When spaces are small, the planning is all

November 21, 1993|By Cynthia Hanson | Cynthia Hanson,Contributing Writer

My husband calls our apartment "cozy." That's a polite way of saying it's too small for two adults. But when we got married last year, we happily traded the luxury of space for the convenience of our 27th-floor shoe box.

Of course, we knew the apartment was tiny. We simply pretended it wasn't, and then we pretended it didn't matter.

The building's proximity to our offices, combined with the spectacular view of skyscrapers and the health club on site, easily compensated for the frustration of living like permanent passengers on the bus at rush hour.

Because no matter how many boxes we squeeze into storage lockers, no matter how often we clean our closets, no matter how much stuff we slide under our bed, our one-bedroom, 800-square-foot apartment never will resemble the sleek units meant solely for showing.

And no wonder: Without televisions, stereos, bookcases and other necessities, the model units are almost roomy.

To feed our addiction to urban life, we endure claustrophobia, but it has given two former Felix Ungers that Oscar Madison feeling.

Our newlywed status only exacerbates the struggle of living in crowded quarters. It's tough enough sharing space, but even more so when it's half the size of what you'd been living in alone.

"Are the walls closing in?" I'd say to Aaron while we watched television in the square-shaped living area.

"It's not that bad," he'd reply, rolling his eyes.

Aaron, you see, is indifferent to the lack of space, having grown up in a family of six in a three-bedroom duplex in a northwest Chicago suburb. He never had a room to call his own, and consequently the concept of privacy is as foreign to him as the notion of sharing is to me, a territorial only child.

Spacious youth

I spent my youth in a four-bedroom, two-story colonial in a quiet Philadelphia suburb, where I slept in one blissfully large bedroom, about the size of my current apartment. At 14, I annexed another bedroom as an office and a study.

Before we got married, my sole experience with sharing personal space came during freshman year at college. Even then I got lucky: My roommate moved off-campus after one semester, leaving me alone in a "double" the size of my childhood room.

For the next three years, in single rooms that rivaled a monk's cell, I fantasized about a real-world high-rise that would offer hardwood floors, postcard-perfect views and space, glorious space. I found it in the South, where I spent six years in big, comfortable apartments.

But Aaron's and my disparate attitudes are only part of the dilemma.

As a writer, I frequently work at home. With neither closet nor cabinet space to store the tools of my trade -- note pads, press kits, pens, newspapers, magazines -- I often scattered them about, as a child might leave a trail of Barbie dolls or Ninja Turtles.

The coffee table, the footstool next to Aaron's favorite chair, the two feet between the sofa and the wall -- all were receptacles for my belongings.

"I never knew you were such a slob," he'd grouse, transferring a stack of newspapers from the dining table to another pile growing near the window.

"I never lived in a shoe box before," I'd snap before heading to the bedroom, in search of privacy and new scenery.

When our lease came up for renewal, I knew my sanity could not survive another year of suffocation.

We considered moving to a 1,200-square-foot, two-bedroom apartment in our building but ruled it out because it seemed wasteful to pay $200 more in monthly rent while we're saving for a down payment. We also discussed moving to larger digs in the suburbs, but nixed that idea because we'd been seduced by the excitement of city life.

Heck, we even joked about seeing a marriage counselor.

Instead, we sought assistance from shelter magazines and guidance from friends who'd recently hired interior designers for their new homes.

After perusing the glossies, grilling friends and combing furniture stores, we ultimately concluded that our discomfort had more to do with our inefficiency in using the space than it did with the apartment's dimensions. We had to devise a way to make it function as a home and an office -- and that is how Aaron and I embarked on Operation S.O.S. (Save Our Shoe Box).

Obstacle course

With a critical eye acquired through self-education, we surveyed the apartment and found it was an obstacle course because of furniture positioned at right angles.

When we'd moved in, I'd arranged everything as it had been in my old place. The sofa went in the middle of the room, the coffee table in front of it, the three bookcases that comprised our wall unit against the wall. Never mind that the floor plans were incompatible. Familiar surroundings, I reasoned, would ease my transition into matrimony, to say nothing of a new city.

Next, we assessed the floor.

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