life in a tiny apartment.

January 18, 2018

Survival Tip #160: Revisit the spaces you’ve resigned yourself to.

Next month, it will be four years since we first rented this apartment. Four years since, while pregnant with Faye, I climbed onto the kitchen counters and stuck white contact paper over the offending multi-colored tiles interrupting a simpler backsplash. 

Our kitchen doesn’t show up very often in this space in part because it’s in the very darkest corner of our apartment and impossible to photograph with natural light, and in part because as far as rental apartment kitchens go, it’s fairly generic. It’s the stuff of boring kitchen updates made on the cheap by a landlord interested in getting the job done quickly. It has a funky island spot that we mostly pretend isn’t there so that we can fit my desk and James’s surfboard beside it. It’s a spot that I often daydream about improving. What a difference there would be, I think, if we could extend the counter and have a row of lovely built-in cabinets beneath it? How much nicer would it look without a varnish on the cabinets and with a coat of ecru paint to brighten the dark corner? How lovely would a salvaged sink with a drain board look in that spot? If not a vintage sink, perhaps a more lovely faucet?

We get into tricky territory when we try to see the spaces that we live in as a reflection of ourselves. A kitchen isn’t a window into your soul, it’s a window into what kind of design you like and admire and, far more crucially, what kind of resources might be available to you at a particular moment. But living in a spot that looks a bit more like something you’ve imagined for yourself sounds nice, too.

As a renter, it’s easy to feel like you’re living in someone else’s home, because, well, you are. My general philosophy for inhabiting a space that I can’t do much to change has been to grin and bear it, and mostly, to ignore it altogether. In our apartment, our bathroom and the kitchen bones are so generally unappealing to me, that I’ve pretty much left them as is. But I think in some ways, I’ve over committed to my lack of adornment. It’s no news flash that I prefer under-dressed rooms but lately I’ve been trying to remind myself that not wanting to make rash or pricey—or just plain onerous—decorating fixes, doesn’t mean you have to abandon the idea of adding a personal touch altogether. 

In the past year or so, I’ve been moving slowly in the direction of paying more attention to these neglected spaces by adding in things that feel a bit more me and a bit less someone else. In my space, that’s meant paying more careful attention to the elements in the rooms that I can control. Like slowly transitioning from cracked plastic brooms to more lovely looking ones, I’ve been thinking about what a big difference a small change in everyday objects can make in a small space. 

Toward that end, we haven’t been undergoing a kitchen or a bathroom renovation or remodel, but we have been working on something of a slow-burn revisioning. Instead of making any huge improvements to these spaces, we’re playing around with the objects in them. Some of that has been about investing in new things. Some of it is about putting old things in new places. The revisioning isn’t about gutting or masking what I don’t love as much as showcasing what I do.

For the curious, a few examples:

Last spring, we decided to return our camping kettle to its spot in the closet next to the sleeping bags, and keep a more practical and also more beautiful wooden-handled kettle with a gooseneck spout on the stove instead. It drives our eye away from the contact-paper-covered tile and dare I say, the beech wood handle has almost made the honey-colored cabinets feel more intentional.

After Thanksgiving, we bought a new cast iron dutch oven and sold our old green one. A block pot with clean lines pulled the kitchen together and made even the elements that I don’t really love (the stainless steel and black microwave, for instance), feel in harmony with everything else.

Earlier this month, I decided to make my daydream a reality and bought a simple wall calendar to cover an ugly fuse box in the kitchen. The kitchen design might not be something that I’d choose for myself, but I love the stark simplicity of the calendar and having that in the space makes the stuff I don’t like (and certainly the fuse box) disappear a bit.

In the bathroom, just after Silas was born, we bought a charcoal-colored linen shower curtain. In the throes of welcoming a brand-new-baby I felt like I just wanted a tiny space with a bit of privacy. It’s hard enough to find a moment of solitude, but when you have a potty-trained toddler needing to barge into the bathroom alongside doting aunties or grandparents or any other number of helping hands, an opaque curtain, is…helpful. Bonus: It hides exactly half of the butter-yellow tile in the room from view. 

Just this morning, I took the leap and decided to replace grungy bathroom hand towels with something fresh that might hide grubby hand prints a bit better.

All of this is about stuff, I guess. But it’s been a slow investment in stuff we can take with us. It’s stuff that we admire and that we’ve chosen ourselves. Mostly it’s been about making little changes to change my point of view about a place. Maybe one day I’ll be writing about picking out the right white tiles to improve a backsplash, or embarking on a DIY to rip out the heinous bathroom mirror and bring a bit of simplicity into that space, but until then, I’m focusing on what I can do. Petit à petit l’oiseau fait son nid.

Tiny apartment survival tips #1 -160 RIGHT THIS WAY.

