If I had the money to decorate, I wouldn't live in such a small apartment!
April 10, 2007 1:43 PM   Subscribe

My tiny studio apartment is driving me crazy. No matter what I do, the place looks cluttered. Are there resources out there for a guy like me?

Here's the deal: I live in a small studio apartment. The kitchen is separated, but the main living area is about 12' x 20'. I can't seem to get things in any order that make me feel like it's an "adult" apartment. I don't have much expendable income (or I'd have a bigger apartment, but even so I'm in DC and it's hella-expensive plus I do love my location) and every book I've found for dealing with small apartments are for people who own apartments and can rip out walls and build bookcases on the ceilings and whatnot.

I've found this book (warning: amazon link) but I'm not sure its exactly what I'm looking for. And I'm sure an interior decorator would know what to do, but that's way above my pay grade, I think.

To note: the place is pretty much a rectangle with a bay window (ish) area at the end of one of the long walls and that's where the only three windows in the room are (thankfully, pretty big) and they have western exposure.

So that's the long and short of it. Small apartment, not much money but willing to get some together to make my living space better, and I can't do any major construction. Is there anything out there that can help? I can't believe that there are no resources for people with this problem!
posted by indiebass to Home & Garden (27 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
Actually, Apartment Therapy is exactly what you need. You should check out their web site (google it) and take a look. They feature a lot of NYC apartments which are even smaller than DC and we don't own ours, either.
posted by micawber at 1:46 PM on April 10, 2007

Apartment Therapy

and another interesting site that might help you, especially since you're on a budget, is Ikea Hacker.
posted by padraigin at 1:52 PM on April 10, 2007 [1 favorite]

Also, you'd be amazed at how much stuff you probably have hanging around that you could easily do without. I am one of those people who never has anything around that they don't need (or so I thought). I recently moved to a much smaller apartment and had a similar problem to the one you describe. Over Easter I had a big clean-out and found three huge rubbish bags of stuff to give to friends/charity. The place looks much better already, and much less cluttered.
posted by different at 1:58 PM on April 10, 2007

I hate to say it, but do you have a futon couch? I lived in an apartment very similar to yours and being able to turn the bed into a couch made it bearable.
posted by sfkiddo at 2:05 PM on April 10, 2007

Response by poster: different: I'm all for chucking things out, and I know I need to, but I'm really looking for a system. Something to help me look at what is necessary and what isn't and helping me go from there.

What's really frustrating is I don't even have that much furniture. I've got a bed (which takes up half the room) a TV on stand, a dresser, a recliner and a love seat. And a secretary, which was a major purchase, but hasn't taken care of my computer like I had hoped it would.

padraigin: ikea hacker fascinates me, I must admit.
posted by indiebass at 2:07 PM on April 10, 2007

In general, the key to designing undifferentiated space is deciding which areas are going to have which uses, and then using furniture and accessories to delimit those spaces. So, even though you have one great big room, maybe you want a dinning room, a living/tv room, and an office. So figure out where in the big room these go, how much space each can take up, and how you will move from one space to the other. Then, arrange your furniture as though you have walls in the middle of the room separating these spaces. You can use area rugs to make spaces obvious as well, if you don't want to obstruct movement as much.

You can add storage space by using light weight storage pieces (book shelves, cabinets) as dividers. Make sure they look good on both the front and the back.

In general, small apartment living means that multi-purpose furniture is really important. We have a "click-clack" couch that folds into a bed (ours is for guests, but if you are really crunched, you might consider finding one that you could use to replace your bed) and has storage underneath it. There are some links in a previous comment that I made, in a thread that you might find useful.

If you are allowed to hang things on the wall, think about some hanging cd/dvd cases, which will keep your floor clear of clutter. Alternatively, cases with doors are good for helping things feel "put away".

On preview: in terms of a system, it's a bit of a cycle. You have to have a place to put things in order to reduce clutter, but you often have to reduce clutter before you can figure out what kind of place will hold your things.

To get started, you need to analyse what you have, what it does for you, and if you want to keep it. Separate your things into what you need, what you love, and what you don't love or need. Throw out or donate to charity what you don't love or need. Next look at the things that you need. Do you have multiple things serving the same need? Do you have the smallest, most efficient versions of what you need? Do you *really* need it? Start paring these down as well.

