Imagination transforms odd spaces

March 01, 1992|By Rita St. Clair | Rita St. Clair,Los Angeles Times Syndicate

An increasing number of Americans -- whether in the city, town or country -- now live in charming old houses that have been converted into apartment buildings. Many of the units in these generally Victorian-era homes still have wonderful original features, such as tall ceilings, fireplaces, built-in bookcases and detailed woodwork. And because this sort of architectural beauty is all too rare in newly built houses, many people eagerly move into reconfigured old homes with little thought about how the space will work for today's lifestyles.

In most cases, it quickly becomes obvious that compromises will have to be made. By using one's imagination, however, a compromise can often be turned into an advantage.

Valuable pointers are to be gained by looking across the Atlantic. Europeans have had plenty of experience in adapting old-fashioned living spaces to contemporary needs. What originally were large hallways, for example, are now lined with bookshelves -- not only along the walls, but also above doors and under stairways. Similarly, butler's pantries have been turned into powder rooms, and big old bathrooms with fireplaces have become sitting rooms.

The basic principle is to stop labeling rooms in the usual way. Instead, visualize these apartments as a series of flexible spaces. A dining room, for instance, is typically thought of as a separate, well-defined area. It's hard to break out of that mold, I realize, even when an L-shaped living-dining room does not allow adequate space for serving food to more than three or four people.

But thinking creatively is really essential in an apartment that was once an undivided section of an old home. In many of these situations, a designated dining room simply does not exist.

One solution is to buy a pedestal table that can be extended to seat six, and place it in the corner of a large room. That's what was done in the photo. Here, an English breakfast table is nestled beside a window, forming a lovely setting for leisurely dining.

Versatility is vital in spaces like this. The fully upholstered leather dining chairs are also used as parts of a conversation grouping centered on the fireplace. And the table occasionally serves as a surface for games as well as for eating.

With such a layout, the floor covering takes on a prominent role as a unifying element. Choose carefully, because the carpet or rugs will set the tone for the entire room. In this model, an Oriental rug of Heriz-style design and coloring was selected for its brightness. Its vivid colors are most welcome in a room that might otherwise be rather somber. The rug also makes a good match for the plaid wallcovering with a decorative border and the mini-wallpaper below the painted chair rail. All these coverings are from the Wall-Tex 108 Nottingham Place collection.

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