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The art of living in a small space

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Living in a small space does not have to be a nightmare if you pare down and organise your possessions

Many middle-class South Africans are looking to buy smaller homes. In fact, micro-units – from as small as 20m² (the size of a single car garage) – are sprouting up all over, particularly in coastal areas where property is at a premium.

The mirco-pads provide first-time buyers, especially millennials and Generation Z, with a foot in the door. But, for many, the idea of living in small space can be daunting, particularly if they have a family to move with them.

We asked New Yorker Erin Boyle, the writer and photographer behind the blog Reading My Tea Leaves and author of Simple Matters, how she has made it work.

She lives in a 46m² one-bedroom, fourth-floor apartment with her husband and two small children. “It’s really magical, but it’s also really hard,” Boyle admits. 

“I sometimes wish I had a door to open and let the children go run around in a backyard.” That said, she has learned over time how to maximise what space she has. “We don’t need as much space as we think we do,” she says. “Limit yourself to the space you have.”

Her best small space living tricks include

Opt for simple, neutral furniture: Every design decision matters when space is limited. “We’ve found furniture with simple and spare lines makes a tiny apartment feel roomier,” Boyle says.

Pared down bed linen is also easier on the eye and makes the apartment feel larger. “Keep things relatively neutral and pick a cohesive colour palette.”

Skip the mountain of throw pillows and instead invest in two sets of crisp, white sheets, a bed skirt and a thick cotton blanket for cold nights.

Opt for neutral furniture. Picture: Supplied

Plan your meals in advance: Cooking in a tiny kitchen can get very messy, very quickly. Meal prep is one way to make the experience a little easier and more enjoyable.

“We have a tiny fridge and limited cabinet space,” Boyle explains.

“Planning meals in advance and shopping locally and frequently helps us live a low impact lifestyle, both in our personal lives and on the environment.”

Edit your clothes seasonally: To consolidate your wardrobe, each season take stock of the clothing you wore, how it fits you and how it made you feel. Then divide your clothing into three stacks: stay, go and ponder.

“My motto is don’t hold on to anything for a negative reason, such as feeling guilty to dump it because someone gave it to you as a gift.”

Edit your clothes seasonally. Picture: Supplied

Cull your bathroom supplies: Organise your bathroom goodies for maximum efficiency. “I try not to have anything in the house that we really don’t need or use,” Boyle says.

“Part of it, I understand, is living in the city – we have a 24-hour chemist a block away – but you don’t need 18 face creams or 15 toothbrushes ‘just in case’.’”

Adopt the “use it or lose it” philosophy and routinely take stock of your items. One easy way to start is to ditch any expired medicine or make-up.

Cull your bathroom supplies to get rid of clutter. Picture: Jonny Caspari

Forget about photo-ready perfection: With social media sites such as Instagram and Pinterest, it can be easy to get caught up in the visuals. But a home should reflect your actual lived experience.

You need to feel comfortable and furnishings should be situated accordingly. For example, Boyle has her queen-size bed in the apartment’s main living area. It might seem unconventional but it makes the most sense for her family at this stage in their lives. (The children have the bedroom.)

“Humans are adaptable and can find solutions that fit their needs if they maintain an open mind.” Despite the layout, Boyle is still able to entertain guests. 

“We often do appetiser-heavy gatherings, where folks can graze from cheese boards and platters and perch on a couch with a small dessert plate on their lap (and go back for seconds).”

Get creative about storage, and stick to it: Once you establish space for something, it becomes a habit and makes living more manageable. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box. To make space in their tiny, windowless bathroom, Boyle installed a shelf above the doorway.

“It decluttered the back of the toilet and made room for laundry detergent and toilet paper.”

The Washington Post, additional reporting HOME writer

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