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Small Wonders: Design Tips for Space-Starved Homes

Good things come in small packages. An elegant New York studio, a hotel-chic bungalow in Venice Beach, a library on wheels in Washington, D.C., and a New York City mini-loft open up to reveal some wonderful surprises.

Elegant and Seamless Studio

Kelly Giesen unified the design of her 450-square-foot studio to create a seamless look from kitchen to bedroom to living area, eliminating the need to physically compartmentalize the rectangular space. Textures and layers stylize her home, while the neutral color palette is uncomplicated and soothing. Architectural salvage (old doors, transom windows, antique mirrors) and a TV cabinet built into a mantel fill the small space with character and charm.

In the bedroom area, Kelly separated the bed from the rest of the space by hanging luxurious curtains. Ceiling-to-floor curtains take advantage of the room's height and give the appearance of a canopy bed. She created a corner closet in unused space and added molding to a set of salvaged doors for a sophisticated touch. The ottoman seated at the foot of her bed actually disguises her cat's litter box.

Kelly was able to create a gourmet kitchen in just 95 inches of space. A 24-inch stove and 18-inch dishwasher fit neatly beneath the counter. Because she lost space under the counter to the appliances, Kelly had drawers built into the bottom of the upper cabinets to store utensils. Her dining table does double-duty as an extra work surface for food preparation.

Custom Cottage Chic

Interior designer Vanessa De Vargas created hotel-style living in her 500-square-foot Venice Beach cottage. Without an actual office space, she simultaneously keeps her chic living space uncluttered and work-related items at her fingertips by using a mudroom for storage and a kitchen table for work. A minimalist style, vintage furniture and palette of gray, black and white evoke a tranquil sanctuary.

Because she likes the style and craftsmanship, Vanessa finds and refurbishes 1950s and '60s furniture. Collecting items from a mixture of eras can result in a yard-sale look, but by customizing furnishings with matching finishes and fabrics, disparate pieces look like a matched set. To keep the small space open, Vanessa uses four chairs in her living room (instead of the traditional sofa and two chairs) and added a cabinet with accordion doors for space-saving storage.

Add style to functional, but bland-looking furnishings by customizing them with paint or moldings. Vanessa customizes TV cabinet doors to match her home's aesthetic and to add visual interest. This idea translates well to closet doors, built-in cabinetry and any storage areas you'd like to disguise or distinguish.

Floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall curtains make a space seem bigger. The windows in this room are near a passageway. To cut down on noise and increase privacy, Vanessa made a thick, upholstered headboard that absorbs sounds from the window area.

A Double-Duty Space for Book Lovers

Amy Gardner and Dave Millar had one problem with their D.C. apartment: What to do with their ever-growing collection of 4,000 books! Wanting to embrace the great circulation in their small home while maintaining private areas, they created an inventive solution. Custom-built movable shelves act as both bookcases and doors. Now they can enjoy a cozy, secluded study and an apartment that accommodates guests.

Amy and Dave love to access information so they knocked out a wall in their spare bedroom and created a library that features sliding bookcases. The multiple bookshelf configurations allow them to use their space in different ways with varying levels of openness or privacy. They can be connected as a suite of rooms when guests come for dinner or separated into a cozy reading nook for time alone.

These doors look like regular pocket doors from the dining room. But they are really the backs of sliding bookcases that line the walls of the library on the other side. This idea takes the already clever pocket door concept to the next level.

Minimalist Mini-Loft

John Protos and Tup Thomas gutted their 520-square-foot New York apartment and molded it into a sophisticated mini-loft. They've maximized every square inch. A narrow staircase leads to an almost full-height sleeping loft; the space below houses a huge walk-in closet. Creating a perfect example of modern minimalism, they have selected a few large pieces to set the tone for their living space.

The homeowners opted for additional counter space in the kitchen. An under-the-counter refrigerator and a swing-out table built into the counter maximize the space they have. The smaller fridge poses some challenges; for instance, they have to shop more frequently and buy items fresh for larger meals. They enjoy a full-size oven but had to compromise with a smaller dishwasher.

Everything in this New York mini-loft is painted white, including a brick wall and the floors. John and Tup decided to use a few long, large pieces of furniture to accent the depth of the room. Built-ins for books, electronics and to cover the radiator keep the space clean and uncluttered.


    • Libby Langdon, Designer, Libby Langdon Interior Design Website:
    • Jacob Ward, Managing Editor, Readymade Magazine Website:
    • Vanessa De Vargas, Interior Designer, Turquoise Website:
    • Amy Gardner, Architect, Gardner Mohr Architects LLC Website:
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