This Designer Downsized for Life and Has Never Been Happier
Rita Wilkins proves that living smaller is often better. Here's how she did it.
Rita Wilkins.//Joe del Tufo
Rita Wilkins lives in 687 square feet of sun-drenched space, a jewel box of an apartment from which she can see stately historic buildings, emerald jots of parks and the tiny church she walks to each morning for Mass.
“This is all I need—and all I want,” she says.
Wilkins downsized from a 5,000-square foot home in Avondale to this 687-square-foot apartment in Philadelphia.
Less than a year ago, Wilkins lived in a 5,000-square-foot house in Avondale. The interior designer had it built to her specifications, with plenty of room for guests, entertaining and storage for her business.
“I had a garage full of metal cabinets that were filled with dinner plates,” she says.
She stayed in the house for 10 years, a decade of life changes. She got married. She got divorced. She visited her son in New York City. She spent time with her other son, sharing a hut in Africa.
In December 2015, she hosted a large holiday party at her home. Friends asked, “How are you going to live in this big house all by yourself?”
“I replied that I would be living in Philadelphia in a year,” she says. “I don’t know where it came from, but that is what I said.”
Days later, she made an intensely personal New Year’s resolution: to sell, donate or cast off almost all of her possessions and move into a small space where she would focus solely on what is most important in life.
“I was sitting on the floor, crying, and wondering, How am I going to manage this?”
Four years ago, Wilkins traveled to Senegal, where Kevin, her youngest son, was working with the Peace Corps.
“We lived in a tiny hut in his village that he built from the ground up,” she says.
When she arrived, the tribal chief presented her with the gift of a live chicken. That evening, the bird was served with grains and vegetables and eaten from a communal pot shared by 15 people.
“A woman who was like a second mother to my son took a wooden spoon she had carved that day and pushed the better pieces of chicken toward Kevin and me,” she says.
That act of generosity transformed her view of the world. The villagers lived in poverty, yet found joy in sharing with others. They lived simple, happy lives.
Back home, Wilkins’ challenge was having too many possessions. She began exploring what she wanted next.
“I knew it wasn’t a big house with a yard and lots of upkeep,” she says.
Wilkins grew up in a military family, one of five children. They moved often. She especially enjoyed her father’s tour of duty in Germany, where she admired the locals’ penchant for order and organization.
In her 60s, Wilkins is a baby boomer, a generation that is 76 million strong in the United States. Each day, 10,000 boomers retire. Wilkins is an expert in helping them to downsize. She also is CEO and founder of The Good Life, a concept in which retirees can travel to a planned community and experience local culture for several months at a time. The first model is in Charleston, S.C.
“A lot of baby boomers are choosing to move from the suburbs into cities where they enjoy the arts and culture,” she says. “If you want to live in Charleston for one, two or three months, you can try it out in a two-bedroom, two-bath, 1,200-square-foot home centered around a communal cooking and gathering space.”
Wilkins settled on Philly. She had spent a lot of time working with Landmark Worldwide there, a personal and professional growth, training and development firm. She chose an apartment in Washington Square, a few blocks from St. Mary’s Catholic Church and an easy drive to clients in Wilmington. Most days, she works remotely from home.
To pare back, she relied on the ABC list, a formula she suggests to clients who want to downsize rather than downgrade.
On the A list are items people definitely will keep, quality pieces that are a good fit for the next destination.
B represents the negotiable items, such as clothes that aren’t essential but look good and fit well.
The C list is for possessions that can be sold, given away or tossed in the trash.
“A and C are not that difficult,” she says. “It’s the B list that gets people in trouble.”
Wilkins also relied on friends and other loved ones to help her purge.
“I could not have done this without people in my life to help me,” she says. “We would work for four hours, and then we would have fun, eat and drink wine.”
One friend, a former Marine, served as a drill sergeant, marching through a wardrobe that filled 11 closets.
“She would say, ‘That looks like hell on you. Get rid of it.’”
