Multi-purpose furniture

When you live in a small home, having multi-purpose furniture is essential. Most people are familiar with sofa beds as multi-functional pieces however, many are uncomfortable as beds and not very stylish as sofas.

Vancouver company, Expand Furniture aims to change the way we look at multi-purpose items by providing high quality, stylish furniture that saves space and puts the fun back in functional.

My favourite unit is the Compatto, a three-in-one; queen-sized wall bed, revolving bookcase, and table (probably because it makes me think that this would be something that Batgirl used in the 1960s TV show Batman). This is a real space-saving versatile package. The attached dining table would comfortably fit 4-6 people and a 6-inch deep, queen-sized mattress would allow guests to have a good night’s sleep. Watch the video to see how easily this piece converts from one layout to another.

I also like the Trojan console dining table with four hidden chairs. This item would be great if you lived alone and only needed a larger dining table some of the time. It would also be useful in a small office. You could wheel it out only on those occasions when you needed a large work surface or had meetings with several people. The rest of the time, it would be out of the way leaving more room in the office. The video shows how quickly this console becomes a table.

 

If you have a small space but occasionally have overnight guests, for example your grandchildren, the Murphy Bunk Bed system would be ideal. It includes two mattresses and the rail ladder. It is well-built and sturdy enough for adults to sleep in yet easy enough for young people to set-up and fold away. Also, the top bunk tilts downwards so you don’t have to climb over the mattress to make the bed. When collapsed, the bunks only stick out about ten inches from the wall. The video demonstrates all the features of this Murphy bed system.

The minimalist vegetable garden: growing things when you have no space

I grew up vegetable gardening. We had a 25 acre property that had been in my family for decades and my mother always planted a huge garden, full of enough squash, beans, potatoes, carrots, and Swiss chard to get us through the entire winter.

As a university student and an apartment dweller, I didn’t vegetable garden at all. When I got my house in Toronto, I tried it given that I had a large backyard and prefer garden to grass, but all I ended up doing was feeding the neighbourhood raccoons.

I’ve been in Spain a decade now and other than helping out a friend in his garden plot a few towns over, I haven’t done any vegetable gardening at all. My husband loves cacti and our balconies are half full of the easy-to-care-for plants, but he’s not into anything at all edible.

Maybe it’s age, or maybe it’s looking out the bedroom window and seeing a large garden plot down below, but I’m getting the itch to do some gardening of my own. However, decorative plants are so not my thing. If I’m going to garden, I want it to be useful and productive. I want to be able to eat what I grow.

Our balconies, though, are not that conducive to vegetables. We’re on the ninth floor and face an ocean-side mountain, meaning that no matter what the weather’s like, there’s a strong breeze whipping by all day long. Plus the protected balcony is too small and already occupied by the beloved cacti, so growing any edible plants there is not really an option.

What’s a wannabe apartment gardener to do then?

I thought I’d give vertical gardening a try. While we don’t have a lot of wall space, we do have quite a lot of ceiling and railing space to hang planters. Amazon has several varieties, such as Topsy-Turvy Tomato Planters that hang from the ceiling, or any number of hanging or self-supporting vertical planters.

I’m never going to get a full vegetable garden in, not even if I opt for square-foot gardening, but I think I might just be able to scratch that itchy green thumb of mine with a few dangling tomato plants, some wall-hugging herbs and maybe a zucchini plant or two elegantly hanging off the inside of the balcony railing.

Any suggestions? Do you have postage-stamp balcony gardens? How do you satisfy your urge to cultivate?

When it comes to an organized home, does size matter?

I’m a longtime fan of TV home design shows, especially the Love or List franchises. I even watch them here in Spain dubbed into Spanish and several years out of date. As much as I love seeing the transformations, my main reason for watching the shows has nothing to do with the home makeovers at all.

I watch the shows because I love seeing the reactions of Spanish friends and family as the homeowners complain about their lack of space.

Having lived in both cultures, I understand both points of view. I grew up in a 14-room (four bedroom) house on a third of an acre lot. My parents retired to a 5000 square foot home with a separate guest house. My own house in downtown Toronto was over a 1000 square feet with 50×50 ft gardens in front and in back of the house. And half the time, I thought my house was too small for just me!

