Living Large in Small Spaces

A small space should be designed with the elegance of a Swiss Army knife.

How so? It should be convenient and pleasant to use. It should anticipate every daily task you do, providing all manner of wonderful accoutrements that open, neatly serve one purpose, then fold, swivel, and pop into another configuration, allowing you to do something altogether different. What’s more, the room and its furnishings should do all this while looking as sleek and beautiful as – well, a Swiss Army knife!

The accordion-like center that allows the XPand table to grow.
The accordion-like center that allows the XPand table to grow.
The XPand table comes in three sizes and all can grow in length without leaves or hardware. The medium sized table stretches from 63 inches long to 82 inches long.

Although I own three of those canny little knives, it wasn’t until I began researching this blog that I learned that the Swiss Army knife’s design has been included in the New York Museum of Modern Art and Munich’s State Museum of Applied Art. So I’m not alone in finding design inspiration in this humble implement.

This post will be devoted to handsome and fiendishly functional pieces of furniture that, like Swiss Army knives, sleekly serve multiple purposes. Here’s what I have found:

  • the Bada multi-tasking table that turns into a love seat,
  • Murphy beds that disappear behind bookshelves,
  • a Study Bed that transforms into a desk,
  • an XPand table that stretches to welcome company without adding leaves,
  • Silla Garda chairs that divide and multiply,
  • children’s furniture that grows, flexes, and offers fun places to play,
  • a couch that turns into a bunk bed, and
  • storage that banishes clutter.

Furniture like this is what you need to live large in a small space!

Small is Beautiful

Small dwellings offer environmental advantages. A small house costs less to heat and cool. It requires fewer resources to build, and at the end of its usefulness, there’s less to bury in a landfill. A gentleman in Texas by the name of Brad Kittel builds charming, milk-truck-sized houses from 99% salvaged materials to make that very point. Jay Shaffer has put together his Tumbleweed Tiny Houses for similar reasons. While their houses are bit too small for my taste, I do subscribe to Susan Susanka’s “Not So Big” house philosophy. Susanka encourages her readers to invest in good design and detailing, making a smaller house truly livable. (She’s not an advocate of economy or frugality, but favors quality over quantity.)

EcoSystems Bada table
EcoSystem’s Bada table folds to become a love seat
Bada table folded into loveseat

In this age of super-sizing, my love of small spaces may sound contrarian. But among all the interior design tasks I perform, I get the most joy from solving the three-dimensional puzzle of the perfectly planned small house. I get a thrill when a piece of furniture that I have measured and chosen drops perfectly into its allotted spot, wasting no space and looking as though it was created to be there. I enjoy designing original cabinets and window seats that add balance, convenience, and function to an odd dogleg in a floor plan. I get a charge out of finding a bit of wasted or forgotten interior real estate and recovering it in the form of a closet or a china hutch.

It’s even better when I can work this magic using things that are already at hand, local, or re-purposed to some clever end. In my fantasies, I’m the McGyver of interior design, whipping out my Swiss Army Knife and transforming a dozen left-over thread spools, an abandoned automobile hood, and a broken dresser drawer into an incredibly cool coffee table.

In reality, I’m not that inventive, but Ecosystems Bada table, shown above, is! It’s made from reclaimed walnut, and with a flick of the wrist, it changes into love seat.

Your three sleek, modern Silla Guarda chairs hold twice as much seating as your first glance would indicate!
How many chairs do you see? You could sit on any of these chairs, but these three seats come from just two Silla Guarda chairs. The chair on the left has been pulled apart to double the original seating.

The Guarda Silla chairs shown at right are equally clever. Designed by Alberto Villareal, they are like Russian nesting dolls. The chair’s outer shell is made from smooth white Corian. That shell, seen empty on the far left, slips over the redwood core at the center of the photo. Together, the shell and core make up the two-tone chair shown on the right side of the photo. When you need more seating, you can pull the wooden chair out of the Corian shell to form two chairs, both equally functional.

Strive for Simplicity

In a small room, you should strive for a visual harmony. Monochromatic color schemes and neutrals tend to make rooms seem larger, and coordinated furniture and wall colors will also make the space seem roomier. Another good trick is to use see-through surfaces, such as Lucite and glass. Reflective metal surfaces and large mirrors will reflect light and visually open the space as well.

A kaleidoscope of colors, dizzying detail, or a backwash of books, papers, remote controls, wires, or tools is to be avoided.  Visual complication will make a small room feel cramped. That’s why it’s important to be able tuck things away or close a closet door on clutter.

Bo Concept coffee table comes in white lacquer, walnut, black-stained oak and wenge veneer. Size: 13H x 44 3/4W x 31 1/2D. From $1,099.
BoConcept Functional coffee table comes in white lacquer, walnut, black-stained oak and wenge veneer. Size: 13"H x 44 3/4"W x 31 1/2"D. From $1,099.

In a small living room, a coffee table like the BoConcept “Functional Table” shown here will give you a convenient spot to store small objects such as books or remote controls. Its separate table tops will provide flat, raised and stable surfaces for dining or working, so it accommodates two of the most common activities that take place in living rooms and dens.

