09/25/2011 09:13 pm ET | Updated Oct 11, 2012

Adventures in Small Space

When I moved to Manhattan in the late 90s, I was taken aback by the housing questions hurled at me by mere acquaintances -- questions that might be considered "rude" in less space-challenged communities.

"Nice to meet you. Where do you live? West Village? What block? What do you pay? One bedroom? Studio? IS IT L-SHAPED?"

"Yes," I'd say, "It IS L-shaped. Unfortunately it's a lower-case L."

But then I'd come back with, "It has a full-size refrigerator, though, and separate bathroom."

Seriously. This was important. In my friend Jean's apartment, the only shower was in the kitchen.

Looking back, I no longer see these questions as rude. Well, yes, actually, I still do. But I understand. Completely. Space was currency. Did other people have more of it? Without having to live by the East River?

Whether or not neutrinos can move faster than the speed of light, there will always be complicated physics problems involved in trying to live efficiently, stylishly and comfortably in a small space. Squeezing in more matter than seems scientifically possible becomes as wondrous an obsession as string theory.

In my studio apartment days, the bus trip to IKEA was a knight's quest that often ended with an elusive comprehension of cubic footage followed by a difficult cab or subway ride home with a 79 & 5/8" flat pack.

The shelter magazines I pored over ran inspiring stories about designers and architects who had created tiny but glamorous pied-à-terres in Manhattan or Hong Kong high-rises. The captions would go something like: "For only $50,000, he completely remade the space," or "The catch-all antique armoire was found on a buying trip to Paris."

Well, that's great, I'd think, I have about two dollars. And if I move a wall, my landlord will go berserk. (At the time I was temping by day and performing open mikes at night.)

But I was in New York! And great design was everywhere! And I loved design! I wanted to live stylishly, too! With small amounts of money, time and space!

Also I had two cats.

Happily, there did come a shimmering point when I finally felt I had the small-space formula figured out, when my studio apartment became an efficient, multifunctional, relaxing and aesthetically pleasing dwelling. That was right before I moved.

To Palo Alto.

(One of the few places in the country with even less Housing-per-People-Wanting-Housing than New York.)

The next part of the story is how I came to fit into that New York studio -- and subsequent small space homes. Although I now live in multiple rooms with husband, pets and kids, I find the same design principals and organizing techniques learned in those small spaces still apply. I am leaving that as a cliffhanger only because I have to go stylishly and efficiently change the cat litter and feed my kids.