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Think Small, Live Big

By Anne Brooks Ranallo

With raw loft space commanding an average of $1,000 per foot in Manhattan, "small is beautiful" has become a mantra to many city dwellers. The upside, designers say, is that small living spaces can be comforting in a turbulent world. If well designed, they're not cramped, they're cocoon-like. They're also efficient and simplify a chaotic lifestyle. To make more of less, designers use versatile modular furnishings, limit accessories, hide the electronics, use color with presence and add movable dividers.

This approach can be extreme. The New York Times quoted architect Winka Dubbeldam about a loft building: "The only thing the buyer will have to put in are dividing walls. Or you could put in an amazing bed on wheels and you're done."

More typically, Dubbeldam sees urban homes with "overlapping zones of public and private space," in which movable dividers and modular furniture allow those spaces to open onto each other as needed at any moment. She favors dividers made of translucent materials, such as undulating glass or fiberglass, that change appearance with the light or can be retrofitted with lights to illuminate a whole room.

Open and Inviting

Hiro Isogai, a principal of the Atlanta-based international design firm of Niles Bolton Associates, theorizes that design should apply to spaces themselves, as opposed to what goes into them. He too suggests glass and translucent acrylic to divide small living areas in a simple, flexible way.

"Glass cabinet doors extend the room into the wall," he says. "Movable acrylic panels can separate rooms while acting as a window for a feeling of openness. These panels also are being applied to walls to reflect a different view of the space."

In a struggling economy, Isogai finds that urban clients will settle for less space, but with more character. One of his most popular projects, Sobu Flats in Atlanta's Buckhead district, converted 1950s efficiency apartments—each just 420 square feet—into studio and one- and two- bedroom condominiums. The renovation retained the original low ceilings, but each unit features curved-wall accents and Murphy beds disguised as sleek wall units. Unusual color combinations add interest: lime and steel-blue, eggplant and pale peach, marine blue and burnt orange. The setting is ideal for pared-down furniture in sleek materials—and a minimum of personal accessories such as family photos and plants, Isogai notes.

"An undefined area allows creativity," he says, "but simplicity makes the space more efficient. Everybody has a different visual comfort level, but busy personal items exercise the space."

Everything in Moderation

Compressed space is good, Dan Noyes says, as long as it balances open space. An architect who chairs the interior design department at the Art Institutes International Minnesota, Noyes redesigns small homes in Minneapolis.

"The idea is to work with smaller spaces rather than try to make them bigger," he says. "One technique is to paint the smaller rooms a darker color, including the ceiling. This emphasizes the intimate feel. Then put all of your storage and built-ins in the smaller rooms. Ultimately, this accentuates the compression and release of space. Your smaller rooms will feel more intimate and your larger rooms will feel comparatively much larger. The same idea works within the choice of storage itself, with smaller drawers and cubbies balancing larger open shelves."

Noyes encourages his clients to embrace the balance by walking them from an imagined plane hanging low overhead at a doorway into a larger space. Most can visualize and virtually feel the compression, he says.

Compression is a virtue for kitchens in small homes. Judy Gamble, a Senior Designer with Water & Fire outside of Boston, sees a trend toward smaller-proportioned appliances for city spaces. European brands, with 24-inch ovens and cooktops, are becoming popular again, she says, in contrast to the massive stainless steel of recent years.

"The large, commercial-style appliances have never really fit into smaller urban kitchens very well," she says. "Not just from a size perspective, but also in scale to the overall room. They overpower the space and leave the impression that you've tried to stuff a restaurant into a 9-foot galley. Open-plan kitchens appear more pulled together if the fridge and dishwasher have been paneled to integrate into the room, so the cooking center can be the focal point."

For multipurpose kitchen storage, Gamble suggests pullouts, and not necessarily behind cabinet doors. "One idea is to leave the area below the cooktop open, with polished chrome rollout shelves," Gamble says. "This adds function and a focal point from hood to cooktop, ending with gleaming cookware storage." She also uses "backsplash systems" that integrate shelves with task lighting and under-cabinet lights with hanging gallery rails for cooking tools. To optimize over-the-cabinet space, Gamble installs a second, horizontal row of cabinets with flip-up doors.

New York-based designer Jeannine Williams also uses two rows of cabinets in loft kitchens to take advantage of the high ceilings, along with stainless steel countertops with integrated sinks for a seamless look, and banquettes to tuck a dining area comfortably into a corner.

Form and Function

While urbanites want the convenience of today's high-tech "toys," they don't want to see them. Williams moves technology, a priority for her clients, out of the way. High-speed Internet connections, multifunction phone systems and plasma-screen televisions should blend into small living areas as easily as artwork or views. "Wireless is the best way to go," she says. "It allows one to move from desk to sofa to bedroom without losing the connection and to place a printer in a remote location, like a closet."

