I Lived in a 280-Square-Foot Apartment for a Year—This Is What I Learned

Updated 09/11/19
studio apartment interior design
Sean Litchfield ; DESIGN: Gabrielle Savoie

"Let's get real," I challenged my real estate broker as I was moving out of my first New York apartment. "How big is this place, really?" When I settled in a year prior, the square footage of my apartment was never advertised in the real estate listing, and the last agent kept it vague. But since my apartment was being put on the market for an absurdly high price, I knew this broker had to have the exact square footage.

I initially had estimated it no bigger than 350 square feet—just big enough for one bright-eyed Canadian moving to New York to feel at home in one of the world's most expensive cities. "How big?" I asked again. He flinched: "280 square feet." Was that even legal? I had flashbacks of reading an article about people living in cages in Chinatown—below the legal space requirement.

A 280-square-foot apartment isn't exactly what you'd write down your list of prerequisites when looking for housing—but despite my initial aversion to the space, I somehow grew to love this glorified hotel room so much that I tried really hard not to move out when my building decided to sell. Somewhere along the way, I had become attached to my tiny studio apartment—or, as the realtors called it: "a beautifully renovated pre-war corner penthouse." Ha.

My love affair with this tiny space wasn't love at first sight. If a relationship takes work, this one felt more like a 30-year marriage. But with a jigsaw puzzle of small-space solutions, Marie Kondo–style editing, and ruthless design decisions, I learned to love living in a tiny space. If you're pondering a downsizing, looking for tips to make your own small space work, or looking to live a little more sustainable, here's how you, too, can learn to love living in a tiny space. 

small kitchen decor
Sean Litchfield ; DESIGN: Gabrielle Savoie

Clutter—in any way, shape, or form—is not your friend. I discovered this quickly as I started stuffing things in cupboards, in baskets under the bed, or on high shelves above my closet. Suddenly I felt silly for having packed so much of my life in a moving truck—right down to my laundry detergent (rendered useless, since I had no washing machine). Lucky for me, I moved in peak Marie Kondo frenzy—and devoted the next few months to cutting clutter out of my life: clothes I felt bad getting rid of but never wore, useless kitchen items I never cooked with, old towels I no longer wanted. I said sayonara to a truck full of things and never looked back. Besides—who needs laundry detergent when your dry cleaner's wash-and-fold service is the price of a morning latte?

sofa for small spaces
Sean Litchfield ; DESIGN: Gabrielle Savoie

Being good at jigsaw puzzles helps, especially when laying out your floor plan. It (embarrassingly) took me five months to truly nail down my studio's floor plan. I must have gone through dozens of iterations—some drawn to scale on fancy architectural software, some sketched on napkins, some simply configured in my head. I knew what I wanted; I just couldn't figure out how to make it all fit. Then, one day, West Elm launched its Commune collection—and with it, the holy grail of small spaces: a perfectly streamlined armless sofa under 61 inches wide. It was just small enough to fit between my kitchen island and my bed—its low frame ideal to tuck under the countertop. Had it not been for this piece of furniture, I wouldn't have found the right sofa at the right price—which brings me to my next point: Patience is key.

modern bedside sconce
Sean Litchfield ; DESIGN: Gabrielle Savoie

Good things come to those who wait, whether in the form of sofas or love. This rings true when waiting for the right piece of furniture, but not so much when talking about the small details that make a place feel like home: proper window shades, hung artwork, or rolled-out rugs. In retrospect, I could have tackled a few small tasks around the apartment much earlier, as they ultimately had a huge impact on making the space feel like home. Waiting to find the right sofa is acceptable if you're willing to watch TV from bed for a while. (Disclosure: There really isn't much time for TV-watching in Manhattan.) Waiting to hang artwork, sconces, and window treatments is not. These tasks are so menial and make such a huge difference; I recommend tackling them on moving week (or hiring a TaskRabbit professional if you can't fathom doing it yourself).

tv stand for small spaces
Sean Litchfield ; DESIGN: Gabrielle Savoie

Organizational systems are the key to sanity. After my big purge, I had to find systems to store everything I still owned and wanted to hold onto. With a single closet the size of an average refrigerator, I needed to get creative. Baskets under my bed became the saving grace to store linens like bedding, blankets, and towels. My TV stand double-dutied as half dresser, half electronics and paperwork storage. Unlike Carrie Bradshaw, I did not use my stove to store sweaters, but I did use upper kitchen cabinets to house overflowing beauty products and out-of-season items. All that wasn't quite enough—so I called in the big guns and had a professional organizer overhaul my closet. As it turns out, it was well worth my time. 

modern four poster bed
Sean Litchfield ; DESIGN: Gabrielle Savoie

Your friends will see your dirty laundry hamper and sit on your bed instead of a chair, and that's okay. One of the biggest mental blocks about moving from a one-bedroom apartment to a studio is I don't want people to hang out in my bedroom when they come over. In all honesty, no one cares—and if, like you, they live in New York, they most likely won't even notice, and they might even give you praise for how great your apartment is. What happens when you move to Manhattan is that your standards lower so much that even an unrenovated basement chamber maid's room starts to look appealing. As for the myth that your bed will smell like last night's dinner all the time, it's simply not true. First—New Yorkers don't have time to cook. But on the off-chance that you do, just don't cook fish, and invest in scented candles.

marble bistro table
Sean Litchfield ; DESIGN: Gabrielle Savoie

When New York City is your backyard, 8 million people become your neighbors. We can all remember ugly naked guy in Friends, and no one wants to be that person or see that person. My apartment had four windows, all conveniently staring out at 30 or so apartments across a courtyard, so privacy was a big concern. I considered curtains (not ideal for heaters and A/C units) but ultimately landed on solar shades that were thin enough to let natural light through, but opaque enough to not be see-through—and it was possibly my smartest investment. They were not bulky or cumbersome, easily rolled up and down, and provided me with both privacy and much-needed sunlight. 

studio apartment bathroom
Sean Litchfield ; DESIGN: Gabrielle Savoie

When your bathroom is tiny, little luxuries are key. When I first visited my studio apartment, I walked straight out and said, "No way; I can't have a bathroom that small." But after much deliberation and negotiation, it really was the best option for me—and the location was unbeatable. I can't say I ever fully embraced the closet size of my bathroom, but I learned how to strictly edit beauty products. Most importantly, I found that little luxuries: a plush bathrobe, soft towels, or Aesop hand wash, went a long way in making me tolerate—even enjoy—my bathroom. It's a little trick I learned from the Swedes, and I will never look back.

Blu Dot Real Good Bar Stool $249
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West Elm Hand-Loomed Shine Rug $499
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West Elm Commune Armless Sofa $1000 $500
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Shari Margolin Hood River Boards $86
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best wall sconces
Schoolhouse Electric Isaac Plug-In Sconce $219
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best scented candle
Mad et Len Classic Candle $100
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Blu Dot Dang TV Stand $1799
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Diptyque Tomas Maier: Old Montauk Highway Candle $70
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Parachute Linen Stripe Duvet Cover Set $329
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green vase
Cliff Young Green Popu Vase $150
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The Shade Store Solar Shade $187
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Baxton Studio Wishbone Y Side Chair $206
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best robe
Frette Velour Shawl Collar Bathrobe $220
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best hand wash
Aésop Resurrection Aromatique Hand Wash $39
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Next up: Designers never use these bright colors in small spaces—here's why.

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