Smart Space Design

With a little creativity small, hard-to-design spaces can be both functional and good-looking.




An open floor plan, large glass doors, big windows and color choice are some of the keys to making this smaller home feel much larger. Designed by Mandeville Canyon Designs of Exeter.

Photo by Nap Rea Photography

Bigger is not always better. Small rooms and challenging spaces can force you to plan longer and get creative, and the results of putting more thought and effort into a design can create a home that's both functional and beautiful.

Renee Carmen, principal designer at Mandeville Canyon Designs in Exeter, has a number of ways to make small homes and rooms feel twice the size. Time spent living in New York City, where space is at a premium, has helped her learn a few design tricks and methods to turn claustrophobic rooms into cozy, welcoming interiors.

First of all, says Carmen, "in a small space everything matters. Everything you put into the room should mean something, even if that means you end up rotating things - space is too precious to waste." In other words, she adds, don't just go to Home Goods and fill your rooms with pretty items that are devoid of personality. Choose artwork and knickknacks that say something about you - your grandmother's vase, a painting you've always admired or photos of your family and loved ones - to be the decorative elements. For Carmen, this can be a fun process - choosing what means the most to you and putting it on display is a great way to make your home reflect your personality.

In the home pictured on the opening page, Carmen chose one large painting of birch trees that reflects the nearby woods and is picked up in birch branch decorations in the room beyond the glass doors. A theme of decorative red items, including functional things such as plates, salt and pepper shakers and kitchen storage jars, gives the room design without clutter.

"In a small space everything matters. Everything you put into the room should mean something. Space is too precious to waste."

Other key elements for this home - the windows and lighting. Large windows (insulated to make sure it stays warm enough inside) and the sliding glass door let in natural light and help make the house feel much more open and spacious. If large windows aren't possible or the windows are already established, adds Carmen, she likes to use recessed lighting and full spectrum lighting, which gives the appearance of daylight.

The sliding glass doors, explains Carmen, were also a key part to creating an open floor plan - you can actually stand at one end of the house and look all the way to the other end. Putting up walls would have both made the rooms feel smaller and impacted the homeowners' lifestyle. The owners enjoy entertaining, and by having an open floor plan they can both prepare food in the kitchen and mingle with their guests. The large windows served another purpose besides letting in light; Carmen says they bring the nearby woods "into" the home. "Be sensitive to your surroundings," she suggests. Doing so can influence your color choice, which can be crucial in a small space.

For this home, explains Carmen, she went against the old rule of using light colors in a small room. "With all the windows we wanted to use a darker color. We juxtaposed the openness of the room with the cozy feeling of the paint." The color is Craft Paper by Sherwin Williams, a color that Carmen calls "a good neutral with some meat to it that works with any color." To remain consistent, she chose different shades of the same color for each room. "Sometimes," adds Carmen, a dark color "is able to envelop you and can wrap itself around you so it doesn't feel small or claustrophobic, it feels warm and cozy." The tall, vaulted ceilings also made a light color less necessary.

Another thing to keep in mind, says Carmen, is getting multiple uses out of everything you can. Living in New York City, she says, taught her to "get used to things doing double or triple duty." In the case of this house, the living room couch has a flip-out bed for guests, the two oversized chairs serve as a reading and sitting area while there's a separate space for the living room and the kitchen table also serves as a desk for working from home. "A kitchen," explains Carmen, "can't be just a kitchen." Having everything serve two or three purposes means you can have fewer big items - like a desk or guest bed -- take up precious space in your home.

Carmen also believes that small furniture isn't always the way to go. Of course, if it's physically impossible to fit big pieces in the space, then large items won't work. "Contrary to popular belief, you don't always have to use apartment-sized furniture," says Carmen. "You can throw away the idea that everything has to be tiny scale. [Larger furniture] can give you a sense of comfort so you don't feel like you're living in a doll house." Carmen points to the two oversized chairs next to the dining area as an example of how one or two larger, cozy-looking pieces can make a room feel more inviting and homey.

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