Once you have gotten rid of a largish chunk of stuff, look at what you have and decide what kind of furniture would contain it. Get some (not all) of what you think you need, and start the process of assessment again. This time, just pay attention to what you use and where you are putting it. If it doesn't seem to fit anywhere and you never use it, reconsider. Etc. and repeat.
posted by carmen at 2:18 PM on April 10, 2007 [1 favorite]

Apartment Therapy is a great resource for you ... I would especially check out the archives of their Smallest, Coolest Apartment Contest where people submit pictures of how they have set up their teensy weensy apartments.

On a different site, a girl once posted photos of how she organized her small studio, and I was completely blown away. The photos have been taken down, but basically she was able to divide the living area into a bedroom & living room by placing her bed in a corner and hiding it by using a folding screen. Along the wall with her bed, but in plain view, were a dresser and bookcase. Bedroomy-type objects (toiletries, clothes) were kept out of sight. Extra storage was created by putting the bed on lifters and putting storage bins underneath. A dust ruffle did a pretty good job of hiding them.

It's kind of amazing how tucking the bed behind something can make an entire room seem more "livable" and less like you threw all your crap into one big room. A major factor in tying things together involved keeping the colors consistent both in the "living" area and the "sleeping/dressing" area. She also seemed to have lots of nooks for storage space, and tall bookcases to make better use of vertical space.

It was one of those rooms that totally inspired me to get organized. If she could have such a cool space in like 450 square feet, then I have no excuse to be so overcluttered in a place twice that size.

For more specific help, you might want to consider posting either photos of your space or maybe just making a little scale illustration of the area you have to work with, placement of windows & doors, and the furniture you have. Some people (well, me) love playing interior decorator. ;-)
posted by tastybrains at 2:45 PM on April 10, 2007

Something to help me look at what is necessary and what isn't and helping me go from there.

That's exactly what the Apartment Therapy process does. You sit down and start to think about how you want to use your space, and answer a few questionnaires before you get started. Then you work on one area at a time.

This was my sub-200 ft. apartment in NYC a few years ago. Digsmagazine has other home tours that might give you food for thought too. And I second checking out Apartment Therapy's smallest/coolest contestants.
posted by MsMolly at 3:01 PM on April 10, 2007 [1 favorite]

Cheap book recommendation -- The Apartment Book, "by the Editors of Apartment Life Magazine," 1979. $3 here; 1983 edition on eBay, 1979 ditto, w/picture.

Most of the decor holds up, but, more importantly, a lot of it is D-I-Y on the cheap. It has suggestions, and some storage (etc, etc) building plans, for even wee studios. While knowing you can't tear down walls and so forth. I've been referring to it periodically for almost 15 years.

If you can knock up a few shelves, do so, as high up on the walls as possible. Get at least your books off the floor.

And, get a loft bed. IKEA makes cheap double-sized ones. You'll get to make a fort.
posted by kmennie at 3:08 PM on April 10, 2007

different: I'm all for chucking things out, and I know I need to, but I'm really looking for a system. Something to help me look at what is necessary and what isn't and helping me go from there.

I saw a TV program somewhere where there was a woman with a really cluttered house, and a house doctor came round and persuaded her to remove loads of crap. The main system she employed was: Good, bad, happy, sad.

It went something like this: Divide everything into four categories:

Good: Things that make you feel good, or have a specific use or current purpose.

Bad: Things that have no use, or are associated with bad memories, like pictures of evil ex girlfriends, the spare toaster you might need one day.

Happy: Things that make you feel happy, are associated with good memories.

Sad: you get the idea.

Then everything that was Good and Happy was kept. Everything Bad and Sad was tossed. Quite a simplistic method but at least half of your stuff will go already. My apologies if I got the details wrong, but it was some late night guff, I was probably drunk at the time.

