City Living: Big Outdoors, Small Indoors


In contrast to the towering skyscrapers, any metropolitan city is a land of smaller interior living spaces. A typical older apartment or condo building is divided into many boxy rooms connected by tight doorways and long narrow hallways; the more modern open-concept is far less commonly found. Kitchens are often tight and usually separated from the rooms meant for social gathering and relaxing. Doorways are small and hallways are long and narrow. And let’s not forget the closets. Historic homes always lack closet space resembling skinny boxes with plaster walls.

Staying clutter-free and organized in these historic spaces is a unique challenge, and the hard truth is that those who succeed do spend money on bells and whistles and do practice some form of minimalism. Period.

So, if you’re relocating from a sprawling ranch home to a cozy vintage apartment in a big city, or if you already feel tight on space in your current city home, here are seven tips to help you create a clutter-free existence and get a head start on organizational smarts.

1. Embrace working with less closet space.

If you’ve chosen a historic apartment, you’ve traded closet space for beauty. There are a few ways to address this challenge. First, frankly, be okay living with less stuff. Purge now, because all that stuff is just not going to fit. Then, to maximize closet space for what remains, avoid the high-end, fancy closet solutions, which can be much thicker and take up more space. Consider, rather, the simpler closet solutions, which are typically sleeker, affording more room for your stuff (i.e a simple closet rod with basic shelving). In addition to storage inside the closet, consider what you can store outside the closet and how you can do it efficiently. For example, consider putting your dirty clothes inside the storage bench at the end of your bed, rather than taking up 25% of your precious closet space with a hamper. Also, think vertical. Use the vertical space to it’s potential and add a small step stool to the closet to make things reachable. Do add organizing products that can enhance the use of the space and are removable if you’re renting or like switching organizing systems frequently.

2. Plaster walls need special equipment.

When installing closet systems, pictures, coat hooks (and anything else you want to hang around your place), remember many of these walls are made of plaster. Before you start hammering, go to a hardware store and ask an expert to help you select the proper brackets, anchors and equipment so that the walls don’t crumble down around you.

3. Measure first.

As you stroll through a neighborhood house hunting, you might see a dejected-looking couple sitting on their brand new sofa, on the sidewalk in front of their building, waiting to reload it on the truck back to the furniture store because there’s just no way it will fit through the doorways, twist up the staircase, and slide down the narrow hallways. Don’t let this happen to you. Before committing to furniture, start from the front door of your new building and measure the width, height, and diagonals of everything: doorways, hallways, stairwells, living rooms, ceilings. Then measure the actual furniture that you own or the pieces you want to buy. If it won’t fit, don’t buy it of course, or if you own the piece of furniture, see if it can be it can be taken apart and reassembled indoors. For example, there’s a good chance the box spring on your queen or king bed won’t make the tight turns in a typical walk-up stairwell. Consider changing it out for two twin box springs that will fit.

4. Avoid over stuffing.

Big city folks are understandably committed to utilizing every square inch of precious living space. Since indoor storage spaces are few, it’s tempting to buy bookshelves and armories filing every open wall in order to have places to hold everything. But, if not done sparingly, this technique can quickly over stuff a small city apartment so that it is no longer an enjoyable space.  The answer is, again, to part with some stuff. Rather than store 1,000 books and knickknacks  in your living room, pick your favorite few and donate the rest. Register for a library card or Audible.com account.

5. Change your mindset.

Living in a small space with limited storage means you’ll have to change your perspective and mindset. For example, you can’t afford to fill a closet up with gifts for “someday” or “someone”. Instead of storing tubs of gifts, buy the gift when the occasion arises either online or at your local wine or flower store for last minute hostess gifts. The same mentality applies to memorabilia and photos. Scan in or store things digitally as much as possible. And finally, apply this new mindset to cleaning supplies. All you really need is ONE of each- toilet bowl cleaner, disinfectant, granite cleaner, glass cleaner and furniture polish. These five bottles are easy to store instead of twenty.

6. Weather forces us to have more of stuff.

Limit where you can. The Midwest is notorious for weather swings, from death-defying heat waves to polar chilling days, which means that most people have a wide variety of jackets, footwear, weather related paraphernalia, climate control devices, etc. There’s no getting around this. The best we can do is to reduce and think quality not quantity. For example, line up all of your jackets from lightest to heaviest and get rid of redundancies. Pick one pair of snow boots, one pair of tennis shoes, one pair of sandals and one pair of flip-flops. One expensive coat is more useful than three dated coats you don’t love. The same goes for shoes. One expensive pair of sandals that you can walk in all day, is better than four cheap pairs that hurt your feet.

7. Use your basement storage space wisely and carefully.

High rise buildings often offer one basement storage cage per apartment. These spaces can face problems with water seepage, pests, humidity, theft, etc. They key is to be cognizant of what you’re storing and how you’re storing it for the long-term health of your stuff.  Follow a few simple rules.  Get a solid lock, but don’t kid yourself – don’t store things in basement cages that are precious to you or things you absolutely can’t live without. If you can’t part with it, then it wouldn’t be good for the basement cage. Line the cage with modular storage shelving to maximize space. Store everything up off the floor in sealed plastic containers, knowing that over time your stuff may smell like plastic. Breathable cotton storage helps with avoiding the plastic smell but isn’t waterproof. Plan accordingly.

Written by Chicago Home Organizer Amber Kostelny and Katie Iannitelli

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