Small and simple spaces; advice from Erin Boyle | Home Front

Erin Boyle
Jun 08, 2017

Erin Boyle is the writer and photographer behind the Reading My Tea Leaves blog. Her first book, "Simple Matters," is a nod to the growing consensus that living simply and purposefully is more sustainable not only for the environment, but for our own happiness and well-being, too. Boyle embraces the notion that living small is beneficial and accessible to us all.

Every week, Jura Koncius helps you in your quest to achieve domestic bliss. She and weekly guests, whether Martha Stewart, the Property Brothers or Nate Berkus, answer your decorating and design questions. Jura is always happy to whip out her paint chips, track down a hard-to-find piece of furniture or offer her seasoned advice on practical living and decluttering. For more than 10 years, Home Front has been an online conversation about the best way to make your home comfortable, stylish and fun. We invite you to submit questions and share you own great tips, ideas and gripes. No problem is too big or too small, send them over.

I'm excited to have Erin Boyle, writer and photographer of the Reading My Tea Leaves blog on the chat this morning. Her first book, “Simple Matters,”is an inspiring read for anyone looking to declutter, organize, and simplify. Erin is all about practical solutions and personal insights on small-space living. She embraces the notion that living small is beneficial and accessible to us all. So let's chat.

Good morning, Everyone! Such an honor to be here to chat about small and simple spaces today! I come from the perspective of renting a small apartment in a big city, but I'm happy to tackle questions about small spaces anywhere! Can't wait to see what kinds of questions you guys might have for me!

Help, Jura! My daughters (5 and 8) share a room and while we're having some plaster repairs done, they get it repainted (and bunkbeds!). They want a pink and purple bedroom and while I had a pink and purple bedroom as a kid, the thought makes me shudder.... They're also getting bunkbeds (my 5 year old has been squeezed into her toddler bed for far too long) that will be painted a medium gray color. Any pinks/purples/ideas that would look good? Could the right rug make it all

Pink and purple are always the colors that little girls love. Their moms: not so much. If there is any way you can convince them to get all the pink and purple sheets, comforters, pillows, lamps and rugs that they can find, it would allow you to paint the walls Simply White by Benjamin Moore!

Agreed with Jura that white walls and pink and purple accents might be the best approach here, but the particular shade might help, too! Farrow & Ball Peignoir is *the* loveliest pale pink. Maybe you could convince them to go soft and subtle?


I have a 800 sq foot house and a toddler. Any tips for controlling clutter esp the extra car seats/bikes/pack and plays/strollers/future clothes etc. I have no garage and feel like I could drown in toys. I am trying to maximize vertical space which is all anyone says. Any other tips?

Hi there! Even for those us of who try to keep it at bay, having kids definitely means contending with a fair amount of gear-related clutter. We're in less than 500 square feet with two kids so we've started from a place of trying to do without as much as possible. For things we can't live without, we've done our very best to clear places in closets and under beds for stashing unsightly gear. If there's something that I don't mind looking at, I'll take that out of storage and put something less attractive (a car seat, for instance) into that spot. We've also gotten creative: a small scooter instead of a bike, for instance takes up much less storage space!

I'm furnishing a renovated cabin and would love to find a sleep futon or sofa and comfortable chairs that are affordable. The sofa needs to serve as a bed as well. Any advice? Thanks. Sue C. Small (400 ft) Cabin is by the river.

Hi Sue! I don't have a specific bit of sleeper sofa advice, but in general, my go-to place to look for small scale and affordable furniture is antique and second-hand stores. I love that a piece of second-hand furniture doesn't lose its value, so if it turns out not the right for a spot, I can always resell it and find something that works better!

Let's say you wanted to find something for your home, and you wanted it to be from an ethical source. Do you have any specific search terms you use online?

Here again, I'd say I love starting with vintage, antique, or second-hand sources. It always feels good to give a piece of furniture a second lease on life instead of buying something brand new! If you have less time for waiting on the perfect vintage piece to materialize (understandable!), you can try searching for fair trade, artisan, and ethical furniture. Going small in terms of company size is also a good bet: a small workshop or single producer making pieces slowly is likely to be paying fair wages (or getting paid directly by customers) and you're better able to have a sense of what your money is going toward directly!

