Q + A Series: The Well-Meant Gift

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Q. I would love your perspective on a question related to living tiny: I live in a small house, and the hardest part of reducing clutter for us is saying no to incoming clutter. Do you have a system to stop you or your family from bringing home unnecessary items/purchases, or to head off well-meaning but unneeded gifts from others? Thanks!

A. Oh MAN. This one is so tough. Recently, we made the move from Austin, Texas, to Phoenix, Arizona for our next renovation project. We’re currently living in a partially-renovated Airstream, but when we moved the Airstream here, it was even less finished. We literally had to move, as in, pack all our stuff in boxes and wrap it tightly so nothing would break. The inside of our Airstream looked like a moving van that we also climbed into and slept in at night. We’ve been here for a few weeks now, and already I’ve filled the backseat of our truck with three loads of stuff to donate, and have started another donation pile. We’ve got a lot of baskets and bins that are keeping me sane right now until we have cabinets to tuck things into, but a lot of them will need to go once we finish up building and have drawers and cabinets again. 

I realized recently that we tend to buy things for the interim to make ourselves comfortable - for example, we bought an electric blanket when it was icing in Texas, a ceramic water jug with a spout and stand to act as a faucet when we didn’t have running water...this is where we have room to grow in our minimalism. We end up donating these things once they’ve served a short purpose, and it’s frustrating to see that we’ve wasted money and resources on these items just to be a tad more comfortable in the short term (although, confession: the electric blanket is still in use and I love that thing...it’s sticking around).

We do hold one another accountable if need be, we're both big on thrifting. After awhile, I realize I've thrifted too many vintage treasures and hold a fun pop up sale on my personal Instagram account, Birch & Pine: I sell rugs, ceramics, baskets, clothing, et cetera. We help one another go through our clothing from time to time and pare down. We try to follow the "one-in, one-out" rule, but that doesn't always work, especially if something serves a specific function. For example, I recently began doing Bikram yoga and needed some thin, barely-there yoga clothes for the 105-degree sweatbox. Those didn't replace my regular yoga clothing, but perhaps I have some sweaters or dresses I could streamline...

Overall, we live with very little compared to the average American household. We could fit all three of our wardrobes into one average sized dresser - shoes, coats, and accessories included, and still have room to spare.

Minimalism is a continuous journey, and one we’re always on. It looks different for everyone, and whereas we might have more vintage kitchen items than someone else might, those bring me crazy joy to see and use! However, we are learning and continuing the process of editing according to how we live. 

In terms of well-meant gifts, this is where we run into issues. While we have only one daughter, she has multiple sets of grandparents and great-grandparents, aunts, uncles, great-aunts, and great-uncles. It can be really difficult for someone to understand that even though they may only be buying her one thing, she’s getting one thing (or multiple things) from everyone in her life, which adds up quickly...and they’re all coming into 200 square feet that is shared with two other human beings, two dogs, a cat, and a business. We’ve asked that in lieu of toys, people donate to our daughter’s college fund, but so far, only one person has, or that they buy her books for her Kindle. So far, no one has. We’ve not cracked the code on this one, and I wish we could say differently.

If someone insists on giving us (Ellen and myself) gifts, we ask for Lowe’s gift cards, gas cards, or for something we need. We needed new linen sheets this year, and we asked for those for Christmas. People love giving gifts, especially grandparents and parents, and we don’t want to take that away just because we live small. However, the fact remains - we DO live small. We can’t keep everything that is gifted. The reality is that most of what we are given is donated right away, and we hate that our family members, or daughter’s family members on her dad’s side, are wasting their money, but ultimately, we can’t control what others do. We’ve made it clear we live small, and where their money could go, but it’s their choice. We, however, cannot live in a space packed to the brim with stuff, so out it goes. 

We are learning that communicating about the parameters by which we must live on a regular basis as key, and accepting gifts when given, with a smile and a thank you, is the best thing we can do. We cannot stop someone's gift from coming into our space, but we can control what we do after the thank you card has been written - we choose, daily, to live with less and to donate to those in need what we do not need. 

Q + A Series: Inspiration to Reality

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Q. I would love to know where you go for inspiration and then your process for turning the inspiration into reality. Do you have your go-to list of sources or are you always looking for it? Also, how do weight concerns influence your design approach?

These questions are so good, but the first is tough to answer! It’s difficult to convey exactly how I take inspiration and turn it into reality, because so much of it is abstract, a feeling. I’m inspired by not just spaces, I’m inspired by things around me. Songs, a meal, the way light came through a particular window and fell on a particular subject on a particular day. The way the wind felt in that one place, that one time.

It’s worth saying the way I design and create will never be exactly the way anyone else designs or creates. The way you design and create will never be exactly the way anyone else designs or creates. That’s the way it should be. I don’t have a step-by-step guide for how to take inspiration and turn it into reality (i.e., design), but I do have one hard and fast rule, and it’s simple: I don’t copy or replicate. It’s one thing to take a small element or two from someone else’s design, but in the same way we’re taught to not plagiarize in school, copying someone’s design is taking the easy way out. It doesn’t make you a designer or an artist, it makes you someone who copied someone else's hard work - the same way that plagiarizing someone’s written work doesn’t make you a writer. I’m very careful to not look at rooms or spaces as my sole inspiration, and instead, gather inspiration from everywhere. When working with a client, I make it clear from the beginning that we’ll be creating a space unique to them, their needs, and their aesthetic. Even if they present an image and say, "let's make it look just like this", I redirect. That space has been created by someone else and for someone else. Look anywhere and everywhere for inspiration and think about your own needs and style above what anything else is doing, what's popular or trending (trends die, classic design lives on). What do you love? What are you drawn to?

