Home & Design

Small Is The New Big

November 9, 2015


The tiny house movement has been around for a while now, but I’m seeing more and more articles about people choosing less space to live in more generally. This New York Post article focuses on some famous people who have chosen to downsize, like the singer-songwriter, Moby, who is apparently known for mega real estate purchases, but is trading it in for a much smaller house. Celebrity chef Rachel Ray apparently lives in 1800 square feet in Manhattan with her husband and Warren Buffet still lives in the modest home he bought in 1958.

We are a family of four living in less than 1000 square feet, and we’re hoping to move in the next year or two. I’ve realized that it’s not so much the size of our home that I’m itching to change, but the layout, the lack of storage solutions for basics, and the lack of outdoor space (and a driveway!). As homeschoolers with two growing kids who would like to be able to have guests over from time to time, we could seriously use a new place. But nothing large.  I like the simplicity of less space and how it fosters togetherness and connection. It also saves on housework, which I support!

Living space isn’t a one-size fits-all kind of thing, of course. The space you need depends on your family size as well as other needs and circumstances. B and I both work from home so we need some office space, for example, but other people don’t need that. A close friend of mine has eight kids — you better believe she needs more space than I do. But more American families seem to be attracted to simplifying their lives and that slowly seems to be translating into purchasing (and building) smaller houses. Not sure what will happen to all the McMansions out there, though.

How big is your current home? What would be your ideal home-size?

Image: Pixabay




Baltimore Row Homes
If you’ve been reading SlowMama for a while, you know that I live in a very narrow house with my husband and twin daughters. It’s a brick row house, built in 1900, and it’s 10 feet at its widest point. In some spots — such as where our fireplace is — it’s even narrower.

There’s a real charm to old, narrow, city homes like this. And they’re all the more adorable when updated and designed for modern living, such as this house featured on Cup of Jo. How sweet is that place?

Narrow houses are often very lovable, but once you’ve got kids and stuff, no matter how simple you try to keep things, such spaces can be challenging. Finding suitable (and affordable!) furniture that fits is all but impossible, storage is pretty much non-existent, and a couple of extra people over for dinner is all that works comfortably.

I’ve learned a few things from living in a shotgun house (as it’s often called), though, and one of them is that it’s not so much about space, but layout. I always thought I wanted to live in a big home, and now I know that I don’t; instead, I want my space to suit my family’s needs and lifestyle. We could live pretty happily in a space with about the same square footage (well, maybe just a little more!), if it were just configured differently.

While I’m slowly tiring of our narrow house, I think living in any small house forces you to simplify, live with less, and think hard about how you live and what you buy. It’s always seemed to me that people are less stressed and more fulfilled when they take these lessons to heart. Case in point: this article in Apartment Therapy about a woman who downsized from a huge house in Houston to a tiny apartment in NYC and feels so much happier and more sane.

Would you ever consider a narrow or very small house? Does the idea of downsizing fill you with excitement — or dread?

Image: Zoe Saint-Paul


Playing in Public

April 7, 2015

As if I didn’t have enough reason to go to Paris, here’s another one: the Place de la République. It’s one of the city’s most beloved public squares and recently underwent a costly renovation. The new space is now primarily for pedestrians and includes a kid-friendly fountain, a space for skate boarding, a cafe, benches, trees, an open areas for games, and a different kind of kiosk: a toy and game station called “L’R de Jeux,” a play on the French word for “playground.”

The Hedgehog Review explains how it works: You leave your name, address, and ID with a staff person and then you can take “puzzles, card games, pull toys, or building sets” into the square to play with. (You can also sit in a corner at the kiosk and do it.) Oh, and it’s all free. The author, Wendy Baucom, explains that Paris gets something in return, too:

People of all ages and classes congregate in the square. I believe it’s critical that there is no cost to play. Some users could afford a day trip to a museum, while others have very few toys in their own homes. Moreover, the nature of play makes it easy for cultures and nationalities to mingle. Chinese and Senegalese Parisians may shop in different grocery stores, but here they play the same games, regardless of their language proficiency. As my non-French-speaking son can attest, language is seldom a barrier when there’s a great game in progress. Other, perhaps more insurmountable barriers, like politics or religion, may be set aside by adults in need of a chess partner.

