Lessons in Tiny Living


As life in the time of Covid has most of us sticking close to home and practicing a new way of life inside, we’re all left with a few open-ended questions about how to best get along while literally rubbing elbows with our families, partners and roommates. To answer that, we tapped a few folks from the Old Pal community of sailors, #VanLifers and world-travelers to share their lessons while living in small spaces as we all get a little more intimate together.

First up is Mike and Lara Townsend, a creative couple who moved into their van in 2016 after living in New York City. They traveled and lived nomadically—mostly around Southern California, Baja, and San Francisco—until April 2018, when they co-opened Compound YV, an art and event space in the Joshua Tree area.

Michael (@michaeltownsend), originally from Orange County, CA, is a photographer and creative entrepreneur who currently works in business development at Album Surfboards. He started shooting in earnest during a seven-year stint in New York City, during which he owned the Lower East Side clothing store, Inven.tory.

Lara (@larawlsntown) is from outside Detroit, MI, and trained formally as a dancer and choreographer in New York City. Since moving to Southern California in 2012, she has pursued various yet integrated paths in graphic design, writing, consulting, and choreography.


What we quickly learned while living in our van was when to address conflict. If we couldn’t let go of something, then we would try to get it out into the open as soon as possible: close quarters and passive aggressiveness don’t mix. Becoming okay with confrontation was a fairly steep learning curve (for Lara at least), so try being as patient as possible with yourselves and each other. Also, boundaries can be set even in small spaces. Putting on headphones, closing a door, taking a shower, working out, and even engaging with different tasks or activities while sharing space are all opportunities for “alone time.”


Organization is key when you can’t spread out. Get rid of whatever you can, then get creative about storage — try building your own or revise systems to find what works for you. Be open-minded about makeshift solutions and embrace humor. If your space is getting you down, try reinventing it in some way: rearrange, hang some art, find some greenery. You can probably do this for free or support small businesses and artists in the process. Our van saw many iterations of houseplants, found wildflowers, random prints, magazine clippings, souvenirs, renovations, and improvements over the years. When your possessions are already edited down, simple and affordable details make a difference.


Michael always said that meals tasted better in the van—when you’re cooking in a vehicle or facing other limitations (like a global pandemic), you don’t take good food for granted, and what results is a kind of “we’re in this together” intimacy at the dinner table. Those same limitations can lead to creative combinations for improvisational cooks like us. If you’re more keen on following recipes, this substitution list a friend recently forwarded by Mark Bittman can help you come close to any ingredients or equipment you don’t have. Other tips: prep your ingredients first, clean up as you go, and don’t underestimate simple meals like one and two-pot dishes. They can be the most memorable and enjoyable.


We recall lots of podcasts, books, articles, music, games of Yahtzee, puzzles, beautiful views, labor-intensive meals, coffee making, cocktails and bottles of wine, walks, phone calls to relatives and friends, and showering attention onto our dog, Milton. Take into consideration your personal balance between production and consumption, analog and digital, and give yourself permission to get bored for awhile. Let your mind wander. Make plans for when all of this is over.