I'm curious about your views on placeholder objects. When you're just starting out, is it better to have a gallery wall of pieces that you're not totally in love with, or a sad blank wall with just one or two things on it? Any ideas for how to fill a space inexpensively until you find those forever pieces? And not just art for the wall, but the perfect couch, coffee table, etc. Thanks for your help! ~Lauren

Hi Lauren! Yes: I get this question a lot! I *always* opt to build slowly rather than to fill a space with things I don't really love. That said, understandable that you don't want your space to be sad! For my part, this is one of the main reasons that I've opted to buy second-hand furniture inexpensively. A good example right now is my kitchen table. It's not my favorite object in my home, but it's functional, practical, and good-enough looking to work until I find something I love more. Because I bought it second-hand from a small consignment shop, I know I'll likely be able to sell it again for exactly what I paid for it when I'm ready for it to find a new home. In our current space, we don't have the space for bedside table, but we do have the space for a small wooden crate. It's not an expensive design object, but it serves a functional purpose of keeping a cup of water and a few books next to bed and it matches my aesthetic. Even better: if we ever find ourself with more room, it'll still be useful for another storage purpose. For small objects/decor, I've often gone the route of even more temporary fixes: a few dried flowers taped to the wall look pretty while I'm building my art collection, a poster tacked up with bulldog clips can stand in until I have the resources to get it professionally framed, a little washi tape and vintage postcard brightens up a dark corner, etc. 

Hi Erin! I love your blog and book! One of the things I struggle with when moving to items that are more eco friendly, sustainable, fair trade, etc. they tend to be very costly compared to items that are not and don't always fit my budget for a particular item. Do you ever run into this and any advice on prioritizing?

Hi there! Thank you! Yes: affordability is always a concern. For me, going slowly and getting comfortable with a house that might look a bit "undone" to someone else has been my biggest help. Who cares if your living room is missing a coffee table for a while or if it takes a little longer to save up for a rug that's been thoughtfully made! Make your comfort your priority: if there's an item that would make you more comfy on a daily basis, start there!

Hi Erin ! How do you choose the books that you keep and and what you give ? Because i have sorting but in the meantime new books have arrived at the house. Thank you for your answer ! Océanne

Oh, man! My kindle has helped a lot with paring down books that I keep around, but I generally have a rule of keeping books that I think I'll reference later and passing along books that I've enjoyed but that I know I'm unlikely to read again! 

Erin, Do you have any suggestions with how to work with a partner or housemate who is not as enthusiastic about the simple, sustainable, clutter free life? As someone who is passionate about putting things back in their place and keeping the house calm and free of eye sores, it is less automatic my boyfriend (which can cause some slight tension). I've reduced my belongings to be mostly aesthetically pleasing necessities, but I feel bad pressuring another person to live a certain way...

I think talking openly about this is the first step: no letting the proverbial dishes fester in the sink while you quietly explode on the inside! Then I think it's helpful to organize your space so that it's set up for success. If, for instance, someone continually leaves change on the kitchen table, set up a central spot where that change can be deposited instead. In terms of sustainability, I think the more folks know, the more committed they get! Maybe it's a gentle suggestion of a book or documentary or some learning experience you guys can do together that might inspire your partner to get on board!

Hi Erin, my question is : How came the idea to get started a blog ? How did you gets more and more readers ? And have you some tips about blogging ?

Hi there! I started blogging in 2009! I think writing from a place that's personal and true to you is the best way to strike a chord with people, and with that comes more and more folks who'd like to read!

I'm struggling with how to do space planning in a small apartment. The living spaces form an L shape, and the front door opens at the bottom of the L. It seems to make sense to put the dining room at the top of the L (across from the kitchen), and the living area in the corner of the L, but I'm stumped on how to handle the space around the front door. I don't have much furniture to put there, so right now it seems empty. ~New Haven, CT

Hi there! I wonder if it might make sense to create a little "landing pad." Even though we have no hallway to speak of, I've tried to create a little "entry way" near our front door where we can immediately deposit keys (and hang up toddler bike helmets!) A chest might be a nice thing to find and could be functional as both storage for when you first come home and seating!

We just bough a new house a week ago and very excited! We have about a month to do some basics, like painting the walls. However, I am having trouble deciding on colors/themes and can use some inspiration. Is there a good website/book/magazine that you can recommend? Also, we have a few areas with wood paneling and I like the look of it but was wondering if it's possible to sand it down/make it lighter without having to paint it.

I'll admit that I'm usually partial to white walls, but I really love looking at Pinterest for color themes. I've found that by starting by pinning images with color schemes that I like, my feed gets populated with variations on the same theme that are inspiring! I'm not an expert, but I imagine that if your paneling is dark it might have a stain and that you might be able to sand it down! (Though I'm sure I'd opt to a clean coat of paint myself!)

