that, we moved to a larger townhouse and even though it's been nearly a year now, we still feel like it's a holiday with all this space! xx p.s. love your blog

  • Reply Jordan Witherspoon June 30, 2016 at 12:54 pm

    Had a similar grandmother experience: she was a hoarder (not a nasty one, but a hoarder still), but she had a literal time capsule of a home with the vintage goodies hidden away from dust and grime by her hoarded collection, in that once we peeled off the first layers of hoard we found vintage treasure like handmade dresses, bathing suits, etc. Even still, all of the work and suffering (I’m asthmatic) was not worth the material possessions I got from my grandmother. The process was all right during my time of grieving, going through her things and all that, but never, ever, EVER do I want to clean a hoard like that again. I totally feel you on that one.

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