This Small House: Some find living and working in small spaces claustrophobic. But Boston-based designer Cheryl Katz says -- it gets us closer to what we hold most dear. (Justin Mclean/flickr)

Entering Provincetown from the East End, a ribbon of beach outlines the ocean’s bay, weaving its way past a row of cottages that line, cheek-to-jowl, the left side of Commercial Street. On the right, small patches of bright green lawn frame front yards.

Daniel Cleary, a year-round Provincetown resident, lives in a cottage at the end of a dirt path just off Commercial Street. An array of signs, thumb-tacked to a weathered fence, serves as a kind of roadmap to Daniel’s daily life. One sign announces shop hours (his cottage doubles as his design studio), another describes what lies within his whitewashed walls (bespoke clothing for men and women), and still another, handwritten and slightly crumpled, promises his return at 2 o’clock that afternoon.

In the tangle of ivy that overtakes the fence, it is this last sign that is crucial to my cause. Trying, to little avail, to describe Daniel’s cottage to friends — verbal descriptions do it no justice — I have, instead, invited them to join me on a pilgrimage here. The sign insures that he will be home to give us a tour.

After they see Daniel’s cottage — we troop in two rows through the space he inhabits — my friends agree with me when I opine, “bigger isn’t better.” For all that we love about home — a manageable kitchen, a work space with plenty of surfaces, a romantic bedroom (in this regard, a cathedral ceiling, wooden beams and lots of white linen go a long way), stacks of books, art, light, and air — is here, in less than 600 square feet.


Buried in the ivy, all the information visitors to Daniel Cleary’s cottage need to know. (Cheryl Katz)

I am not the first to champion small living spaces. Early adopters of the green movement are longtime proponents of the trend. Their defense is sound: Smaller spaces use less energy, preserve land and are more cost effective. But it is not for reasons of conservation that I became an advocate.

In fact, I am not as ecologically conscious as I would like to be. I admit to sometimes leaving the water running when I wash dishes. I adore paper towels. And when the recycle bin is full, I dispose of empty wine bottles in the regular trash. I prefer small spaces for the simple reason that there’s beauty to be found in rooms that don’t ramble. I like the challenge that living in a small space demands of its inhabitants: the insistence on ingenuity and the paring away of anything unnecessary. There is a quintessential quality to small-space living that I find irresistible. It’s not unlike peeling a grapefruit in the classic French manner.

Besides excellent knife skills, a good amount of patience is necessary in order to successfully supreme a grapefruit. First, you slice off the bottom in order to keep the fruit steady while performing this little surgery. Then, holding the knife at an angle, you carefully peel off the outer skin. With a little practice, you can remove both the skin and the pith without hurting the fruit. Next you cut along the fruit’s multiple membranes to extract each of its segments. You are rewarded with the very essence of the grapefruit.

Living in a small space requires this same kind of peeling away, a reduction of the undesirable and the unnecessary. It’s the grapefruit supreme. It’s a black-box production over a big Broadway show. It’s a swim in a kettle pond rather than the ocean. It’s a line in a Cy Twombly drawing.

Maybe it’s a reaction to the ubiquitous supersizing of everything in the culture — from Big Macs to McMansions. Or maybe living in smaller spaces gets me closer to what I hold most dear. In any case, there is no question in my mind about my preference.

If you find yourself in Provincetown sometime walking down a dirt path off Commercial Street and come upon a sign that reads “back at 2,” see if you can wrangle an invitation inside. If you do, you’ll see what I mean. Bigger isn’t better. Smaller is.

Pictures of the interior of Daniel’s cottage can be found here.

Tags: Architecture, Design, Style

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  • Adrian

    This rings so true. I have lived in small and large spaces. The one that I hold most dear is a small apartment in Harvard Square, a top a somewhat run down triple decker. When you opened the door you could see the entire space. Filled with light, furnished in white, it was also filled with comfort. It defined home.

  • Debbie Hemley

    How wonderfully true! Small spaces do get us closer to what we hold most dear. Living in an older house with teeny closets has taught me that lesson, too. Albeit, it wasn’t always easy to embrace and some days, I’d do anything for an extra 1/4 inch or two.

    Sure, I’ve lamented over the years that a big walk-in closet might be the missing link in my life, the one true thing that would bring genuine happiness– but when it’s all said and done, how much stuff should one person or a family for that matter accumulate? How much do we really need?

    I love the image the author offers about “living in a small space being the swim in a kettle pond rather than the ocean.” Next time I go to squeeze another object into these tight spaces, I’ll remember that and I’m sure it will help me–cool off!

  • JFP

    This piece is the work of a quintessentially modern, down-to-earth critic/observer — expressive, evocative, ingenious; I love the grapefruit supreme analogy.

  • Q.R.

    I just bought my first home. Throughout the process of the search, it is tempting to buy into the idea that bigger is better. “If we just had that bigger living room, or that extra space for an office” we’d say to each other. Now that we are happily ensconced in our little cape, all those thoughts seem ludicrous. Space begs to be filled. And the necessary process of distilling your belongings to deal with the lack of space makes you hone in on what is necessary and what is loved.

  • MAP

    This piece has given me such courage to purge my home of unimportant things. I have always love the smallest room in our house for reasons unknown to me. This lovely piece has given me insight into what I cherish about my home and objects that I have collected over the years. Now I am inspired to leave the office and work on curating my spaces! Or, maybe I should retain Ms. Katz to lead the way..

