Category: Small Space Design

Too Tall, Sally!

Counter-height tables are so au-courant now — but in many homes, they are so calamitously wrong!

The dining room I just redesigned in my Carbondale home near Aspen provides a cautionary tale. This room suffered from many problems, as the “before” photos below will show: dark colors, gloss paint, blocked sight lines and a mish-mash of disconnected styles and motifs. But for this post, I will concentrate on the towering table. Here’s how the room looks now.

Compare the visual effect of this table with the one below.

It’s had a makeover that has included paint, lighting, color scheme and a change of furniture that included the purchase of a round, traditional height table that expands from 42 inches in diameter to a large oval that easily seats six people, and eight if they are friendly. (This is the Ronan table from Pier 1 Imports.)

Here's how the dining room looked before. This was a sales photo from the MLS listings!

As you can see from the “before” photo below, placing a counter-height table in this rather diminutive dining space was a double-dip doozy of a design mistake. First, the dimensions of the table were all wrong for this room — or any small area — because they take up too much visual space.

When you’re short on room, whether it’s floor space or cramped vertical space resulting from a low ceiling, the best approach is choose smaller-scale furniture.

In a small bedroom, for example, a low, modern bed with clean, un-fussy lines will make the room feel more open and accessible. It’s best to leave the raised-platform beds with steps to the mansions up the hill. (However, I am sorry to report that I have seen enormous, ornate beds dominating not-big-enough bedrooms in the grand homes up in Aspen, near where I live. Some of those four-poster beds can make even a generously-sized room feel cramped.)

But back to my place downvalley from Aspen.

The faux pas committed by the too-tall table that formerly occupied my dining room was compounded by the fact that the dining room is raised. To reach it, one climbs two steps up from the adjacent living room. Given this split-level arrangement, the table top, as seen from the living room, was well above the eye-level of most visitors. Coming up to it felt oppressive, like running into a wall.

The shorter table and the removal of a dangling pot rack opens up the sight lines from the kitchen into the dining room.

What’s more, the hulking bulk of the too-tall table and chairs blocked the light coming into the living room and the sight lines from both the kitchen and living room. This made all three areas seem darker than they needed to be.

Finally, I wondered how well that tall table and chairs worked in a family with a young child. Since he was in grade school, I supposed he had learned to clamber up on the high chairs, but the family also had an infant on the way. I can’t imagine those chairs being particularly easy for toddlers or elders to use.

Tall tables work well in rooms that are airy, bright, spacious and have high-ceilings. Unfortunately, those adjectives don’t describe dining rooms in most of our houses.

In this "before" picture, a dangling pot rack, a bar-height table and a too-tall sideboard all conspire to block sightlines and cramp the room.

Bar-height tables feel right in coffee houses and bars, places where we expect to rub elbows with other folks and where we frankly feel a bit uneasy if the crowd’s too thin. But that’s generally not the kind of ambience we want in our homes.

Despite all that, tall tables seem to be the order of the day in small apartments and in houses with children who will without a doubt tip over those towering chairs. I really don’t understand the allure. Who’s buying them? Are these the same people who went for platform shoes?

If you’re not living in a coffee house, a bar or a mansion, my advice – which you didn’t ask for and is worth more than you’re paying for it – is to just say no. Don’t be a fashion victim.


I wanna jump but I’m afraid I’ll fall
I wanna holler but the joint’s too small
Young man rhythm’s got a hold of me too
I got the rockin’ pneumonia and the boogie woogie flu

Call some other’s baby that ain’t all
I wanna kiss her but she’s way too tall
Young man rhythm’s got a hold of me too
I got the rockin’ pneumonia and the boogie woogie flu…

– Johnny Rivers


A Conversation with the Clutter Coach

Not long ago, at a networking event, I met Claire Tompkins, the “Clutter Coach.” A number of my clients have needed organization as much as the space planning solutions I provide, so I had quite a few questions to ask Claire.

But alas, since it was a “speed networking” event, there wasn’t time! (For those who are wondering, speed networking is a little like speed dating, but for professional purposes. Claire and I are indebted to Irene Kohler, moderator of Linking Northern California, for introducing us.)

This post, which is a conversation between the two of us, will remedy that. Given the comments and emails that earlier posts have occasioned, I know that storage, clutter, and “too many junk” are common issues. (Links at the bottom of this post will lead to several earlier posts I have written about related topics.)

<<<<<o>>>>>   <<<<<o>>>>   <<<<<o>>>>>   <<<<<o >>>>>

Nicolette Toussaint, Comfort and Joy Interior Design
Nicolette Toussaint, Comfort and Joy Interior Design

Nicolette: Claire, I admire what you said on your website about your services being confidential and “non-judgmental.” Although I am scrupulous about confidences – I name clients only when they have given me permission and otherwise use pseudonyms – I’m challenged when it comes to being judgmental!

