October 7, 2004

Living in a cubby hole? Make it look big

  • Here's how to get the most out of smaller living spaces
    Special to the Journal

    Lucite chair
    Photos courtesy Jared Rue Thornton
    Lucite chairs don’t visually crowd a room because they are transparent.

    Living in the city appeals to people from all walks of life. Cultural offerings such as theater, sports, music and art act as a beacon to the urban lifestyle. Restaurants cater to every palate and mood, delighting those whose senses are rewarded when choices abound.

    All these facets play into the allure of downtown, urban living. With so much clamor for limited residential urban space, questions of how to maximize that space are often raised.

    Designing for smaller spaces yet maintaining the comfort, elegance, warmth and style that a home with more square footage can accommodate, requires a well-thought-out plan and some rules that every urban dweller should know.


    The home itself should have consistency throughout. This applies to wall colors, flooring, cabinetry and counters. The wall colors should be similar from room to room. Not necessarily the same but within the same family. This is especially true if one space is visible from another part of the home. The colors do not necessarily have to be light or pale as some designers would have you believe. They just have to play from room to room.

    The flooring should stay as consistent as possible. Broken floor areas create visual divides in a home. If you have all wood floors keep them throughout. The same goes for stone or tile flooring. If you have carpet keep it light.

    Since the kitchen, bathroom and some entries should not have carpet, make sure those surfaces are close to the same color — whether you select wood, tile or vinyl. Avoid distinct breaks.

    The wood trim, door and built-in cabinets and shelves should all be similar — if not the same — in finish. Painted surfaces, which have been the trend for a while, keep a space looking and feeling crisp and clean. Rely on furniture and art to bring in the wood, texture or color you desire in your home. The background should be a clean palette to layer upon.


    coffee tables
    In small spaces, multipurpose coffee tables, such as this one with nesting stools, can be used for extra seating or as a game table.

    Accentuate what space you do have. One way to do this is to bring your focus upward. Create height if you do not have it and polarize the effect if you do. Put objects on armoires, cabinets and bookshelves to extend upward. Tall mirrors should be used in focal point areas as well as tall art or collections of art hung on the wall stacked vertically to create a sense of loftiness.

    Keep the following in mind if you're doing fabric window treatments: the valance or cornice should extend from the ceiling down to just over the top of the window. This will give the feeling that the window goes to the ceiling. The panels should extend from the ceiling down to just above the floor. Don't let them puddle because this could take up traffic space. Keep the fabric clean and simple. A busy pattern will break up the continuity and may take away from the sense of height you are trying to create.


    In small spaces light is very important. Dark corners, walls and ceilings close a space in. Depending on how low the ceilings are, large low-hanging chandeliers are not recommended. Keep your fixtures simple and close to the ceiling to accentuate height.

    Wall washers (ceiling lights directed down on the wall) really keep a space glowing especially if they're highlighting art. A bright focal point on the wall extends the sense of a room, which may be achieved with up lighting. This lighting should be placed on cabinets and point towards the ceiling or on the floor behind plants and furniture to create a warm glow.


    The furnishings of your home should be scaled according to the space. Nothing truly oversized. Sofas and chairs with large rolled arms can take up valuable traffic space. Clean lines and smaller scaled upholstery are recommended.

    Armless sofas and slipper chairs (upholstered chairs without arms) are smart and attractive without compromising comfort.

    Remember the importance of the sleeper sofa in the small condo or studio. Look for sofas under 70 inches in length. Limited space should not be a reason to turn a guest away. Keep in mind that exposed legs on the upholstery as opposed to skirted pieces help maintain a more open feel.

    Lucite furnishings are often a great addition to the urban home. Imagine a dining table surrounded by Lucite chairs. Not only can you see through the chairs but you are adding an element of style that is almost expected of in-city dwellers. Ranging from less than $100 to over $7,000 a chair, everyone can enjoy this haute look.

    Tables should be multifunctional. A sofa table can be a drop leaf opening up for dinner parties (or that work project that somehow expanded beyond your desk). Coffee tables as well should have multiple purposes. Buy one with four nesting stools and pull them out for extra seating or turn it into a game table.

    Another coffee table that is especially useful is the high-low coffee table. It adjusts in height from 18 to 30 inches. This is especially useful in very small spaces such as studios.


    Storage is a vital part of designing for tight spaces. Not only for the obvious reason of providing more places to keep things, but also because an uncluttered environment provides a greater sense of space.

    End tables, ottomans, coffee tables and sofa tables are all potential units for storage. A bed can even provide more efficient space by being put on a platform that has drawers on the sides. Even lidded boxes on or under tables, consoles, hearths or desks are great for placing papers and useful objects to achieve a greater feeling of Zen.

    When purchasing these items ask yourself: Will they provide more storage space for you without compromising the aesthetic?

    Closets and shelving should be maximized. Have shelves built up to the ceiling in your closets so you are able to store things without them falling down every time you open the door. Shelves become your ally in staying uncluttered. This is true for pantry closets as well.

    If it is overwhelming, have a specialist come out to maximize these hidden spaces. There are lots of choices and the saved room will prove invaluable.

    Impact wall

    The one thing that is important for every space, not just small ones, is the impact wall. This is the first wall you see when you enter a space. It gives the first impression of a home, or room, so it is important to treat it accordingly.

    The impact wall will set the tone for how the rest of the environment will be perceived. The adage is true that you only get one chance at a first impression. That said, make that wall special and reflect your personality. Put your best painting there or finest piece of furniture. If done well, you will notice that other objects will be assumed to be of equal quality.


    If your condo or apartment has a deck or balcony, treat it as if it is part of the interior living space. This means that furniture on the deck should maintain the color schemes and finishes of the pieces inside. Even the upholstery can play off the interior schemes.

    Outdoor fabrics are being made practically indestructible and nearly indistinguishable from elegant indoor fabrics. So, you may have chairs or even a chaise outside that will not break the scheme.

    And don't think that you have to have a cafe table and chairs just because the deck or balcony is outdoors. Using a small coffee table or end table outdoors can really bring the two spaces together. This also means that if you have plants you should keep them in similar — if not the same — pots indoors and outdoors.

    Another item to add, which will break the hum of the city, is a fountain. Just that gentle sound can make the difference in how often you keep your doors open.

    The last advice for living in any space is to edit. In other words, when placing furniture and accessories ask yourself: Does the piece add to the space and look or take away from it? If the answer is "takes away" or even "doesn't really add anything" then do just that. Take it away. You will not miss it.

    Jared Rue Thornton is an interior designer and artist based in Seattle. He can be reached at

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