We’re all spending a lot more time at home—but how are we really spending it? We’re asking a few particularly creative people how they are living during lockdown, how their talents are helping them keep cool, what they’re baking, what they’re binging, and what perspectives they hope they bring to the other side.
Laura Fenton has spent a lot of time in people’s homes. As a home decor writer and editor for nearly 20 years, she’s had a not-so-tiny place in her heart for small spaces, which she recently channeled into a comprehensive guide for managing a tight footprint, The Little Book of Living Small. Her passion for living smartly and sustainably makes her especially well equipped for this tricky time. She shared her secrets to staying tidy, what’s on repeat in her house, and which of her own rules she’s broken.
Where are you? Who are you quarantining with?
We’ve got 3 grown ups (myself, my husband, and my father-in-law) and one kid in our 1200-square-foot, three-bedroom house in Springs, NY. The house has always been a weekend getaway and a rental property so it’s been eye-opening to live here and discover what we might do differently if this was our year-round home.
Like what? What have you changed to make the home work harder?
We never had any kind of dedicated work space in this house. We did have a desk in one of the guest bedrooms, and we moved that into our bedroom so that either my husband or I can have a place to work where we can shut the door and have some relatively quiet time. In my son’s room, we had twin beds as a parallel pair, which is certainly more pleasing to the eye. But to make more room for at-home playtime, we moved them into an L-shape and that was a really big win for us. We also might want to expand our pantry storage, as this has really changed how we shop. More than anything, it’s changed our idea of what luxury is. I've always believed in the luxury of less and appreciating the everyday things. But right now a freshly made bed with clean crisp linens feels like a treat in the same way that a couple of daffodils from my neighbor’s yard feels luxurious in a way that it didn’t before. I think there’s something about being at home and being isolated that makes these everyday moments of comfort and beauty more poignant.
Laura considers her Jackson Heights apartment their laboratory of living small. A corner desk handed down from parents makes an ideal home office for her husband (and the book’s photographer) Weston. The couple swapped bedrooms as her son got older to give him more space and quiet, rather than relocate.
How have you tried to stay balanced during this time? Any new routines you've added or hobbies you've been working on?
After kid bedtime it’s often time to tidy the house and maybe catch up on some work, but we do try to have some creative time. My husband and I both like to paint and draw, and we’ve definitely been more likely to do so then we have been in the past. Analog tasks, like cyanotypes (a photo printing process that creates gorgeous cyan-blue prints), require you to be in the moment in a really soothing way.
Are you doing anything to try to keep your routine and maintain balance?
We’re still struggling with what the new normal is. We’ve always had an evening ritual, and now we’re much more aware of it, which is we make the lights a little dimmer. We always have candles on our dinner table, and since we live in a small space you can see from all of the main parts of our home. Now it’s a conscious thing like “we’re going into nighttime mode, we’re done working for the day. Changing the lighting and putting on a record is a signal to ourselves and our kid that now is family time, not laptops-open-time.
Why are you so drawn to small spaces?
I've drawn to them partly out from necessity. Being someone who has lived in New York City my entire adult life, there was never a hope for me to stay in the city I loved and be in a big space, but I do think a small space gives you a lot of advantages. I find what happens is that in a small space you can choose to live only with things that you love. If you only have room for one set of plates, maybe you ditch the leftover from your post-college first apartment that you got at the big blue Swedish retailer and have one really nice set you use daily. There’s something about being in a small space that lets you really do these things that are exactly how you want them. In the book, Jacqueline Schmidt’s home is a really good example—she lives in a really small space but everything is exactly what she wanted (From the book: Reading a Terence Conran book one day, Jacqueline came across a passage that asked what would be left if you were to take everything out of your home, put it on your lawn, and only bring in what you needed.)
Laura’s book was released on April 7 at a time when every person featured in the book was currently sheltering in place.
If I had to be quarantined in one of the places from your book (besides your own home), where would you be?
I might have to pick Shavonda Gardner’s in Sacramento, California, partially just for the mild weather. Plus, I’ve been enviously watching her build a deck and vegetable garden over Instagram. Also, Shira Gill, the professional organizer, is so nimble with her home. Between the time I first approached her when we shot it and now today, I think her family has shuffled their bedrooms three times, so her attitude towards home being very flexible was ahead of the rest of us who are changing things up now. Now’s the time to fix the things in your house that are bothering you.
Vintage Disney + Documentaries
We actually didn’t used to watch a lot of TV on a TV. Our son’s video time was pretty limited to when we would resort to using it as a distraction while waiting somewhere. Now, I’m more inclined to turn on a movie like Robin Hood, Cinderella, or The Sword and the Stone, that we can talk about and engage over, rather than leave him in his own world of Paw Patrol. It feels like more of a net positive. For the adults, I watched Hockney and loved seeing a glimpse into the art world of the 1960s/70s. Right now a documentary feels like it's expanding my world, when things can feel very narrow.
