For rowhouse dwellers, little is not less

Furniture sellers recognizing the need for small pieces that fit

February 29, 2004|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,Sun Staff

When Karen Graveline moved into her South Baltimore rowhouse six years ago, she had to leave a lot of furniture behind. The sofas and tables that fit so comfortably in her Silver Spring home wouldn't squeeze through the tight doorway of her new place.

After talking to neighbors who had to remove windows or jam favorite pieces through narrow corridors, the graphic designer realized her new city was ripe for a line of "rowhouse ready" furniture. Graveline and her husband, Stanley, began collecting vintage chairs, tables and sofas. They refinished the pieces and sold them at local antique stores. Demand was so great that last winter the Gravelines decided to open their own store.

The result is Home on the Harbor, an eclectic mix of mid-century modern furnishings several inches narrower than theirdepartment-store counterparts. Graveline deliberately chose a space with rowhouse-like proportions -- the Federal Hill storefront is about 14 feet wide -- so customers could see that a little less gives a room a little more.

"People see the value in it. They're so excited that it fits," Graveline said. "They'll say, 'We're so glad there's finally a store like this.' "

Demand on the rise

Furniture manufacturers and decorators say stores like Graveline's are part of a larger trend toward sprucing up small spaces. With the economic crunch forcing families to downsize into smaller homes and mortgage rates so low that young couples are buying condominiums in urban areas, the demand for small but sleek is rising.

In a 2002 study by the American Furniture Manufacturers Association, 87 percent of respondents described their home as small or medium-sized.

"There are a lot of people challenged with smaller homes," said AFMA vice president Jackie Hirschhaut. "The industry definitely had to respond with furniture that was properly scaled."

And they have -- with more round tables, home offices designed to fit in corners and entertainment centers that take up less living room space.

Hirschhaut credits the home shows at local convention centers with showing families what's possible in a small space.

The proliferation of television decorating shows is also driving the small-space trend, said Karyn Valino, the marketing coordinator for Umbra, a Toronto-based furniture manufacturer.

"People are so much more educated about how they can be clever," said Valino, whose company supplies some of the pieces at Home on the Harbor. Valino also credits the huge boom in the condominium and townhouse market for encouraging designers to downsize their pieces.

"You really don't have much space in a condo, so you have to be really smart about how you furnish your house," said Valino, who just bought a small house in Toronto and faced a furnishing challenge. "The designers obviously are tapping into the inspirations around, but we also listen to our customers. They'll say, 'we need more laundry storage and shelving storage.' "

At Home on the Harbor, Graveline's tastes lean toward art deco and Danish modern, and she's filled the store with multifunctional credenzas, coffee tables and couches that embody that mod look.

A sleek Metro coffee table doubles as a magazine rack. A rattan ottoman opens to reveal conical storage space. And lamps have retractable reading tables.

"Very few pieces do only one thing," said Melissa Paper, a theater student at University of Maryland Baltimore County who works at the store.

The "rowhouse ready" concept immediately intrigued Paper. When she moved into a South Baltimore rowhouse, she and a roommate had to drag all their furniture through their neighbor's house because few items would fit up their serpentine spiral staircase.

"Baltimore is rowhomes," said Linda Glinos, who lives in Perry Hall and was shopping recently at the store. "But not every style comes for a rowhome."

Graveline knows that all too well. She'll often pass on favorite styles because, ultimately, size matters. Most sofas, for example, are 36 inches deep. Graveline looks for ones that are 30 inches deep, so they'll fit through most rowhouse doors.

Similarly, she looks for sofas less than 72 inches long, an odd hybrid between a love seat and a full-size sofa. If the size is right but the fabric wrong, Graveline may buy it anyway and send it to Maurice's House of Art, a block up Charles Street, for reupholstering.

Maximizing nooks

Decorator Andrea Loran, owner of Loran Design Projects near Johns Hopkins University's Homewood campus, said her clients in spacious Greenspring Valley and Washington, D.C., homes are often looking to maximize small nooks.

"I just took photos of the smallest den I've ever done in my entire life," Loran said of the one-time porch that is now an 8 foot-by-16 foot den with a love seat, ottoman, and dining room table.

Loran predicts the demand for multifunctional furniture will only increase as the lure of downtown living brings more empty-nesters and former suburban dwellers into condominiums.

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