When I moved to Spain and came upon a completely different mindset.

My first apartment (which I shared with my now-husband) was 270 square feet and we lived there quite happily for over five years (after living there for two years and not killing each other, we decided that marriage was a definite possibility).

The flat we live in now is about 600 square feet and, to be quite honest, is more than large enough for the two of us (and whatever guests might be visiting). In fact, I’m now so accustomed to the size of living spaces here that I have no desire for a large place. When buying a second place for weekends and vacations, we looked at a narrow three-story house in the center of a village, but decided that it was too big, and I’m pretty certain it was under 1000 square feet.

In 2013, the website Shrink the Footprint published an article about average home size around the world and it seems to show that countries with lots of space tend to have larger homes (Canada, USA, Australia).

My Spanish friends and family ask me all the time why North Americans need so much space. “Doesn’t it just generate more clutter?” they ask.

Judging by the majority of houses featured in the typical home makeover programs, the answer seems to be yes, more space equals more clutter.

But, I’m not sure how true that really is. I’ve mentioned before the TV show Obsessive Compulsive Cleaners, and the majority of the people on the show who live in cluttered spaces have small homes in comparison with a typical North American house.

When asked that question, therefore, I explain that it’s all a matter of mindset and attitude. Yes, more space could encourage more clutter, but only if you let it. Just as a small space might cause someone to cram what he owns into every nook and cranny.

In other words, in my opinion, when it comes to being organized, size does not matter in the least. But that could just be me.

What about you? Is there a link between house size and disorganization?

Getting rid of the kitchen: social media dining

Unless you’ve been sitting on top of a mountain meditating the last five years, you’ll know the term food-porn: the exhibitionistic display on social media sites of everything we eat. I’m guilty of this, especially when it comes to the food we make at home. We love to cook and we love to share what we cook, and not just in our Instagram accounts. We also love to have people over for dinner and often when some service we use regularly does a great job, we take a cake or perhaps homemade donuts to them as a token of our gratitude.

In my search for examples of a non-ownership world, I’ve discovered a network of sites taking social media dining to the next level, like an Airbnb for meals. You join an online community, find home-based chefs in your area and look at what they are offering. You order your meal and arrange its pickup or delivery. You get a home-cooked meal without having to pay the price of a personal chef.

At first glance, this service doesn’t seem much different from the rest of the take-out options we have, but if you think about it, a home-based chef doesn’t have the high overhead a restaurant has. Nor does the home-based chef have to market; she just needs to be a member of an online community. Plus, in the majority of cases, a home-cooked meal is going to be a lot healthier than one you can get as take-out.

There is of course, one major problem with the service: in most places, it’s illegal to sell food that has been prepared in a home kitchen.

According to the digital news outlet Quartz.com, however, some U.S. states are looking to change that. California, for example, is looking at introducing a new category to its food and safety regulations, allowing home kitchens to prepare and sell food.

So, what does this mean for a non-ownership world? Back in the early 2000s, a friend of mine moved from Toronto to New York, where she said that her kitchen was so small and the local supermarkets so expensive that she found it more practical and economical to have a binder of local take-out options and only prepare breakfast at home. I’m pretty sure that if a social media dining community existed back then, she would have tossed out the take-out menus and would have enjoyed home-cooked meals on a daily basis.

Think about it… if you only had to prepare breakfast, you wouldn’t need a large kitchen. A kitchenette would be sufficient really, saving on space and energy costs. You wouldn’t need a large fridge, or even an oven. A combination microwave and grill would cover your needs. A coffee maker and a small stove top would round out all the appliances you’d need. One or two cupboards for dishes and glass. Someone dedicated to the social media dining lifestyle could pretty much do away with a kitchen altogether.

In many large cities, like New York, space comes at a premium. Put the kitchen in a walk-in closet and you have more space for living, perhaps an actual dining room, instead of having to perch on the edge of the sofa, hoping not to spill anything on the fabric.

Finally, many of those who are going to inherit a non-ownership world – the teens and twenty-somethings – have no idea how to cook and next to no interest in learning to do so. For them, social media dining has all the benefits of living at home without having to wash the pots and pans afterwards.

