life in a tiny apartment.

May 6, 2015

Tip #120: On Scaling Up and Living Large.

Last Thursday, my dad came into the city to hang out with Faye. While she dozed in the afternoon, we used his fancy-schmancy Leica Disto Lazer measuring tool to finally get an actual measurement of our apartment (and make the floor plan some of you guys have been clamoring for). My dad’s a real estate appraiser, so taking square footage measurements of apartments is kind of his bag. He got very official and used ANSI (American National Standards Institute) standards to measure the place and after he was finished we realized that including closets and funny corners and our bitty kitchen, the apartment hovers closer to 500 square feet than the 400 that we thought we’d scored. (James has been bragging about how we’re “living large” ever since.) Interestingly, by the same ANSI standards, our old apartment was actually only 172 square feet since the loft wasn’t tall enough to count as livable space.

Exact measurements aside, years of writing about small spaces has made one thing clear: one person’s tiny is another person’s spacious and vice versa. This isn’t a post about crunching numbers. It’s about living small, even when you’re not necessarily restricted by eensy weensy square footage. I’ve realized that for some folks who want to keep things minimal, sometimes dealing with an excess of space feels as perplexing as dealing with a dearth of it.

Last week my cousin Gillian emailed me to ask for advice about moving into a bigger apartment. She’s in the process of moving her family of four (five if you count their pup!) out of a relatively tiny San Francisco apartment to a much roomier place across the Bay. She’s excited by the prospect of having more space, but she’s concerned about how she’s going to fill it.

Her concern about scaling up is pretty common. With a move to a bigger space there are often the double worries of not wanting to rattle around feeling like you don’t have the furniture to fill the place while simultaneously not wanting to immediately cram it full just because there’s more space.

And so of course I told her to take it slow.

Take your time. Don’t fill it up. Unpack what you have and live with that for a while before trying to buy furniture for a place you haven’t lived in yet.

I likened it to the experience I had getting my wedding dress made. When I first tried on my wedding dress muslin, I twirled in front of the mirror in our old apartment and thrust my hands into imaginary pockets. There were no pockets in the dress—and no plans to put any in—but Nayantara noticed that I was reaching for phantom pockets and asked if we should add them into the final dress. The answer? ‘Yes! Please!’ She marked the spot where they should be and when she handed me my final dress a few weeks later, there were pockets. (Which I made sure to put to good use).

My advice about moving into a larger apartment is this: pay attention to your metaphorical phantom pockets. Identify the things that you wish you had, or think you could use, after first getting to know the space a bit. Once you’ve discovered that you’d really love a side table, or that there’s room for a small desk, or that maybe a bigger table would be more practical and there’s plenty of room for it anyway, begin your search for those things.

In the meantime, remember that you’ve managed in a much smaller space. There’s no need to add even a single new piece of furniture unless you want to. It doesn’t matter what convention or design sites or interior decorators tell you, as long as you’re comfortable.

In our apartment, we’ve decided to keep things intentionally spare. There are bare walls. There’s lots of open floor space. Heck, we even just got rid of our couch. For me, the sparseness is calming. It feels fresh and clean and also like I could pack up and set off for somesplace new without too much struggle.

What about you? Scaling up? Scaling down? What’s been easier?

Tiny apartment survival tips #1 – #119, right HERE.

You Might Also Like


  • Reply Pat May 6, 2015 at 12:36 pm

    Wonderful advice. I think you have to live with a space for awhile before you can begin to appreciate what it needs and what it doesn't need. After all, most of us aren't rushing to meet a deadline for a photoshoot with House Beautful. Take your time and enjoy the process.

  • Reply Anonymous May 6, 2015 at 1:23 pm

    We often think we need more than we actually do. I've been getting rid of some things in the past few months. It's strange how fast you get used to having less! – Eva

  • Reply Sarah May 6, 2015 at 1:39 pm

    i love this advice! we're moving next week… great perspective. my husband (and bank account) will thank you. 🙂

  • Reply Anonymous May 6, 2015 at 3:30 pm

    I live with my family (husband, daughter & dog) in Santa Cruz, CA. We are lucky to own our home- in our market (comparable to S.F. or Brooklyn) if you own and have a decent loan, you don't dare move. Our home is bigger than i would like -1650 square feet- I long for cozier space. It is challenging to remain minimal & cozy. One thing I love is that we have a seldom used 3rd bedroom- but we can host house quests so easily!

  • Reply J.S. Oxford— The House of Muses May 6, 2015 at 3:55 pm

    Everytime I move the same issue comes up. Our apartment is 500sq ft right now, and that's including the closet space and the unusable space taken up by the World's Largest Useless Fireplace. And yet, when we moved here I thought— we need to buy another couch! We need a chair! And yet.. it's been almost a year, we're moving again soon, and we have acquired no furniture. The only issue here is where to put the guests.

  • Reply Anonymous May 6, 2015 at 4:20 pm

    We are currently searching for a home to buy in Seattle. We are a family of five coming from a two bedroom town home in LA. My husband and I are minimalists, and we've kind of been living in limbo and haven't wanted to fill up our current place with furniture and decor. Now that we are finally looking for a house I'm completely overwhelmed by the amount of effort and money needed to fill a considerably larger space. Thanks to the Internet I have been so overexposed to beautiful interiors, and now have really high expectations and probably unrealistic ideas of my decorating abilities and budget. I'll just wait and wait and wait until I have the money to invest in the pieces I really want and love, but in the meantime, visitors think our home looks bare. Since I have three small children, I want to make it homey sooner rather than later and am unsure how I'm going to tackle this.