It’s kind of funny, I resubscribed to a whole bunch of magazines. Over the years I let my subscriptions lapse because we were leading busy lives as young parents and the stacks sort of piled up around our home. But now having Architectural Digest in my mailbox is like a little treat every month. So, yes please, print media, I’m coming back!
Laura loves how Glenn Ban’s home (featured in the book) elevates the everyday: kitchen storage and the shoes-off spot are moments to highlight—not hide. According to Laura, “your small space can be a white-walled shrine to minimalism or a cozy den of personal treasures.”
A Thing or Two with Claire and Erica
Listening to them fills in for that coworker/office catchup socializing. Hearing two other like-minded women talk about these sort of inconsequential design finds and discoveries, feels like a breath of fresh hair during this time.
I’m crazy for this cookbook. We’ve made like 15 recipes from it so far and it’s been such a lifeline. We are mostly vegetarian and so many of his recipes rely on pantry staples, which is great for this time when you aren’t dashing out to the grocery store every couple of days. I’ll have to repay the Queens library for this copy that I checked out because it’s now splattered with curry paste and olive oil and not in any shape to go back when they reopen.
Simple Cake by Odette Williams
These are not fancy occasion cakes, they are the snacking cakes that can sit on your counter. Her recipes are really forgiving and she offers substitutions for tough ingredients and different pan sizes, so it’s very much a cookbook for these times where you might not always have every single thing that a recipe requires.
Laura’s been cooking heavily from ‘Cool Beans,’ and plans to pay the Queens Library back for the now olive oil-splatter copy she borrowed. The family has also been looking for any excuse to pull out the KitchenAid mixer, which thrills her four-and-a-half-year old son.
Sidebar: How to make your small space feel bigger
You and your space are seeing a lot of each other—so it helps if you can make it as attractive as possible. We asked Laura how to make even the tiniest space sing.
1 Start good habits
“One of the ‘small space commandments’ in the book is to tidy and organize daily,” she says. "A house doesn’t keep itself: the secret to a happy home is for everything to have a place and to do the work to put those things back in their place." That’s especially true now, when a nightly tidy means you wake up to a home that feels fresh.
2 Counter Culture
Once you’ve tidied, go the extra mile and see what else might not need to be out at all. “It feels like the house can get so messy so quickly, the detritus of everyday life is piling up so fast with everybody at home,” Laura explains. One solution—clear space for what will surely end up out by getting rid of items you aren’t actually using. “The espresso machine we use once in a blue moon went deep into a cabinet to give us a little more breathing space,” she explains. Then make what’s out as attractive as possible. Since you’ve got more groceries (and most likely don’t have an ample pantry), “try to arrange a beautiful bowl of apples or to put all the onions and garlic together in a pretty wooden bowl so they feel somewhat decorative and not just like the groceries are out on the counter.”
3 Break your own rules
“Many of the things I believe about working from home I still believe for normal circumstances, but working from home when your child is also home living their kid life, throws out the rules,” Laura says. “In my book, I really discouraged people from having their workspace in their bedroom unless it was the absolute only option, but right now the bedroom is the only place we can escape to.” Do what works now, even if it’s not what will work long-term and cut yourself a break if things aren’t too organized.
How to celebrate at home
We’ve had a few celebratory occasions since this began: my husband’s birthday, the day our book launched, Easter, Mother’s Day. It’s been a real education in how to make them special without leaning into consumption. For Mother’s Day, Weston made me a killer Spotify playlist. For Easter, we couldn’t get eggs to dye, let alone egg dye, so we hunted for lemons and oranges. Getting out our fancy glasses and making a special “drink” (just seltzer, juice, and lime) can make anything feel like it’s not just another meal, around the same table with the same four people. A friend of ours turned 90 yesterday, and we made him a pile of handmade cards and shoved them through the hole in his fence. That probably wouldn’t have been something we would have done before, but I think he was really touched. I hope some of this spirit continues.
Celebrating in quarantine can be challenging, but Laura recommends making the most of what you have—her family spent Easter hunting for lemons and oranges when they couldn’t find white eggs (or egg dye).
Mixing it up
Out of sheer entertainment for my son we’re using the Kitchenaid Mixer for everything, even if it’s just to make everyday pancakes because he loves to see it spinning. We’ve definitely baked more cakes at home than we ever have before as a way to treat ourselves.
Her maybe best piece of advice
William, my son, requested ice cream cones the other day when I was making our two-week shopping trip, and I said sure not thinking much about it. And I don’t know how to explain it, but eating ice cream out of a cone in your own home feels like pure joy. The ice cream is more delicious. The next time you are in a grocery store you must buy yourself a sleeve of sugar cones.