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40 Comments

  • Reply Anna January 18, 2018 at 10:04 am

    We bought a couple of years ago and after realizing how easy it is to replace a faucet or hardwire a light fixture, I’m kicking myself for not making more substantial changes to our rental. As long as you have a place to stash the landlord’s fixtures, it’s simple to switch them out again when you leave.

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE January 18, 2018 at 10:07 am

      Yes! We replaced our overhead lights two years ago and it made a huge difference! With a chandelier crammed in the top of our closet already, I think we’ve maxed out on big replacements, but it’s true that a bit of investment and a bit of elbow grease make a big difference!

  • Reply Laurie January 18, 2018 at 10:24 am

    Thank you for this post! We live in a small rental (though not as small as yours!) with 2 little ones, and just this morning (before I read this post) I gathered up all our cloth napkins that had accumulated in lots of different patterns and colors and replaced them with white napkins we had been given from various grandmothers on both sides of the family, which I’d packed away to be used someday when our life was fancier. I really wanted to buy lovely white linen napkins to replace the motley old ones, but I decided to just wash the grandmothers’ napkins and use them! We store them in a white bowl under an IKEA island (since we only have 3 drawers in our whole kitchen) so they’re always in sight (really always, because our kitchen and living room are one room)…. Anyway, thanks for this reminder that there are small steps on can take to make (imperfect) spaces feel a bit more beautiful. (And for previous reminders to use what you already have rather than buying more.)

    • Reply Kate January 18, 2018 at 10:21 pm

      “…which I’d packed away to be used someday when our life was fancier.” THIS! Isn’t it so liberating to finally accept your life just as it is and pull out the real silver and china teacups and white napkins and live your life just as it is. We use my grandmother’s silverware passed down to me to eat every single meal, no matter how fancy that meal might be 🙂

  • Reply Margie January 18, 2018 at 10:27 am

    Simplicity isn’t about spending zero dollars. It’s about spending every dollar thoughtfully. I am a big reader and have never had bookshelves that were just for me. We took the plunge on installing a wall of shelves across the wall that faces our bed and it makes me so happy to look at them. They were not inexpensive, but they are completely in line with my interests and values.

  • Reply Amelia Brown January 18, 2018 at 10:37 am

    If your keen on more counter space, or want to give your kitchen a feeling of newness, you could consider donating your microwave. Its a strange thing to think about, when you’ve been used to it your entire life. When my husband and I started enjoying a more minimalist and simple lifestyle five years ago, I considered letting go of the microwave, but my husband was rather attached. One day, I stuck the microwave in a closet, just to pretend. And that was the beginning of the end of microwaves, for us. Food tastes infinitely better reheated in the oven, butter more creamy melted on the stove, and putting cold tea or coffee in a saucepan for a heating boost somehow keeps the flavor… But then, we don’t have children yet, and perhaps that makes a difference.

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE January 18, 2018 at 11:17 am

      Oh, we’ve always been a microwave-less family and even with one, we heat nearly everything on the stovetop, but this one is mounted above the stove and doesn’t belong to us! (True confessions: We did in fact experiment with removing it and storing in a closet when we first moved in, but the wall behind it was left unfinished, so it was better left in place!)

      • Reply Amelia Brown January 18, 2018 at 11:21 am

        I’m so glad to hear it works well to be microwave-less with children!

        • Reply Marianne January 18, 2018 at 9:14 pm

          We’ve been microwave free for 10 years and I really don’t miss it. We have older kids (8 and 12) and they wouldn’t even know how to use a microwave!

      • Reply Stephanie April 26, 2018 at 5:28 pm

        Do you use your microwave for storage?

        • Reply ERIN BOYLE April 26, 2018 at 8:43 pm

          No! Since it’s here we put it to occasional use!

    • Reply Amelia Brown January 18, 2018 at 11:19 am

      That’s a ‘you’re’ at the beginning…

    • Reply sasha January 18, 2018 at 2:26 pm

      I gave away our microwave once, but when someone offered us one later, I gratefully accepted. I really missed it! Silly I suppose, but it just saves time and dishes too. We do have a very small one, that sits unobtrusively on our fridge.

    • Reply Clare Chippendale January 26, 2018 at 5:17 am

      Agree. Microwaves are big and ugly and can easily be done without. Have toddler and have never needed a microwave.

  • Reply Amelia Brown January 18, 2018 at 10:38 am

    And that’s a ‘you’re’ at the beginning…

  • Reply Аnn January 18, 2018 at 10:42 am

    Very cute teapot 🙂
    And really draws attention to yourself.
    It seems to me that the interior should change with us in order to support us.
    It’s uncomfortable when you can not change what annoys or what you get tired of visually. But investing in temporary housing does not make sense, as if I did not want to do everything thoroughly. It may make sense to use inexpensive temporary surfaces that mask the tile, for example frosted glass.

