Next time you’re feeling cramped in your living quarters, think of Jay Shafer.
For more than a decade, the 47-year-old American builder-designer has lived in houses smaller than 100 square feet — by choice. (After marriage and the arrival of a son, Shafer upsized to a comparatively palatial 500-sq.-ft. home.)
Shafer began his Tumbleweed Tiny House Company after writing The Small House Book in 2009. It’s become an inspiration for those seeking a smaller real-estate footprint. But before you consider trading your McMansion for a walk-in closet, consider this: Shafer lives in California, where sunny climes make it far easier to spend more time outdoors.
Still, Edmonton-area designers and decorators are seeing an increased demand for their services in compact interiors. “Whether it’s a young couple just starting out or boomers choosing to downsize, more clients want simple yet stylish designs for condos and smaller homes,” says Shelley Cronin of Shelley Cronin Design.
Small can be beautiful. It can also be suffocating, so smart design and planning is essential when every square foot counts.
First, adopt a state of mind from designer William Morris, one of the men who led the trend against Victorians’ love of fussiness, and resolve to have nothing in your home unless it’s useful or beautiful (best if it’s both). “The biggest mistake people make is trying to take too much from a larger home, especially large-scale furniture,” says Al Black, an interior designer and owner of Above the Bank Interiors.
Ruthlessly streamline your possessions. If you don’t use or enjoy an item every day, its place is out of sight. Not enough storage in your new digs? Then sell, gift or recycle non-essentials before your move.
Next, take a shopping retreat to ease the pain of losing what no longer fits your lifestyle or limited space. Focus on buying specifically for your new needs and channel the wisdom of German-American architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe by thinking “less is more” and “God is in the details.” Prepare by taking the exact dimensions of your floor plan and entering them into an online program, like the shareware Icovia Space Planner, where you can experiment with different combinations of furniture, trying different sizes and arrangements to test what looks best where — and what fits. Tape measure in hand, you can head out to explore the possibilities. Increase your options by approaching sales staff with your design challenge. Most will offer ideas you haven’t considered, often suggesting stock beyond what’s displayed.
“We’re seeing a European influence now in space planning,” says Adele Maines, principal designer at Klar Interior Design. That’s good, because the European standard is smaller than the North American norm. Thanks to the downsizing trend, manufacturers on our side of the pond now carry furniture and appliances in sizes that Europeans have used for decades.
Consider a smaller fridge, oven and dishwasher, and see how much space your galley gains. For furniture, look at “apartment-size” lines, but don’t limit yourself to that category alone. Sure, apartment-size couches measure around 1.8 metres wide compared to the usual two-metre-plus styles. But, add end tables, coffee tables, armchairs and other furniture customarily found in living rooms, and you’ll still be short on space. A normal-sized sofa with less furniture surrounding it can actually be more effective.
“You don’t need all the extra stuff,” says Marie Hebson, owner of interiorsByDesign Inc. “Why not choose a few pieces you really love, even if they’re not miniatures? Make them your focal point and design around them. The only rule is, does it work? And it only works if choices are well thought-out.”
Think carefully about colour as well. “If you try to introduce too many colours in 900 square feet, it just chops up the space,” Hebson notes. Limit your palette choices in large areas like walls and countertop, stick to them and use the same flooring throughout. Add interest with softer or deeper intensities of your main colour — which does not have to be beige. You can still be bold, but if a rich spicy orange is your favourite colour, save it for one accent wall.
Never underestimate the power of illusion and illumination. “Dramatic floor-to-ceiling mirrors can appear to double the size of a room,” says Maines. “Glass tables are high-maintenance, but create a more open feel. Try a high-gloss tile for the kitchen backsplash to light up your kitchen and use ambient lighting to open up dark areas. Or, create mini-zones of interest with spot lighting, perhaps pendant lamps over the bar or track lighting to highlight artwork.”
But you still haven’t solved the problem of finding a place for everything and everything in its place. The secret lies in getting your furniture to multi-task, in other words, you should look for pieces with built-in storage that can serve several purposes.
A leather ottoman with funky legs can be a resting spot and a storage unit. “Host chairs” — upholstered dining chairs with arms — can double as guest chairs when needed in the living room. An office-den area becomes a spare bedroom simply by sliding down a Murphy bed or opening a compact sofa-bed.
Or, look for furniture with amazing transformation powers, like a trick chair that folds flat to become a framed Mona Lisa portrait to grace your walls (yes, it exists, designed by Kwang Hoo Lee). And, who wouldn’t want a gorgeous and massive mirror that expands your space? Then — surprise! — it opens to reveal a secret stash of jewellery and collectibles.
Imagine, a mirror with built-in storage, that doubles as a safe. See what’s happening? You’ve become excited about creative solutions, instead of feeling limited. Soon, like Jay Shafer, you’ll experience the freedom of living small, not its restrictions.