Meet the Parisians Paying a Small Fortune to Live in Microscopic Apartments

"Chambres de Bonne," or "maid's rooms," are studios whose inhabitants make do with around 100 square feet.

by Félix Macherez
Jun 16 2015, 11:35am

The author in his living room.

A version of this article originally appeared on VICE France

VICE UK has an ongoing series called London Rental Opportunity of the Week that catalogues the absolutely fucking dire living spaces that the city's landlords offer up to desperate renters for obscene amounts of money. For example, you may remember that one guy who was attempting to rent out a single, leopard-print dog blanket–covered bed in his kitchen. That's a bad deal even by the standards of ultra-expensive US cities like New York and San Francisco.

But though Londoners, New Yorkers, and San Franciscans may complain about their too-damn-high rents, Parisians often deal with even smaller living spaces— but despite their tiny rooms, they somehow manage to look cool and unperturbed by the lack of square footage.

Before moving to Paris, I lived in the middle of the Californian desert and paid about $250 a month for a six-bedroom house. Before that, I lived in Réunion Island—a place where the notion of living within four walls barely exists.

It's about a year and a half since I moved to the French capital, where I currently rent an extremely compact apartment that costs me a small fortune. I try to be out and about as often as possible because, when I'm at home, I feel as if the walls are glued to my skin. It was living like this that convinced me to put together a series documenting what in French we call Chambres de Bonne, or "maid's rooms."

Maid's rooms are small converted spaces on the top floors of apartment buildings that have been divided into a vast number of small studios. They first appeared in Paris around 1830 and were a great example of the city's social hierarchy: The rich lived in huge flats on the lower floors, while servants lived in much more humble rooms upstairs. Today, these maid's rooms are usually rented by young, broke students and the lower working class.

Quite often, these rooms just about meet the minimum size authorized by French law—a surface area of 96 square feet and/or a volume of 215 cubic feet. Being curious as to who lived in such rooms these days, I contacted some friends and a whole bunch of strangers to see if they'd allow me to visit their places and talk to them about the silly amounts of money they are paying to live there.

Cathé (student) in her 96-square-foot apartment. She pays $550 excluding bills.

Cathé comes from Uruguay. She's been living in Paris for about four years and recently got her BA in plastic arts. She's decided to go to Southeast Asia next year because, as she says, "People in Paris run faster than time itself. Everything goes too fast. I have to get out of this tornado."

We've actually been friends for a year but this was the first time I saw her place. Looking at the psychedelic pictures plastered all over the walls, I can understand why her personality isn't necessarily compatible with a hectic city like Paris.

Arnaud (student) in his seventh floor 107-square-foot apartment. He pays $400 excluding bills.

Arnaud was the third tenant I photographed. He has two passions in life: partying and climbing. Easy access to the roof was a decisive selling point when he was signing the lease. Parisian rooftops are just as great for climbing as they are for drinking beer.

On the day we met, he didn't have anything to drink and we were too lazy to go up and down several floors to get any, so instead we went for a walk across the roofs.

Johanna (student) in her ninth-floor 129-square-foot apartment. She pays $530 excluding bills.

Out of all the people I've visited, Johanna seems to be set up the best. Her studio looks bigger that 129 square feet—it's well laid-out and has a high ceiling and a massive window that give the room a certain brightness. She can also eat dinner on the roof while enjoying an amazing view of the city, which is precisely what we did right before taking her picture.

Dominique in his fourth-floor 96-square-foot apartment. He's the owner.

We acquire stuff as we get older. That seems to be the pattern of life. But when you're living in a maid's room, minimalism is definitely preferable to hoarding. Dominique was the oldest person I met while making this series, so I was excited to see his studio. He's an illustrator and has a bunch of side jobs to earn extra money.

He explained to me that he bought his micro-studio apartment a few years ago. For him renting is like "throwing money into an endless hole." He renovated the entire space and even managed to fit a bathtub into the 96 square feet. He proudly told me about how he was able to watch TV while taking a bath.

Clara (au pair) in her third-floor 107-square-foot apartment.

Clara is a Swedish au pair who's passionate about fashion. Her situation is right out of the 1830s: She works for the wealthy landlords living on the first floor of her building. She doesn't pay any rent but in exchange, she has to take care of the family's kids.

Ghislain (student) in his fifth-floor 107-square-foot apartment. He pays $550 excluding bills.

Ghislain was fine with me taking a picture of his place, but couldn't understand why I wanted him to be in it. He wasn't particularly happy about being in the series even though I explained why I wanted the tenants to be present.

Actually, I think that without anybody to personify these spaces, the series wouldn't have worked: Without him, his room might as well have been part of a bad motel.

Roksana (hotel receptionist) in her 86-square-foot apartment. She pays $585.

It's illegal to rent out a place that's less than 96 square feet unless the volume is at least 247 cubic feet. That was the case in this room, which felt much like a human cage. In situations like this, every centimeter has to be utilized carefully.

Roksana is Polish and loves cooking and having friends around but her kitchenette doesn't exactly lend itself to dinner parties.

Anca (journalist) in her fifth-floor 182-square-foot apartment. She pays $670 excluding bills.

Anca is American. She ended up in Paris looking for a job when she got her hands on this flat "by chance." I swung by her place at nine in the morning, right before she went to work.

Out of all the rooms I photographed, hers is the most spacious. It felt strange thinking, "Damn! 182 square feet—that's lucky!"

Victorienne (model) in her fourth-floor 150-square-feet apartment. She pays $670.

I immediately noticed just how symmetrically Victorienne's things were laid out. I carefully sat myself on a chair and tried not to ruin the arrangement.

We had tea together and when I explained my photo project, she got it immediately. She hopped on the bed and posed with her cup of tea in her hand.

See more of Felix's work on his website here.