I might be drunk now. Let me check... No, not yet.
posted by gaby at 3:10 PM on April 10, 2007 [1 favorite]

I feel your pain, having lived in a studio apartment in the past, 2 people and a large golden retriever make any apartment feel small! Without seeing your space I can't make any specific suggestions, but perhaps you can buy some floor-to-ceiling storage shelves if you have free wallspace? How about changing your bed to a loft bed, which frees up lots of floorspace (you can put the computer underneath then). Loft beds save space and are a fun inner-child type thing to have, IMHO :)
posted by Joh at 3:11 PM on April 10, 2007

Not sure if this helps but I would get one if I were you.
posted by special-k at 3:31 PM on April 10, 2007

A futon couch¿ OUCH./ That screams STUDE./ Aside from uglifying the place. Yack. I'd sleep in a sleeping bag on an air mattress than get a futon bed. That's just me though.
If you are to buy one piece of furniture, make it count. A good couch, for instance, that pulls out into a bed. Or a Murphy/wall bed, better yet, a flying bed, you'll be living the James Bond life in no time. Check out their Sofa/Bed in Solid Cherry. WOW. Ditch whatever isn't 'taking care of you'. Sell. Sounds like you have too much stuff. Ditch it. Start from scratch.

Next, the tv stand, well, it isn't cheap, but, hell, work at Starbucks a few hours a week and check out Green Tea Design, Toronto, Canada ]I am not a sales rep, but I wish I was, I could get a discount./[ TV Step. I love some of their furniture. Again, it isn't quantity, it's quality.

Barring that, take a drive in the country and hit some antique farms. Amazing finds that are cheaper than in the city. I bought a 1905 mantle grandfather clock for $100.00 — never had one as a kid, but I love the chiming. I also bought a sewing table for $100.00, solid wood, wonderful, simple and old.

Another idea is to go down to the Interior Design School in town, hang out and see who would like to 'do an actual, real life project' on your apartment as a portfolio piece. Someone in their final year, preferrably. Tell them you can not pay them, but look at their existing portfolio and see if you like their style. Does it match your sensibilities. When designers are starting out, they may want to have someone who used their interior designs so they could nab that first paying customer. References like that count a lot. So save on not buying books and spend it on coffee/beer and chatting to the students. Or you could work the Design Schools' bar/coffee shop and kill two birds with one stone. Just a thought.

ITMT, I'll be taking my own advice and taking a stick of dynamite to my place./ I'm purging and starting from scratch. Minimal is ok. The clock and sewing table stays.

Love that couch MsMolly, but that bed cover and the wall covering Kills it. How could you¿
special-k, $25.00 for a floor matt¿ That's waaay out of indiebass's price./ Don't waste money on tchotchkes. Make every item count.
posted by alicesshoe at 4:18 PM on April 10, 2007

Believe it or not, I found The Complete Idiot's Guide to Organizing Your Life to be extremely good at suggesting what should be tossed out and how to organize whatever remains.
posted by Astro Zombie at 5:04 PM on April 10, 2007

The book sounds a little fruity (and it is!), but I heartily recommend Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui. It's really inspirational in terms of letting stuff go.

One thing I've found while living in a tiny house with exactly one closet is that the best way to make a space feel nice and look clean and peaceful is to get all your stuff out of sight. As one example, we took a Pier 1 bookcase and put matching document/photo boxes on it, each labeled with the contents using a label maker. It sounds tedious, but it has changed my life. We used boxes like these in various sizes obtained cheaply ($1.50-5.00 ea.) at a discount store.
posted by robinpME at 6:21 PM on April 10, 2007

Response by poster: I keep refreshing and there's too much to respond to all at once! I've been trying to get the wording just right for weeks before I did the question, but just decided to go for it this afternoon and I'm glad I did.

I'll definitely check out the Apartment Therapy book. I'd been trying to get a copy from the library, but they lost theirs. (!)

I'm not strictly opposed to a loft, but I know I need to have a "full size" sleeping surface. I know I couldn't bear having a Futon. Mostly because I know it would be a bed ALL the time and that defeats the purpose. One of the perfect solutions would be a Murphy Bed, but most of them needed to be bolted down (which I can't do) and the ones I did find that were bolt-less were a couple grand (which I definitely DON'T have) and if I built it in here, I have the feeling like it would never be able to leave the apartment.

Carmen: thanks for the great comment! One of my biggest peeves is that I don't have a "separate area to sleep in". I know it's just a mental thing, but I live in 'a room' and that's it.

