No Space Too Small is a brand new column by Laura Fenton that celebrates the idea that you can live well in a small home. Each month, Laura will share her practical findings from years of observing how people live in tight spaces, and her own everyday experiences of living small—from the hunt for the perfect tiny desk and managing everyday clutter to how to smooth the frustrations out of cooking in a galley kitchen.
The one and only time I ever wrote a letter to the newspaper, I had recently moved out of a 265-square foot studio and The New York Times had just run a home tour of a similarly small studio in their Home section. The apartment, which belonged to decorator Zach Motl, was fantastic—it still holds up all these years later—but I was irked by Motl’s assertion that you wouldn’t want to cook in a small apartment. I love to cook and I especially love to cook for friends, so I wrote the Times to say that “no matter the size of his space, I wholeheartedly disagree.”
Fast forward to today: I live in more than double the space that I had back then, but my home and kitchen are still “small” by many standards. Over the years, I’ve hosted all kinds of gatherings in my home, from my book club meetings to a rager of a 30th birthday party for my husband, for which I actually hired a bartender. As a New Yorker, I’ve also been a guest at plenty of parties in small apartments. Even my wedding was influenced by space constraints: The backyard we got married in could only accommodate so much tent, but we made it work! When it comes to gathering, truly, no space is too small.
I’m not alone in my feeling that a small space does not preclude exuberant entertaining: When I polled my Living Small community for ideas about entertaining in a small space, the suggestions poured in. Here’s what I and other small-space dwellers have learned about entertaining in tight quarters:
Don’t sweat the guest list
“Don’t let the size of your space deter you from having friends over,” says Jenna Helwig, author of Bare Minimum Dinners. “No one cares; they’re just delighted someone invited them over and is cooking for them.” I whole-heartedly agree, and I’ve never not invited someone because I was worried the guests wouldn’t fit. Rather, if I want to host a lot of people, I plan a party so that it will work for a crowd (more on that below). This may be an unpopular opinion: But in non-COVID times, I actually like things a little crowded. To me, a full room feels festive, while a big empty space with little clusters of guests can be a little sad.
Have a clear vision of the event
Gatherings either need to be planned as a sit-down meal or a standing-up-and-snacking affair—anything in between is too tricky in a small space. As you plan your menu and set up, try to imagine the guests' experience and the flow of the event.
Make the timing loose
Whenever I host a larger gathering, I invite guests for a long window of time and let them know it’s an “open house” type of event. By letting friends know they can come any time, you’ll get staggered arrivals and your place won’t ever get too crowded.
Don’t forgo a sit-down meal
Just because you don’t have a dining table doesn’t mean you can’t have a sit-down meal. In that long-ago studio, I would serve dinner for six at the coffee table and had date-night dinners at my breakfast bar.
Be flexible with furnishings
Alice Siah, a real estate professional in Santa Clara County, California says she’s found the key to entertaining in a small space is in the furniture organization. “When I lived in a smaller space, all my furniture was moveable. When I entertained, I changed the layout to accommodate three different groups of seating,” she says. “After dinner, we’d move a few things to open up the middle of the room for games.”
McRae Lent, who lives in a 750-square-foot apartment in Washington, DC, is also a fan of moving furniture. “For a sit-down dinner party, I bring our table that usually hugs the wall into the center of the room and just let it take over the space. I love to have a statement table!”
Improvise, improvise, improvise!
When you face a small-space challenge, get creative. If your fridge is full, fill the bathtub with ice and put your cold drinks in there (I’ve even stored extra Christmas party food on the fire escape in frigid New York City!). At my annual holiday party, I used to turn my bed lengthwise against the wall and rearrange the cushions so it was more like an extra couch. I promise your guests will delight in your ingenuity.
Keep clutter at bay
My pal Erica loves to entertain even though she lives in a small one bedroom apartment in the Washington metropolitan area. “My strategy is to clear off all my surfaces (moving our catch-all bowl off the entryway table, for example), so that I can lay out everything guests need (snacks, utensils, drinks) without them needing to go into our crowded galley kitchen,” she says. In a classic small-space maneuver, Erica also takes guests’ jackets into the bedroom, so their belongings don’t create clutter.
