Tiny but terrific living spaces

schandler@newsobserver.comMarch 22, 2013 

  • Living in a small space

    Interior designer Cabell Cummins offers these tips for making the most of a small space:

    • Choose small, multifunctional furniture. Some examples are an oversized chair with a pull-out twin sleeper, a coffee table storage ottoman and an end table with a file drawer. • Purchase table lamps and floor lamps to give your room a warm, cozy feel. Choose light bulbs that give a warm glow. • Paint your walls, trim and ceiling white or a pastel color that you love. Painting all rooms the same color makes the entire space feel larger. • Keep your main pieces of furniture in a neutral or solid natural color palette, such as cream, off-white, camel, brown and black. Use throw pillows, small rugs, slipcovers and accessories that can be easily changed to create a stylish look and bring color to your home.

    Cabell Cummins Interiors in Charlotte, cabellcumminsinteriors.com, 704-607-3545

Nicole Alvarez has some very big ideas about life in small spaces.

Her experience living in tiny apartments in Prague, France and right here in Raleigh has informed her life both personally and professionally.

“Everything that I’m passionate about is about being in a space that’s appropriate in scale so you can make room in life for everything else,” said Alvarez, who grew up in Cary and now works as an architect in the Triangle.

She also maintains a blog called “ Intentionally Small” that explores “small spaces and simple living,” offering photos and descriptions of how people have made their small spaces into cozy, functional, beautiful homes.

Among all the other profiles on the blog is a post about Alvarez’s first adult apartment – a tiny studio atop a dentist’s office near Broughton High School in Raleigh. At 306 square feet, it was roughly the size of many standard hotel rooms.

Luckily, the place came with a generous amount of built-in shelving and nooks for storage, so Alvarez’s biggest challenge was with furnishings and décor – which she quickly found to be one and the same.

She nestled the head of her double bed into a wide, shallow closet space, displaying framed photos on the closet shelf and hanging a piece of statement art from the hanger rail. She kept other furniture small in scale to match the space, scoring a petite green sofa from a yard sale and a table with fold-down leaves on Craigslist.

“Having these smaller pieces were more appropriate to that space and didn’t make it feel too cluttered or too tight,” she said.

For accents, she arranged her books both horizontally and vertically on their shelves, accented by knick-knacks, and brightened up the place with white string lights. Houseplants arranged on the windowsills breathed life into the space while also offering splashes of color against the large windows.

In many cases, form and function overlap in a small space. When Alvarez bought a set of four espresso cups, she couldn’t find a good place to store them – stacked, they hogged space in her cabinets, and counter space was out of the question. So she installed hooks underneath the kitchen cabinets and hung the small cups over the sink, making for a whimsical ode to her love for espresso as well as a handy storage solution.

“It’s decorating with what you’ve got,” she said.

Replace, not add

Not surprisingly, a key to small-space living is keeping the clutter monster away.

“The biggest challenge to living in a small space is to eliminate unnecessary items and keep clutter out,” said Cabell Cummins, a charlotte-based interior designer. “As you purchase an item, then toss an item. This discipline will help maintain a neat home.”

Alvarez confesses to hating shopping, because every purchase has to be carefully thought through to make sure it’s really a necessary addition to her home.

“My question always is, ‘Am I going to be able to keep this forever?’ ” she said. “It’s just the idea of making sure what you’re investing in is important and is going to mean something to you in the long run.”

In January, Alvarez left her beloved 306-square-foot apartment to move into new digs, a 900-square-foot apartment in downtown Raleigh that she shares with her boyfriend. They have a little more space to spread out now, but that doesn’t mean they’re going on a buying spree.

“We both are trying to minimize collecting things and spending more time, more money, more focus on the things that matter,” she said. “That would be just being together, enjoying our company, being with our family, being with our friends, going out to places and going to music concerts. It’s more about experiences than things.”

Her experiences in small spaces have affected her work as an architect at the most basic level, Alvarez said.

“It’s been able to teach me how to ask what people want from their space,” she said.

“It makes me think about the details of how certain elements come together, just the smaller scale of being in the space and experiencing that space. It makes me think on a smaller level.”

And she’s found she’s not alone in embracing small-space living.

“With the recession, people have been more thoughtful about where they want to spend their money, so there’s a general shift to rethinking what the ‘American dream’ is and what you want out of life.”

It’s natural, she said, to want as much square footage as your housing budget will allow, but scaling down might allow you to put more money into each square foot in the form of nicer appliances, furniture or flooring.

A small space can also change your whole worldview, she said.

“It changed the way I thought about how we should live and what you should really put your energy into, your money into, your time,” she said.

“That’s more about the intangibles of life rather than the tangible space that you’re living in.”

Chandler: 919-829-4830

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