As a longtime editor of Real Simple magazine and as someone who has lived in a small apartment in New York for years, I know a lot about setting up a small space. With the recent popularity of nomadic living – living on the road in RVs, Airstreams and Vans – I thought to myself, “Who better to offer advice on living in a small space than people who have spent months living in 200 square feet or less? “
I spoke with three women: Melanie Raver, San Diego-based interior designer and mother of three young daughters; Lindsay Daugherty, a student from Barrington, Rhode Island; and Brooklyn-based writer Jessica Bruder, author of the award-winning book “Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century”, which became the basis for the Oscar-winning film “Nomadland”. Although they made their trip for different reasons, the lessons they shared are very much in sync. Here’s what they had to say about âliving tiny,â as Raver calls it.
Don’t give a thumbs upOverwhelmed by the constant upkeep of their 3,000 square foot home, Raver and her husband, Dave, knew they had to make a change. So a few years ago they invested in a vintage Airstream trailer which they emptied and refurbished to fit their family of five and their Great German Shepherd.
âI did a full inventory of everything we would need, then figured out the exact size and amount of space it would all take,â says Raver.
The couple used every square inch of the trailer. They created doors under the mattresses so they could fill the cavities with off-season clothing and extra bedding, and the drawers were individually sculpted to fit around the trailer ducts.
Daugherty saw the pandemic as a reason to give up enrolling in his college courses and spending the year traveling the country with his classmate Mikaela Boone. They invested in a van and outfitted it themselves, using all the horizontal and vertical space.
âThe more compartments and cabinets we could create, the better,â says Daugherty.
Create a home for each itemâYou have to have a designated place for everything,â Daugherty says. She and Boone used Walmart’s lidded plastic bins inside their compartments and cabinets to store similar items.
âGarbage cans are generally used for kitchen organization, but we used one for socks, one for T-shirts, and so on. They are easy to remove and sort, âshe says.
Daugherty also points out that âthe van forces you to stay organized. You can’t fall asleep without tidying up the table, and you can’t tidy the table without cleaning your dishes, and you can’t brush your teeth without washing those dishes and taking them out of the sink.
For Raver, having space for his three daughters and their items was a priority.
âEach girl has a shelf, a drawer under the bunks, a small section for hanging things up and a cabinet for larger items, for sweaters and sweatshirts,â she says. They also outfitted the bathroom with hooks for each family member’s towel and shelves for each shower trolley.
Go for the double – or the triple – dutyBecause Bruder didn’t have time to outfit his van like Raver and Daugherty did (she had a deadline and had to hit the road immediately), his focus was not so much on space as on what she filled the space with. .
âIf an item doesn’t work for what I need and sometimes serves two or three purposes,â she says, âI end up eliminating it. “
She says her system is “more practical than what arouses joy,” referring to Marie Kondo’s method.
In Raver’s Airstream, the large bed she and her husband share also serves as a U-shaped meeting place for the family. Two pieces of the center board can be removed and stored in a vertical cabinet, and the cushions break off from the two-piece center that become back cushions for the bench seats. She admits it’s not easy; the bed has to be reassembled every evening and dismantled every morning.
Daugherty and Boone’s bed doubles as a U-shaped table and bench. Their chest-shaped refrigerator has a cushion that fits on top, so it doubles as a bench, and the nightstand becomes a space. additional counter for the kitchen.
Keep the editing process smoothWhen you live in such a small space, says Raver, you have to be prepared to adjust the way you think and the way you interact with things.
âYou have to be very careful about what you allow in, and you have to change your habits, which means all habits, from the way you shop at the grocery store to how you respond to your kids when they want something. “
She, Bruder, and Daugherty all say it’s about constant editing.
âYou have to think of it as a fluid movement that you can’t stop,â Raver says, âbecause if you do, you’ll get stuck and [end up] not to be careful.
She adds, âIt becomes really obvious when you reduce what works and what doesn’t to basics, more than when you have tons of stuff and tons of space. “