Review: Living in a Nutshell: Posh and Portable Decorating Ideas for Small Spaces

Living in a Nutshell cover
I’m no stranger to small spaces, having spent much of my adult life in a string of shoebox apartments from Boston to Osaka. There’ve been several books about decorating small rooms, and my main criticism is usually that the author and I have different definitions of ‘small’. (I’m looking at you, Better Homes & Gardens.) The advice is usually given by someone who does not really understand what it’s like to live in a small space day after day and is only guessing at what might be helpful for those who do.

Janet Lee’s book is a refreshing change. The spaces shown are genuinely cramped with few architectural merits – finally! This isn’t one of those glossies that hype small-scale minimalism by showing off white-on-white rooms with a murphy bed and a wall-to-wall view overlooking Rio. It is likely that at least one of the 100+ ideas in this book will work for your space if you give it a chance.

Living in a Nutshell, inside

Now, this isn’t for the faint of heart. The colors are vivid; if you like Jonathan Adler’s Happy Chic books then you’ll love the colors here. If you were hoping for something more neutral… well, give color a try anyway. Many people stick with pale tones thinking it’ll make their tiny room look bigger, and buy small neutral pieces that won’t overpower. This results in a perfectly fine room with as much personality as a dentist’s office. If you’ve done your best but your little home still looks wilted, get this book. Even if you don’t want to do every project, it might spark some ideas.

Still, I have mixed feelings about this one. Though quirky and vibrant, there’s a kitschy shallowness. Part of me says it’s not pretentious because nobody will really believe your logo-stamped jute rug came from Hermes or that Louis Vuitton monogrammed your filing cabinet. Anyone who takes it too seriously just isn’t cool enough to get the irony, right? But grown-ups with aesthetic influences that extend beyond pop culture and designer labels may find the couture tributes a little trite.

The styles are on trend, barely. The Hollywood Regency details work, and your hipster staples are covered: repurposed paint-by-number art, Pantone boxes, letterpress blocks, etc. Spray-painting trophies is apparently a Thing now. But I’m pretty sure that ornately framed posters of chandeliers were on their way out when Moraccan motifs began to replace damask print, and everyone who wanted a Keep Calm reminder has twelve by now. And surely chalkboard paint is over – or is that wishful thinking?

You’ll pick up some good tips if you read the text, which is a shame because the smug writing starts to wear thin by page 8. It’s written like a collection of perky magazine blurbs, and there’s only so much of that I can take in one sitting. I half expected to see weight-loss tips and horoscopes in the back. Special hints are highlighted in chartreuse boxes that say, “Look, there’s more!” As much as I tried to unsee them, I was begging, “Make it stop!” by the end of the book.

Living in a Nutshell, Look there's more!

The subtitle is “Posh and Portable Decorating for Small Spaces.” Portable? It’s been awhile since I had a landlord who’d let me paint the living room black; many small spaces are rented and some of the ideas just aren’t practical. Two different look-there’s-mores tell us to apply fabric to wall/cabinet surfaces and “peel it off without a trace” when we move, but neither example does this. One involved removing stucco and wallpapering, and the other involved sanding and mod podge. If the starch idea is good enough to mention twice, why wasn’t it used once?

Still, do check this one out if you like what you see in the preview. The book itself is prettily hardbound and delightfully arranged. It’s a thick volume that feels good to hold and look through. The printing could be a touch better, but the images pop and the text is easy to read. This is definitely a gift-worthy book and would make a perfect present for a budding fashionista or someone moving into her first apartment.

Update: Adding a star. Several times I’ve found myself thinking, ‘now where did I see that idea for…?’ and it’s been this book. Also, I forgot to mention that the resource section in the back is brilliantly useful. The author shares all her secrets: both how to make the projects and where to buy everything else.