I confess that I once turned down a date with a guy mostly because the floor of his car was awash in six inches of flotsam and jetsam. To my mind, that meant that he wasn’t good relationship material. (Perhaps this was because I had recently divorced someone who filled every nook and cranny of the house with magazines, books, collections, clothes, you name it!)  I think that “Collectors“, like my ex, who can’t bear to part with anything, need to work with an organizer before they even consider interior design. While only a few people fall into my Collector category, everyone you work with needs organizing help. How do you go about working with your clients?

Claire Tompkins, the Clutter Coach
Claire Tompkins, the Clutter Coach

Claire: I like to find out what kind of person the client is. Usually I start by asking questions about the space in question:

  • What works?
  • What doesn’t work?
  • Why is this here?
  • Do you use this?

I ask obvious questions because I find that people overlook those themselves. Once I know what they want, I figure out what’s realistic and simple.

I have a client whose home office is also a playroom. This combo works for her because she likes being in the room with her children, and it’s next door to the kitchen so they are nearby when she’s cooking. For someone who needs quiet concentration time, I would not recommend this.

On the other hand, sometimes people set up fancy home offices that they never work in. When I ask why, it turns out that it’s too cold, it’s too far from the rest of the house, it’s too dark, it’s too noisy, they can’t hear the doorbell, etc. Personal work style and preferences have to be accounted for. Just because your house has a room labeled “home office” it doesn’t mean that you have to work there.

Nicolette: Your questions are similar to a questionnaire I use to create the “program” that guides my design work.

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

Many of my clients need to create what I call “hybrid rooms” in their homes. You know, a kitchen-office, or a laundry room-play room. But I haven’t come across a playroom-office before. When I work with these rooms, I often recommend “convertible furniture” – pieces that can serve more than one function or change size.

Claire: Wow, that is some cool furniture! My focus is more on process than products, although I do recommend simple things such as using an artist’s taboret for office supplies because it can roll away when you’re not using it. Some taborets are unassuming enough to stay in view in the dining room and not scream “I work here too!”

Earlier, I mentioned the beautifully appointed office that isn’t used. I’ll suggest setting up a real work area in the dining room (there are often tell-tale items in there already). I like to work with what my clients have, and who they are, and keep it as simple as possible.

I look for ways that dining room workers can store their supplies so that they’re easy to put away. I urge them to get in the habit of stashing everything away in the evening and getting it out again the next day so they can use the dining table to eat. For those who rely on seeing a pile of paper to do the work, this is a challenge. In that case, we create ways to organize their workflow so they know what to do in the morning.

Nicolette: What common hybrid rooms have you seen? What combinations of activities work well, and which don’t?

Claire: Guest rooms are mostly underused, in my experience. Either they’re wasted space, or they become storage rooms, the bed piled high with boxes of Christmas ornaments, old tax returns, etc. I’ve recommended that clients ditch the bed and get a convertible sofa instead. If the mattress isn’t that comfy, they can top it with an Aerobed. That makes space to use the room for something else, such as an office or playroom. If a room is in use, it’s less likely to fill up with junk.

Nicolette: As a designer, I find that it’s not only important to have enough storage, but that the convenience of storage is also an issue. When I design a room, I make sure that the things that a person uses daily can be accessed without crawling on the floor or climbing on ladders. Recently, I planned a layout for a couple who was moving into a condo, and in the early stages of the project, I visited their old, pre-move apartment. Every available surface was piled high with books and papers.

This is exactly how the offices of the attorneys I worked with years ago -- at a nonprofit, public-interest lawfirm that shall remain nameless -- looked. I was afraid to walk in for fear of knocking over piles of "discovery" papers. But they knew what was in the piles.

I saw this as a symptom of poor planning, not as an indictment of their behavior – they seemed organized in other areas of their lives. But they really didn’t have places for newspapers, for books, and for projects that involved writing and reading papers. In their new space, I made sure that they had about a dozen baskets that would hold 8.5 by 11 inch papers and would fit neatly into their bookshelves. I also recommended hassocks that could be used for storing newspapers and books, and I used credenzas as room dividers. So far, their new place has remained neat. Can you tell me how, as an organizer, you help people who are drowning in papers?

Claire: The biggest challenges my clients have regarding paper is that they won’t put it away for fear of forgetting about it, or they resent doing the work of putting it away. So, making it easy and/or keeping it visible is paramount. Open shelving, literature sorters and stacking trays can help. For reading material, open baskets and containers near seating (where they will read) works well. I like the Pendaflex Pile Smart line of office products. They have a binder clip with a big label area on it. That way, you can pile papers, but they can be clearly marked with the clip. The label area is re-writable too. I am not against piles. I’m against not being able to find things.