  • Reply Pat January 18, 2018 at 11:29 am

    I’ve been lusting over your new dutch oven since you first pictured it. Can you tell me why you chose that particular brand over a similar piece made by Lodge. It’s an investment, to be sure, and I’ve been going back and forth between yours and the Lodge version, trying to decide. Help! Thanks.

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE January 18, 2018 at 11:51 am

      We really loved the super clean lines and pared down aesthetic, the fact that it’s made from 30% recycled materials, and that it’s enameled. It’s all black so it looks like a plain cast iron pan, but it doesn’t require quite the same diligence of seasoning as a classic Lodge.

      • Reply Pat January 18, 2018 at 12:59 pm

        Lodge pieces do become family members with the care they need, but I treasure the pieces I have. The enamel on yours may sway my decision. Thanks!

  • Reply christina January 18, 2018 at 11:37 am

    Lovely blog. The same is true, in our case, even though we have lived in this less than 800sq ft house for 22 years. The house built in 1949 is not especially appealing. the entry is thru a closed in porch, that one side serves as my husbands’ office and the other a cat box that I keep ‘shaded by a huge palm plant. Then you walk into our kitchen. So quite awkward but structurally not much we can do since we’ve never had the money to do a remodel. But, we have done lots of little things to make it more appealing. Perhaps the most significant was when we embarked on our minimalist journey 7 years ago. As we removed things that didn’t suit us or reflect us, the space then opened up. I have a number of midcentury Heywood Wakefield pieces that I love. They are a lovely birch even if they are not in pristine condition. Our bathroom is tiny 6x 6 approx. But again, painting a light grey-blue and only having a pedestal sink helps. I think you’re completely right in that it is how we add the little touches that make our dwellings a home.

    • Reply sasha January 18, 2018 at 2:29 pm

      Small home for many years, and not much for remodel, for us too. When we had a bathroom leak a couple years back it ruined our sink cabinet and we switched to a pedestal. I love it! So much more open. I now just keep a small basket of essentials in the closet, we really didn’t need the cabinet and drawers.

  • Reply Rebecca Lately January 18, 2018 at 11:54 am

    That is a gorgeous tea kettle!

  • Reply Sarah E January 18, 2018 at 1:34 pm

    “A kitchen isn’t a window into your soul, it’s a window into what kind of design you like and admire and, far more crucially, what kind of resources might be available to you at a particular moment.”

    The above is a sentiment that’s run through my mind in a different context lately. I, too, have yet to buy a home and dither about what kind of home goods to invest in. But there’s this sense, in home decorating, as well as nearly everywhere else in life, that once we reach some sort of end point, everything gets magically better. Once we buy a house, once the kitchen is renovated, once the living room is “done.” And those things are total fallacies. There is no end point, there’s only adapting to meet your current needs with your current resources. Our need change, whether we’ve just finished a project or not. Our tastes change, things break, we have to move unexpectedly, etc. Everything is just the middle.

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE January 18, 2018 at 1:57 pm

      Yes, totally. Middling as a verb seems like a word to try out.

    • Reply Rita January 18, 2018 at 2:54 pm

      100% this!

  • Reply J. January 18, 2018 at 2:04 pm

    Confession: We also rent in Brooklyn and within two months I painted the honey-wood cabinets and removed/donated the old crappy over-stove microwave. All without permission. Three years later, I stand by my peace-of-mind upgrade. $100 + two weekend investment was well worth it. Upon leaving, I’ll replace the microwave with something shiny and beg for forgiveness.

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE January 18, 2018 at 2:07 pm

      Braver than I am! Ours were both brand-new before we moved in, so I could beg for forgiveness, but I’m not sure I’d be ready to risk our security deposit.

      • Reply J. January 18, 2018 at 2:40 pm

        Brave? Or foolish?! Time will tell. HA! I heavily weighed everything and since the cabinets were very old (and nothing in the kitchen painted fresh for us) I figured it was safe. Fingers crossed!

        • Reply ERIN BOYLE January 18, 2018 at 2:41 pm

          An improvement for sure!

  • Reply Katie January 18, 2018 at 3:38 pm

    We live in a 700sf rental as a family of 5 with a 100lb plus mutt and we are CONSTANTLY rearranging. Every time someone comes over they are like “oh it’s different in here” and then look at us like we are mad. But it really helps us continue living in this small, imperfect space. Even if our rearranging doesn’t accomplish what we set out for it to, there is something empowering about trying I think!

  • Reply Maria January 18, 2018 at 3:50 pm

    Love this! In my personal experience, I’ve never been able to do a huge renovation all at once. It’s just not realistic. I’ve learned to slowly make improvements over time. A few months ago, I bought a spice rack that fits in our drawer and moved all the spices off the counter! (We have more drawer space than counter right now.) Such a huge difference and it still makes me happy to have that extra breathing room!

