Small Spaces

Squeezing a family into 450 square feet inspired a Brooklyn photog's voyeuristic portrait series

By Lucy Cohen Blatter  | March 19, 2014 - 8:59AM

Living with your spouse, child and assorted pets in a 450-square-foot apartment could make anyone go nuts, but instead of going crazy, Boerum Hill photographer Heather Weston turned outward for inspiration. 

Weston, who once shot listings photos for real estate brokerage Brown Harris Stevensvisited the homes of 52 friends, family members and acquaintances--most of them in Brooklyn, but also across New York City, Sag Harbor, D.C. and Philadelphia--to create a portrait essay of how other people negotiate cramped homes.

The result is on display at Cobble Hill's Invisble Dog Art Center through April 12. Weston raised some of the funds for the show through a Kickstarter campaign that brought in nearly $3,000 more than her $6,500 goal.

We spoke to her about the series... and how to navigate packing a husband, daughter, two cats and photo gear into a tiny apartment.

What made you want to do this project?

I love recording ideas and capturing moments. Photography is just a tool I can use to organize my life. I was frustrated with our living situation. ... I have so much photography gear, I think it’s the studio office encroaching on the home life that can be a bit much sometimes. With freelance specifically it feels like you could always be working on something or you can always procrastinate on work by sweeping the floor.

What surprised you about people's homes?

A lot of people seem to paint their walls a yellowy orange color. My husband's walls were actually painted the same way, and he said it was because he thought it would make him happy. Maybe people think it's cheerful, so it makes them feel less cramped.

There was one family whose living room looked like a spare bedroom--super comfy. They had a futon laid out, where they could  really lounge. Another family had a kitchen that was lined with bookshelves, which they used as a workspace too.  It seems like a lot of people often use their kitchen tables as a workspace.

Were any apartments smaller than yours?

The only family that had a smaller space--about 400 square feet--were the Singhs, who live two blocks away from me and have five people in their family. They made it all look so easy. It made me appreciate what I have. 

How was this experience different than shooting listings photos?

It's nice to go in and see what apartments really look like and how people really live. The listings photos can be beautiful but they don't show how people live.

Any space-saving tricks you picked up?

To me  the biggest “trick” is to be okay with letting stuff go. That is tough for most of us. If you want to stay organized, you have to declutter constantly. Keep a box for Goodwill and drop it off often. ... We have a bag we fill up and take every Saturday to the textile recycling at our local greenmarket. It is a great way to clean up and recycle at the same time. 

It's also important to go vertical--use as much of your wall space as possible. Also, realize that almost all furniture needs to do double duty: Our dining table doubles as the homework station and an all-around everything table.

Is the way we live in New York City unique? Are other places in the country catching up?

There are a lot of places where people live in smaller spaces. I got emails from people in Canada and London saying how they identified with the small space scenario.

I for one like that it is less space to clean! And you can't get lost from your family when you have such a small space. ...  You have to really think about what is important and necessary to you.

You just can't have anyone over for dinner! In my apartment now, though, we have 10 people over for dinner. We have a dining table that seats eight, but we can squeeze 10. Mostly we have people at the table and sitting around on the couch and various chairs. I've kept a few of the child-sized chairs from when our daughter was little, and they double as extra seating/side tables and step stools.

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