The Shelter Project

 The New York Problem

Most people come to New York City either from Long Island, Bangladesh, or France (or wherever) to do big things. But rooms are few and small. The dreamers end up caged like tigers. (The most extreme cases seen after six years of Shelter interviews were the two six-foot men who lived in 190 square feet and slept in one twin bed and the 10 people in a one-and-a-half bedroom apartment who took showers together to save time.) Since 25.5 percent of New York renters spent more than 50 percent of their income on rent, according to the Housing Preservation and Development's 2002 report—the national standard is around 30—most New Yorkers do not have the money it takes to invest in walls of perfectly constructed, built-in shipboard cabinets.

Now, a kiss is the true way to make a space seem bigger. Music, also. Or any sort of psychological, perceptual intoxication. To solve the space problem in a more permanent way, four New York-based design students were given nine days to virtually furnish an empty, hypothetical, 350-square-foot studio on a $2,500 budget for a hypothetical resident who appreciates great design but is aesthetically open.


The Resident

The Resident has no skills in building, design, carpentry, or sewing. And little time to shop. The Resident is very busy temping in an office, writing a Ph.D. thesis on Proust at CUNY, and playing cello in a band. Most of the money that comes in goes to $1,100-a-month rent, and the rest is spent on food and clubs. The Resident has $20,000 in student loans. Thus, the $2,500 furnishings budget is either from one of the Resident's divorced parents, savings, or credit card advance. The Resident eats mostly takeout, Indian when possible, and has a boy- or girlfriend who stays over a lot when they are not fighting and also has 16 cousins who once came to visit all at once though they are used to sleeping on the floor, end-to-end if need be. Also, sometimes, the band stays over if everyone has to lie down for a few hours. The Resident was once heard saying to a friend, "Ah, how I would love to be like a person in a Velázquez painting." And then, quoting Manet on Velázquez's painting of Pablo de Valladolid, said, "There is nothing but air surrounding that fellow." Though the Resident has yet to achieve that state.


The Resident's Possessions

A laptop, 18-inch television, DVD player, video player, portable sound system, 242 books (mostly French literature, theory, graphic novels, comic books), 92 videotapes and 34 DVDs (primarily noir and Chinese action), a cello, a box of 12 years of Met score cards, and a closet full of clothes—though the only article that needs to be on a hanger is a sea green 1950s prom dress. (Who the Met cards and dress belong to is not clear.)


The Rules

The designers were asked to provide things needed for the Resident to sleep, eat, work, and play—though if they wanted the Resident to do all four activities on one $2,000 Chinese rug, fine. All furnishings had to be mass-market (no flea market finds) and available for sale in a store or on the Web. Found objects could include cardboard boxes, wooden vegetable or wine crates, bricks, plastic bags. The designers were asked to consider basic furnishings for the kitchen area and bathroom, though some have the Resident air-drying his/herself, and why not, as the Resident is worldly. Since the Resident eats takeout, he/she could do with just a roll of paper towels if that is how the designers saw it. Since the Resident will likely be moving in less than two years to L.A. to break into film or to Maplewood, New Jersey, after getting married, having a child, and getting a job writing marketing materials for a health care company—any major renovation of the apartment was not encouraged. If bookshelves were to be installed or furniture assembled, money had to be paid to someone who knew how to do it. Delivery costs were part of the budget, as the Resident does not have a car.


The Results

Everyone solved the exacting mathematical problem, using every inch of space efficiently and within the budget—well, except for one who did not figure in some hidden extra bulk shipping costs and was over about $127—she's only human!—and another who insisted on including a good bottle of scotch, pushing the total to $2,520.27. They all gave the Resident the greatest gift—bringing air and a degree of Spring into the space—making the possibility of life boundless with their airy perspectives. In typical fashion, the rooms are shown before the entry of the human and its biology—designers rarely include the stuff of real life in their drawings. The different stage sets present, in a funny way, what the Resident could become—more thoughtful of the earth with a developing fondness for orange or with a life never before so rich in tuna fish and tomatoes. The beds were always pivotal—a blue bed for considering duration and memory, and another like a dancer who, when the mentor comes over for wine, disappears from the scene. (All the designers, for whatever reason, stuck the Met scorecards and the prom dress in the closet.)

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