Small spaces have huge impact in interior design

Tiny rooms serve as laboratories for refining design ideas

October 20, 2002|By Claire Whitcomb | By Claire Whitcomb,Universal Press Syndicate

Even if you live in a house so huge you can roller skate to the front door, it's worthwhile to think about living small.

As Terence Conran points out in his latest book, Small Spaces (Clarkson Potter, $40), tiny rooms are the ultimate decorating laboratory. At their best, he says, they "represent not so much a way of surviving on the bare minimum, but a refinement, a distillation of what really matters and what really works."

That means they force you to decide which possessions you really want to live with and what things you really like to do. Like a rigorous personal trainer, they transform you into a clean, lean living machine.

The rooms in Small Spaces are virtual yachts. On window seats or dining room benches, the pillows lift off to reveal storage. If there's a raised platform separating a living and dining area, drawers pull out from the platform to reveal files. Beds are set on cabinets, and "the higher the bed, the more room for storage underneath," Conran writes.

Conran's look is sleek, sophisticated and frequently urban. That's why it is very interesting to read Small Spaces in conjunction with The New City Home (Taunton Press, $34.95), an idea-filled book by Leslie Plummer Clagett.

Both Conran and Clagett take a big-picture approach to the problem of small-space design. Yes, they have "quick fixes." Conran shows a table and stools that convert to a sofa; Clagett illustrates a fireplace that's refitted with a wine rack.

But both authors realize that no small space can be made magnificent without the help of a carpenter -- or perhaps two or three.

Le Corbusier, the great Bauhaus architect, thought built-in fittings should "take the place of much of the furniture, which is expensive to buy, takes up too much room and needs looking after."

Conran and Clagett agree. The rooms they show have bookcases that wrap around doorways, cover entire living room walls and serve as headboards and room dividers. The bookcases can help provide needed storage.

"Anticipate the expansion of your goods 50 percent beyond your immediate needs when planning for storage," Clagett advises.

Clagett shows one breathtaking townhouse where the pantry is tucked under the stairs along with a wood-paneled refrigerator, the oven and microwave. In another apartment, the "wall" behind the kitchen's open shelves is perforated metal so that light and air flow from the kitchen to the nearby dining area.

In small spaces, rooms need to relate generously to each other. If there are acrylic transoms atop walls in a hallway, the interior of a tiny house will feel less dark and gloomy. If a bedroom is closed off with frosted-glass doors crafted like shoji screens, privacy will not mean depriving the adjacent rooms of light. If a stairway has glass or wire sides, it will open up a house rather than rob it of light.

Oddly enough, small spaces often need big doorways.

"The fractured floor plans typical of apartments can be softened by enlarging doors and dissolving walls," Clagett writes. Her book, like Conran's, shows rooms where narrow entries have been replaced by huge frosted-glass doors. Some pivot, others swing, but the most space-efficient hang from ceiling tracks or slip into walls, like the old-fashioned Victorian pocket door.

Small Spaces and New City Home are rich in ideas and materials -- glass blocks, brushed aluminum, corrugated plastic, obscura glass.

Study these books before you remodel and you might find yourself living in a yacht -- even if your house is 20,000 square feet.

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