Some people can work wonders in small quarters. (Remember that beautifully organized, itty-bitty kitchen-shower apartment?) I am not one of those people. I’ve lived in a 350-square-foot Lower East Side apartment with my husband for four years, and during that time I’ve managed to keep it in an almost uninterrupted state of mess (except when guests come to stay).
It’s not that I don’t want my place to be neat every day…in theory. It’s just that there always seems to be something more important on my plate than putting things back where they came from or figuring out a new, better piece of furniture that I can actually afford. Cleaning and organizing is so far down on my list of priorities that it’s basically in my next lifetime. So I’ve adapted around my habits– I have no problem keeping a bag of fresh laundry in my living room for weeks and pulling my clothes from it, or shuffling the same papers around my desk over and over and over again.
But as I started to work from home more often and four-years-worth of stuff kept piling up, even I began feel claustrophobic. I wanted to start cooking more, but every time I tried, I was constantly spilling everything on the ground because I didn’t have any space. I used to work at home all the time, but found myself heading out to coffee shops more often because I felt like I couldn’t think at home. I figured it was just a sign we were outgrowing our place and needed to start looking to Brooklyn for relief– an apartment where I could fit a desk and a kitchen table.
Enter Diane Lowy, who specializes in something she calls “apartment functionality.” A former manager for the New York spaces of Google and Chanel, she recently launched New York at Home to help stressed city dwellers like myself figure out how to use their apartments more efficiently. It’s not anything as fussy as home decorating– instead, her modus operandi is a meticulous cross examination of your habits and your space, pinpointing how you can use it better. When I saw her tweeting before-and-after pictures of Lower East Side apartments she’d worked on, I figured I’d call her up to see if she had any practical tips all tiny apartment-dwellers could think about applying to their own spaces. Instead, she offered to show me some of her tricks in action, on my very own apartment.
I have to admit I was skeptical about letting someone else into my space, even if Lowy was offering her services for free (they normally cost $15o an hour). After all, I’ve had my type-A mom try to tackle my dorms and apartments before, and I’ve skimmed Marie Kondo and all the latest “living small” minimalist trends. I knew that after a few cosmetic changes, I’d probably just be back where I started. After all, my messy packrat habits are deeply, deeply ingrained– to the point where, even back in middle school, friends would periodically clean out my locker for me. I imagined Lowy walking into our apartment, taking one look at our piles of junk, and quickly but politely running for the door.
Despite my concerns, curiosity won out. I figured I’d let her give it a try. The commitment was not small– we met three times, for at least seven hours total– and I can’t say it wasn’t bumpy. As much as I tried to put on my polite, helpful face, decision fatigue set in swiftly when I was staring at a pile of my stuff. I fear my sulking teenage self might have reared its head a few times. But by the end, the transformation was truly an upgrade. Here’s what I learned from Lowy’s makeover of my space.
1. Check your priorities –and make sure your furniture isn’t working against you.
I figured Lowy would want to see the apartment right away, but her first move was to meet us for coffee. She peppered us with questions and made us write a list of the things we do in our apartment: work, eat, cook, sleep, get dressed, read.
I thought — duh, that’s what everyone uses their home for. How does this help? But as soon as she entered the apartment, I began to feel embarrassed. Cooking more at home was my New Year’s resolution, and yet my two pretty ample counter spaces were completely covered with clutter, leaving no room for cutting boards and food preparation. My pots and pans under the counter were tangled into a huge mess, meaning I’d have to root around all the time to find the things I needed when I wanted to cook.
Lowy suggested we put up a wall rack to hang our most-used pots and pans (what she called a “pull system”), so they’d be within reach when needed and out of the way when not. “It takes away a lot of the fatigue of having to make decisions at the end of the day when you’re tired and don’t really have a lot bandwith,” she noted.
Then we attacked my dish ware–two of my main cabinets were filled with them, leaving little room for food storage. She recommended we put away half of our dishes (you don’t often need 10 bowls for a two-person household) so we had a more manageable selection, and more space for our food items.
Sure, it seems easy to pinpoint clutter as a problem, but it wasn’t clear to me the specific ways certain clutter was hampering my routine until taking a step back to check in with my priorities and goals. Suddenly I saw a few things I could do to reduce the stress of cooking and eating every day.
So if you’re at a loss for where to start, take half an hour outside your apartment and ponder what your priorities and needs are. Once you have a list of five or six things, you’ll re-enter your apartment with new eyes, and maybe it’ll be obvious that a huge dining table for guests who never come is overkill.
2. Divide and conquer.
It’s all good and well to identify the problem areas, where your lifestyle and layout are out of alignment. But next, you’ll have to actually dig into the process. To Lowy, this first means divvying up the spaces by their usage. If you have an area that should be used for work but has a big TV covering it, maybe it’s time to move it or get rid of it. Then she often recommends dividing items into groups by type.
When she first walked in, Lowy told me her impression was that we didn’t know how to contain our stuff. She pointed out that my food storage areas were overflowing with cutlery, spices, oils and packets of ingredients. I was sure it wasn’t my main problem– but I can still find everything!, I protested.
But Lowy wasn’t convinced for a second, and employed one of her psychological tricks. She laid 10 containers on the floor and instructed us to put all the similar things together–spices in one box, pasta sauces in another, vitamins in another, then replace them in the cabinets.