Play is a natural way to break down barriers and bring people together, but we don’t tend to think about it much. We do have toy libraries in the U.S., of course, but as Baucom points out, they’re primarily for taking toys home. Which is great, but isn’t the same as public game-playing. I love the whole idea of accessible, inviting public spaces that promote intermingling and spontaneity among strangers in a low-key way.

Baucom poses some good questions for Americans in her article: Are we missing low-budget, high-impact opportunities for fostering positive civic interactions in our public spaces? And how can we better use the common spaces we already pass through regularly?

What do you think? And when’s the last time you were in Paris? Take me in your suitcase next time!

Image: Javier-Palmieri, found at life of pix


The 80/20 Principle

February 24, 2015

City Yellow Manhole
Last month, Margaret talked about Marie Kondo’s decluttering book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. I finished the book right around the same time, and while I don’t wholeheartedly buy into Kondo’s method, many of her principles have stuck with me. They’ve especially come in handy lately, as B and I are embarking on a total home reorganization over the next couple of months.

Those of you who haven’t read Kondo’s book (or didn’t care for her method) might find the 80/20 Principle more useful — especially if you’re a numbers person. Have you ever heard of it? I had only come across it in the context of business; it’s also known as the Pareto Principle, named for Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto. In 1906, Pareto observed that 20% of his pea pods produced 80% of the peas in his garden. He then observed that this tended to be true in other fields and industries — and so his theory was born, stating that 80% of the results will come from 20% of the input or action.

The Pareto Principle is a popular management tool, but it can be applied to every day life, too. As Mark Manson writes in his article “How to 80/20 Your Life,” there are lots of ways to do this:

For instance:

  • What are the 20% of your possessions you get the most value out of?
  • What do you spend 20% of your time doing that gives you 80% of your happiness?
  • Who are the 20% of people you’re close to who make you the happiest?
  • What are the 20% of the clothes you wear 80% of the time?
  • What’s the 20% of food you eat 80% of the time?

Chances are these are easy questions for you to answer. You’ve just never considered them before.

And once you’ve answered them, you can easily focus on increasing the efficiencies in your life. For instance, the 80% of people you spend time with who only add 20% of the pleasure in your life (spend less time with them). The 80% of crap you use 20% of the time (throw it out or sell it). The 80% of the clothes you wear 20% of the time (same thing).

Identifying the 20% of the food you eat 80% of the time will probably explain whether you keep a healthy diet or not and how healthy it is. Hey, who needs to follow a diet? Just make sure to switch to where the 20% of food you eat 80% of the time is healthy.

Since math was never my subject, my head starts spinning a bit with this, but I like the basic idea, and I think it could be helpful particularly as it relates to stuff — like clothes, personal possessions, and home items.

In Kondo language, personal efficiency is more about surrounding yourself with what sparks joy; with the 80/20 Principle, it’s more about identifying which efforts or items produce the maximum results or benefit in your life. But I’m guessing both will get you to the same place. I’ll be keeping this 80/20 rule in mind as we continue our efforts on the home front.

What do you think about the 80/20 idea? Does it ring true for you? Is it helpful?

Image: Life of Pix

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by Margaret Cabaniss

I’m not sure what I expected from Marie Kondo’s book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up (which I mentioned the other week); given the title and the breathless reverence some people have for it, I think I was anticipating something lofty, revelatory — basically genius on every page. I’m only about two-thirds of the way through it at the moment, but so far my reaction has ranged from “yeah, that’s good advice,” to “huh, I’d never thought of it that way before” — with the occasional “wait, what?!” thrown in for good measure.

Below, in no particular order: the good, the bad, and the hilariously weird.

First things first: I have to give Kondo credit for laying out her KonMari method quickly and simply (you can easily read the book in an evening or two). It helps you focus on her main takeaways: Keep only what “sparks joy.” Move quickly so you don’t get stuck in an endless decluttering loop (she recommends taking no more than six months to go through every item in your home). Organizing starts only after you get rid of the things you don’t need. You pretty much never need to keep an old credit card statement.

