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Less But Better: A Design for Living

This past weekend, I was visiting friends (a couple) who live in a good sized one-bedroom apartment here in Manhattan. Their apartment features a nicely-sized bedroom, a perfectly efficient bathroom, a great living room with ample space for a nice dining area, a full kitchen with one of those wall-through countertops perfect for bar stools on the other side, and a balcony. They also have a huge closet in the bedroom and two other closets in the small hall outside their bedroom. With all of this, they have accumulated enough clothes, furniture, appliances and general “stuff” to fill a small house.

In their living room, there were several bags and packages of stuff. I asked if they were donating goods to Housing Works or some other charitable thrift. “No, it’s our winter stuff. We’re taking it to our storage space later.” Like many New Yorkers (and people elsewhere, too), they’ve designed a lifestyle that transcends the constraint of their space.

New York City apartments are famously small and especially skimpy on closet space, particularly in older buildings. And now, we as consumers seem to require than ever: more clothes, more shoes, more gadgets, more furniture, more books, more space, more, more, more. Consequently, storage is a booming business.

Does all of this “more” bring more happiness with it? Articles on studies about this actually suggest the opposite, pointing to the stress of managing all of it, which requires more space, more time, more energy and more money. More more.

For me, a key to negotiating all of this is the design principle of one of my idols: Dieter Rams. His iconic designs for Braun defined how we understand and interact with many of the modern personal and home electronics we use today, especially from Apple. The German design legend applied his ethos not just to gadgetry but to living in general. Rams’ motto is “less but better.”

For seven years, I rented a storage space, throwing away an additional $100 each month on top of my rent and other expenses to accommodate my lack of restraint, my inability to edit my life, and my refusal to accept the constraints of the space in which I lived. In those seven years, I spent over $8,000 holding onto furniture I never missed, clothes I never wore, books I would never re-read, and technology that became obsolete.

When I moved into the 450 square foot studio I now occupy, I made a decision. I looked at my then new empty apartment, assessed all of my possessions, and heard the words of Tim Gunn from Project Runway: “Make it work.” With the exception of two extra Eames plastic shell chairs, I got rid of all the contents of the storage space, selling some and donating most. And after three months in the new apartment, I even ended up selling the extra Eames chairs. As much as I loved them, they couldn’t work in the space.

As I type this missive, I have two side tables and two bookcases posted on Craigslist. I’ve struggled to find a purpose and a place for them in my apartment, but to no avail. Yes, they’re great-looking, but they don’t fit in my humble home or in my life. Because of that, they go.

After many years (and many dollars) living in a way that aspired to a home and a lifestyle that I hoped to have instead of accepting the home and lifestyle that I actually had, it now makes much more sense to design my life around the present, not the past or the future. In doing that, I make it a habit to regularly refine and pare down even more. At least once each month, I make a trip to Housing Works with a bag of stuff – sometimes a big bag, sometimes a very small one. If I haven’t worn it it a year, I get rid of it.

In order to enjoy a simpler lifestyle design, I acknowledge my constraints, accept them and surrender to them. There’s nothing wrong with wanting more. But as a culture, we’re constantly bombarded with messages, advertisements and other influencers that suggest we need more – more to fit in, more to feel complete, more to be beautiful, more to be happy. It can be very easy to give in. In terms of what material goods I allow into my life under my current constraints, some rigorous editing, filtering and discernment is required. The needs must override the wants. I’m someone who embraces constraints, since they force me to be more resourceful.

My simple rule for bringing anything new into my apartment is that it must fit. And by “fit,” I mean more than just space. It must physically, functionally and aesthetically add to the value of my experience in my home. If it’s going to crowd or clutter in any way, I skip it. In other words: if it doesn’t fit in my apartment, it doesn’t fit in my life.

