Fitting 3,000 square feet of personal possessions into 900 square feet may seem impossible, but not if planned very carefully and thoughtfully, according to Donna Harper who recently downsized from one downtown metro home to another for a much cozier feel. “I just decided I didn’t need all that stuff and all that room,” Donna says. “I love my new space. I think the secret was thinking minimal and multi-functional rather than just thinking small.”
From large metropolitan cities like New York, where small living areas are the norm, to the sprawling homes of Southern plantation-style houses, most people have encountered a small space design dilemma. Bathrooms, laundry rooms and home offices are the most common culprits presenting this challenge, and the number one issue is often clutter — the items that people collect and, sometimes, refuse to rid themselves of over time.
Today, people of all backgrounds are making the switch to small spaces, from young professionals and retirees, to college students and budget-crunching businesses. Whether out of pressing need or conscious desire, designers see a trend in people seeking help with their small spaces — and there are lots of ideas and resources to make these areas work.
Columbia Designer Tim McLendon, of Tim McLendon Designs and Inside Out Designs, knows all about designing for small spaces. His own 1,150 square-foot home reads like an art gallery and feels like a metropolitan loft.
“While there are no step-by-step guidelines in designing any home, there is an order to making small spaces work,” Tim says. The first step to utilizing every square inch of living space is to measure the space.
“I measure first. It’s best to know what dimensions you’re working with, but it doesn’t mean that all of the pieces in the room have to be miniature,” he says.
Finding a focal point for the room is the next step. For some rooms, that could include an interesting art piece or accent wall. Color is important in this step as well.
“The more drama you can bring into a small space, the more you skirt the idea of how small it is. It can be color. It can be images,” says Tim. “You find the focal point first and design around that.”
After finding a focus for the room, it’s important to determine which items are needed in the room. In a kitchen for example, a refrigerator, stove and sink are of course essential. A bed is the first to fit into a small bedroom. The rest requires creativity, color scheme and finishes.
“Anything you can do to draw your eye up will make the room seem bigger,” he says. “Lighting is also very important. I use very little overhead lighting and instead find lamps more practical,” he says.
Other tips for creativity include incorporating eclectic pieces rather than matching items and using multi-functional furniture. “In my living room, for example, I have an ottoman that pulls out into a twin bed. In my lounge area, I have a loveseat that pulls out into a full-size double bed. And I have curtains that separate spaces instead of doors or walls, which changes that area instantly from a lounge area to a completely different room,” Tim explains.
The biggest mistake people make when trying to design their small spaces is incorporating furniture, rugs and accent pieces that are too small.
“There’s a myth to using small pieces in small rooms. But actually, sometimes it’s better to throw a couple of large pieces into a small room because it makes it seem bigger,” Tim says. “People should also be careful about collecting items and then putting everything in one area. Overdressing is something you don’t want to do in a small space.”
Small Space. Big Attitude.
When Dr. Todd Kolb and his wife Cathy, wanted to spruce up their 600-square-foot guest home they had high hopes for a space that was inviting and functional.
“It was a dark space and had dark beadboard. We wanted it to have a lighter feel,” says Dr. Kolb, who lives in downtown Columbia. “Tim came in and rearranged the furniture, and it’s now a lot warmer and a lot lighter.”
Additional challenges in the space included a small window and a confined feel, which Tim addressed with the use of fabrics. “We wanted to open the space. I used fabric to make a window appear larger so I could put a bed on the wall and have a backdrop. We also put up sheer curtains and made the lighting a little bit better,” says Tim, adding that clever curtaining and fabric placement are a common design tool for small spaces. “Using curtains instead of art, fabrics or painting walls can work particularly well. And they can be moved out of the way if needed.”
The Kolb family says that their small space is now a place anyone would want to live in. “I would want to live there myself,” says Cathy of the one-room studio. “There wasn’t anything structural done to the room and all of this was done in one day.”
Dr. Kolb adds, “Whether we rent the space or use it as a guest house, it’s a lot warmer. I’ll be happy to have people there, enjoying the space.”
When Donna Harper made the move into a smaller home, she answered her space dilemma in two steps: First, she gave about half of her belongings to a local women’s charity. Second, she decided to call an expert who could add talent and a unique eye in reconfiguring her furniture arrangements.
“Tim took my space and created two living areas — one in the living space and one in a separate bedroom that I actually use as a home office. But it really doesn’t look like a home office, it looks like a second bedroom,” Donna says.
A divider was used to separate the living space from the kitchen area. In the office is a piece Donna dubs “the lady lounge,” which doubles as a sitting area and daybed. The office space can be displayed or hidden by a specially designed furniture piece. Donna says that those simple, but highly-effective touches are what make her small space special.
“You walk in and just sort of go ‘Wow.’ I’ve actually had people come in and say that,” she says. “Even though it’s smaller than my previous space, it just feels so much bigger, warmer and more homey. And it’s all the same pieces I already had, just a different configuration.”
For a designer like Tim McLendon, designing his own small space was a challenge he welcomed. His Thailand-inspired, spa-style bathroom features artistic elements, like a decorative ladder to add vertical interest to the room, and more functional features like a sliding door to his washer and dryer. In the living room, an accent wall draws the eye up vertically to the 10-foot ceilings of his home, a century-old dwelling that was once a commercial space.
“Designing a small space is a challenge. It forces you to put on your creativity hat,” Tim says. “It’s like putting a jigsaw puzzle together. And when it comes together, I think, people get a space that’s really different and unique. A space that feels like home.”