Design for Life: When Small is Big

Learn a thing or two about living comfortably in small spaces.

| July/August 2006

I thought I knew a thing or two about small-space living. Over the last 15 years, I’ve lived in a 550-square-foot cabin (with another person), a 450-square-foot studio (including my office) and a 650-square-foot two-bedroom house (with another person and my office).

Lately, however, I’ve been hanging out with people who make me feel like I am living in gargantuan dwellings. My teaching partner at New College of California, Steve Beck, has spent years living in homes with less than 120 square feet. Down the road is Jay Shafer, who has lived in a series of self-crafted tiny homes on wheels—the latest a whopping 70 square feet. And I’m in frequent contact with Shay Salomon, who’s chronicling the “small house movement” by documenting the lives of people worldwide who have chosen simple accommodations over daunting mortgages.

Are these folks ascetics or masochists? Stay tuned. In fact, they know as much about true pleasure and satisfaction as anyone I know.

Life as art 

Jay Shafer refers to himself as a “claustrophile”—someone who loves being in small spaces. As a child, he enjoyed staying at his grandparents’ “summer cabin,” an Airstream trailer at the lakeshore. He thought it might be pretty neat to live that way all year—an eternal vacation.

Years later, Jay was teaching art at the University of Iowa and telling his students, “Any part of a composition that isn’t working for it is weakening the composition.” One day, he looked around his apartment and realized how much unused space he was paying for. He bought his own 98-square-foot Airstream and moved in full time. “Unnecessary things,” he observes, “demand otherwise unnecessary maintenance and consume the life spent laboring for their initial cost and continual upkeep.”

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