I’d love to get a juicer, a blender and a toaster oven, but, unless I want my kitchen to look and feel like an overstocked mess, there is no space for it. I can think of ten more suits and eight more pairs of shoes I’d love to have, but they simply wouldn’t fit in my closet. A king size bed or a Florence Knoll sofa would be fabulous, but they ain’t happening in my compact studio.

One of the perks of our digital age is the ability to access more media than ever without physically possessing it and requiring more space to store it in a precious sliver of real estate. I once had a collection of hundreds of CDs. They’re all gone. Little by little, over the course of about six months, I digitized every album I owned and stored them in the cloud. I’m now starting the process of unloading the hundreds of DVDs I also have. Books? Magazines? The New York Times? Unless it’s a collector’s item coffee table book that will look impressive to visitors, I read all books, magazines and newspapers on my iPad. I’ve even started to resent the catalogs that come in the mail. They take up space and give me yet more physical “stuff” to throw out, recycle or deal with in general. I’ve heard friends rationalize over and over, refusing to let go of the physical stuff, arguing “I need to feel and touch the album/CD/newspaper in my hands.” I can’t be bothered. (And I’m not one of the thirteen people outside of the recording industry who can hear the difference between a lossless audio file and a CD.)

As for my own winter clothes, it all fits neatly in my luggage, which is in my closet. I don’t need three topcoats. I need (and have) one. And when autumn comes, out come the boots, gloves, hats, coats and woolens as the shorts, polos and linen retire into the luggage until spring or a trip to tropical climes.

In my efficient little bathroom, I try to practice the principle of less but better with a minimum of products. The only (and I mean only) bottle in my shower is Dr. Bronner’s Peppermint Castile Soap, and the rest of my toilette consists of a minimum of product and fuss.

Do I feel like I’m compromising or giving up anything? Absolutely not. Just the opposite. It feels like shedding dead skin, buzzing my hair or getting my braces off. It’s a liberating relief, and I love it.

As we go through life, we turn into virtual lint rollers, mindlessly accumulating more and more stuff as the years go on. It’s as if we’re collecting props, costumes and set pieces for a play different from the one we’re in. Why? What for? I’m more interested in rewriting that script, taking things in a different direction, traveling light and getting on with the business of living. This may sound weird, but… part of me feels that when my life is over, I don’t want to leave a pile of crap that my loved ones have to go through and contend with. It seems like a rude and selfish burden to drop on my survivors. The time to start practicing “less but better” is now.

Contented in a corner of my small but wonderful slice of Manhattan.
Contented in a corner of my small but wonderful slice of Manhattan.

In my 450 square foot situation, I have two closets, handsome custom wood floor-to-ceiling wall units with more storage than I need, a small kitchen with an under-counter bar fridge, a stove top and a convection oven. My one out-of-apartment storage indulgence is the $17/month I pay to keep my bicycle in the garage in my building. All things considered, I’m good. Really good. I love the sheer simplicity and efficiency of it. If my income grows, granting me the power to get a bigger apartment or a country home, I presume I’ll be able to also afford the furniture to fill it then, instead of living beyond my current spatial constraints with the burden of a storage space and crossing my fingers for a winning lottery ticket. And if a prophet appeared before me and told me that I’d be living with 450 square feet for the rest of my life, I would perfectly happy with that, too. Seriously.

This is my design for living. It’s a work-in-progress that’s working better all the time. If all goes well, this design for living will be neither defined by stuff nor encumbered with it. Less but better.

Further reading…

For an inspiring perspective on living better with less stuff, read about Everything That Remains, the new book by “The Minimalists” in Slate.

And to see my dream studio, check out the unbelievable 420 square foot LifeEdited apartment here in New York City. It’s eight rooms in one.

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Handsome Photos from Cannes by The Hollywood Reporter

At the annual glam-a-palooza that is the Cannes Film Festival, The Hollywood Reporter was expectedly on hand to photograph some film industry notables posing on the Croisette. In the original gallery published on THR, a handful of really handsome images of some of the guys caught my eye. I’m sharing them here. The photos were shot by Fabrizio Maltese.

