Downsizing Diaries

Tribeza, September 2008

Admit it. You've wondered how it would be to live in the skyline. To open the door of your high-rise condo and see the mirror of Lady Bird Lake out in the distance, or the constellation of city lights twinkling below.

But as the city grows more vertical and adds to its urban density, residents used to living in larger spaces may find a few stumbling blocks on their way to a more streamlined life. The difference between 2,100 square feet and 1,200 might not at first seem especially significant, or at least not until you start moving in and asking yourself, "Now where should this go?"

We talked to three designers and a professional organizer to get their advice on a smooth transition from living large to living small, and how to keep what's most important—and add what's most functional—when downsizing from a larger space to a smaller one.

It turns out it comes down to counting inches. Or so says Laura Britt, owner of Laura Britt Design. "It's almost like a three-dimensional puzzle," she says. "Every inch really does count." Britt, who has worked on designs for the 360 Condominium project, believes that to live in a smaller space like a condo successfully, it's essential to analyze what takes up that space, and to be certain that "everything you bring into your home be of not only high functional value, but also, if you're into aesthetics, that it be of high aesthetic value." One way to get the aesthetics right, she notes, is to get the scale and proportion right. "For smaller spaces, visual lightness is important."

If lightness is essential in condo design, so is establishing the right focus. Fern Santini, principal designer for Abode, is working on Austin's Four Seasons Residences project. "You have incredible views, and obviously you don't want to do anything that takes away from the view," she says. To do that, her designs "float" the furniture away from the glass and keep the walls neutral so that nothing competes with arguably the best design element of any condo—the view.

Understanding your space—and how much of it you have—is the place to start for Yvette Clay, a Certified Professional Organizer with the organizing firm Living Order. "The most important thing to know about the space you're moving into is the square footage, the dimensions...and what furniture is going to come into that space." Clay advises using the measurements of rooms and pieces as a way to start the decision-making process of what to keep, what to toss, and what can be repurposed.

Unless the laws of the universe change and two objects really can occupy the same space, decluttering is the first, most important step, says designer Jerri Kunz. "When you're downsizing, I have to get really hard-core with you, and you have to give up some things. You have to give up physical things, give up some ways of thinking," she says. She pauses and reconsiders the term give up. "Maybe it's editing."

And, she stresses, editing shouldn't be a negative thing. "I'm a big one for editing anyway, even if you have a lot of space," says Kunz. "I think that things weigh you down, unnecessary activities weigh you down. I like for people to be unencumbered so they can be happy and spread the love, you know?"

Clay does know. "Maintenance is probably 95 percent of staying organized," she says, and adds that the fewer items you own that require upkeep the better.

Of course, decluttering is simply the starting point. So what happens once you've ditched the overstuffed sofa you never really liked and you're still faced with what seems like the square footage of a drink coaster? "Think vertically," says Britt. "Use every square foot the best you can by going vertical." And, she emphasizes, that doesn't mean packing the walls floor-to-ceiling with storage. "You have to use a design sensibility."

She talks about a vertical-space solution for a client that needed extra seating, art display, book storage, toy storage, and a place for the television. "We designed a custom piece of millwork that is basically a cantilevered floating shelf system, both vertical and horizontal," she says. "It solved a multitude of problems they were having living in their home in less than two feet of floor space."

If a cantilevered floating shelf system sounds like a pretty neat trick, that's because it is. "One thing about small spaces," says Kunz, "is you have to get clever." Cleverness comes in several forms, from the way a space is used to the pieces themselves. "Everything has to do more than one thing," she says. "Your bed cannot just be a bed, it now has to be a bed and a chest of drawers." She adds that she has seen a recent change in the market to accommodate the trend toward smaller spaces. "Furniture designers are meeting the demands of that. More tricky furniture, more tricky storage devices."

So what other tricks can the would-be condo dweller utilize? Clay advises her organizing clients to analyze the function of each space to get the layout right. "When we talk to our clients," she says, "we ask, 'OK, What is this room used for? Do we need to rethink what's stored in the cabinets?'" And, she notes, "The visual aspect is very important. If you can't see it, you're going to forget you have it, and you're not going to be able to find it."

Layering of functionality is also key, says Laura Britt. "In larger homes, we might have spaces dedicated to one function: a media room, a craft room, an art studio." She advises finding a solution that can help you get the most number of uses out of a single space. "It may be a furnishing solution, a storage solution or a location solution," she says.

Santini recommends a few tricks of the light for making a small space seem more inviting and atmospheric. "Use light at different levels," she says. She recommends using lots of lamplight, avoiding overhead lights and making liberal use of candles. Another technique combines reflective walls and soft, low lighting. "In a small space, I love using a high gloss paint or lacquer," she says. "There is nothing as beautiful as a small space painted in a really dramatic color that reflects light. It gives it such beautiful drama." And sometimes, she notes, you've got to acknowledge smallness rather than fighting it. "You're never going to make a small space look huge, so sometimes it's better to opt for just making it fabulous," she says.

As the condo towers continue to stretch upward along the city's skyline, there seems to be no slackening in the demand for smaller, more compact living spaces. Kunz agrees, stating that she thinks our culture's enchantment with the super-big was a fad. "I call it 'the big muffin thing.' You know, that muffin that's like four muffins in one? I think people are done with that. Things are getting more trim."

So is it possible to be happy in a space in which every inch is utilized to its fullest and you have to get rid of something every time you bring something new in? According to Yvette Clay, it is. "Simplicity is underrated," she says. "It's beautiful to be able to walk into a living room that has open space, that has no clutter. Because that provides a sense of not only calm, and serenity, but good energy. It feels good to be able to really breathe in a room."


Questions about my freelance services and rates? E-mail me at tiffany(at) or call at (512) 524-6786


Hi. I'm Tiffany Hamburger. I'm a full-time freelance writer and editor based in Austin, Texas. I've written and edited professionally for a decade on a wide variety of subjects.

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In my spare time, I like to (surprise!) read and write, teach fiction, travel as much as I can, make messes in the kitchen and run with my dog, who is also my receptionist.


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