Decorating tricks for a small space

April 02, 1992|By Joe Surkiewicz | Joe Surkiewicz,Contributing Writer

Everyone knows the bright side to living in a small apartment -- the rent is cheaper, utility bills are lower and, last but not least, a smaller living space is a lot easier to clean.

But when it comes to tasteful -- and practical -- decorating schemes, stylishly outfitting a small one-bedroom or studio apartment can be tough. The biggest challenge is figuring out how to pack plenty of design power into rooms that must serve double, or even triple, duty as living room, bedroom, dining area and at- home gym.

Then there's the problem of storage. Without the luxury of an attic, basement, a spare room or an overabundance of closet space, finding a place to store all of one's things quickly reaches critical proportions in a small apartment.

Add these problems together and often the result is a cluttered, unattractive apartment that feels smaller than it really is.

But there's hope for people who live in small spaces.

Experts say there are a few tricks that can help turn a small apartment into one that's comfortable, practical and reflects the personality and lifestyle of its occupant. A word of warning: It takes a bit of doing, and there's more than one way to achieve the goal.

First things first: Before moving into a small apartment, it pays to do a little homework.

"Look at your floor plan and figure out where you're going to place your furniture," advises Kathy Fine, design director for Papier Design Group in Timonium. "Then analyze the apartment and how you're going to live in it. That way you can get the most practical use of its space."

Next, Ms. Fine recommends creating a "common denominator" in the apartment's furnishings. The good news: It doesn't mean throwing everything out and buying all new pieces.

Instead, develop a color or a pattern that will suggest a total design, whether the decorative style you're aiming for is traditional, fun and whimsical, or contemporary.

"I suggest starting with a feature fabric to use throughout the apartment," Ms. Fine says. "You can use it to make nice pillows, dining room chair seat covers and window accents that help create a personality for the apartment."

If, however, new furniture is part of the scenario, remember three things before you buy: Keep it small, stick with neutral colors and make sure the new piece is as versatile as possible.

An example: A large sofa in a dense, patterned fabric may look great in the showroom, but it could overwhelm a small apartment, Ms. Fine warns. Instead, a small sleep sofa in a neutral color is not only versatile -- and more in scale with a smaller space -- but allows you to bring in color and excitement by using well-chosen accessories.

After furnishings, colors are probably the next item that small apartment dwellers need to focus on, according to Rich Taylor of Taylor-Siegmeister Associates, a Mt. Vernon interior design firm.

"If you have a small space that has to perform more than one function, use a consistent color scheme," he recommends. "In addition, the use of mirrors can capture light and really open a small space up." Small entrance ways, in particular, benefit from the added light and sparkle a mirror provides.

Contrary to popular wisdom, light wall colors aren't always necessary in a small apartment, Mr. Taylor adds. "The sky's not white, but it looks like it goes on forever. You can use warmer tones to create a cozy feeling."

Once you've settled on a color scheme, the pros say you should direct your attention to storage. The key to success here is "double duty."

"Use a chest for an end table and the top of an armoire for the stereo and TV," Mr. Taylor recommends. "The bottom can be used for storage or placing decorative pieces."

Ms. Fine advises her clients to consider installing shelves. For example, a single wall-length shelf is an inexpensive way to add a serving area to a small apartment.

More storage hints: Achieve a country look by adding a skirt to a table in the living room -- and store items under it, out of sight. An antique trunk filled with linens can serve as a coffee table.

After tackling storage problems, the next step is to create an illusion of spaciousness. For example, low-backed seating and ottomans give clean views to windows and accessories -- and make the room feel larger. And keep this rule-of-thumb in mind: The smaller the room, the larger the artwork on the wall.

"Get a scene you can almost walk into," advises Allyson Miller, a senior designer with Papier. "Poster art is a nice, inexpensive alternative that creates a sense of spaciousness."

Plants are cheerful additions to any room and can also solve decorating problems -- such as an empty corner. Try placing a spotlight on the floor under the plant to add drama.

Often, though, it's simply not possible to make a small room appear larger.

"With bathrooms, and especially powder rooms, it's better to enhance the fact that it's a small room," Ms. Miller concedes. "Try painting the walls a dark color -- something out of the ordinary. For small guest rooms or studies, there's little you can do to make it look bigger. Instead, go with cozy and charming."

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