Technology has enabled simple solutions to cramped situations. Plasma-screen televisions are a necessity in small apartments, Williams says. "I mount them on the wall and store the DVD/VCR in a closet. Then an infrared eye wired from the television to the closet relays signals to the equipment, and the viewing area isn't crowded with an armoire. I love the simplicity of it."

The bottom line? Theory outpaces the challenges of cramped city lifestyle. With a focus on creative design solutions and technical innovation, small spaces can mean comfort.

Modern, Modular and Magnificent

Space-economizing design need not be tediously practical. Modular, multifunctional furniture has become stylish, witty and innovative.

New materials are used in traditional shapes, and vice versa, mimicking the postmodernism and eclecticism seen in today's city skylines. The value of a piece derives less from the intrinsic value of its materials, and more from the ingenuity and beauty of its design. A loveseat-sized rocker made of a single fiberglass form and covered in a nearly indestructible sage-green polyester may not immediately seem as valuable as a mahogany-and-leather settee, but which is more imaginative, eye-catching, useful, portable and scaled for a sleek urban home?

Douglas Burton, owner of Apartment Zero in Washington, D.C., and affiliate member of AIA and ASID, works with noted Dutch, Scandinavian and American designers to find furnishings that are streamlined and brilliantly simple to suit mobile condo dwellers.

"If a room holds only a few pieces, they have to be multipurpose and stimulating," he says. One example is an S-shaped piece made of maple bentwood. Standing upright, it's a stand for a laptop computer. Turned on its side, it's a short bench with an attached magazine rack. A reversible tabletop has pine fiber on one side, a lightweight material that offers the look of wood but easily flips over to reveal durable laminate on the other side. Pine-and-aluminum tables in three sizes work as dining table, end table and television tray but fold down to inch-deep flats that slide out of sight behind a sofa or refrigerator when not needed. A pair of ottomans comes with a tabletop that straddles both of them or sits squarely atop one, or can be stored in a closet. Another ottoman has a removable top that flips over to reveal a wooden serving tray.

Materials formerly used in industry and recreation have entered the home because they're sleek, low-maintenance and functional. A yacht design firm, for example, now makes furniture from brightly colored rubberized paint, composite resins and polyurethane wrapped around fiberglass forms. One such piece is a seat with attached footrest, designed to fit into a mudroom or foyer where people may change shoes. It makes color and comfort the entrant's first impression, and the outdoorsy material bridges the gap between exterior and interior.

Similarly, an S-shaped length of florentined aluminum is textural and sculptural enough to look like wall art but becomes a book-shelf when perpendicular brackets are added. Wheeled storage units are practical, but they're made of bright resins in sizes that also serve as accent tables.

Clean lines, smooth and lustrous materials, mobility, bright color and an allusion to aspects of life outside the home all add up to furniture that fits into a complex urban lifestyle.

City or Suburb: Working Smarter

Soaring downtown office towers and sprawling suburban campuses may look different outside, but inside, they're contemporary.

Location doesn't dictate design as it once did. City dwellers reverse-commute, bringing their urban aesthetics with them. And as offices become smaller, clients are learning the value of clean, modern design.

"Clients who have offices only in a suburb tend to be more conservative," says Diana Horvat, IIDA, of Envision Design, an architecture and interior design firm based in Washington, D.C., whose clients range from Greenpeace USA to furniture-maker B&B Italia to the Interactive Digital Software Association. "But suburban firms with offices in other cities are more cutting-edge. They see themselves globally."

Still, Horvat finds the current economy leading even urban offices to look less quirky and more quality-driven, with more subdued colors and crisper details than before the tech bust, to project an image of seriousness and stability.

Larry Mufson's New York firm has designed offices for Monster.com and Cigna. They tend to own and customize their offices freely, he says, while suburban design can be more "landlord-driven," leading clients to take the space as-is. Mufson sees city offices becoming smaller and more modular. He recalls a law firm that chose 100-square-foot work spaces, each fitted with a work surface running the length of the space and a modular conference table, storage and coat closet. A similar firm in the suburbs, he says, may have 225-foot work spaces with standard-sized furniture.

It probably wouldn't be traditional furniture, though. "I last did a traditional office about five years ago," Mufson says. "We might use traditional woods in new designs to allude to tradition. But people are more aware of design now and modernism."

"The traditional look isn't the right message," says Cory Hunnicut, interior architectural design lead for Kling in Philadelphia. "The message isn't old money. It's frugality, not wasting the clients' or shareholders' money." The modern, practical amenity that Hunnicut sees now is the in-office cyber café, complete with coffee bar, stools and bistro tables, as ideal for staff bonding.

Dallas designer Pogir, who goes by one name in his work with national furniture retailer Cantoni, sees his clients defining their image by their line of work, not their location. Marketing agencies still look hip, and accountants and lawyers still look conservative, he says.

All kinds of clients, however, want maximum visual impact. "Everyone wants dramatic entrances, interesting views into conference rooms, more glass and natural light, and open floor plans," he says. "In so many of these new offices, it's a great experience to walk through them."