  • EmEss

    This is a wonderful piece and a jolt of inspiration to be more thoughtful with my own collections/spaces. It is a lesson that can be applied to the spirit as well as physical objects. Well done.

  • C.A. Logan

    As someone who keeps hoping that perhaps an extra 3000 square feet is hidden away somewhere in my own small home- Cheryl Katz provides a much-needed reminder that small spaces possess their own charm- This is an eloquent and timely case that we need to see that more often than not- enough is really more than enough.

  • KR

    Cheryl Katz’s thought provoking piece shows us the way to shed the cumbersome in our lives. She encourages us to think about what we need and what we can do without. What is it that we want to surround ourselves with and where do we find beauty in our things and space? Thinking smaller is a challenge but in the end your left with what you truly matters. Next time I am in Provincetown I just may knock on Daniel’s door.

  • James Devlin

    So does size matter, Ms Katz weighs into this modern question. It mattered in days past as Kings, Tsars, Dictators and Captains of Industry utilized their homes as extensions of power rather then being limited to functionary living spaces. It was and remains difficult to impressed large numbers in small places. That said in most peoples lives, those like mine, who do not require space to accommodate large numbers, elegant simplicity, beautifully described in the piece is a place of joy. thus size matters only if it is what you need …Thoughtful piece well written.

  • BS

    The pervasiveness of manufactured need within our society can be overwhelming. Mrs. Katz rightly celebrates a man who has created a life for himself that maintains a healthy balance between the necessity of gainful employment and a healthy disconnect from frivolous consumption. It is clear he has an extremely strong sense of self, as many of the masses are not able to so confidently define themselves. Instead they attempt to establish an identity by having a lof of “stuff.” Bravo Mr. Cleary.

  • KM

    The poetry of small spaces is described beautifully by Cheryl Katz.The grapefruit analogy is “right on”- for everything that remains, is in fact the most meaningful.
    I sleep in a small bedroom on the cape. It couldn’t be smaller. There is one window in the room. It is “the window”- framing the landscape beyond, once and only once.
    it’s perfect.
    thank you cheryl katz for a thought provoking piece.

  • MEP

    This article caught my eye. We are enlarging our house and now have second thoughts. Not so much by the construction — we do need the extra space (or do we???) but how we are about to fill (stuff?) that space.
    Love the way author captures what’s important, in life and in rooms. Am going to order Katz’s book, “Room Recipes: Ingredients for Great Looking Rooms” for guidance. Thanks, Cheryl Katz!

  • Library Lil

    Astute observations delivered in elegant writing style. In this age of mcmansions and supersizing it’s important to be reminded the “Bigger isn’t better. Smaller is”. I couldn’t agree more. Bravo.

  • n b devlin

    Thoughtful piece. Designing a smaller space is far more challenging than designing a large space.

  • RL

    I loved the poetry and thoughtfulness of Cheryl Katz’s piece. It brought to mind a very small, very sweet cabin I visited in Ptown. This simple room has everything I could need. I adored it! This piece made me think more deeply about what it was about the space that charmed and excited me. I realized that its embrace made me feel gathered up and safe in our vast world.

  • BHO

    After pondering a reply to this piece for a while, I admit I don’t get the concept. In fact I suffered a strong feeling of clostraphobia and needed to walk my manse a while til the feeling wore off. Well written, I haven’t felt so cooped up in a long while.


  • Vandermeer

    Can we see interior photos of the house — I’m dying to see what it looks like inside.

  • bobbie

    Lovely description for a fictional piece, but a picture is worth a thousand words in an article written for an online news venue. Without seeing the interior, the small space simply remains small.

  • DF

    I do like this concept. It reminds me of my early twenties when I would move every year or two. Moving so often forced me to purge my belongings and keep only the necessities. Now being a homeowner with plenty of space and no plans on moving, I thirst for that same motivation to keep only what is really important. I’m not sure if I could happily live in 600 square feet but I have great respect for anyone who can. I think Cheryl Katz did a wonderful job of conjuring up this little cottage in one’s imagination. I suspect that even the widest of photographic lenses would not do this place justice.

  • Judy BF

    A gem of the short essay form. Gorgeous writing: I prefer small spaces for the simple reason that there’s beauty to be found in rooms that don’t ramble.

  • Luke Schneider

    Small living spaces on Cape Cod stirs a lot of nostalgia in me. Summers spent in a tiny cottage with 5 people made up my childhood. This is a nice article advocating the value of that. Thought this link was relevant…

  • sara

    I’m the same … not ecological, but emotional, reasoning. I like to feel held. I hate owing my life to stuff. I like to see what pleases me; not what fills a space. And I’m not too crazy about vacuuming the cat fur from the north forty, which serves no purpose but to say “yo, I’m big”. Pictures of the interior of this seemingly lovely house, if allowed, would be a great advantage. And maybe moving someone out of their 600 sf bedroom to a 600 sf house for a month might create some genuine converts.

  • Frannie Carr

    Hi all —
    Ask and you shall receive… Here’s a link to some pictures of the interior of Daniel’s cottage:
    Thanks for all your thoughtful feedback to Cheryl’s piece.
    editor/producer, Cognoscenti