If you want to give social media dining a try, check out one of these communities – they might have someone in your area ready to cook for you: Josephine, MealSurfers and Umi Kitchen.

Timer is a handy app for iPhone and your productivity

The iPhone app Timer from Contrast is a handy little utility that’s free on initial purchase. It lets you create several color-coded timers that can be launched, paused, and customized with a tap. It’s faster than using Apple’s Clock app and has earned a permanent home on my iPhone.

(Android users! Check out Smart Timer, which has many similar features. Same concept, different platform.)

Appearance

Timer presents a 3 x 4 grid of buttons. Each represents a given duration. An active timer “lights up” as the numbers count down for easy reference. It’s clear and legible and the color coding keeps things organized. Timers with a preset duration display their value while those without show a clock icon.

Use

I use timers a lot. Specifically, when I’m cooking, steeping tea, taking a nap, and focusing on work. Until recently, I used Apple’s Clock app for this and that app is okay but not nearly as robust as Timer.

First and foremost, Timer allows you to run several timers at once. This is a huge benefit in the kitchen. Let’s say the potatoes au gratin need 45 minutes to cook, the broccoli 10 minutes, and the turkey 3 hours. Each can have their own timer and they can all run at the same time with this app. Yes, you probably have a timer on your microwave, but it’s only helpful if you don’t need to heat something up in the microwave while the timer is running. And the one on your stove likely only allows you to time one thing at a time, making you play a guessing game with two or three other items that might be cooking. Having multiple timers all in one place is extremely convenient.

Second, to keep yourself organized, you can assign a color to each of those items and even a unique alarm. That way, you can tell what’s done just by listening. To edit a timer, tap and hold on its icon to produce the editor, where you’ll find several options:

  1. Preset – Assign a default duration to this timer
  2. Time – Duration
  3. Alert – Choose the alert sound
  4. Color – Assign a color to that timer button

It’s useful to create timers for frequently-used durations. For instance, I steep my tea for 3 minutes and take 20 minute naps. Now each is a single tap away. When a timer is complete, your alert sounds, a message appears on the screen, and the corresponding button flashes. Also, the timer continues to count, but this time, forward. That way you can see how much time has elapsed since your timer expired.

Why not use Siri?

That’s a good question. Telling Siri, “Set a timer for three minutes,” is faster than launching Timer and tapping the appropriate button (depending on how fast you speak, that is). But Timer has several advantages over Siri. First, it can run several timers simultaneously, as I mentioned. It’s also easier to view a timer’s progress with Timer. Siri will show you a timer’s progress if you ask, “Let me see my timer,” though you still have to look at the screen. It won’t read the time remaining to you. Also, Siri can’t set a timer that’s less than a minute long. “I can’t set a timer with seconds. Sorry about that.”

What to do with an unused piano

An Unclutterer reader wrote to us asking a surprisingly common question:

I’m currently getting ready to move out of state. I’m retired, and am downsizing everything in my life. I have a piano that my father gave me when I was in high school. He passed away over 20 years ago. I’m moving to a small beach cottage on the Oregon coast. I am struggling with the decision of not taking the piano. I don’t really play it anymore, and feel that it isn’t going to fit in our small home. Somehow, I’m not sure if this is the right decision. What are your thoughts?

This is a question I can relate to, as I’ve been on both the giving and the receiving end of a piano. In addition to being a large instrument, pianos can also hold great sentimental value for their owners. Therefore, what to do with a piano can be a difficult decision.

The piano

First and foremost, pianos are big. Even a small upright piano can be as large as a couch. Inviting one into your home is a commitment, as they’re big, heavy, and difficult to move. Typically, once a piano has been placed in its spot, that’s where it’s going to stay until you move.

Don’t get me wrong, a piano is not a burden. It’s a lovely instrument. And, like many other objects, a piano can harbor tremendous sentimental value. When I was in high school and a dedicated music student, my parents acquired a piano from family friends who wanted to offload it. For the price of moving it across town, the piano was ours. I adored it and spent countless hours on the bench, playing away.

