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When you live alone, no one will kick you out of bed for eating crackers.

Ask the Bitches: Why Are Painted Mason Jars the Internet’s Only Solution to My Tiny Apartment Woes?

In finance, Piggy and I are as the knuckle-dragging Australopithecus. We’re upright, we get the job done, don’t yell at us! But we’re the clumsiest possibly hominids. Our knowledge is erratically cobbled together from history books, finance podcasts, Kitty’s racist-yet-thrifty grandpa, and poorly-sourced socialist Facebook memes.

Thankfully, there are other areas where we are Homo neanderthalensis: graceful and erect, with powerful bodies and minds, superbly adapted to the cold, with cosmopolitan attitudes on interspecies breeding. Our knowledge in these areas is instinctual, virtuosic. And one of these areas is organizing small spaces.

Today we have a great reader question from our Tumblr on this very topic:

Hi! I love your blog and I find it really helpful!! I’m a mid-20s human in the SF Bay Area. I got a job and and was able to get an extra $15k in my salary (thanks to your advice!), and have now moved into my own little studio. My problem is this: Everything to help you “save space” on the web seems to actually be “how to move your entire kitchen into hand-painted mason jars”. Any advice on how to organize my space without buying useless storage buckets on Amazon?

Is… is this what I think it is? IS THIS PERMISSION TO GO ON MY BIG RANT ABOUT MASON JARS? Oh, thank the stars! (Jars?)

Piggy and Kitty’s credentials for organizing small spaces

True story: we met over a decade ago (!!!) as randomly assigned college roommates. We had the bad luck of sharing a “forced triple” with a third roommate. In this year of our Lord two thousand and eighteen, the forced triple has yet to be designated a war crime. I find that surprising in this enlightened age.

Piggy and I brought an appropriate amount of items to fill one third of a 13′ x 13′ room. If memory serves, she arrived with a suitcase or two, a folding laundry hamper sensibly stuffed with bedding, and a guitar she felt guilty for bringing because it was “big.” I came by train with a steamer trunk, like some kind of American Girl doll nobody wanted because she wasn’t as pretty as Samantha. (It’s okay, I know my limitations.)

Our third roommate brought the stuff equivalent of Infinite Jest. It appeared to be the entire contents of her childhood bedroom, plus many quasi-adult, impractical items such as a complete eight place dining set. Piggy and I were optimistic and eager to be diplomatic. We ceded half the room to her towering pile of stuff, sure that it would all work out.

Until the day a box the size of a mini-fridge appeared in our doorway.

“Oh, good!” our third roommate cried as she opened it, “my Halloween costume!”

It was then that Piggy and I exchanged a look. Like Orion’s Belt in Men in Black, the look contained a tiny universe, a microcosm of what was to be our lifelong relationship. It contained righteous morality, incredulous judgement, a little Miss Manners, a dash of der Wille zur Macht… It’s hard to express such infinity in words, but if pressed, I’d summarize it thusly:

Pinterest is for sheeple

Throughout our many years as roommates, Piggy and I came up with a lot of small-space hacks. Some were more successful than others; we tried new things all the time, and kept only what worked. The process of discovery felt organic and natural.

This was long before Pinterest, and also before minimalism and tiny living became trendy. We also didn’t have cars, money, or access to big-box stores that sell pricey specialized storage solutions. And all told, I think we did better with all of those handicaps.

I love Pinterest, but it’s a double-edged chevron. It has tons of inspiration, but it also inspires a paint-by-numbers form of creativity. It’s driven so strongly by trends that it leeches the individuality and context out of the original ideas.

Take your example of mason jars as storage solutions. Mason jars were once principally canning tools. They’re the kind of unfussy, practical, multi-use item ubiquitous to farmhouses and workshops. It’s part of a rustic, folksy trend that values function over form. Using such a mundane item in a novel, even beautiful way was once inspired. Its context was so nuanced: history is valuable, tradition has meaning, work has dignity, poverty has value, reuse is spiritual.

But Pinterest made that trend so goddamned popular it stripped that context and meaning away from poor old mason jars. The humble object that I use to ferment chicken feed is now printed onto expensive tea towels and mass-produced as disposable plastic garbage. Its form now vastly eclipses its function.

Form over function, y'all...

Build your own ideas

So that’s a helluva lot of ranting and reminiscing without giving an actual answer. But as you can see, I can’t resist context.

Obviously I can’t tell you about specific ideas or “hacks” for your space. I’ve never met you, I’ve never seen your apartment, and I have no idea how you live your day-to-day life. And those are the three factors that should go into your organization efforts. But luckily, you have access to all of that information!

There are lots of ways to stimulate your own creativity and find what works for you.

Explore minimalism… sorta

I love the ideas behind minimalism. Unfortunately, like the poor mason jar, it’s become a dominant trend, and thus has been corrupted. Many minimalist books and blogs are so clogged with self-congratulatory smugness that I cannot read them. It’s a dang problem.

Library list: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo

Kondo is not for everyone. She’s pretty woo-woo. But she writes with a lot of passion and makes a lot of fantastic arguments about tidying. Whether you follow through with all of her steps or not, her perspective on the things we own is revolutionary.

Library list: Goodbye, Things: The New Japanese Minimalism my Fumio Sasaki

Kondo’s guide is more of a step-by-step. If you’re interested in something that reads more like a memoir, Goodbye, Things is a solid choice. Sasaki is quite extreme, but his voice is open and humble.

