As resident New Yorkers, we at Birchbox HQ are well acquainted with the pros and cons of urban life. While we love the convenience of public transport and the abundance of world-class restaurants, there’s one downside we can all agree on: a serious lack of space. Which is why we were delighted when Jenna Mahoney’s Small Apartment Hacks—a DIY guide to organizing and entertaining for tiny living spaces—came across our desks. Filled with ingenious tips and advice, Mahoney’s book is like a bible for anyone who’s hit a wall (literal or figurative) while trying to make the most of their cramped studio. Here, we chat with Mahoney about the tricks to mastering small-space living:
What's the most common misconception people have about living in small spaces?
I think that most people think that you've got to have super mini pieces of furniture. But actually, if you cram in a bunch of Barbie-size pieces, your space can look—and feel—much smaller than it is. The key is to buy and position items around one to three large furnishings: the couch, bed, and an armoire, for example.
What's the average size of an urban apartment?
Believe it or not, there isn't really a resource for this info because the sizes are so varied among geographic locations and city size/landscape. The legal sizes of some major cities range from 29.52 square feet (Paris) to 250 square feet (Los Angeles) to 450 square feet (Boston). In 2010, the average American single-family home size was 2,392 square feet, according to the Census Bureau.
When going about organizing a small space, what is most people’s biggest mistake?
Being too aspirational. If you don’t really think you are going to read The Corrections, War and Peace, and The Luminaries, why are they hogging up valuable shelf real estate? The same is true for fancy linens and superfoods in the pantry. If you have fancy linens, use them and toss or donate the low-budget ones.
Another way people can be too aspirational is by hyper-organizing. You may think giving every.last.possession a home and a dedicated space is the perfect solution, but if it doesn’t fit into your lifestyle to have the clothes hamper tucked under the bed, for example, it isn’t working. And if it doesn't work, you aren’t using your space efficiently enough for you and your lifestyle.
What's the easiest one thing to do to hack a small apartment?
Go double-duty. Or triple. It saves space, time and money. And purge. You'll feel less encumbered both physically and mentally.
While researching your book, what was one tip or trick you learned that really changed everything?
After researching this book there was one thing that really stuck out: When editing your possessions ask yourself, “Would I save it in a fire?” I think there are five items that perennially make that list—my passport, my engagement ring, my Pound Puppy, my Alexander Wang bag (a Christmas present from my husband), and a pair of Toms to wear while running out of the burning building—so why do I have so much stuff? Streamlining really does lighten my mood. It’s hard to do sometimes, but I like seeing space in my closet.
Lately we’ve seen several trend pieces about “living with less.” How do you feel about apartments getting smaller in the future?
Maybe we can all learn that accumulating stuff isn't the key to a happy life. After all, travel is the only thing that we pay for that makes us richer. (Of course, I think a killer mani also makes me feel like a million bucks.)
What was the smallest apartment you've ever lived in? How did you adapt?
In a lot of ways, I feel like my current apartment (about 900 square feet) is the smallest I’ve lived in because it is mine. My past apartments all felt temporary. This one, as the foundation of my future, has more responsibility to function at a higher level for adulthood livability.
One key to my success is to edit and purge from the office/closet/beauty products every three months. I aim to donate or sell anything that isn't in the usual rotation. Also, I customized the closets. Trust me, it’s a total and complete gamechanger. It allows me to see what is where and if they get overstuffed, I know it is time for a purge. In that vein, I also got those slim huggable hangers; they somehow elevate the presentation of hanging clothes.
At Birchbox, we have a lot of beauty products. How can we fit them in teeny bathrooms?
Make friends with The Container Store. In addition to building out my closets, I have an ELFA drawer system under the sink where I organize all my items by theme. Have zero under-the-sink space? I love the look of a chest of drawers in the bathroom. Use it to store products and linens. I also truly believe a clean bathroom looks bigger.
What are other ways to make a bathroom feel like an oasis?
Have nice stuff. And when I say that, I don’t mean it has to be expensive. Get rid of anything that is ripped or stained. Wipe down your sink and toilet daily with moistened wipes. Do a major scrub once a week. And please—no plastic shower curtains! Another must-have for an oasis—nicely scented candles (I get the mini Diptyque ones, they seem to last forever) and flowers (I put three blooms from my living room selection in a vintage juice glass and place on the back of the toilet).
What’s the biggest upside to living in a small apartment?
Less upkeep. No lawn to mow, no roof to scrape ice off of and you get a built-in community! Not to mention amenities like a gym or roof deck. Win!
What are your favorite resources for small space design inspiration?
I look at Lonny, Domino, and Rue Magazine online. Recently I've been reading Amber Interior Designs. She gives some great doable insider designer tips, and makes me wish I had a cool Cali bungalow. I’m also obsessed with flea markets and yard sales. Stop me if you've heard this before, IKEA. The styling of the catalog makes small-space living seem not only possible, but stylish. And the Property Brothers on HGTV! Those guys really make the most of any space and understand the concept of proper storage.