From a more literal standpoint, I take as many images or samples as I can, and group them together. I pull out the items that make sense together. I start to see patterns emerge, certain tones that I'm drawn to continuously for that particular project. I then begin to sketch layouts and think about how concrete sources will look in the space, which involves sourcing those - I do a lot of research for products - and generally play with three options for each element (three faucets, three different types of tile, three different floors), especially when designing for a client. Too many options tends to overwhelm us in the design process. My job is to streamline and create for the client based on who they are, their needs, and conversations I've had with them. I mesh together my own inspiration with what I've learned.

The next steps are to go over the furniture and cabinetry builds with Ellen, who is responsible for actually bringing them to life, and we problem solve together until we have it just right. It's like a lovely puzzle, and I know the design plan is finished and ready to execute in my gut, though I truly allow the entire process to be organic, from start to finish. Once the plan is "finalized', it doesn't mean I may not feel something needs to change. I leave myself open to options, always, and for the design to ebb and flow naturally. This is how the best designs have come about for me. 

I do have companies that I prefer to source from (for example, I love Delta Faucets), but I don’t solely rely on those products as the only option. Creating custom spaces requires me to get creative and always, always be on the lookout for solutions, fixtures, and finishes that suit the design and feeling I’m going for. Part of being a good designer is educating yourself as to what fixtures and finishes are out there so you don't get stuck recreating the same space over and over. 

Weight is absolutely a consideration. For example: there are quite a few folks who are adamant in their opinions on not using tile and solid wood in travel trailers and RVs, yet these same folks add in a lot of other heavy stuff: extra appliances that aren’t necessity, metal, TVs, et cetera. I say - to each their own, as long as you're careful with your choices. We are mindful of the weight of the tile, and use a lightweight adhesive product called Musselbound, as opposed to thinset (mortar) to apply the tile (only on walls, not for use on a shower floor). We keep the tiles small and use a flexible grout. We’ve yet to install a hardwood floor, but there are folks who do.

In all of our projects thus far, we have kept the weight at 5800 pounds or less (dry weight), and we’ve used quite a lot of plywood and hardwood for countertops and cabinetry, and tile in each project. We are mindful of the weight of our appliances, and in our designs, balance weight from side to side. 10% of your overall trailer weight should be at the front. We consider every option we possibly can before making final decisions, and ensure we're meeting at least the first two of these three goals: is this piece/fixture/finish functional? Does the weight of this work with the other elements? If it's visible (i.e., not a water heater): is it beautiful? 

The Q + A Series

A few weeks ago, right before we took a short vacation to the coast, we posted to Instagram and asked what you all want to know more about...and we said we'd answer in our Stories. Nearly eighty questions later, and we realized that posting them to our Stories would mean that many of you might miss the responses, and several of the questions asked required more in-depth answers than a quick video would allow. So instead, we've been sorting through the questions over the past few weeks, grouping like-questions together, and writing out our responses so they can live right here on the blog always, and for anyone to sort through at anytime, with ease. 

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We'll start our new Q + A series off right here, and answer a few in this post. Outside of parallel questions, we are responding in chronological order. Sit tight if you asked your question later in the comment thread! We're working through them all as quickly as we can. Maintaining the blog regularly is tough with our renovation schedules (we're still renovating two, ours and the client's, simultaneously), but we're working to produce more content for you all while still finding balance between work and family/life. 

The posts can be accessed easily by clicking the Q + A Series link in the sidebar, and if you want to ask a question to be featured in the series, please submit your question via our contact form, right here, with 'Q + A Series' in the subject line so we don't miss it. 

Q. The art pieces you choose are always perfection! Where do you source them, or do your clients just have impeccable taste and have already acquired them over the years?!

A. We’ve only had one client project thus far where I was actually able to style using the clients’ art pieces (Isla), and it was really fun to go through their collection and pull out pieces that would look lovely with the finished space. Otherwise, any other artwork that you might have seen is in our own spaces, and all of that Kate has sourced from antiquing and thrifting over the years, or it’s art we’ve created ourselves. The key to seeking out these pieces is to keep your eyes peeled. We have quite the collection of one-of-a-kind large-scale pieces in storage, but brought along several small-scale favorites. 

Q. Where do you typically park when you’re staying in one place for more than a couple days?

A. This is really dependent on where we are and what we’re needing to do. Currently, we are parked on a farm in Arizona for our current client renovation. It's far from idyllic, but it allows us to homeschool and not seek out childcare while working full-time on site. 

When traveling freely, which we don’t get to do very often because of our work, we prefer boondocking (dry camping in remote locations). BLM land is our preference - seeing the stars, letting our dogs run freely, 360-degree views, and being all alone and feeling small - there’s no better feeling.

Sometimes we like to be close to friends and family in cities, and parking becomes more of an issue. Sometimes we’ll driveway park if we can. A good example of tough parking is in Southern California: in Dana Point, we’ll head down to the beach during the day and leave at night to go sleep in a parking lot, just to be right on the water and have the comfort of home with us, and it’s much cheaper than the adjacent campground where beach view sites are super pricey. 

We rarely stay in RV parks, though they are nice from time to time. Last summer, when traveling with some friends, we all wanted to run our AC and get in a pool and be able to catch up on work comfortably and do laundry. We rented side-by-side sites for a week in an RV park outside of San Diego and were able to get through the 107-degree heat wave just fine. 

Q. How do you manage water and dumping tanks when parked for a renovation?

A. Our contract requires our clients to provide water and electric hookups, and we use a portable rolling tank to remove our grey water from the site. We have a Nature’s Head Composting Toilet and do not need a black tank.