Bigger Isn't Better. Smaller Is.

This article is more than 8 years old.

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)
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.

This program aired on August 16, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.