In terms of storage available even on embedded systems, < 1 GB is hardly "big" any more. An AWS EC2 m1.small instance includes 160 GB storage -- that's more than enough for virtually any server instance you could imagine (few current configurations use more than ~10 GB, and I've yet to see one requiring > 20GB for a base installation).
You seem to think rolling a minimal install is some painful process. It really isn't. Do a minimal base installation. Add only the packages you need. It may take a few days for your system to stabilize (in the sense that you're no longer adding packages), but you'll end up with a lean build. That just works.
If you'll look under various system directories, you'll find that a number of things contribute to size. Kernel and modules (build your own statically compiled kernel), internationalization, documentation, and package repos will account for a lot. There are tools (deborphan, localepurge, etc.)
There are builds which are specifically designed for very small form factors, utilizing mudebs and the like. If you have an interest in these, explore on your own.
If you're specifically interested in reducing the size of a Debian installation, you could follow the suggestions of the ReduceDebian wiki page: http://wiki.debian.org/ReduceDebian