    • Reply Erin May 6, 2015 at 4:25 pm

      Oh man, I feel you! Visitors often think our place looks a little bare too (but I like it this way so that doesn't bother me!). I'd say don't underestimate the power of searching for second-hand goodies. Almost every piece of our furniture has been bought second-hand, making it more affordable for us and possible to resell without losing any money! In any scenario, I think the key to saving money and living with what you live is probably patience (and ignoring naysayers!). I'm sure you'll make a beautiful space for your family!

    • Reply admin May 6, 2015 at 4:25 pm

      Oh man, I feel you! Visitors often think our place looks a little bare too (but I like it this way so that doesn't bother me!). I'd say don't underestimate the power of searching for second-hand goodies. Almost every piece of our furniture has been bought second-hand, making it more affordable for us and possible to resell without losing any money! In any scenario, I think the key to saving money and living with what you live is probably patience (and ignoring naysayers!). I'm sure you'll make a beautiful space for your family!

  • Reply Clara May 6, 2015 at 7:46 pm

    HI! Our older son are living the house and we decide to cut half of our space to rent half of the house so we can help them with the cost of their studies))) We are in the process of deciding what we keep or not. We decide that since our house was big, we fill it with to much of everything so now is time to move on and in fact that help us to accept that our family is now smaller ! When our family was growing, we keep in mine that one day they will leave and the time come ( to soon for me and my husband)

  • Reply Evelyn @ Smallish May 6, 2015 at 8:27 pm

    Great post, Erin! After living for 5 years in 450 sq. ft., we recently upsized back into a 1,000 sq. ft. home and are certainly taking it slow. That is great advice. I DON"T want to just fill it back up with stuff we don't need. I DON"T want to throw up things on the wall that we don't love just because we feel the need to fill a blank space. I have moments when I just want the house to be done. now., but overall I'm enjoying taking the time to breathe and count intentionally what truly would be the best fit for our family at this time. Now that we've done both, I honestly think that our upsize with more space to figure out is more difficult than downsizing.

  • Reply Niamh Roisin May 6, 2015 at 9:25 pm

    This post reminds me of how Jim Ede (curator of Kettle's Yard museum and gallery in Cambridge, and originally his home) began to put that space together – not filling it, leaving it empty and seeing how the light fell, how it began to look and feel at different hours of the day – the result is one of the most famously beautiful and serene spaces in Europe! – it is just my place of dreams!

  • Reply Amanda S May 7, 2015 at 12:23 am

    Awesome advice! I've been making this place a home for the past two years, but only the last few months have we really taken the initiative to spruce up the place for living. I had been using a plastic table to hold my tea and laptop when not in use and realized how wonderful it would be to have something more solid (and grown up). It's really taken us all this time to find the items that make the vision of our home a reality.

  • Reply Anonymous May 7, 2015 at 7:16 am

    I have recently gone from 1000 square feet, to 1400 square feet, back down to 300 square feet which is what brought me to minimalism as a preferred way of life. Still I maintained my gorgeous coastal décor, artwork and decorations with just the right furniture I love. My couch, dressers, queen Ann chairs, dining table and 2 chairs and antique end tables. I even made a corner for my half china cabinet. One must have standards after all. In 300 square feet I was able to create a shabby chic, coastal décor feminine space that is welcoming and beautiful without any excess. I loved the 300 square feet. . and now I have decided to downsize even further to save money and be fiscally brilliant. I and my cat are moving into a small bedroom with my bed, her cat trees and litter box, 2 dressers and one end table. I dive right in with décor and make any home my own with my special décor that makes me happy and comfortable.

  • Reply Nancy Cavillones May 7, 2015 at 10:43 am

    We just moved from a 800 square foot bungalow to a regular sized house (no idea what the square footage is but it's a lot bigger than before, that's for sure.) Because we came from such a small space, we only had one small couch. The living room in the new house is big and open with wood floors. It felt so empty but I didn't want to buy a couch right away. So, we waited. Then an opportunity to take a high-end, but well-loved couch badly in need of recovering, for free presented itself and we took it. Then, a friend gave us a huge rug and we put it under the couch. Then, my parents moved and we acquired my mom's childhood piano, and a bed for my youngest daughter. Then, another friend gave us a bed for our oldest daughter. (They had been sleeping in a bunkbed previously.) So, we just kind of naturally and organically filled the space with the basic things we needed but it still feels spacious and not crowded in here. I have a feeling that a lot of people would add some armchairs and a coffee table to the living room but I'm not missing them, especially since we are moving to a smaller house later this year!

  • Reply orcarrieanne May 7, 2015 at 2:08 pm

    Thank you for this! My DH and I just moved into a 1747 square foot townhome (3 BR/3 Bath) from a 1300 square foot house (2/1 – we thought more like 1200 square feet). We didn't *want* that much space, but we did want the location and the upgrades (no carpet, thank you very much). Smaller spaces that are nicely built are quite rare in our market. We're *gasp* getting rid of stuff. We love having wide open spaces and blank walls (I might even paint them bright white). We also love having space to spread out all of our stuff and really consider what brings us joy (and it can be a bit overwhelming as my entire childhood was packed in storage and currently in our garage awaiting sorting). Our families are quite confused, but we are definitely fighting the tide of never ending accumulation. We also know we're moving again in 4 years (or maybe 9 – med school and potential residency) – so we want to be able to move to a smaller space again.

  • Leave a Reply to Erin Cancel Reply

    This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

    Comments are moderated.