And tastybrains: I'll try and create a drawing and post it to photobucket or something. Though I may need to put that link up tomorrow. I could just take two photos but I really should clean first. But the problem is that I've been so disheartened with the apartment that I've had the "why try" attitude for over a month, so it is in reality worse than it should be at the moment.

MsMolly: that apartment looks AWESOME, and in a smaller space than I have (I'm on the top floor and blessed with pretty high ceilings). But I'll admit, the hardwood floors, the exposed brick and fireplace do go a long way contributing to the awesome. And my jealous. =) But it is TOTALLY 'adult' and what I'd like to aspire to, apartment-wise.

kmennie: thanks for the link, I TOTALLY picked up that book for $3. For $3 I'll give it a read!

As for the folks recommending the loft bed, I do have to ask how *ahem* that works if you're "entertaining" company. Not only from a structural point of view, but also... I mean, how will the ladies feel when it comes to that point and it's like "lets climb my tiny stairs/ladder"? I'm asking this as an honest question, and not as semi-snark because I really don't know how that all would work out...

Oh, and special-K I TOTALLY wish you would have shown that to me last month, because I just purchased this doomat and I think I like that one better!

Alicesshoe: i don't know if DC even has a design school. This is a pretty creativity-stifling town IMHO. I'll ask some of my chums though, and see what they say. To be truthful, I've never really looked for one, so there could be one right under my nose. I am trying to make things do double duty. It's why I got a secretary (desk/bookshelf) and traded in the computer for a laptop. Theoretically I could hide it in the secretary, but it got filled with desk stuff first and I've ALWAYS got the 'puter out.

WHEW! that was a lot. I need to preview and post.
posted by indiebass at 7:08 PM on April 10, 2007

"Freestyle" on HGTV is a good resource. It is a design show that spends no money and only uses what people have in their apartments. Lots of good ideas for small spaces and getting rid of clutter.
posted by birgitte at 7:20 PM on April 10, 2007

My first apartment was TINY and I had a daybed with a pop-up trundle which turned it into a double bed.

During the day, I had pillows along the back which made it look like a couch. At night, it was a bed. Of course you have to make it every morning unless you sleep on the trundle and stash everything underneath each morning.

There are some daybeds these days that look less "foofy". I checked out the DC Craigslist for you. Here. This is the kind of look you should be aiming for, not this. (Too bad that first one doesn't have a trundle or it would be perfect!) This doesn't have a trundle either and is in New York, but is way cool.

Anyway, you get the idea.
posted by jeanmari at 8:16 PM on April 10, 2007

Response by poster: tastybrains (and others), I did the best I could, by taking an old layout of the apartment and putting in some of the missing walls and windows and some labels. hopefully it isn't too confusing (i can answer any questions you might have; the triangle blob is my kitchen table, now inaccessible behind the couch and stuff.)

This is the apartment

And I will say, some of the furniture has shifted around slightly, but it is more or less in that arrangement. Thanks to anyone in advance, btw!
posted by indiebass at 8:22 PM on April 10, 2007

As for the folks recommending the loft bed, I do have to ask how *ahem* that works if you're "entertaining" company.


I grant it might be slightly 'more okay' for a girl to have one than a guy. I'm not sure why I think so, but I suspect it's related to the number of purportedly adult women who still have teddy bears, vs the number of men. But I don't think anybody in an urban area is going to blink at a loft bed in a bachelor apartment.

The double-sized wooden IKEA one -- a 'fjelldal' -- I had was *ahem* sturdy enough to work for "entertaining."

Of note: I had my teevee at a height where the bed was the place to watch it. It was more awkward having to drag then-date now-Mr-Kmennie up there to watch a movie than it was to just go up to sleep or *ahem*. But I suppose that's just part of the usual hassle of having no private space when you have a wee apartment.

I tend to think all loft bed owners are cool.

Even cooler are the beds in Terence Conran's 'Small Spaces.' Only $12 used -- huh! -- should've pulled out my copy earlier; I thought it was still too pricy to be a great recommendation. At $12, well worth grabbing. It's not so sympathetic to people with budgets and landlords; the brilliantly tricked-out Paris pied-a-terres are nice to look at, but.

