How To Thrive (Not Just Survive) in a Small Apartment

published Dec 18, 2017
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(Image credit: Justice Darragh)

When we first visited illustrator Lisa Vanin’s Toronto studio apartment a couple of years ago, I was so impressed by how she made 390 square feet so livable. Cozy colors, vintage finds, a distinct living room and bedroom area—Lisa’s clearly a small home arranging wizard. But can living in such a small space be sustainable — mentally or physically — for the long haul? Can one thrive in under 400 square feet for years and years?

I wasn’t surprised when Lisa mentioned that not much had changed in her apartment since the last time we toured it — it’s clear by her tour’s photos that she’s hit on a layout that works for her home’s size limitations and for how she needs the space to function.

“In the last 2 years I have moved a few things around and replaced some furniture with new items of similar sizes, but I do find that I get stuck with almost the exact same layout each time. I think If I were to completely redecorate and add very differently shaped pieces I could do something new with my apartment, but I am actually quite happy with the flow of most of the space as it is,” writes Lisa.

I asked Lisa some more questions to find out how she’s been able to flourish in so few square feet:

(Image credit: Justice Darragh)

How have you overcome the challenges you mentioned in your tour survey of “rental-sized bathrooms and kitchen cabinets?”

Honestly, having less storage in those spaces helps me limit the products/items that I bring into my home. At first I found it difficult to store everything that I thought I needed, but as time has passed I now know better which items are actually needed and used in my home, and which I can do without.

Aesthetically, the cabinets in these areas were pretty bad when I moved in. I repainted what I could and added new hardware. In the kitchen there were huge beat-up old doors on the shelving unit above my sink. They were always in the way and closing as I was trying get stuff out of there. I simply removed the doors, put them in storage, and hung a cute curtain instead.

(Image credit: Justice Darragh)

You’ve been here for seven years now…do you ever just get totally sick of living in such a small space?

Living in a small space is fine for me. I don’t ever feel cramped or uncomfortable. I prefer cozy small spaces; they remind me of cabins and cottages, when done right. And my dream is to one day live in a little cottage in the woods, so I guess this is as close as I’ll get to that while I’m living in downtown Toronto.

“Furniture pieces on wheels are amazing in a small space.”

(Image credit: Justice Darragh)

Are there limitations that you haven’t been able to overcome?

I don’t find entertaining to be too much of a hassle; I just have to limit the amount of guests. Some of my furniture can be used to serve several different functions, so I just need to figure out how to set up properly for each situation.

It was difficult to do any kind of exercising, yoga, etc. with the limited space at first, but I picked up a round coffee table that’s on wheels that can easily be moved to a different room. Furniture pieces on wheels are amazing in a small space.

“My whole apartment is really acting as a storage space for my art.”

(Image credit: Justice Darragh)

Has it been tough containing the creative stuff in your art corner?

It can be tough and I am looking for ways to add more storage to my tiny studio area, but the space available in that room is very very very limited. So I’m going to have to get really creative with that space.

I have storage units under my bed where I keep art materials and products, portfolios of art behind and under my couch, frames and paper in my closet, and more art materials are stored under my studio table. My whole apartment is really acting as a storage space for my art.

(Image credit: Justice Darragh)

And any advice for living in such a small space with pets?

I have two cats, an aquarium, and quite a few house plants. I had more aquariums in the past but have limited those down to make more room for other items. I always keep the pet/plant areas of my home really clean. I change my cat litter daily, clean their eating areas, clean my aquarium weekly, and scour my plants for any pests. In a small space it’s really important to keep on top of these things so that there are no strange odors arising, but most importantly so that your little friends are healthy and happy.

Would you ever live in a space this small again?

Absolutely. It is the perfect size for one person.

(Image credit: Justice Darragh)

In your tour, for your best advice your wrote: “If you live in a bachelor apartment, make your bed every day. It makes a huge difference!” Anything you would add to that, now that you’ve lived in your space even longer?

I still think that advice is number one on my list. I can see my bed from almost everywhere in my apartment haha.

(Image credit: Justice Darragh)

Thanks Lisa!

Check out all of her home → Lisa’s Pint-Size Storybook Nook in Toronto

And see more of her adorable animal illustrations on her website.