It may be true that every family is unique, but family living looks pretty much the same everywhere, from damp towels on tile floors to cereal boxes trailing their contents across kitchen counters. Not where Lauri and Douglas Freedman live. When they moved into the New York City loft they share with their three children, they got creative about organizing. The novel systems and unusual resources they came up with (Astroturf and bungee cords, anyone?) help stave off messes, simplify storage, and generally minimize stress. Best of all, these inspired ideas work in any house, for any family―unique ones like yours included.
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Some of Lauri's best ideas for making the most of her space came from thinking outside the home-decor box when she and her husband, Douglas, a former investment banker, renovated their loft before moving in. "There are many resources available, if you know where to look," she says. As an event planner, Lauri has firsthand knowledge of the sources, tricks, and techniques the pros use―plus she relies on her imagination and a little thing called the Internet.
In the dining area (at right in photo), two tables on casters are pushed together for family dinners, pulled apart and supplied with extra chairs when more seating is called for, and rolled against the wall to hold buffet platters for large gatherings. "When I was in college in Houston, my friend's mother had this screened-in porch with little wrought-iron tables, so it was almost like a café," Lauri says. "I loved that they worked for tea for two or for groups, and I was thinking of that flexibility when I picked these tables. I can't imagine going back to just one." For more intimate dinners, an electronically controlled curtain drops from ceiling to floor to separate the dining and living areas.
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Lauri found plastic cereal dispensers―"the kind you see at every breakfast buffet and college dining hall in America"―through a restaurant-supply company after a quick Internet search. She placed them on a low kitchen counter that the children can easily reach so they can serve themselves. They just grab a bowl from a stack on the built-in shelves, open the spout, and they're done, says Lauri. Meanwhile, she and Douglas get to steal the occasional sleep-in.
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Instead of traditional―and expensive―wood veneers, the custom-designed particleboard storage closets in the kids' play area are covered with magnetic boards, mirrors, and light boxes (which can be attached to existing doors or an unfinished cabinet). Surface area that would otherwise sit idle becomes work space for tracing pictures, displaying art projects, engaging in wordplay, and generally getting creative. "The rule is, the kids pick up after themselves," says Lauri. "But I think the only way you can really expect them to do that is if you make cleanup and storage simple. The different look of each door is a good visual cue for them, making it easier to remember what's in each closet."
Closet-door attachments: Magnetic boards, $13 each, ikea.com.
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"Our family is mostly kids―they outnumber us," says Lauri. This means rules and systems have to be intuitive and simple enough for the occasionally unruly three-fifths majority to understand and stick with. And they have to be flexible enough not to become a source of stress for the grown-ups trying to enforce them. Lauri maintains democracy―and sanity―by keeping things ordered.
"I'm a big believer in cubbies," she says. "They suggest an organizational process to kids." For the boys, cubbies in wall units and dressers contain clothes, toys, games, and art supplies, organized as they wish. "Their cubbies can hold whatever they like, as long as what comes out goes back in somewhere," says Lauri. So the boys can use today's toy cubby to store pj's or CDs tomorrow with no fear of parental chastisement. "The key is that their stuff is easy for them to put away."
Wall cubbies: Translucent white Cubitec shelving ($245 per unit, dwr.com).
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Loose-leaf binders in Lauri and Douglas's office hold schoolwork and drawings, organized by year, for each child. "My kids are prolific artists," says Lauri. "But when I walk into my office and there are stacks of papers, my urge is to chuck what's not brand-new. Having this system right next to my desk enforces discipline, so I make myself put things away. Later I go through the books with the kids and say, 'Do you want to keep this?' " A felicitous by-product of the system: The children can grab one of the binders themselves and instantly access work from last month―or last year―and celebrate the progress they've made. "It's nice to get perspective and feel proud of how much you've learned and achieved."
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Contain and Maintain
Where there are kids, there will be stuff―lots of it, scattered everywhere. In the children's rooms and bathrooms, Lauri keeps their precious things in containers that look good enough to be showcased on shelves and countertops. She has focused on transparent holders so the kids can find what they're looking for with no "Hey, Mom!"
"Kids are natural collectors," says Lauri. "They pick up things everywhere, and I like to encourage that―even if sometimes I find myself wanting to yell, 'Put that down! That's garbage!' " For collections of shells, rocks, and other found treasures, Lauri buys white-topped clear jars and identifies the contents on office-supply labels. Each jar is a packaged memory. Arranged on a shelf, the collection makes a pleasing display. "I've tried to find a way for the children's inclinations and interests to be incorporated but contained, so that those things don't bother me," Lauri says. "It's part of respecting that the kids have to have their private space, as Douglas and I have to have ours."
For art supplies, straightforward Lucite or other plastic containers provide easy storage and sensible consolidation (no more forcing crayons back into a disintegrating cardboard box to make a matched set). Kids can easily see what each one holds, and they can find the right shade of green with a glance and put what they've taken out back when they're done. The boxes also show off the bright colors of pens and paints―and keep them from being scattered everywhere when not in use.
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In the bathroom, hair ribbons, ponytail holders, and barrettes are a pretty, well-ordered still life instead of the snarled, clumpy mess they become when they're shoved into a drawer. Lauri borrowed an idea from a favorite New York children's store, whose owner displays accessories in similar covered boxes next to the register. "I get great ideas from store displays," she says. "The people designing them have spent a lot of time figuring out how to do it best."
Whether it's damp towels or an impromptu art show, hanging whatever one can plays a major part in Lauri's master organization plan. "Hanging things is the easiest way to get them out of the way," she says. "But it's also a good visual solution―it lets things be looked at and enjoyed."
Towel bars have been replaced by hooks next to the shower, eliminating the need for folding and just-so draping. An extra hook installed below gives the bath mat a place to dry. "A friend and I were talking about how hard it is to live and raise kids in New York, and all the things we stress about doing right or wrong," says Lauri. "We agreed that the pressure of making sure your towels are perfectly creased and aligned over a bar shouldn't be one of those things. These hooks are a little thing that has made a huge difference to me."
"In our old apartment, the kids used to tie ropes to the doorknobs and suddenly you couldn't get from the kitchen to the bedroom," says Lauri. Now, in the playroom, bungee cords are fastened at various points to walls and corners using hooks purchased for a few dollars at hardware stores. "The kids clip bedsheets to them with clothespins to build forts. They hang their art on them. They tie signs to them―often of the no grown-ups allowed variety. And Douglas and I pull them out to decorate on each kid's birthday. They're used to such good effect and were so cheap."
Bungee cords: Sold in packs of assorted lengths; ceiling hooks fasten them to walls (cords, $4.30 and up; hooks, $2 and up: acehardware.com).
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"Taping the kids' art to walls or tacking it to the refrigerator always seems haphazard to me," says Lauri. So she created a sophisticated version of a bulletin board in her office by lining the back wall with clear acrylic box frames, each displaying one work of art. "I get them in various sizes in bulk at the art-supply store. When one of the kids is especially proud of something or I really love it, I stick it in a new frame or switch it with something we're ready to rotate out of the mix. The system is clean and neat without being precious. And it never fails to make me happy when I look at it."