Still, the raised beds in it, the beds in odd spaces, etc, are so fantastic-looking as to, I'd think, make anybody want one. It might give you some ideas to make it look less "overgrown bunk bed," too -- sleek bedding helps, for one.
posted by kmennie at 9:51 PM on April 10, 2007

indiebass - is the indentation in the wall between the main room & the kitchen a half-wall? or is there a solid wall there?

my thought is that if you push the bed against the far wall & use a screen to separate it, that might give you a good start in creating separate living/sleeping spaces.
posted by tastybrains at 5:51 AM on April 11, 2007

Hmmm. Here are some very cool day bed options. The back of the sofa folds down to make a bed, I believe. I wonder if you could source these in DC?

Ligne Roset Smale

Aruba Modern

Iris II Modern
posted by jeanmari at 7:17 AM on April 11, 2007

indiebass, thanks for asking this question. The ideas presented are neat and I definitely need to re-evaluate how much stuff I've got. Of course everything seems important, even if I don't ever use it!

Looking at the layout I think you need to get your bed on the other side of the room. As it stands you come in the door and look down the hall to the bed and I think aesthetically it probably feels like you're walking into your bedroom, not your apartment. So swap the bed and the living room stuff. Can you get the bed in the upper-left corner that the sofa and chair are facing? I think that plus as screen would help make it feel like you've got a separate bedroom. A screen is something you can probably build if you can't find a cheap one.
posted by 6550 at 10:49 AM on April 11, 2007

Response by poster: 6550: when I first moved into the apartment, I had the bed facing opposite from the opposing wall (I took a cue from the previous tenant). Unfortunately, there's a radiator that I cannot move on the kitchen wall (it's the middle thing in the group of three under the "ITC" letters) and the space is JUST too small to fit the bed there, feet facing the windows. I've thought about putting the bed in the, like, 1' indentation with the feet facing the kitchen, but I'd need something behind the headboard to cover up the ugly side.
posted by indiebass at 11:13 AM on April 11, 2007

What about if you put the head of the bed where the TV is now, more in the middle of the left wall? Push it up towards the radiator but there should still be some space to the left of the radiator for a piece of furniture, like a bookshelf or a dresser. Then a screen could go in front of the bed so the "bedroom" is blocked from the living room and the kitchen door.

Even if you can't move the bed I still think a screen is a good idea. In this case I'd put it so it blocks the view of the bed from the hall.

Do you have any furniture in the hall itself? I think something like a triangular table in the upper left corner, if it doesn't interfere with the closet door. Or I've got a half-round table that would be perfect between the front door and the bathroom door. Just some place to drop your keys and wallet and mail when you come in. A tall and skinny bookshelf would also work there.

On the limited budget you need be really creative about using what you've got, in the space you have, so you end up with a cool apartment that other people are impressed with that also is nicely livable.

Try hitting some thrift stores or garage sales. There's lots of crap and much is price too high but you might find an interesting piece of furniture or two that fits your place. If you're really lucky you might stumble across some cool or interestingly tacky piece of art to hang up.
posted by 6550 at 1:22 PM on April 11, 2007

seconding (nthing) 6550:
I would move the bed to the opposite corner (possibly moved away from the wall to clear the radiator) with the feet towards the windows and then create a room divider with a closet and/or a line of bookcases (that's what I did, since I'm a huge bookworm and studios don't come with attached libraries). That's enough to clearly separate and delineate the spaces between sleeping and living. You still get some light from the windows on the bed, but you're mostly sleeping in the dark anyway. That gives you space to rearrange the living room. I would probably put a comfortable chair in front of the windows (maybe the arm chair if it fits) and arrange tv and couch and whatnot however works.

good luck
posted by yggdrasil at 3:49 PM on April 11, 2007

I know you said you're going to take a good look into getting rid of things you don't need, but I feel like I need to tell you (and the world) that you don't need a tv, and it sure does take up a lot of space.

We have a gigantic apartment and because I haven't had tv in 9 years, I can't even imagine where we would put one in this place.
posted by bilabial at 12:32 PM on April 14, 2007

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