What living in 90 square feet taught one New Yorker about what's important in life

Felice Cohen in her old 90-square-foot apartment.

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Felice Cohen became something of an Internet sensation when her 90-square-foot Upper West Side apartment tour went viral back in 2011. Cohen's book, 90 Lessons for Living Large in 90 Square Feet (. . . or More), is out next week. While she doesn't live in that minuscule place anymore (which also happened to be a five-story walk-up), Cohen says there are things she misses about it and lessons she learned from living in a space about the size of a walk-in closet.

We caught up with Cohen, who is a personal organizer and writer, on the phone from her (relatively enormous) 490-square foot one-bedroom on the Upper West Side.

How did you end up in that now-infamous 90-square-foot apartment?

I moved into that place because I wanted to try living in Manhattan (I'd been living in the Bronx) and I wanted to finish a book I was working on, but I didn’t want to spend all my money doing it. It was about $700 a month. 

What did you think when you first saw it?

When I first saw it, you could barely step on the floor because the woman living there was a slob. As a professional organizer I knew I could make it work. I put 77 boxes of stuff into storage when I moved in, and I was there for five years, slowly going through my stuff in storage, too. I ended up getting rid of everything in storage.

Did you ever feel like it was just too small?

I looked at is as though when I was working, the whole place was my studio and it was certainly bigger than a cubicle. Ane when I was getting dressed, the whole place was my dressing room. I had less stuff to clean, less to pay for and could do so much more. My life outside got bigger.

Did you ever have people over?

One time I had brunch—with my sister, brother-in-law, her two kids, and my parents. We did bagels. I only had a hot pot and a toaster oven. My niece who was four at the time loved my loft bed. She was the only person who could sit up in it and not bump their head. It was tricky to find a place for everyone to put their cups, but we did it.

Anything you miss about the old place?

It had a lot of charm. I loved the brick wall. It was my little-space escape from New York City.  

Do you think it's something anyone can do?

It depends on the person. For me, I had a panic attack the first night, but it was a sacrifice I needed to make. Year after year, I kept living there because I loved it. I didn’t have to work my ass off and I could still afford to live in the city.

What are some of your tried-and-true organizing tips for 90 square feet, or a little more, as your book says?

Go vertical whenever possible. Put a double-bar in the closet. One bar is ridiculous. I also added a shoe cubby to my closet.

Utilize blank space: under the bed, under the couch. But don’t just throw it, keep it organized.

Keep your sheet set—two sheets and one pillow case, maybe—inside a pillow case. That's the best way to store it.

Also, I always tell my clients, books are meant to be read, not collect dust. Donate your books. I hate paper, and the fact that you can store things digitally is great. You also need to make sure your desktop is organized.

You can buy great boxes at the Container Store, but just make sure not to buy organizing stuff before you know what you need.

But the most important thing is to get rid of stuff. You don't want to start storing stuff you don't need, no matter how organized it is.

You've since upgraded to an apartment that is almost five times the size. What was the first night in that place like?

The entryway is almost the size of the old apartment! 

I had over 30 boxes of stuff (I don't know where they went in the old place) and I unpacked them all on the first night.

Luckily the place came furnished because I didn’t have enough stuff. I was sleeping in the living room, and I was, like, is this a dream? It was so exciting.

What do you appreciate most about the extra space?

I love that I can have people over now.  The kitchen was small with an old fridge and a small cabinet -- I gutted it and made beautiful cabinets.  I wanted to increase the space in case I ever sell it.  It's got an open concept kitchen and living room (see below).

What was your takeaway from five years of living in such a tiny space?

It made me realize what I want in life. I don’t ever want a big house, I just want the space I need. Everything we buy is forcing us to work another day to pay it off. It made me step back and realize I don’t want a lot ot stuff. People who are embracing the tiny house movement are getting it. I’ve been getting a lot of corrrepsondence from people in Croatia and Greece since the financial crisis, who also see the need to downsize their living spaces to feel more free.


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