When I moved out to attend college, my parents were left with a massive piece of unused furniture. I was the only one in the family who played, and while I studied far away in Boston, the old piano back in Pennsylvania was being used to display family photos. After much deliberation, they decided the piano had to go.

The sentiment

The weight of emotion can be even stronger than trying to budge a piano that exceeds 400 pounds. In 2010, the BBC published an article, “What is nostalgia good for?”, which acknowledged the appeal of keeping sentimental items:

Nostalgia is a way for us to tap into the past experiences that we have that are quite meaningful — to remind us that our lives are worthwhile, that we are people of value, that we have good relationships, that we are happy and that life has some sense of purpose or meaning.

The article also noted the potential risks of keeping everything from the past:

While highlighting the benefits of nostalgia, a 2006 report in Psychology Today magazine has warned that ‘overdoing reminiscence’ risks an absence of joy derived from the present, and a reliance on past memories to provide happiness.

If you have no need for the piano, but it holds a great deal of sentimental value for you, perhaps there’s a book of sheet music in the piano’s bench you can display in a quality frame. Maybe the rack that holds up the music can be removed and repurposed elsewhere in the house. For your specific situation, I’d suggest finding a way to display some part of that experience in a meaningful way that will let you say goodbye to the piano itself.

As far as getting rid of the actual piano, start by asking friends if they might be interested in having it. Talk with music teachers — at schools, music stores, and those who give private lessons — to see if there might be students who are looking to acquire an instrument. List it on Craigslist or your local Freecycle if you can’t find the piano’s next owner in one of the previously mentioned ways. And, finally, see if the next resident of your home might be interested in having it. It’s very difficult to sell pianos, so prepare to think of it as a donation instead of something with monetary value.

Good luck and congratulations on your new home.

Organizing in a small apartment that lacks storage space

Unclutterer reader Tami recently wrote to us describing her biggest organizing challenge:

I just moved from a 2-bedroom, 1200-square-foot apartment into a 1-bedroom, 784-square-foot apartment. I LOVE my new place but to say “lack of storage” is an UNDERSTATEMENT. I have adequate space in the kitchen but I literally have NO linen closet, nowhere medicine cabinet, place for sheets, towels, just STUFF. I have a hall closet (which is where I have put my broom, mop, etc.) and placed a basket up top for sheets to try and organize, and a closet for the washer and dryer (yet another basket system for cleaning supplies, meds, and odds and ends) but I KNOW there has to be a better way!!!

Tami, this is a problem you share with many others. On Unclutterer, we’ve written before about strategies that often work in small spaces, but the following are some more suggestions that may work for you.

Re-evaluate what you own

When you’re in a small space, everything you own really has to earn a place in your home due to how functional it is or how much you care for it, aesthetically or sentimentally. There may be no room for anything that’s just “okay” or “perfectly good” if it isn’t something you need or love.

For example, how many bed linens do you really need? Many people get by with two sets: one on the bed and one spare. (And the same principle might apply to other linens, such as towels.) If you have a number of specialized cleaning products, could you move toward multipurpose cleaners?

Look beyond the (non-existent) closet shelves

You’ll want to be sure you’re storing things safely, where small children and pets can’t get to them (if that’s a concern in your living situation). And remember that medications are often best stored away from the humidity of a bathroom. The following are some alternatives to consider:

Use the backs of doors

Shoe pockets hung over a door can be used to store all sorts of things. Parent Hacks has a great list of ways this versatile product can be used. Elfa also has some door racks that might be worth a look.

You can use the backs of cabinet doors, too, adding baskets or trays.

Use the walls

Your lease may limit your options here, since it may preclude you from adding anything that would put a hole in the wall.

But even then, you have some options. For example, Perch attaches to many walls with damage-free Command Strips. If your lease doesn’t limit you, you can look into shelves and pegboards.

Consider different ways to store linens and towels

I’m assuming that you don’t have space to add a storage piece such as a cabinet, trunk, cart, or shelving unit. If you do have space, that’s one alternative, but certainly not the only one.

Some people store an extra set of linens between the mattress and the box springs. Some linens, such as tablecloths, can be stored on hangers. Placemats can be hung from hangers with clips.