My husband and I will be moving from a 3000 sq ft house to one with 1700 square feet/no basement/2 floors. We want an open concept kitchen/living space/dining space. We have a say in the design. Any suggestions on how we can combine open space with nooks and crannies for privacy? We'll be seeing a lot of each other!

Nooks and crannies for privacy sound great! I want one of those! I wonder if there'd be a way to incorporate a built in reading nook or window seat that could offer a little quiet corner for a bit of solitude!

This is a bit of an issue with my husband and Erin is spot on. He was emptying his pockets on coffee table!! I got out a lovely hand carved wooden box that my parents got in Romania that's about the right size - problem solved. For whatever reason, my husband likes to get dressed downstairs in our smallish open plan kitchen/dining/living room. So I have him fold his clothes onto one of the dining room chairs - it's out of site. Think were you can make it work and then were you feel you can't compromise is easier. Funnily enough, when I moved his shoes from beside the sofa every-bloomin-day to the front door (next to my shoes), after about a month he started doing it himself. This is a Flylady suggestion. I didn't do it with an attitude , or say anything (after asking hime once). And it worked! He kept finding his shoes there and eventually just put them there himself.

Ha! Glad that box worked for you guys!

Put up some photos - both family and your own arty ones taken on holiday or round town. They don't even have to be framed ... .

Hello Jura and Erin! Thanks for taking my question. I am trying to find a nice color to unify our dining room and living room, which are connected by a large, arched opening. The house is a 1920's Dutch colonial. The dining room gets pretty good natural light, but the living room is pretty dark. I'd like an attractive neutral, like a nice gray, that will not disappear or look gloomy in the darker room. Any suggestions would be appreciated! Thank you so much!

Revere Pewter by Benjamin Moore is a fabulous color. Lookout Point by Benjamin Moore is a lighter, bluish gray choice. Skimming Stone by Farrow & Ball would be an elegant color to use.

Try They say they are facilitating direct-from-maker purchases and they do have nice stuff at decent prices.


Most of the time it's just me in my small house. Sometimes I think about getting rid of all the extra plates and glasses and such, but then house guests or my brother's family will come to stay and everything ends up in use, so I keep them. (I hate plastic cups and paper plates.) How do you balance just what you and you and your family need everyday and what you might need when others come to join the fun?

Such a good question. This can definitely be struggle for me. There are many days when I wish we could have just the number of dishes we need for our family, but of course being able to welcome folks into our house is a lovely thing to be able to do! I write a little bit in my book about striking a balance between being "prepared for anything" and not feeling overcrowded. So maybe a full set of dishes works, but three extra guest towels and four sets of sheets isn't necessary!

Very, very pale pink walls. Purple bedding and maybe an area rug. Will look great with the grey bed. And when they grow up a bit, you can ease out the purple and replace with deep maroon which will look fantastic with grey and very pale pink.

Yes. I like Sherwin Williams Charming Pink.

You can't really pick paint colors in a vacuum, because they have to relate to the furniture and linens in the room. I have found it really helps to start with one object that you already have and love to set the design palette for the room. In my bedroom, it's the handmade quilt from my grandmother; for my living room, I found a fabric that I love, which will become curtains and toss pillows. You could start with a picture or something even smaller like a vase.

Erin: We appreciate your being on the chat today. And also read about Erin's choice for best bath towels in a story we ran today.

Next week I will have as a guest author Nick Voulgaris, whose latest book is The Seaside House: Living on the Water published by Rizzoli with photos by Douglas Friedman.  We will talk beach houses, guest rooms and designing for casual comfortable living. See you then.

Hi Erin, I am probably one of the younger regulars on your blog, but I have a question about living simply at 21. As a college student who is constantly moving in and out of rental apartments and counting change I see all of these beautifully staged homes and can't help but wish I could invest in a beautiful space of my own. There aren't many major changes I can make to the space I am in which can be extremely frustrating. Could you maybe speak to how your younger audience can achieve the feel of a home while impatiently waiting to settle down?

I feel like I'm still in this phase! I'm a renter and so there's a lot I can't change, but I do my best to fill my space with simple objects that I really love and to ignore the larger stuff: yellow bathroom, I'm looking at you....And, I still have some of the same wooden crates I kept in my college dorm room! 

Phew! So fun! So many thanks for having me, Jura!

In This Chat
Jura Koncius
Jura Koncius is a Washington Post staff writer who specializes in home and design. Read her daily twitter feed @jurakoncius for the latest in decorating trends, shopping, decluttering, organizing and DC retail.

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Erin Boyle
Erin Boyle is the writer and photographer behind the Reading My Tea Leaves blog.
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