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Small-space living by design
Though he is still crawling, 9-month-old Thurston Conder takes about 10 seconds to have the run of the house. It's not that he's exceptionally fast; he just doesn't have that far to roam. Thurston shares 380 square feet with his mom and dad, Kelly Breslin and Ryan Conder, and a medium-sized mutt named Charlie.
Lots of young families start out in small houses, just not this small. These parents say it's their preference, and that the small space hasn't cramped their style. It's arranged for maximum efficiency, but it still looks comfortable and fashionably decorated. Conder, 35, owner of the men's clothing store South Willard, and Breslin, 32, a ceramic artist, have given it a distinct personality: Quadruple their living quarters and it would look like a downtown artist's loft with a carefully edited selection of contemporary art and Midcentury Danish and Italian design.
"Everyone who comes over says, 'Wow, it's so cute,' but I know they are thinking, 'Wow, it's so small,' " Breslin says.
Adds Conder: "Even the guy who comes to fix the sink asked where the bedroom is."
There isn't one. Built atop a two-car garage, the 1950s house's living quarters consist of two rooms -- and that's if you count the bath. There isn't a designated nursery or even a crib. Along with other parents in their Echo Park circle of friends, Conder and Breslin practice co-sleeping, so Thurston rests with them.
Breslin, a former nanny, says she would hardly call their lifestyle neo-hippie.
"We are trying to be conscientious about the choices we make," she says. "People tell you you need all this stuff for a baby. All you really need is diapers, a place to change him and boobs."
The queen-sized bed that she and Conder share with Thurston sits on a minimalist platform with drawers for his toys. It is the only thing Conder says he has ever purchased at IKEA, and it's tucked in a corner, a few inches from a swank, streamlined sofa by eminent Italian architect and designer Tobia Scarpa. Overnight visitors crash on the couch or sleep in a backyard tent.
At the foot of the bed, Thurston gets his diaper changed atop a Danish modern dresser. Photos and works on paper by the couple's artist friends cover the walls. Conder also collects pottery, including the work of the noted Peter Voulkos and celebrated Northern California ceramist Stan Bitters.
Textiles add color to the otherwise earthy, woodsy room. The Western-style camp blanket on the bed that complements Pendleton wool pillows on the sofa. Rugs with geometric designs and folkloric motifs purchased from Echo Park antiques dealer Peter Vanstone cover the hardwood floors. A handcrafted American quilt hangs over the screened front door, and the clothes closet is concealed behind a vibrant indigo boro, a Japanese patchwork panel made from vintage fabrics.
An early 1960s Cocoon lamp by Achille and Pier Castiglioni -- an exotic variation on George Nelson's Bubble lamp that Conder purchased on the German EBay -- hangs over an L-shaped red Formica counter that delineates the kitchen area.
The family eats at a round wooden table, with Mom and Dad sitting on chairs by Danish designer Borge Mogensen. Should guests drop by, there is a second table with a solid teak top and wrought-iron legs, a collaboration between Arne Jacobsen and Piet Hein.
"When you have this small space, every decision is critical," Conder says. "You can only have things that fit within the scale of this space. And these are all things I have wanted for a long time. Everyone needs to question the idea of what we really need."
Conder has had that opportunity. He was born in a 600-square-foot Craftsman in Huntington Beach but grew up in a five-bedroom tract house.
"My father made a little money, and buying that house was his biggest regret," Conder says. "It was eventually taken back by the bank."
Five years ago, just before he moved in as a bachelor, Conder had the opportunity to buy his current residence for $260,000. These days, the new father is happy to be paying $1,000-a-month rent.
"The American dream is to have a kid and buy a house," he says, adding he's thankful he went only halfway.
Living small runs in the family, apparently. His sister lives in a yurt in Hawaii. His brother, Ramsey, lives nearby with his girlfriend and baby daughter in a relatively palatial 500-square-foot apartment.
Breslin, who grew up in a large two-story home in Grosse Pointe, Mich., says she can understand why people would see her small home as peculiar.
"I don't think we're so crazy," she says. "There are moms out there who never stop trying to rack up all the things that mean they have it all. Living here, I don't need to have a job. I can focus on having as many experiences as we can have as a family rather than the stress of a mortgage or having to pay someone else to raise my child."
Close quarters, she contends, create a tight family. "Living in one room, I can constantly see Thurston, and he knows I am watching him. The way that most people structure their living situations is so the parents are most happy. But who's to say that a kid wants to be in a room down a hall?"
Conder laughs. "It's probably going to mess him up in a whole new way," he jokes, adding that Thurston may grow up longing for a mansion.
Living in such close confines demands a sense of humor, Conder says, and the size of their home has made the couple's relationship stronger.
"When you get in a fight there is nowhere to go," he says. "You have to deal with stuff head on."
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