Towels are a different challenge. Perhaps you could store them in an empty suitcase. (An under-the-bed storage box could work, too.) You could also add a towel rack that mounts in the door hinges to store extra towels.

A frugal New Englander and spending on organizing and uncluttering

Even as a frugal New Englander, I recognize when it’s time to spend some money on my organizing and uncluttering efforts.

Let me preface this by explaining that my definition of frugal doesn’t simply mean cheap. To me, frugal means very little is wasted. Using the cheese rind in soup is the kind of practice I’m referencing. Old t-shirts become dust rags and empty jelly jars are perfect for storing hardware in the garage. Of course, this applies to money, too.

I’ve shared plenty of DIY tips here on Unclutterer and I love them. There’s nothing a little Sugru can’t keep running. But occasionally, a paid solution is necessary. A recent personal example of this is the video studio I’m setting up at home, which requires spending some cash.

When I’m not blogging at Unclutterer, I work as a writer at Apple World Today, a site for and by fans of Apple’s products and services. In addition to writing articles, I produce videos. I want the videos to have a professional look, so I purchased a green screen/lighting rig from Amazon. It wasn’t until it arrived that I realized just how big it is.

We live in a small house that pretty much contains all it can neatly and efficiently hold, and this screen doesn’t fit. I first tried setting it up in our master bedroom, the largest room in our home. There’s a good bit of open carpet between our bed and the TV (an area that is where the kids play video games). When I set everything up in this space, I quickly realized that the video production rig commandeers that whole side of the room. “No problem,” Frugal Dave said. “I’ll just set it up and break it down as needed.” Oh, Frugal Dave. You fool.

It’s three months later and I either leave it up — making the TV and video games inaccessible — or break it down after each use — which greatly increases production time. Alas, I needed a more organized, time-saving, and practical solution. My thoughts turned to our basement.

Part of our basement houses random boxes, holiday decorations, and so on. My new, more organized thoughts are that I could use this underground space as my new studio. I’ll clear it out and spend a bit of cash to paint the walls, install a door, and install electrical outlets.

These three things won’t cost me a lot, either in time or money, but the results will be fantastic. I’ll have a dedicated studio space, I can leave everything up without inconveniencing anyone and since it’s for my business, the expenses can be noted on next year’s taxes.

Being frugal and living without much stuff doesn’t mean you never spend money or that every solution has to be recycled. Sometimes, spending money and effort can help you to be more organized and comfortable in your space. This isn’t to say you have to buy every organizing solution, either. Perhaps the utensil drawer would benefit from an in-drawer organizer you find online or a set of cubbies will help the kids put their school stuff away neatly. I’m all for frugal living, believe me, but sometimes you’ve got to spend a little to gain a lot.

Organizing a small space

People who live in small spaces have unique organizing challenges. There may be limited storage space (small closets and no garage, attic, or basement) and limited living space (small rooms used for multiple purposes).

The following are some suggestions for organizing in this kind of small space. The same ideas could be used in any space, but they are more important when space is at a premium.

Unclutter

Assuming you’re planning to live in the same tiny space for a number of years, it’s time to be extremely selective about what you let into that space. You probably don’t have room for stuff that’s just okay — as much as feasible, limit yourself to things you love. You’ll want to avoid (or limit) those unitaskers, too.

Remember the wise words of Peter Walsh in his book It’s all Too Much, where he recommends you begin your uncluttering/organizing project this way: “Imagine the life you want to live.” If you’re holding onto things that don’t fit with your current reality or your realistic imaginings, it may be time to bid them farewell. (You may want to take some photos of special items before you part with them.)

You’ll also want to give thought to how many of any one thing you need. How many sets of sheets? How many T-shirts?

Go vertical

If you have limited floor space, look to the walls. Can you use shelving (freestanding or wall-mounted)? What about hooks and/or wall pockets? Would a hammock for the stuffed animals make sense?

Consider vertical versions of standard storage pieces, too. For example, a shoe tree may work better than a horizontal shoe rack.

Try smaller versions of standard items

Many shelving units are 12-18 inches deep; for example, the Kallax system from Ikea (which replaced the very popular Expedit) is 15 3/8 inches deep. If you don’t need that depth, you could get a shelving system that’s only 10.3 inches deep.

