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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.

16 thoughts on “Less But Better: A Design for Living”

  1. Okay, I’m inspired! I’m going to clean out the excess! My goal is now to get rid of 30% of what I own :) Thanks

  2. For the past year and a half, I’ve been living in a 324-sq ft apartment (a one bedroom). It’s a challenge – not so much to get rid of unnecessary belongings, as they shed rather easily, in stages, and I don’t miss anything, but the walls are close, and I still whack them when I gesture. Had I the final say, I would knock out the dividing wall. Still, I think 400 sq ft would be ideal (and would give my cat room to zoom).

    There is great satisfaction in having only what I really need, only what pleases my eye and heart every time I look at it. And even those few things seem to be more lightly held, yes?

    1. I do love how much feedback gets triggered by no socks. Sockless is fabulous in summer. Hardly new, though I wouldn’t suggest it in the boardroom. Old school in Italy.

  3. Love the holistic, integrative design simplicity. This reminds me of so many conversations with European friends…

    1. I used iTunes Match to take care of the CDs, even though I enjoy most music through Spotify and internet radio these days. Between Apple TV, Netflix and Hulu, I dip into my DVD collection VERY rarely. I am, however, keeping Blu-rays and special edition releases.

  4. George, you’ve inspired me. Baby steps mind you, but you’ve inspired me. I’m tossing or donating three big bags of stuff from my coat closet alone. 7 coats/jackets going to housing works, 6 still in the mix. It’s a start. Love the blog. Thanks for the inspiration!

  5. I live in a two bedroom warehouse apartment with my wife and two children. We have no outdoor space (except for a balcony) but there are plenty of parks nearby that my kids would prefer anyway. And the kids love sharing a bedroom.

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