Small style hits the big time in home design

Universal UclickJuly 5, 2013 

  • Think small

    Libby Langdon long has been a master of small spaces.

    Unclutter and clear out. Being surrounded by stuff all over the place makes us feel confused, cramped and overwhelmed. Pretend you are moving and think about what you wouldn’t move into your new home. Changing your frame of mind helps to see the uncluttering process as an opportunity instead of a chore. Living with less “stuff” is the ultimate luxury. People want style, elegance and comfort – and that begins in a clean, organized space.

    Think vertically. Get your walls to work for you. Mount shelving or storage systems to display collections and store items so you won’t waste precious floor and surface space. Use full-scale shelves and cabinets that go all the way to the ceiling to visually draw the eye upward. Hang drapes all the way to the ceiling, and if possible, extend the width of the rod on either side, so the drapes hang outside of the frame rather than inside. That makes the window and the room seem more spacious without blocking natural light.

    Lighting has the power to make a room feel brighter, therefore bigger. By using various light sources, you create layers in a room and a richer ambience. The more natural light you can bring in, the better; take care to not obstruct light or the views that lead the eye beyond the room. Use lower pieces such as benches, ottomans and stools to keep the space open. Use translucent shades or sheers on windows. Make sure light reaches every corner of your room. For artificial light, try four or five larger lamps, which add height and scale. Avoid harsh overhead lighting, but if you must use it, add a dimmer switch. Light should be inviting and create a feeling of warmth. Hanging large mirrors reflects light, adding depth and dimension.

Size matters. More and more.

If not a decided shift at recent High Point furniture markets, let us just say that rooms with smaller footprints will not be ignored. The good news is that the commitment ramps up challenges to design furniture smartly, with an eye to size and proportions, multitasking, built-ins and visual tricks.

A sign of the times is that RH (the re-branded Restoration Hardware) – which several years ago went into heavy Belgian industrial and French chateau mode with mega-scale and opulent proportions – last spring introduced one of its legendary weighs-a-ton sourcebooks devoted to … drumroll … small spaces! The latest edition is described as “a scaled-down collection of furnishings in sizes that work beautifully in more intimate spaces.”

Relatable scale and clean, modern lines are one reason, perhaps, for the appeal of mid-century furniture. This is precisely what grabbed the eye at the Stockholm collection booth at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York in late May. Inspired by home furnishings from the 1950s and ’60s, the sizes of pieces seemed right; add to that comfort, sophistication and style – in a provocative palette punched up with kellyish or emerald greens and acid yellows – at affordable prices. The collection launches at IKEA next month.

Another standout at that show, because of its thoughtful incorporation of storage, was a bathtub designed by the Canadian firm, Blu Bathworks. In addition to graceful lines, the piece spoke to storage needs in an architecturally savvy way, its front and sides wrapped with wood shelving designed to house essentials like towels, soaps and sponges, and even a decorative piece thrown in for good measure.

One company that always has understood the need for small as well as for large scale is Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams. For every 90-plus-inch sofa, there are several cozily silhouetted chairs. For every nearly 4-foot-square cocktail table, there may be dozens of petite martini side tables.

“From our first days,” said Mitchell Gold, “we observed how people live and want to live. The reality is every home has small spaces even if the homes are large. We realized people need a variety of proportions.”

Scale really is the motivator – not just the measure, but how the inches measure up; in other words, the proportions of the piece. When Libby Langdon designed her Howell chaise for Braxton Culler, she was reaching out to those who love a lounge option but one that reads more simply, such as a chair attached to ottoman, not a space- hog.

“Often furniture is unnecessarily oversized and overstuffed,” Langdon said. “Many standard sofas have large, rolled arms, each measuring 12 inches wide, which means they are taking up two feet of usable space.”

It’s telling that some of the most popular categories of furniture in recent years have been small tables, bar carts, etageres and desks. One reason is that houses with less square footage demand flexible furniture, so versatile double duty is welcome. A desk can serve as a vanity. A slim etagere or baker’s rack can be ganged in sets of three on one wall or employed in a kitchen or bath for handy items.

A piece with doors and shelving inside might be tapped as a bar, TV cabinet, for plates and glassware in the dining room, or folded shirts and accessories in the bedroom. A cart with casters can be used in an entry, holding books, framed photos and flowers, or as a rolling bar.

Another tack for maximizing space and function is a piece that can be pulled apart and reconfigured. A table introduced this spring by French Heritage has 18-inch components that serve as accent tables that are easily moved about (and stacked); six can be put together to create a handsome 36-inch hexagonal coffee table.

Built-ins long have been a go-to option for designers, as they take advantage of tight corners. They offer storage as well. The top of a new platform bed at Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams lifts to reveal stash-away space equivalent to a six-drawer dresser, according to Williams.

Visual space-saving is another clever device for limited square footage. The etagere is a good example, or a cabinet with slender proportions and transparent backside, which allows the wall paint or covering to peek through and become part of the piece.

Going up the wall, of course, is becoming a useful way to conserve space. We see it in floating shelves, wall-mounted cabinets, and in wall-hung toilets, such as the newest model from Kohler, Veil, introduced at the contemporary furniture fair – fabulously compact with a concealed tank and minimal footprint that saves up to 12 inches of floor, a boon for cleaning.

Rails on kitchen backsplashes also are an excellent way to get pieces off the counter. In Susan Serra’s New York kitchen design, those rails don’t remain static; rather, they’re armed with spices, tools and the like. Contents are changed out for formal entertaining, substituting with flowers and paintings – decorative elements to “dress” the space.

Designer Libby Langdon, host of HGTV’s “Small Space, Big Style,” likes to use bold color as a backdrop. In designing a guest bedroom in her own home, she painted the walls vivid chartreuse, complementing the hue in black and white. A black four-poster bed made of rattan surprisingly anchors the space, but its simple design and open weave feel light. Another device, which she often favors, is doing draperies from ceiling to floor, which visually stretches out the height of the room.

Gold used a 100-inch-long Chesterfield sofa in his 1,850-square-foot Washington, D.C., condo because it makes the small scale feel more sumptuous. “We also used a 96-by-38-inch dining table instead of a console to serve as a place for media equipment. Putting it up against the wall makes it look generous, not at all overwhelming.

“On the other hand, in the bedroom we used our specially designed small-scale bedside tables, which are (only) 20 inches wide. For many condos, bedroom walls are just too small for a queen-sized bed and a pair of tables. For us the key is that nothing should ‘hang over.’ Furniture shouldn’t go past a wall’s border.”

That’s smart living.

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