She offers some great practical advice, too — for instance, sorting items by category (clothes, books, papers), rather than location (bedroom, kitchen), to make sure you’re really seeing everything you own and not just shuffling piles from one room to the next. Then there were the occasional gems that really helped me reframe the whole idea of organizing — like the idea that “we should be choosing what we want to keep, not what we want to get rid of,” so that we can really focus in on and appreciate the things we love.

There are definitely plenty of tips and tricks here that I’m making mental note of. But.

Not everything Kondo advised resonated with me. Even her central premise — “keep only what sparks joy” — didn’t seem quite complete. My blender isn’t exactly something beautiful to behold, but I need it, and I’m not buying a $500 Vitamix anytime soon, so it stays. Looking at my wardrobe, I wouldn’t really miss my (very small) collection of conservative knee-length skirts, but I need something to wear to work, so those stay, too.

I get that Kondo’s larger goal is to have us think in big-picture terms of what makes our lives better; in fact, her mantra is probably a great one to use while shopping, to set the bar high for anything new that comes into our homes. But, well, I can’t afford to throw out and replace everything less-than-completely-magical in my home right now, and I’m not sure that “sparking joy” is ever going to capture things like spare light bulbs that we occasionally just need. I think that’s why I’m drawn to William Morris’s slightly more practical philosophy (which I mentioned last time): “Have nothing in your home that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful” — though, a la Kondo, if they can be both at once, so much the better.

Then there’s Kondo’s habit of anthropomorphizing every item in your home. I actually like the idea of taking a moment to be thankful for the things that have served me well or brought me happiness over the years before letting them go — but I draw the line at considering the interior life of my gym socks. Kondo sounds physically pained when describing the “potato-like lumps” of rolled socks in a client’s drawer, and how she went on to reprimand the client for not giving the socks a proper vacation by laying them out flat in the drawer so they could rest from their grueling day’s labor…

Yeah. At this point, if she had just said, “Fold, don’t ball, your socks; they’re easier to sort and the elastic will last longer,” I would have been totally on board. But I just can’t take seriously any advice that admonishes me to heed the tiny pantyhose screams currently emanating from my sock drawer when making fold vs. roll distinctions.

There are other passages that are just plain weird-slash-hilarious:

  • On keeping the spark alive with your out-of-season clothes: “Let them know you care and look forward to wearing them when they are next in season. This kind of ‘communication’ helps your clothes stay vibrant and keeps your relationship with them alive longer.”
  • On the inhumane treatment of our coin brethren, so thoughtlessly thrust into junk drawers across the nation: “To actually see these coins, stripped of their dignity as money, is heartrending. I beg you to rescue those forgotten coins wasting away in your home…!”
  • Quoting (positively!) this letter from a satisfied KonMari customer: “Your course taught me to see what I really need and what I don’t. So I got a divorce. Now I feel much happier.”

I’m not sure whether these gems can be explained by cultural differences or Kondo’s special breed of obsessive organizational habits; either way, they’re pretty entertaining — and they actually end up making Kondo more endearing, because…well, she’s a little crazy.

Bottom line: Kondo makes some great points. Her simple, straightforward (dare I say uncluttered?) approach to organizing does help you mentally prepare for the task at hand. And decluttering is nothing if not a mind game: Overcoming the urge to hoard, fighting the fear of missing out, coming to grips with what will truly make us happy by its presence in our homes — it can be scary stuff. I wouldn’t go into the book expecting miracles, but if you can take the things that are useful, skim over what isn’t, and laugh along at the rest, I think it will prove a handy little guide.

Of course, I haven’t started any actual decluttering yet, so we’ll see if I change my tune… How about you? Anyone else read the book yet or tried her method?

Image: Margaret Cabaniss


by Margaret Cabaniss

Got any tips? Because I’d really love to know.

Sorry for the bait and switch, but it’s been on my mind a lot lately — and judging by the posts in my feed reader and the pins popping up on Pinterest right now, same goes for everyone else in Blog Land. Blame it on the calendar: After the clutter and excess of the holidays, the allure of the whole “new year, new you” thing seems to make everyone want to start a juice cleanse and empty every closet in the house.