Look for other situations where a smaller product will meet your needs, saving precious space.

Consider collapsible and folding items

You can get collapsible versions of many kitchen items: colanders, whisks, scales, dish drainers, etc. Another example: Gateleg tables fold up into a small space when not in use.

Look for hidden storage spaces

Not everyone likes to store things under the bed, but if this doesn’t concern you, consider getting bed risers to provide more under-bed storage space. Paper towel holders can be mounted on the bottom of the upper kitchen cabinets. Shower curtains can have storage pockets. These are just a few of the ways to make use of every bit of space you have.

Consider dual-purpose furniture

I’ve visited friends who have no kitchen or dining table in their small home, but their coffee table has an adjustable height and it converts into a dining table quite easily. Some of this dual-purpose furniture is on the expensive side, though.

Go digital

If you’re comfortable with digital solutions, you can save a lot of space that used to hold papers, books, CDs, DVDs, etc.

Avoid most bulk purchases

Even if it saves money, you’ll probably have to pass on many bulk purchases because you simply won’t have room to store what you’ve bought. Some people manage to find space for a few high-priority bulk purchases (toilet paper, paper towels, cat food cans, etc.) but forego the rest.

Bookniture: A clever furniture solution for small-space living

We don’t often point out crowd-funded projects like those you find on Kickstarter or Indiegogo, but when I saw the Bookniture project, I thought I must tell Unclutterer readers about this.

This product by designer Mike Mak is a clever, flexible, piece of furniture that folds away like a hardcover book when not in use. In fact, it even looks like a book when on a shelf or a table. To transform it into furniture, you simply open the “book” until the front and rear covers are touching, and then you lock them into place. It kind of reminds me of the old, folding turkey decoration my mom would put out for Thanksgiving.

The Bookniture video shows it being used in several settings, from a table to a chair to a standing desk support. I think it’s ingenious, portable, and definitely not a unitasker. As of this writing, the project has earned a little more than half of its funding goal with 36 days to go. You can learn more about the project on Bookniture’s Kickstarter page.

Organizing tips from outer space

I just finished reading An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth by Col. Chris Hadfield and found that it contained some great tips from outer space that we can use to be organized right here on Earth.

The pen just floated away

In space, if you don’t hang on to them, things like spoons, pencils, scissors and test tubes simply drift away, only to turn up a week later, clinging to the filter covering an air intact duct. That’s why there’s Velcro on the back of just about every imaginable item: so it will stay put on a Velco wall.

Things on Earth don’t exactly “float away,” although sometimes it feels like they do! There are several strategies that we can use to help things stay put! Consider using Velcro to stick markers and an eraser to a whiteboard. A Grid-It organizer can be placed in a drawer, backpack, or briefcase to stop smaller items from disappearing to the bottom of a bag.

A pegboard won’t stop items from floating away, but it clearly identifies where items belong. Pegboards are ideal for tools, craft supplies, and even accessories such as jewellery, belts, and purses.

The most useful thing to do

During a mission on the International Space Station, when Commander Hadfield asked, “What’s the most useful thing we could be doing right now?” the answer was “an inventory of the inside of every single locker in the Russian cargo block.”

Previously on Unclutterer, we’ve discussed creating a home inventory. Inventories are important because they indicate how much homeowners insurance you should carry and also help identify items that may be missing or damaged if your home suffers from theft or other disaster.

Inventories done on a regular basis help ensure your items aren’t past their due dates (e.g. fire extinguishers, canned food) or have become obsolete (Do you need to keep the baby gates if your children are teenagers?). Regular inventories help you figure out how much of certain items you are using so you can prevent product shortages and keep just enough inventory on hand without having too much.

I can imagine that an accurate inventory is even more important for the astronauts and cosmonauts since the nearest convenience store is 205 miles away. Items must be ordered in a timely manner so they arrive when needed and there are only a limited number of items that can be sent on each flight to the space station. Planning in advance is essential.

Although being organized may not give you the opportunity to go to the International Space Station, it can certainly help you enjoy your space right here on Earth.