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An After Shave Solution from Dollar Shave Club

Two years ago, Dollar Shave Club shattered the overpriced shaving model by offering fabulous inexpensive razors and later introducing the wonderful Dr. Carver’s Shave Butter. They then brought us those hilarious and effective butt wipes called One-Wipe Charlies last summer. After starting with our face and moving on to our ass, Dollar Shave Club is back to our face like a dauntless lover, expanding the line with a moisturizer.

Today, Dollar Shave Club is introducing Dr. Carver’s Magnanimous Post Shave, a daily all-in-one moisturizer. The non-sticky, non-greasy formula is weightless on the skin, packing antioxidants to improve texture and fight aging. Not tested on animals, its notable ingredients include Golden Barley, Prickly Pear Cactus, Sodium Hyaluronate, Aloe Leaf Juice, Oat Extract and Vitamins A, C, and E. It also seems to be fragrance-free, so it won’t interfere with a couple spritzes of Stetson Cologne.

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The 3.4 oz travel-friendly bottle will run you a cool $9 (S&H included).

On their successful mission to takeover the Bathroom Experience by introducing effective yet unaffected grooming products, Dollar Shave Club has so far made sure we can affordably maintain a smooth, supple face and a fresh taint. One wonders what’s next…

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My New Navy Seersucker Suit from J.Crew

A few weeks ago, my cousin was in town with his wife and son. He had a window of time and wanted to know where to get a smart summer blazer. I sent him over to J.Crew and told him to look for their Japanese cotton navy seersucker jacket, which would look great on him.

When I picked him and his wife up for dinner that evening, they presented me with a garment bag.

“What’s this?” I asked.

“We loved it and thought it was so you,” he said.

I unzipped the bag to find a new navy seersucker jacket. I was blown away by the thoroghly thoughtful and completely unexpected gift. And they had correctly guessed my off-the-rack size (38R). I was completely caught off-guard and was (and remain) so very grateful at this insanely kind and thoughtful gesture.

Since I had the jacket, I figured I would see if J.Crew had any discount codes online, which they did. At the very reasonable full price, the jacket is $298 and the pants are $158 ($456 total). I got 15% off the navy seersucker pants. Four days later, the pants arrived, producing a whole suit. Then it was off to the tailor…

Japanese Cotton J.Crew Navy Seersucker Suit
Japanese Cotton J.Crew Navy Seersucker Suit

A cotton suit is a summer staple. It often comes in the shape of a twill or chino, with the tan chino suit probably being the most popular. What I love about this seersucker is it’s solid navy color where seersucker typically comes striped (blue and white, brown and white or gray and white). Made with the signature J.Crew Ludlow design, the cut of the jacket is honest and slim with a slightly lower button stance, 2.5 inch lapels and a double vent in the back. The pants are flat-front with a very comfortable fit.

My only issue with this and the two other J.Crew Ludlow jackets I own is a minor one, but a recurring issue nonetheless. The front button becomes loose after only a few wearings (after one wearing with this new one). There is nothing exceptional or unusual about how I wear a jacket or how often I button and unbutton it. Luckily, fixing a button is a skill I have, and I took care of it in ten minutes. I have many other jackets from other brands and none of them have button threading this weak. This is an issue that seems particular to J.Crew. A friend who recently bought a beautiful Ludlow suit reported the same problem to me. The solution is a simple production fix: spend twice as much time and use twice as much thread when adhering the button to the jacket in the factory.

Other than that, I am overjoyed with a very smart new summer suit.

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Podcast No. 19: The Anatomy of a Suit

Indochino is a company that makes high-quality affordable made-to-measure suits online. I’ve written about them on the blog many times. Recently, they sent out an email blast with a pretty detailed graphic that illustrated what goes into each of their suits, highlighting specific elements about the fabric, the materials and the construction. Continue reading

One man's journal about raising the bar without raising the budget.