I got on the “organization now!” train myself over the holidays, when I spent a little time helping my parents sort through some things in their own home — boxes of odds and ends that belonged to them, their parents, and their children (my sisters and me) — and the process was pretty eye-opening.

First of all, I learned that it really is easier to get rid of someone else’s stuff. I had no problem telling my parents to junk that old sleeping bag we found tucked away in the attic, of which I have no memory and to which I have no special attachment — though it seemed slightly more difficult for my dad, who probably instantly recalled all the family camping trips it must have gone on when I was too small to remember them. The tables were turned on me later, though, when I went through a box of my old college t-shirts — faded rags that I’ll never wear again, but which hold so many memories that simply throwing them away (the only reasonable thing to do with them, since I will never make nor, frankly, use one of those t-shirt quilts) just felt sad and wrong.

Trickiest of all was going through my grandfather’s things: He passed away last year, and suddenly every knickknack that ever sat on his desk became precious — regardless of whether it was meaningful to him or we had ever noticed it before — simply because it was his. How do you let go of those things without feeling like you’re also letting go of the person behind them?

It became clear pretty quickly that it’s not just the accumulation of stuff, but our relationship to that stuff, that makes decluttering so difficult. How do you sort through the mountains of Memories and Feelings attached to every item and disassociate them from the objects taking up room on your counter? That’s the bit that has me stumped.

It’s also what made me interested in checking out Marie Kondo’s book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. I can’t check Feedly or Instagram these days without someone else singing the praises of Kondo’s method with true apostolic fervor. The number of times the words “life-changing” have been thrown around in conjunction with the book have made me (a) suspicious, because that’s my natural M.O., and (b) slightly afraid that the book’s method will actually work, and I’ll end up with a living space reminiscent of a monk’s cell.

A review in the Guardian describes her approach:

Her “KonMarie method”, as she calls it in the diminutive and illustration-free volume, encourages a rapid, dramatic and transformative one-time organising event completed methodically and lovingly in no more than six months. It is not an ongoing battle against clutter.

Kondo sees tidying as a cheerful conversation in which anything that doesn’t “spark joy” is to be touched, thanked and ceremonially sent on its way towards a better life elsewhere, where it can discover a more appreciative owner.

That all makes sense to me — it sounds a bit like William Morris’s dictum to “have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful” — though the reality can be a bit more complicated: figuring out where family treasures fit on that useful/beautiful/joy-sparking continuum, for one. What’s more, having made a few trips to the donation center and dump recently, I can say that our optimism about our cast-offs moving on to a “better life” is a bit…inflated. If we don’t want our junk, why should we assume anyone else does? At the very least, long-term decluttering requires just as rigorous an examination of the things we bring into our homes as the things we take out of it.

But I can’t critique a method I haven’t tried yet, so I’ll have to check it out and get back to you. Anyone else read Kondo’s book, or have other methods that helped you pare down and get organized? Do you make special exceptions for family mementos? I would love to hear!

Image: Christopher Baker for Real Simple, in a handy piece on how to deal with “sentimental clutter”


The Art Wall

December 8, 2014

Wall Art
I finally got around to creating an art wall in our living room for the girls’ masterpieces. They create so many things that I “ooh” and “ahh” over, and I’d been wanting to do something other than letting it all pile up in different corners before finally getting around to putting it in their art portfolios.

So on a rainy day before Thanksgiving, I strung up two pieces of thin twine on our old brick wall, found some miniature craft clothespins, and got to work. I chose a variety of their recent pieces and made sure I showcased an equal amount of work from both girls.

I love how it turned out, and S and H love seeing their work on the wall. It also helps them to make a connection with the art they see at the museums we visit. Art is not simply for the privileged few, and I want them to have an appreciation for the art they see and make from a young age.

Art Wall 2
The toughest thing is always trying to figure out what to display, what to toss, and what to save. The giant portfolios I bought to store their art are already bursting at the seams. I don’t keep everything, but I store what I think shows how they’re developing creatively, as well as anything I think would be fun for them to look back on.