Accept that your space will not look like Pinterest

Most small-space books, blogs, and pins feature glossy photos of impossibly bright and tidy spaces. THIS IS UNREALISTIC AF and the sooner you accept that, the happier you will be. I really appreciate the tiny number of bloggers who are willing to show you what’s outside the cropped regions of their photography.

Library list: Tokyo: A Certain Style by Kyoichi Tsuzuki

This is a really cool photo collection of how people in Tokyo actually live. The spaces are eye-poppingly cluttered, messy, and appear completely disordered—but  there is great function and surprising order in the chaos. Also: respect Japanese people on the topic of organizing small spaces!

Library list: Apartment Therapy: The Eight-Step Home Cure by Maxwell Gillingham-Ryan

Apartment Therapy in general is a great resource for ideas, and I liked their book too. It’s particularly helpful if you don’t feel like you have a strong sense of personal preference or style.

Eschew mass-produced storage & organizational solutions

I once carted a trendy bamboo silverware divider around with me for, like, four years because it didn’t fit into the silverware drawer at the apartment I happened to live in, but I’d spent too much on it to get rid of it. You have no idea how badly I want to time-travel and explain that problem to people living in plague times.

Under the bed, over the door, under the sink, over the toilet: special kinds of premade storage items that only work in specific situations are almost always a waste of money.

Kondo is with me on this one: “Storage experts are hoarders. A ‘clever’ storage solution never really solves anything. A new box or organizer won’t make you tidy.” Amen, you crazy sock origamist.

Always test before you commit

Mr. Kitty and I wanted to try using a kanban board to track our household projects. The best way to do it would’ve been to buy a magnetic board or a whiteboard, but we didn’t want to spend money until we knew we liked the system. So we used a piece of old poster board instead. (And yes, it was left over from a protest march. We have a strong brand.)

When I’m thinking about buying or building a piece of furniture, I put painter’s tape on the ground where I want it to go and spend a few weeks walking around it first. Is it too big, or too small? Does it block my path? Is its intended function already met elsewhere?

Before you invest money in anything, take the time to really test it to whatever extent you can. This will cut down on the number of times you waste money on an small space-organizing tool that doesn’t actually help you.

Get as much secondhand as you can

Sometimes you buy things and they just don’t work out like you hoped they would (like my couch). Or maybe you use it so much that it wears out (ahem, my couch). Or you need to move and it won’t fit through your new doorway (couches, man, I don’t know what to tell ya).

You will feel less guilt and anxiety if you paid less for it than it’s really worth. And the easiest way to do that is to buy it secondhand. The key is to be patient. Wait for the right thing to appear at the right price. (Yes, I do have a Craigslist alert set up for a new couch, what of it?)

Do what works for you

At the end of the day, this is your home. You work really hard to be able to afford it. And who knows, it may be the only time in your life that you get a space that’s entirely your own. Enjoy not sharing it. Own exactly what you want to own, and live exactly the way you want to live.

When you live alone, no one will kick you out of bed for eating crackers.

Kondo yer shit.

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6 thoughts to “Ask the Bitches: Why Are Painted Mason Jars the Internet’s Only Solution to My Tiny Apartment Woes?”

  1. My highly limited two cents comes from years of living in small dorms with 5-6 people, as well as current tiny apartment living. One thing I have encountered (depending on your personality and living style) is the breakdown between your intentions and your actual habits, and having to “train” yourself to adapt to a small space system. If you store things in an out of the way place, it’s a whole extra step to access things that you may use often. Sometimes this repetitive motion becomes second nature, and it’s effortless to just grab a stepstool or get down on your knees and rummage through a storage container to get something. However, for other people, it can end up devolving into a situation where you say “ehh fuck it” when you’re tired or super busy one day, leaving the toolbox on the kitchen table instead of putting it back on top of the fridge, and surprise! it lives there now for the next five months, along with whatever other items you didn’t bother to put back under the bed. Even if you come up with a system, be prepared to reorganize if it doesn’t work, instead of telling yourself that you will do better when it comes to putting things away. Especially when you live alone, and there is no one else to shame you into tidying up, it is often easier to change a space than yourself.

  2. Yesssss. It’s not super thrifty if you have to go out and buy a shitton of materials to do a Pinterest craft. The idea behind it is to use what you have on hand to make stuff look cute without spending money. I blame Pinterest for the 200% price increase on burlap in the last decade.

  3. I validate the loathing of pinteresty crap! I live in 135 sqare feet. I do have a storage unit because I’m building a bigger house. BEFORE i moved into the 135square foot transitional housing, I put tape on the floor where I already lived and moved in the furniture I was expecting to bring with me to the small space. I occupied that space for 3 months to make sure I could deal with it. I’m not tidy and I don’t care so I don’t invite people to my wee space. If they don’t see it, they don’t judge it.

  4. Something I’ve always done is repurpose shoeboxes. Slap a label on a box and store it under the bed. Easy to access, easy to put away, and easy to change as needed.

    I recycle spaghetti jars too, which hold eyeliner pencils, mascara, and other different beauty products really well. There’s a lot of other jars that can be reused afterwards too, such as jelly or pickle jars. Plastic coffee bins are excellent also and you can easily paint them with acrylic or just use some duct tape to add a label.

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