Designing For Small Spaces

In a world where bigger usually means better, smaller spaces have one major advantage. Intimacy. More and more clients are deliberately choosing to live in smaller spaces for a variety of reasons. For some, it's simple economics but for others, the choices represent a shift in lifestyle, especially for the baby boomers.

For many, smaller homes represent a time when life was good and there was more to life than having a 5-car garage. The trick, however, is to create a space that will still indulge us with all the amenities that we've grown accustomed to.

The financial upside is that smaller spaces are usually less expensive than their counterparts and therefore allow us to move up the real estate scale in terms of location. Living in the suburbs in order to get a larger house may, to some, not be as desirable as living in a smaller space that is closer to downtown and a more active lifestyle.

But designing that small space so it doesn't feel like a cracker box can be a bit a design challenge. There are several ideas you can employ to make your small space feel like a designer's dwelling.

First, consider what areas are a must and which can be consolidated. Dual usage of space not only gives you extra room, it shows creativity which people find interesting. A good example of this is converting a guest bedroom closet into your home office. Or maybe using a desk behind the sofa instead of a console table and replacing your PC with a laptop. Using wireless printers/faxes allow you to store your devices anywhere out of sight.

Next, consider the furniture layout. Here's where it can get a little unnerving since most people think smaller spaces should have less furniture. This is not necessarily true. A good trick is to simply select smaller scale pieces, allowing you to introduce more accent pieces which are typically only found in larger rooms. If your room only allows for a sofa and two chairs, don't use matching pieces. Adding variety gives the eye more to look at and again, fools the brain into thinking there is more to the room. The same holds true for tables. Different shapes and sizes give you more opportunity to create small visual vignettes rather than a big grouping of furniture.

Another factor in the layout is to avoid the straight line effect. Break up the space into smaller areas so that you walk around the areas rather than through them. Also keep in mind the view that guests will have when they are seated. Arrange furnishings so that they direct the view to the largest area rather than facing into a wall.

Keep in mind a few points when designing your layout. The point of view that people see when they first enter should be a focal point. In some cases, it may be nothing more than a short wall in a foyer. If so, think of ways to make a statement without taking up any space such as mounting large moldings to the wall and inserting vintage mirror into it. Then hang a large oil painting over the mirror and feature it with special lighting. This could also work in a small dining area to make it feel larger and brighter. By hanging something over the mirror, the mirror becomes secondary and layered, and it keeps people from seeing their own reflection.

Planning ahead before you move in can allow you to make some minor construction changes that could change the appearance of your home entirely. Door swings can be changed or eliminated with pocket doors, long blank walls can be broken up with partial columns or detail moldings, and ceilings and soffits can changed to incorporate accent lighting and different living areas. Once you know your furniture layout, these are things that can be planned to make the presentation look much more impressive.

Certain items are a must, but keep your thinking cap on while thinking about each item. While a bed is going to take up a certain amount of space no matter what you do, think about how to get more use out of it or make it more interesting to the eye. Some beds have drawers in the base while others can be lifted to access a full storage area. Wall sections can be built to extrude from the wall to make the bed appear to be recessed which then allows for bookcases, lighting and bedside storage. By having the bed appear recessed, the room will actually feel larger since the bed won't look as long.

Consider having multiple sources of lighting. Recessed, picture lights, buffet lamps, chandelier, sconces, etc. can give the room featured areas at night rather than lighting it up like a gymnasium. Lighting can make or break or room as most people think only in terms of having a couple matching lamps. Yawn.

If you're lucky enough, or have the means to install it, hard surface flooring such as wood or stone will give you the added advantage of using area rugs. Rugs can define large or small areas and the combining of them adds another layer of interest to what would otherwise be a solid color floor.

When making design decisions about specific items, remember that in small spaces it's all about the details. If you only have one chair, make it something to remember. Pick colors that can have an impact on the space and go for shades that seem a little less mainstream, whether dark or light. Avoid buying matching pieces of furniture at all costs. Avoid patterns or excessive draping on window treatments. If possible, use glass tops for cocktail and dining tables to minimize the visual weight and allow the eye to see through them. And when you're just about done, accessorize. Arrange small, tight collections in areas to catch the eye leaving open areas next to them so the overall effect doesn't appear crowded. Place artwork in prominent positions and use larger paintings to act as backdrops or fill large blank walls instead of multiple pieces.

And by all means, if you have any outdoor space such as a balcony or patio, make the most of it. Bring your sense of design outside and make it an extension of your interior. It's like adding a free room to your home.

In the end, your home will feel intimate, personal and dramatic. It's not about size, it's about style.

William Philby, ASID is the co-founder of Retro Interiors and Island City Traders in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He is a Florida licensed interior designer and professional member of ASID. A graduate from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, Mr. Philby has been practicing interior design for 30 years in South Florida.

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