Size matters. More and more. Especially in space-challenged homes and apartments.
That apparently speaks to a good chunk of the population, even though manufacturers and retailers have strayed a bit with message in recent years, going for great impact to super-sized sectionals or towering cabinetry, without regard to the dearth of 9-plus-foot ceilings or wide-load elevators in condo buildings. Not to mention narrow doorways.
If not a decided shift at recent High Point, N.C., furniture markets, let us just say that rooms with smaller footprints will not be ignored. The good news is that the commitment poses even more 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) last spring introduced one of its legendary weighs-a-ton sourcebooks devoted to … drumroll … small spaces!
Several years ago RH went into heavy Belgian industrial and French chateau mode with mega-scale and opulent proportions. In contrast, the spring 2013 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 recent International Contemporary Furniture Fair, which took place 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 will launch at IKEA in August.
Another standout at that show, because of its thoughtful addressing of storage in the bath, was a tub 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,” says 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,” says Langdon. “Many standard sofas have large, rolled arms, each measuring 12 inches wide, which means they are taking up two feet of usable space.”
Says Gold: “It’s about proportion and how you effectuate every detail. By making the arms (on a chair or sofa) trim, for example, you still allow good size, comfortable seating. Bob (Williams) has this incredible sense of proportion — part self-taught, part instinct. It’s what makes our pieces look right in a wide variety of places in a home.”
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, for example, 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. When Susan Serra, a certified kitchen designer, was planning a 190-square-foot kitchen re-do for her daughter — without changing the footprint — she knew that the space at times had to accommodate formal dining. So at the end of the galley-style kitchen in a 100-year-old house on Long Island, she designed an L-shaped banquette, which, along with three chairs, can seat at least eight if need be.
While savvy about maximizing workspaces, Serra points out: “This kitchen is about aesthetics and function having an equal place at the table.”
Built-ins 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 inhibited 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 (particularly vanity and storage pieces in the bath), and in wall-hung toilets, such as the newest model from Kohler, Veil, — 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 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.
Designers do have an arsenal of tricks that are practically trompe l’oeil (“fool the eye”). Designer Libby Langdon, author of a book on small space solutions, and host of HGTV’s Small Space, Big Style, actually likes to use bold color as a backdrop. In designing a guest bedroom in her own home, she painted the walls a 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.
In Gold’s Washington, D.C., condo, which is relatively small — 1,850 square feet — he used a large 100-foot long Chesterfield sofa that mades 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,” he said.
“On the other hand, in the bedroom we used our specially designed small-scale bedside tables, which are 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.”
In age of smartphones and devices, that’s just smart living.