As someone who has lived in a tiny New York City apartment for years, I know a fair amount about outfitting a small space. But with the recent popularity of nomadic life — living on the road in RVs, Airstreams and vans — I thought: Who better to offer advice on small-space living than people who have spent months living in 200 square feet or less?
I spoke with three women: Melanie Raver, a San Diego-based interior designer and mother of three young girls; Lindsay Daugherty, a college student from Barrington, Rhode Island; and writer Jessica Bruder, based in Brooklyn, New York, and author of the award-winning book “Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century,” which became the basis for the Oscar-winning film “Nomadland.” Although they took their journeys for different reasons, the lessons they shared are very much in sync. Here is what they had to say about “living tiny,” as Raver calls it.
Don’t give an inch
Overwhelmed by the constant upkeep of their 3,000-square-foot house, Raver and her husband, Dave, knew they had to make a change. So a few years ago, they invested in a vintage Airstream trailer that they gutted and refurbished to fit their family of five and their large German shepherd. “I took a full inventory of everything we would need and then figured out the exact size and amount of space everything would take up,” Raver says. The couple used every inch of the trailer. They created doors under the mattresses so they could fill the cavities with out-of-season clothing and extra bedding, and drawers were individually sculpted to fit around the trailer’s ductwork.
Daugherty saw the pandemic as a reason to forgo enrolling in her college classes and instead spend the year traveling across the country with her classmate Mikaela Boone. They invested in a van and outfitted it themselves, putting all horizontal and vertical space to use. “The more compartments and cabinets we could create, the better,” Daugherty says.
Create a home for each item
“You have to have a designated spot for everything,” Daugherty says. She and Boone used plastic lidless bins from Walmart inside their compartments and cabinets to corral like items. “The bins are usually used for kitchen organization, but we used one for socks, one for T-shirts, etcetera. They are easy to pull out and easy to sort through,” she says. Daugherty also points out that “the van forces you to stay organized. You can’t go to sleep without putting away the table, and you can’t put away the table without clearing your dishes, and you can’t brush your teeth without washing those dishes and getting them out of the sink.”
For Raver, having space for her three daughters and their items was a priority. “Each girl has a bookshelf, a drawer under the bunks, a little section for hanging items and a cabinet for bulkier items, for sweaters and sweatshirts,” she says. They also outfitted the bathroom with hooks for each family member’s towel and shelving for each shower caddy.
Go for double — or triple — duty
Because Bruder didn’t have time to outfit her van the way both Raver and Daugherty did (she was on a deadline and had to get on the road immediately), her focus was not on the space as much as what she filled the space with. “If an object isn’t working for what I need and sometimes serving two or three purposes,” she says, “I end up cycling it out.” She says her system is “more practical than what sparks joy,” referring to Marie Kondo’s method. “It’s what works.”
In Raver’s Airstream, the full-size bed that she and her husband share doubles as a U-shaped hangout space for the family. Two center board pieces can be removed and stored in a vertical cabinet, and the cushions break out from the center into two pieces that become back pillows for bench seating. She admits it’s not easy; the bed has to be put together every night and taken apart every morning.
Daugherty and Boone’s bed also doubles as a table and a U-shaped bench. Their chest-shaped refrigerator has a cushion that fits on top, so it doubles as a bench, and the bedside table becomes extra counter space for the kitchen.
Keep the editing process fluid
When living in such a small space, Raver says, you should be prepared to adjust your thinking and how you interact with things. “You have to be very mindful of what you allow to come in, and you have to change your habits, which means all habits, from how you shop at the grocery store to how you respond to your kids when they want something.”
She, Bruder and Daugherty all say it’s about constant editing. “You have to think of it as a fluid motion that you can’t stop,” Raver says, “because if you do, you will get stuck and [end up] not being mindful.” She adds: “It becomes really obvious when you pare down to the essentials what works and what doesn’t work, more so than when you have tons of stuff and tons of space.”
Elizabeth Mayhew is a “Today” show style expert, former magazine editor and the author of “Flip! for Decorating.”