Lowy also suggested we put our grains in mason jars. I was really resistant to this– mason jars seem like the wee twiddly touch of a Kinfolk magazine spread. Cutesy and rustic and utterly unnecessary. Why would you make an extra step, taking things out of their packages to put them in another new container?
But after consolidating things, suddenly the cabinets opened up. Without throwing away almost anything, we could now clear off the counters to make space for food prep. Since the mason jars are clear, it’s also easier and faster to figure out what we have and grab what we need– going back to that “pull system” strategy.
“By going through everything and separating it out, I used that technique to show you that you didn’t really have everything as organized as you thought you did,” she said. “By creating different shelves for things, and putting things in the mason jars, and coming at it from a different perspective, it helped you to see the advantage of taking everything out and looking at it with an eye for organization.”
3. Find compartments for clutter.
As I said, I’m not the type to fold clothes and I’ve never subscribed to minimalist maven Marie Kondo’s philosophy that we should thank items for their service and do away with them unless they “spark joy.” So I envisioned some big battles when Lowy told us we should tackle our closets and bookcases next. Luckily, Lowy isn’t a Kondo acolyte either. “There’s this idea of being on a diet, of minimalism and not having a lot of stuff. As something you’re supposed to separate yourself from,” she said. While this works for some (very few) people, others are going against their nature when they try to radically chop down belongings that they’re emotionally attached to.
“I’m a big believer that there’s so few things that bring us joy and delight, and if you really like going shopping for stationary or buying clothes or getting electronics, give yourself permission to do that by making space by donating things that lost their luster able to make space for new ones,” she said.
Well, I like some degree of clutter–having a few random bits and bobs around without needing to decide where they go all the time can feel freeing. Lowy was willing to work with that–but said the clutter needed to be managed. The first thing Lowy pointed out was that our living room “decoration”– made up of bits of string with little pictures and souvenirs hanging off of it by clothespins– was, er, not really helping the situation. She said it was “too much visual noise” for the workspace, which was probably why I was always fleeing the apartment, and recommended we replace it with a sleek cabinet that could store more items.
But, instead of forcing me to clean out all of my junk drawer at once, she suggested I put it into a clear box and put it away. This was a huge relief to my anxiety of throwing out important things too hastily. Instead of trying to deal with what to do with each item right in the moment of organizing, I can go through it later when I feel less overwhelmed. She also helped us buy a new cabinet from craigslist where we could temporarily store (and hide) the everyday bits of mail and papers that normally hang out on our table. It might sound strange, but having more places designated to hold random clutter helps keep me sane and stress less about the everyday things slipping through during the busy weekdays– I know I can come back to sort it out on the weekend.
So if you want to make some changes to your apartment but you go into panic mode every time you think about doing major surgery to all your extra papers and souvenir knickknacks, maybe you can limit it to a few designated areas or boxes and plan to go through them periodically.
4. Re-evaluate hand-me-downs.
Most of our furniture came from family or friends. Even if the storage cabinet someone offered us didn’t really do the trick, we figured, hey, it’s free.
But Lowy reminded us that just because someone gave you something doesn’t meant you need to hold onto it for years. She helped us replace tall black display shelving (more of an eye-sore repository for random clutter than a display) with a sleek cube set from Target. It helped organize some of our daily items –gym stuff, laptop cases, cookbooks and makeup– and also was much lower, opening up the space.
It might be stressful to get rid of a piece of furniture that’s been good-enough for years, but spending a little extra time surfing Ikea or Craigslist might help you find a better fit that will make big difference in your every day experience.
5. Sometimes you just need a kick in the butt.
When Lowy arrived on her last visit to find that we hadn’t taken our leftover stuff to Housing Works yet, she walked right back out the door, insisting we head there right away. I thought it was unnecessary– it had been a busy week and we figured we’d get around to it later. But Lowy revealed that the number one problem she encounters with clients is procrastination.
“It’s your home and your stuff so you get really close to it so you just don’t see it anymore,” she said. “When you get an extra pair of eyes and get someone to come in and help take a look at it, it makes a big difference–even to have a friend come over and look at it.”
Even if you don’t think you need it, try to find a neutral observer who can act as your butt-kicker and hold you accountable (but maybe avoid mothers and family members who might trigger your judgement alarms). Lowy also writes a weekly newsletter, fully of tips that can keep you on track.
6. Remember, change comes slowly.
Now, I don’t want to overstate it–since we’ve made all these modifications, I haven’t turned into a neat freak overnight. I am still the same person–forgetful, prone to procrastination, and disdainful of sacrificing my time to tidying up. There’s still many evenings when I cover my couch with laundry, leave all my dirty dishes in the sink or feel too crushed by work to even sweep the papers on my table into their new designated cabinet.
But, Lowy’s emphasis on reducing friction in everyday life did have a big impact– I’ve noticed a real difference in our apartment just because certain habits are easier and less painful to implement. We are cooking more on our cleared-off counters. I’m willing to invite friends over, because there’s space for them to sit. And, for the most part, I feel more relaxed when I’m working from home. When I sense the claustrophobia of too much stuff encroaching on my tiny tenement, I know what to do and I have compartments to set aside the extra bric-a-brac.
An itty-bitty apartment may take some time to settle into for someone who is not naturally a minimalist–but with an eye for functionality and emphasis on priority, even the smallest living quarters can feel like queendom.”One of the advantages of being in the Lower East Side is you are in heart of city and there’s so much people do outside of their homes,” Lowy said. “You can have a really big life with a really small place.”