  • Reply Andrea January 19, 2018 at 3:06 am

    Absolutely drooling over your dutch oven and tea kettle. Those are two of my most-used kitchen ‘appliances’ and both mine will be due for an upgrade in the near future. Thank you for giving me such beautiful, quality items to consider!

  • Reply Lou January 19, 2018 at 4:49 am

    My husband and I are home-owners in the U.K. Even though we own (although really our home won’t be ours forever as we’ll typically move in 5-10 years!) I look at our kitchen and its flaws (we moved straight in and haven’t made a single change to it) and given that it is the most trafficked room in house, how much time I spend in it and that it’s the first thing you see when you step into the house, I have so many ideas about how I could improve it. I dislike the wooden kitchen worktops, which mark so easily and need sanding on the regular (which we don’t do enough) and I’d love to replace them. We have an electric hob (I’ve always preferred gas) and cleaning it is a pain. And we have a wooden floor, which is not the most practical in a food prep area. Replacing the worktops (more to our taste) would be ideal, but what we have isn’t terrible. It’s just aesthetically not us. I sound ungrateful! It does becomes harder to justify the investment when what we have is good enough….and so we prioritise other things. Like travel! And then I come home to the kitchen and then the motions start again!

  • Reply Nessa January 19, 2018 at 6:22 am

    “A kitchen isn’t a window into your soul, it’s a window into what kind of design you like and admire and, far more crucially, what kind of resources might be available to you at a particular moment.”

    YES YES YES

  • Reply Anna Gerard January 19, 2018 at 8:05 am

    I love this post and all the responses. We are renting a small home. And sometimes I get so frustrated with the kitchen/fixtures/bathrooms. And with another baby coming in a couple weeks I’ve been rearranging and organizing and getting rid of things. My husband and I love more open space. This encourages me to look again at our kitchen counter (and all that’s on it!) and open it up somehow.
    P.s. Microwave free since having kids! (6+ years)

  • Reply Kat January 19, 2018 at 8:51 am

    Haha I wish I’d read this when I was in our old apartment – I used to joke that the bathroom felt like it belonged in a gas station. The kitchen was absolutely awful too…like, beyond awful. But my husband just graduated grad school and I was just entering grad school, and the apartment was next to a park, so…the worst part, though, was that nothing was CLEAN when we moved in. Hard to shake that feeling of being in someone else’s (gross) space even after scrubbing everything down. Needless to say we’ve since moved 🙂

  • Reply Marie January 19, 2018 at 10:01 am

    The shower curtain made me laugh ! We don’t have a shower curtain – for the sake of a little bit more room in a bathroom just barely big enough to fit a tub, a toilet and a sink. But I know the eye rolling moment of taking a shower and being interrupted by a toddler using the loo (at least by herself….). This is maybe my number one moment of me thinking ‘I want a bigger apartment’…

  • Reply Elizabeth January 19, 2018 at 12:01 pm

    Unless your landlord is truly an inflexible type, I’d ask for approval to paint the cabinets. I’d create a proposal with images, paint chip, etc, and say you’ll cover all expenses, and if it makes them more comfortable, use a painter of their choice. I’m a landlord myself, and I’ll always consider something when I know my tenant is going to take it seriously and do a good job. Worst they can do is say no. When I was a renter I made plenty of improvements, and one of my friends would always say they didn’t understand why I’d invest in something I didn’t own. But if I was planning on staying in the place, the investment wasn’t in the apartment but in my peace of mind. Can’t put a price on how generative it is to have a home you love.

  • Reply Shawna January 21, 2018 at 5:40 pm

    I enjoyed this post and can definitely relate! When I was a renter I couldn’t wait to own so that I could make things my own. Then I learned that even when one owns the resources and budget to fix or change isn’t always available. I own my apartment but can afford to change very little and certainly the changes are small and come slowly. Fortunately it’s not far from my taste, and I sure know what you mean about just making do with things as they are, as well as the little fixes that can help. I look at your apartment and envy the wood floors and the lovely trim, but then remember that my place has features not everyone else has. It’s so easy just to focus on what we don’t have. My friend has a gorgeous magazine worthy home with a lovely kitchen but it’s quite dark. The home is Arts and Crafts style and the kitchen has cherry wood, grey granite, copper sink and limited natural light. She thinks that she envies my kitchen. Mine is very white, light, bright and at first glance pretty good. But the quality is very cheap and you notice that soon. I envy your overly varnished cabinets because they are at least real wood. Mine are white melamine. My experience with owning homes and renovating or changing things is that once the novelty of fixing up one thing wears off, you just see what else you want to change. It almost never ends. Thanks again for a great post. Love your whole blog!

  • Reply Rachel January 30, 2018 at 2:26 pm

    I thought my Pepto Bismol colored bathroom tile was bad. You may have me beat with butter yellow, haha.

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