If you have kids, what do you do with all the stuff they create? Do you toss most of it? Save it? I love some of the solutions Leah came up with for the same problem in this post from back in the day… How do you incorporate your kids’ art in and around your home?

Images: Zoe Saint-Paul

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Modern Communal Living

June 30, 2014

Villa Van Vijven
Last week, Margaret sent me an article in Dwell magazine about a group of five families in the Netherlands who banded together and hired an architect to create a modern commune of sorts — one building with five different units and shared (as well as private) garden spaces. I’m always fascinated by ideas like this and love to see the designs people come up with.

What strikes me about this place is that even though the residents commissioned, financed, and agreed to the housing project — no easy feat! — and they share gardening and landscaping, they lead pretty independent, private lives, claiming they don’t see each other every day and are good neighbors more than friends. In this sense, it’s not really a commune, nor even a community with a shared life. But it’s definitely a group of people who share certain values about design, lifestyle, and living space who came together to make it happen.

Van Vijven Private Gardens
I must admit I could totally go for something like this — though my first inclination would be to do it with some of my siblings’ families (and possibly a few friends) whom I’d love to have as neighbors. Of course, I’d have to institute Sunday potluck brunches or dinners, and maybe family movie nights on the lawn. Frankly, it doesn’t seem all that different from how we live now — in a small row house, attached to other row houses, with a gated green space shared by 11 families — except this one in the Netherlands is much grander, intentional, rural, and modern. (Okay, so maybe a little different than what we have now, but some of the concepts are the same at least!)

If a group of people can successfully build a house together that they’re really happy with (imagine the patience of the architects!), it seems to me they could pretty much do anything together after that. Still, issues can always come up: residents not pulling their weight around the property, personality conflicts, and personal issues messing things up (divorce, death, illness, relocation). But some of those things probably get written into whatever agreements are drawn up.

Even with the potential pitfalls, I’m still a big fan of the idea. The balance of independence and community, as well as an intentionally designed space you love, seems like a great combination.

Does this idea of modern communal living appeal to you? What would be your ideal number of residents and your ideal house design? And, of course, who would you choose to share the place with — family? friends? strangers? And where?

Images: Dean Kaufman for Dwell 


by Margaret Cabaniss

DIY: Easy Upholstered Headboard
I love the look of upholstered headboards, but not necessarily their price tag. I’ve bookmarked tons of DIY versions on the web over the years, but because I never want to do anything too hastily (ahem), it’s taken me this long to actually get around to trying one. Fortunately, a friend of mine was looking to do some home improvements and volunteered to be my headboard guinea pig — and in one afternoon, we had knocked out the whole thing. Remind me again why I waited so long to try this?

We followed these basic instructions at Young House Love. There are more elaborate and heavy-duty versions out there, but if you want a quick fix for a bare room, or a placeholder while you save up for something big, I can definitely recommend this one.

What you’ll need:

  • wooden canvas stretcher bars (you can find these at a good art supply store)
  • wood glue
  • heavy-weight fabric
  • batting
  • staple gun and staples
  • hanging hardware

DIY: Easy Upholstered Headboard
First, figure out how big you want your headboard to be. For a queen-sized bed, we went with 60 inches wide (the width of the mattress) and 36 inches high — tall enough that we could have plenty of height above the bed, as well as a good bit hiding below the top of the mattress. Stretcher bars come in all lengths, so you can make yours exactly the dimensions you want.

DIY: Easy Upholstered Headboard
Once you’ve figured out the size of your frame, you’ll need a piece of batting the same dimensions, plus 3-4 inches on each side. Obviously, the thicker the batting, the cushier your headboard; we went with a medium thickness (only a couple of bucks with a coupon at the fabric store), and it worked out great. For our fabric, we used an old heavy-weight linen curtain from Ikea, cut to the same dimension as the batting.

DIY: Easy Upholstered Headboard
Now for the fun part! Assemble your stretcher bars by putting a little wood glue on the tabs and sliding the corners together. These were a snug fit at times, so you might want to use a rubber mallet to gently tap everything into place. Check to be sure your frame is square before letting it dry (the glue called for 12 hours of drying time, but since the stretcher bars fit so snugly to begin with, we just waited a couple of hours for it to set before proceeding).

