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How to make the most of small spaces

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Erin Boyle, writer and photographer behind the Reading My Tea Leaves blog, joined staff writer Jura Koncius on The Washington Post's Home Front online chat. Here is an edited excerpt.

Q: Do you have any suggestions with how to work with a partner or housemate who is not as enthusiastic about the simple, sustainable, clutter-free life? I've reduced my belongings to be mostly aesthetically pleasing necessities, but I feel bad pressuring another person to live a certain way.

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How do you balance what you and your family need every day, versus what you might need when others come? Picture: Supplied

A: I think talking openly about this is the first step – no letting the proverbial dishes fester in the sink while you quietly explode on the inside! Then I think it's helpful to organise your space so that it's set up for success. If, for instance, someone continually leaves change on the kitchen table, set up a central spot where that change can be deposited instead. In terms of sustainability, I think the more folks know, the more committed they get! Maybe it's a gentle suggestion of a book or documentary or some learning experience you guys can do together that might inspire your partner to get on board.

Q: Most of the time it's just me in my small house. Sometimes I think about getting rid of all the extra plates and glasses and such, but then houseguests come to stay and everything ends up in use, so I keep them. (I hate plastic cups and paper plates.) How do you balance what you and your family need every day, versus what you might need when others come?

A: There are many days when I wish we could have just the number of dishes we need for our family, but of course being able to welcome folks into our house is a lovely thing to be able to do! I believe in striking a balance between being "prepared for anything" and not feeling overcrowded. So maybe a full set of dishes works, but three extra guest towels and four sets of sheets aren't necessary!

Q: I have an 800-square-foot house and a toddler. Any tips for controlling clutter, especially the extra car seats, bikes, strollers, etc.? I have no garage and feel as if I could drown in toys. I am trying to maximize vertical space; any other tips?

A: Having kids definitely means contending with a fair amount of clutter even for those us of who try to keep it at bay. We're in less than 500 square feet with two kids, so we've started from a place of trying to do without as much as possible. For things we can't live without, we've done our very best to clear places in closets and under beds for stashing unsightly gear. If there's something I don't mind looking at, I'll take that out of storage and put something less attractive (a car seat, for instance) into that spot. We've also gotten creative: A small scooter instead of a bike, for instance, takes up much less storage space.

Q: Let's say you want to find something for your home, and you want it to be from an ethical source. Do you have any specific search terms you use online?

A: I love starting with vintage, antique or secondhand sources. It always feels good to give a piece of furniture a second lease on life instead of buying something brand new! If you don't have time to wait for the perfect vintage piece to materialize, you can try searching for fair trade, artisan and ethical furniture. Going small in terms of company size is also a good bet; a small workshop or single producer making pieces slowly is likely to be paying fair wages (or getting paid directly by customers) and you're better able to have a sense of what your money is going toward directly.

Q: I'm curious about your views on placeholder objects. When you're just starting out, is it better to have a gallery wall of pieces that you're not totally in love with, or a sad blank wall with just one or two things on it? Any ideas for how to fill a space inexpensively until you find those forever pieces (wall, couch, coffee table, etc.)?

A: I always opt to build slowly rather than to fill a space with things I don't really love. That said, it's understandable that you don't want your space to be sad! This is one of the main reasons that I've opted to buy secondhand furniture inexpensively. A good example right now is my kitchen table. It's not my favorite object in my home, but it's functional and practical and looks good enough to work until I find something I love more. Because I bought it secondhand from a small consignment shop, I know I'll likely be able to sell it again for exactly what I paid for it when I'm ready for it to find a new home.

In our current space, we don't have the space for bedside table, but we do have the space for a small wooden crate. It's not an expensive design object, but it serves a functional purpose of keeping a cup of water and a few books next to bed and it matches my aesthetic. Even better: If we ever find ourself with more room, it'll still be useful for another storage purpose. For small objects and decor, I've often gone the route of even more temporary fixes: A few dried flowers taped to the wall look pretty while I'm building my art collection; a poster tacked up with bulldog clips can stand in until I have the resources to get it professionally framed; a little washi tape and a vintage postcard brighten up a dark corner, etc.

Q: One thing I struggle with when moving to items that are more eco-friendly, sustainable, fair trade, etc., is that they tend to be very costly. Do you ever run into this, and any advice on prioritizing?

A: Yes, affordability is always a concern. For me, going slowly and getting comfortable with a house that might look a bit "undone" has been my biggest help. Who cares if your living room is missing a coffee table for a while or if it takes a little longer to save up for a rug that's been thoughtfully made?

Q: How do you choose the books that you keep and and what you give away? I have been sorting, but in the meantime new books have arrived at the house!

A: My Kindle has helped a lot with paring down books, but I generally have a rule of keeping books that I think I'll reference later and passing along books that I've enjoyed but that I know I'm unlikely to read again.

Q: I'm struggling with space-planning in a small apartment. The living spaces form an L shape, and the front door opens at the bottom of the L. It seems to make sense to put the dining room at the top of the L (across from the kitchen) and the living area in the corner of the L, but I'm stumped on how to handle the space around the front door.

A: I wonder if it might make sense to create a little "landing pad." Even though we have no hallway to speak of, I've tried to create a little "entryway" near our front door where we can immediately deposit keys and hang up toddler bike helmets. A chest might be a nice thing to find and could be functional as both storage and seating.

Q: My husband and I will be moving from a 3 000-square-foot house to a 1 700-square-foot house with no basement and two floors. We want an open-concept kitchen, living area and dining space. Any suggestions on how we can combine an open space with nooks and crannies for privacy? We'll be seeing a lot of each other!

A: Nooks and crannies for privacy sound great! I want one of those! I wonder if there'd be a way to incorporate a built-in reading nook or window seat that could offer a little quiet corner for a bit of solitude.

Q: As a college student who is constantly moving in and out of rental apartments and counting change, I see all of these beautifully staged homes and can't help but wish I could invest in a beautiful space of my own. There aren't many major changes I can make to the space I am in, which can be extremely frustrating. Could you speak to how your younger audience can achieve the feel of a home while impatiently waiting to settle down?

A: I feel like I'm still in this phase! I'm a renter, too, but I do my best to fill my space with simple objects that I really love and to ignore the larger stuff – yellow bathroom, I'm looking at you. And I still have some of the same wooden crates I had in my dorm room!

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