Wilkins also reached out to Star Lotta, founder of Suiting Warriors, to pass along clothes to women military veterans.
“It was embarrassing how much clothing I had, formal dresses and business suits,” she says. “Now I mostly wear black.”
She took a multipronged strategy to disbursing furniture. She had a yard sale. She consigned a few pieces. Mostly, she gave things away, passing on china and silver to her sisters. Her sons were invited to pick the keepsakes that were most meaningful to them. Other items went to her longtime housekeeper and landscaper.
Wilkins’ younger sister, Mary St. Armand, traveled from Rhode Island to help. The sisters wept when they discovered their father’s alarm clock upon opening a box that had been closed for 10 years.
“The clock reminded us that he would get up very early and go to work so he could support our family,” St. Armand says.
They snapped a photograph of the clock—then donated it to Goodwill.
“It’s a great way to remember things in the digital age, much more so than digging it out of a box,” St. Armand says.
Long before she resolved to live with less, Wilkins spent Thanksgiving with her son who lived in a tiny apartment in New York City.
“There were 16 people for dinner,” she says. “We borrowed a table from the lobby and mixed and matched chairs, and it was amazing.”
After she helped Wilkins to downsize, St. Armand and her husband also moved to a smaller space.
“We purged one-third of our belongings and still have more work to do,” she says. “Rita is an inspiration.”
As an interior designer, Wilkins sees a groundswell of individuals who want to spend less time maintaining possessions and more time enjoying experiences. One of them is Lise Monty, who moved from a three-bedroom home in Bancroft Village in Wilmington to a one-bedroom apartment in Cokesbury Village in Hockessin.
Monty retired after a distinguished career in communications and journalism. For several years, she lived in Japan, where she was inspired by spare, uncluttered spaces.
“Lise was at that same place I came to and was so excited about this new journey that she was going to be on,” Wilkins says. “It’s not about stuff. It’s about people and experiences. When you simplify life, it’s much richer.”
Monty’s apartment is sleek and contemporary, with classic teak furniture and a panoramic view of a pond. The bedroom also serves as a den, with a sofa that seamlessly converts to a bed at night.
“I don’t need—or want—a lot of material things,” she says. “Being in a space that is light and airy feels peaceful and happy.”
Before Wilkins left her big house for the last time, she walked through and said goodbye to every room.
“For so many years, I had to have the house, I had to have the professional space, I had to have the clothes,” she says. “I’ve found there is joy in giving things away.”
In her new home, she has surrounded herself with items from her A list, including family photos, a mini library and artwork. Among the furnishings are two favorite pieces: a sofa in a quiet leopard print—“small and comfortable, two people, having a great conversation”—and a painted cabinet she discovered at an art fair that “always made me smile.” In the big house, it stood in the foyer. Now it’s a nightstand.
A console table does double duty as a wine rack. A gate-leg table expands to accommodate dinner for two. She finds she cooks more often in her compact galley kitchen than she did in the large, luxurious gourmet kitchen in her old house.
From left: A console table does double duty as a wine rack; Wilkins kept only her favorite items, and each one
In her small space, there is no jumble to sort through because each item has a purpose.
“I know where everything is,” she says. “If you ask me for a sewing needle, I know immediately where to find it.”
The last small space Wilkins lived in was her college dorm room. She also is renting for the first time in her working life.
“That gives me a great deal of personal freedom,” she says. “If I need help hanging a mirror, it’s there. If I want to travel, I lock the door and go.”
There are still a few things she has yet to find a new home for, tucked away in a small storage unit in Claymont.
“I’m committed to getting rid of it sometime down the road,” she says. “For now, I think of it as my walk-in closet.”
With fewer possessions to take care of, Wilkins finds she has more time beyond her workday to savor life and volunteer to help others. She recently joined a walking group and a community organization. She will try her hand at improvisational theater. This spring, she will plant an herb garden on her balcony.
“I am living the life that I love,” she says. “I feel very blessed.”