DIY: Easy Upholstered Headboard
When you’re satisfied that the glue is dry, clear a large area on the floor where you can lay down your batting, then place the frame on top. Next, wrap the batting around the frame and staple, using the same method as that coffee sack bulletin board I made way back when: Start by stapling the middle of one side, then cross to the middle of the opposite side and staple that down, too, making sure to pull the batting relatively taut — then do the same on each end. Once you have it tacked down, work your way around the frame, filling in between your previous staples (ours were about 2-3 inches apart by the time we finished). Do a hospital-corner style fold where the edges meet to make everything look nice and tidy.

DIY: Easy Upholstered Headboard
After the batting is finished, do the same thing with the fabric: Lay your material right-side down on the floor, topped with the frame, then wrap and staple on opposite sides, being sure to pull the fabric tight as you work (if you have a patterned fabric, check it periodically to make sure it’s lined up correctly). The more staples you use on the back, the smoother it’ll look on the front, so just go to town on it.

Lastly, we added picture hanging hardware to the top edge of the frame on the back, then used a level to make sure everything was straight as it went up on the wall. The frame itself is so light — even one this big — that it only took a couple of nails, and we were done!

DIY: Easy Upholstered Headboard
Sadly, the low light and small room made it tricky to get a good shot of the finished product (not to mention the fact that I’m missing the Martha Stewart–approved mountain of pillows) — but trust me, it’s awesome in real life. My friend says the new headboard is great inspiration for keeping the bed made and looking nice; it’s kind of amazing the difference it makes in the room, for such little time and effort (and cost!). I may need to make one for myself eventually…

Anyone else tried their hand at making their own headboard? Have a bed in your home that could stand a little face lift?

Images: Margaret Cabaniss

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Why Design Matters

March 25, 2014

Chair by Jolyon Yates Growing up, “design” wasn’t a word I heard or thought about much. Both of my parents came from science backgrounds and while they had good taste, art and aesthetics didn’t loom large in my early years.

As a young adult, I thought of design simply in terms of fashion, decorating a home, graphic arts, or  architecture — all of which interested me to a certain extent, but seemed to belong to those who had the respective talent and skill (and money). I didn’t consider design to be something that touched my every day life.

In the years since, however, my understanding and appreciation of design has changed.

There’s a tendency to view design as something only artists, wealthy people, or engineers concern themselves with. But design is something each of us engages with all the time, whether we realize it or not.  Every object we use and see around us is designed and has both form and function — whether it’s a wall hanging, a fork, a chair, or a box of tissues. Everything around us has been designed and while we may not give much thought to that, it affects how we live our lives.

Take for instance, something as obvious as your home. The design of your house — the shape of its rooms, the height of its ceilings, how much light it has, the way it’s situated on the land around it, the details inside — all of these things affect how you function in your home and how you feel as you live in it. Same thing with the way streets are designed, office buildings, stores, and parks.

Or take, for example, something as simple as a pen. I can’t be the only person who’s delighted when I find just the right one — something that feels fitted to my hand, makes writing easier and lovelier, looks great on the page, and doesn’t  smudge or run, etc. How a pen is designed — both in look and function — changes your experience of it. A well-designed object can make your life easier, smoother, calmer, more productive, more pleasurable.

This was driven home to me when B and I switched to Macs. B was always a computer geek and enjoyed tinkering under the hood, so PCs made sense to him. But one day he realized that he was spending most of his time getting his computer to work and little time using it to actually create or produce anything. And it’s a marketing cliche, but true: His creativity took off after he made the switch to Mac.

It was the same for me — when my tools changed,  my work life changed. My little laptop not only helps me function better, it is more pleasurable to use and to look at. It’s amazing that even a piece of metal can be “lovely,” but in line with Steve Job’s underlying philosophy, there’s no reason something useful cannot also be beautiful.

Have you given much thought to design and how it impacts your life? If so, what are some of your favorite designed objects?

Image: Rocking chair by Jolyon Yates found at homestrendy.com