DCPLive is a blog by library staff at the DeKalb County Public Library!
Aug 12 2014

Tiny Space, Big Life

by Dea Anne M

Many years ago–My grandfather has built a playhouse for the grandchildren to use when they come to visit. To say that I’m enchanted would be an understatement.  The charm of a space just my size is almost too much to take in. I begin to make plans to run away and live in the playhouse.

A number of years ago–A friend is visiting me in my new place. This friend happens to be a big guy, standing well over six feet, and he seems fidgety as we sit on my sofa and chat. Suddenly, he leaps up and cries, “This place is like a dollhouse! I’ve gotta’ get out of here!” As I close the door, I look around at my tiny apartment and smile.  I have a sense–which will prove itself over time–that this petite pad will be my favorite of many rental abodes.

Not so many years ago–I’m visiting the town of Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard and I’m thrilled with the collection of “gingerbread cottages” surrounding the central pavilion of what became, through the 1880’s and beyond, a wildly popular site for Methodist camp meetings. These wee “Carpenter’s Gothic” style houses are painted in all the colors of a Crayola box, boast miniature balconies and front porches, and look exactly like the fairy tale houses of my childhood dreams.

I’ve never lost my fascination with scaled-down living spaces. Boat interiors, travel trailers, treehouses, cabins–I find them all thoroughly charming, especially when scrupulously organized. Indeed, small houses are something of an enthusiasm and dedicated choice for people who want to scale back, live more simply and spend less money. A woman I’ve known for years told me recently that she was planning on buying a house from the Tumbleweed Tiny House Company, which offers ready-made houses to place on foundations or on wheels as well as a variety of house plans. Make no mistake, these houses are truly tiny. Yet small as they are, the Tumbleweed houses are appealing, as are those on offer from other companies such as Four Lights and Brevard Tiny House. Clever built-ins, sleeping and storage lofts, and comparatively spacious kitchens make these homes appear quite livable. Tumbleweed’s smallest rolling model, The Elm, measures a mere 117 square feet. A quick check of apartments available in Decatur shows studios averaging 550 square feet. Perhaps the smallest of these houses would be best for just one person, or maybe as a vacation home used primarily for sleeping and preparing food. Of course, the question of whether a space like this is right for you comes down to not how much room you really need, but how much “stuff” you have.

Another memory–We are going out for the evening and we stop to pick up a woman who is new to our group. She shows us into the room she rents in a communal house–architecturally distinguished and in need of repairs, as are so many houses in this college town. Kay’s room is enormous, with a soaring ceiling and a real fireplace. For me though, the most striking feature of the room is how it’s furnished. Wedged tight into a corner, is a twin bed, without a headboard, flanked by a folding metal chair on which sits an unshaded lamp. The rest of the space is taken up by rolling metal clothes racks. Each rack is crammed with clothing–dresses, blouses, skirts, coats of all cuts, colors, and styles. There are fur stoles, feather boas, kimonos, and even more exotic garments. There are shoes, arrayed like battalions, beneath each rack. It’s eye-boggling and, as so often happens when I’m startled, I can think of nothing remotely intelligent to say.

“Wow,” I finally stammer. “You sure have a lot of clothes.”

“I do.” Kay says. She assures me that all these clothes represent years of work spent scouting the country for thrift-shop treasures and vintage finds. “People offer to buy clothes from me all the time,” she tells me. Kay gives me a wistful smile.  “But I could never part with a single thing. I think of each garment as a special friend.”

And maybe that’s all the space we need–enough for our friends.

Are you interested in exploring smaller and/or alternative living spaces? If so, check out these offerings from DCPL.little

A Little House of My Own: 47 Grand Designs for 47 Tiny Houses by Les Walker includes a lavishly illustrated chapter on my beloved Martha’s Vineyard cottages. Here, also you’ll find the “refugee shacks” built to house people after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, a Caribbean “chattel house,” and numerous vacation homes, artist studios and the like. All in all, an intriguing collection.

If you dream of a small place at the lake or ocean or a tiny cabin in the woods, be sure to check out Homes homesfrom Home: Inventive Small Spaces from Chic Shacks to Cabins and Caravans by Vinny Lee. My favorite is the Vintage Beach Hut but you’ll find plenty of inspiration and fun in abodes like The Tin House and the amazing Italian Island Cave. There are even houses made out of metal shipping containers!

A lot of us had a treehouse when we were kids, or had a friend who did, but have you ever considered an adult treehouse? Check out The Treehouse Book by Peter and Judy Nelson with David Larkin. Most of treehousethese structures aren’t living quarters as such but tend to function mainly as work or recreational spaces, or as alternative sleeping spaces in good weather. A stunning exception is the multi-level treehouse built by William Scott Scurlock. During the 1990’s, Scurlock robbed more than 15 banks in the Northwest before his suicide in 1996. Something of a dreamer, Scurlock’s treehouse was apparently his pet project and he lived in it off and on while he added to it year after year. For a treehouse, the structure is downright palatial and includes picture windows, a sundeck with shower, and functioning plumbing.

To many of us, the epitome of mobile compact living is the Airstream trailer. Airstream Living by Bruce Littlefield and Simon Brown will fill you in on the history and lore of this classic of American design. Sometime in the 1920’s, airstreamWally Bynum invented a prototype of the Airstream simply because he was a man who loved camping–and he had a wife who refused to camp without access to a proper kitchen. Bynum continued to fine tune his design through the years. In 1936 (following the introduction of the alloy “Duraluminum”), he introduced the Airstream Clipper and a legend was launched. The rest of this beautifully photographed book introduces you to a wide variety of Airstreams and their happy owners. Some of the trailers function as bases for parties–either slumber or cocktail. Some are beautifully decorated (often in retro styles) living spaces. There is an Airstream restaurant/bar, a sound studio, and even an Airstream motel! Money magazine included the Airstream in its list of “99 Things That, Yes, Americans Make the Best,” and with its sleek design and cozy yet efficient interiors, it’s easy to see why.

Do you long for a simpler, smaller space? Maybe you want a home you can travel in. What is your small space dream?

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Sarah August 12, 2014 at 1:38 PM

Wonderful post Dea Anne! I, too have fond memories of my first, tiny apartment, and I have always dreamed of living in a tree house! But I also know that no matter how hard I try, I will always have too much “stuff” to live in such a small space.

R. Hughes August 14, 2014 at 10:04 AM

I am much more comfortable in smaller spaces! One day, I want to stay at Kate’s Lazy Desert Airstream Motel. (It’s Kate Pierson of the B-52s band.) Also, check out the SCADpads that turn parking decks into micro-housing communities. We have SCADpads right here in Atlanta. Beyond the idea of small living spaces, you made me think of the book Small is Beautiful. It was required reading in my college Political Science class. The class and the book ended up being much more of an influence in my life than expected. Fun post–brings up lots of memories for me, too.

Veronica W August 18, 2014 at 2:36 PM

One of my best treasures is a book I found on school buses, trucks and other sturdy vehicles which have been made into rolling homes. Fully illustrated, it has wonderful pictures of the creative ways people have converted these vehicles into compact but efficient – even luxurious – living spaces. When I feel the urge to run away, I pull out this book and dream.

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