Candlelight and fresh flowers are entertaining essentials—no matter the size of your home. For the extras beyond that, it’s up to you whether you go minimalist or maximalist. The good news is that even tiny touches go a long way in a small space. I personally skip the seasonally-themed linens, which get used rarely, and opt for solid colors that nod to holidays, that can be used any time instead. And I love any decor that can be composted—think pumpkins and drape-y swags of evergreens—after the party’s over.
Seek out easy-to-store supplies
Before the pandemic, Bridget Morton hosted groups of up to 30 in her small apartment in Boston. Morton says the key to hosting larger groups lies in party gear that you can easily store once the event is over. “We serve almost everything in a set of nesting platters or nesting bowls, and we stash our folding table and folding chairs under a couch, which is slipcovered, so you don’t see them,” she says.
Edit your entertaining collection
Shira Gill, a professional home organizer in Berkeley, California and the author of Minimalista, edited her collection of party gear down to just enough items for the largest party she hosts each year and donated the extras. “Most people only use a small fraction of the entertaining supplies they own and have cabinets overflowing with party gear,” she says. “These items can be bulky and hard to store (think drink dispensers, punch bowls, oversized platters), so a thoughtful edit can have a huge impact on your space.”
Be a borrower
If I start to sound like a broken record on this point, forgive me, but us small space dwellers can't spare the space to store things we’ll use only once a year. So if there’s something you need to host your fête, like that punch bowl Shira wants you to donate, a large drink tub, or a folding coat rack, ask your friends and neighbors if you can borrow it before buying one that you’ll need to store.
Cater your menu to how people will eat
Your room set-up and party style will dictate the menu, says Helwig. Certain things are easier to eat perched on a couch than others: A bowl of chili? Easy-peasy. A chop that requires a steak knife? Not so much. Likewise, some foods are great for eating with one hand while standing. For an open house-type get-together, Helwig always includes a small sandwich. “The little sandwiches often disappear first. This could be anything from ham on a biscuit to eggplant Parm sliders, but a substantial nibble like this helps people feel like they’ve had enough to eat, and means you can set out less food overall.”
Simplify the sips
When it comes to setting up your drinks station, my best advice is to separate the drinks and the food because things will get crowded if you have both in one spot. Instead, clear a separate spot for a self-serve drink station. Streamline your options: A signature cocktail, plus beer, wine, and a non-alcoholic option, takes up less space than a full bar with mixers. And don’t worry too much about the proper glass for every drink: In my experience, guests are just as happy to sip wine out of a juice glass as a stemmed one.
Go one-dish for sit-down dinners
For a sit-down dinner party, Helwig recommends a crowd-pleasing one-dish meal (of which there are many in her book Bare Minimum Dinners). ”I love a cheesy, decadent baked pasta dish. It’s not fancy, but I find it’s what people really want to eat. Plus they’re easy to assemble ahead of time, so less mess for the host in a small space!” Zoe Ching, a freelance photographer in Portland, Oregon, says, “I like to do Chinese dumpling night with a lazy Susan of sauces; it’s easy to store and makes the meal easy for people to enjoy at a small table.”
Outsource part of the meal
Morton loves to outsource party prep to her guests. “Have your friends bring big items like ice or chips that are a pain to store in a small kitchen,” she advises. Morton also uses themes to divvy up the meal. “Any night is more fun with a theme,” she notes. “Recent favorites with our pandemic pod include an “Olive Garden” night when everyone brought a dip and a box brownie tasting competition.” Helwig also wisely suggests you can ask guests to bring an appetizer or dessert.
Take the biggest parties elsewhere
Finally, consider the world outside your home. Alison Mazurek, the author of the blog 600 Sq Ft and a Baby, likes to “outsource space”. Instead of entertaining at home, she hosts large parties in a restaurant or another venue. Yes, this will cost much more than hosting at home, but a few hundred dollars once a year or so, is a small price to pay to avoid a larger rent or mortgage payment that you’d be making on a home large enough to host big celebrations.
What are some of your favorite small-space decorating tips? Tell us in the comments below!
This post was updated in October 2021 to add even more small-space hosting tips.
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