Planning is Crucial

Frankly, I think that designing for a small space is far more challenging than designing for a large one. It requires far more planning because you need to effectively use every bit of the floorplan while being sure to leave enough room to circulate around the furniture. It requires more shopping because the difference between a 62 inch long love seat and a 65 inch love seat may mean the difference between being able to open the door and having it wedged shut! Small spaces also call for a lot of attention to storage, and that, in turn, often means designing and installing built-in shelving and closet hardware.

“Doc” has removable covers and transforms into a bunk bed. From Bon Bon Trading.

What’s more, in a small dwelling, you don’t have the option of devoting one room to  single purpose. Today’s McMansions can come with multiple bedrooms, an office, a dining room, a family room, a kitchen, a mud room, a guest room, a library, an exercise room, a laundry room – and one heck of a big heating bill. In a small space, however, you’re far more likely to wind up with multipurpose spaces. Here are some common ones:

  • a kitchen/laundry room,
  • a bedroom/study,
  • a library/guest room, and
  • a dining room/office.

The Doc sofa shown at right would be a good choice for an older couple whose library needed to also be able to serve as a guest room for grandchildren who visited every now and again.

Another fascinatingly flexible bed – one that a teenager would love – is the Study Bed. It’s hard to find the words to describe how the Study Bed folds and rotates a double-sized bed into the wall to reveal a good-sized desk. It’s even hard to show in a series of photos, so if you’re curious about, I encourage you to head on over to YouTube to watch the video of the Study Bed in motion.

Grouping Functions

The trade-offs of using spaces for multiple functions complicate both furnishing and storage, and the answers about which functions to group together aren’t always obvious. For example, what if there’s just one unallocated room, and you need a yoga retreat, a mud room and a children’s play area? How are you going to make sure your downward facing doggie pose doesn’t wind up with its nose in mud left over from the kids’ galoshes? Will you need to rout the Space Invaders before you can achieve yogic repose?

Combining these functions would require superb storage and a lot of attention to flooring. If you had a comfortable rug that could be rolled out just for yoga, and then easily stored out of sight, this combination might work.

However, it’s better to group noisy activities in one area of the house and quiet functions in another. Doing that also involves thinking about the chronology of the family’s day. If the kids are going to home playing at the same time you want to do yoga, perhaps your yoga retreat should be designed into the bedroom, the living room, or the kitchen?

Tagei table opens to reveal bench with sidetables
Tagei table opens to reveal bench with side tables. Designed by Akemi Tanaka; links below lead to Futaba, another nice convertible sofa by Tanaka.

The redesign of one room in a small dwelling frequently causes a domino effect. I find that accommodating a change in one room often requires moving functions or furnishing in another room as well. In the case of the yoga retreat, while there may not be enough floor space for a self-respecting cobra to stretch out in the living room right now, there could be.

The answer might be to use the spare room for a play and mud room only. You could practice yoga in the living room if you replaced your bulky coffee table and that seldom-used armchair with something like the Tagei table at left. (Tagei means versatility in Japanese.) This table/bench combo would free up the floor space you need for daily exercise, and it will easily open into seating for the occasional buffet or cocktail party.

Provide Lots of Storage

My final tip on furnishing small spaces is to provide plenty of storage, particularly units that do not protrude into the room. Your storage might be built in – like the closet I discussed in last week’s blog – or it might be a wall system. (If you like Asian-inspired design, there’s a firm called Green Tea Design that creates some very handsome wardrobes and wall systems using wood recycled from old Korean barns.) It’s often effective (if counter-intuitive) to shrink the room’s footprint slightly by creating a full-width wall for a closet or wall system. When the view is uninterrupted by edges, it appears less busy. Visually, a whole-wall system intrudes into the room less than a dresser or breakfront would.

Modern Murphy beds take the same approach, and they often include options for shelving and closets. Some include desks and drop-down tables that really make them more like wall systems than beds. Hardwood Artisans has a nice selection of Library Wall beds. The Wallbed Factory, which has an active green initiative, offers library and wallbeds with plenty of storage features, and prices ranging from $2,100 to around $5,000. Flying Beds offers a Murphy bunk bed, a library bed and also a computer bed.

Who You Gonna Call?

So there you have it, a whole passel of solutions for shaping up your small spaces. The links below will help you explore all of your options save one.

If it turns out you don’t care for measuring, drawing floor plans on quadrille paper and cutting out little chunks of paper to represent your furniture, you can call for help. There are odd souls around who actually enjoy wrestling with the three-dimensional puzzles of space planning. I’m one of them. Like my fellow interior designers, I’d be happy to help!



7 thoughts on “Living Large in Small Spaces

  1. In the modern world, when space is scarce, designers have to struggle to maximize the space they have. I believe that these furniture will stimulate us designers, and think of interior design not just on paper, but as a 3D arrangement.


  2. Such well designed furniture that is great for small apartments or any room you want to make bigger than it really is. I have seen a sofa set that converts into a gym, it would go perfect with the items of furniture you have shown here.

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