Labeling containers is also helpful. I like your idea of having baskets on the bookshelves. For a unified look, they’d probably be all the same size and color. Labeling is good so it’s easy to see what goes in which container. I also think labeling has a motivating effect. When you see the label Dwell Magazine, you want to look around for one to put in there. It’s like doing a puzzle. Not everyone needs labels, but I have had clients whose lovely baskets eventually turn into miscellaneous catch-alls.

Nicolette: In some ways, designing interiors that help people to live happier and healthier lives is a bit like herding cats. I have owned cats for years, and I have had quite a bit of success in training them. For example, they trot off to their “den” at night when I give them the command! The secret is to observe and understand what they are inclined to do naturally, then bend that native behavior in desired direction, rather than trying to counter it. People are not all that different.

I got the idea of shaping a room’s interior around the occupant’s habitual behavior after reading a book written by journalist Amy Sutherland.  Amy used reward and non-response to condition her husband to perform chores, and then wrote a book about it. It’s called What Shamu Taught Me about Love, Life and Marriage: Lessons for People from Animals and Their Trainers.

Bada coffee table from BoConcepts
Bada coffee table from BoConcepts. I love how papers can be tucked out of site in this coffee table.

I recently told a client to “observe the animal called Lena for the next week and tell me what her habits are.” I wanted her observations because if I understand my client’s natural tendencies, and learn what features of the built environment are helping or hindering a desired change, then I can re-design the room accordingly. In Lena’s case (that’s not her real name) she needed a place to hang book and gym bags that was near the door – not a dozen steps across the room and in a closet that was already too crowded.

Claire: What you told Lena is similar to what I tell clients when I coach them to “become a detective of your own life.” The idea is to watch yourself when you come in the house. Where do you put the keys, the mail, your bag, the newspaper? Does it all go in one place? What about your jacket? Then where do you go? Make things easy for yourself. If you have a front hall, put a table there that’s big enough to accommodate the mail and your bag. If you don’t, set up an incoming-outgoing station as close to the door as possible where those things can be parked.

Nicolette: Many of us here in the Bay Area live in small spaces. Do you have any special advice for us?

Claire: Well, the first step is always paring down. Deciding that you really can live without the spare blender in the back of the cabinet, the stack of magazines you’re going to read this weekend, etc. People keep a lot of stuff “just in case” or because they stopped using it but never got around to getting rid of it. As for occasionally used items, you should ask: Could I borrow or rent one? Could I make do with something else?

Before Shelves
Before: Bookcases only

The second step is maximizing storage. This is a dance of using that hard-to-get-at space vs. being able to access things easily. Naturally, people want to just pick something up off a shelf without climbing up a ladder. The trick is to identify the things they want to keep but don’t use often. I had some clients who have a huge book collections and many of the books are over-sized; art books, coffee table books. They installed a bookshelf about 18 inches down from the ceiling that went around the kitchen, down the hall, and into the office. They have a portable library ladder to reach them. This saved two large bookshelves worth of space.

Shelves above the doorframes
After: Shelves over the windows, partly resting on door frames.

Nicolette: I have used that trick too. Many older Bay Area houses have high ceilings, and it’s often quite easy to put a bookshelf above a door frame, or extend it across two door frames. The frames even help support the shelf. It’s not like you need to look at that photo book about the museum’s Samurai Exhibition every day.

But if you’re going to use that high space well, you need to be clear about what you’re going to store there. I’m going to specify a different width lumber for a shelf that holds over-sized art books than I would for paperbacks. Then again, a high shelf like that is great for things that are bulky and lightweight, such as guest pillows or towels. If I know that we’re going to store linens, I will probably specify an enclosed cabinet or a shelf that can hold storage baskets, because linens usually aren’t going to make good display items…

Claire: As a first step, it’s important to find out how clients want to use their space. Many times clients want to rush out to the Container Store and buy some cool containers. You probably run into this too. Clients who want particular pieces of furniture regardless of how they’re going to fit in or work with their lifestyle. I’ve often worked with folks who already went out and bought a bunch of baskets or boxes and they turned out to be completely useless. But they looked nifty!

Nicolette: Oh, yes! I had a client run out and buy a wonderful desk, only to discover that once it was in her office, she couldn’t open the drawers wide enough to get things in and out of them. And then there was the family of seven who didn’t have enough living room seating for everyone – but they did have an over-stuffed Chesterfield chair that had a footprint as large as a loveseat that would seat three people!

Claire: Encouraging clients to be realistic about how much time and energy they want to spend on organizing is really important. If they want their home office to look like Martha Stewart’s, they need to realize that she (or her assistant, more likely) spends a lot of time keeping it Martha-ized. I suggest that “done” is better than “perfect.”

Nicolette:  Some people – I call them “Collectors” – have trouble getting rid of anything. (I alluded to one, my ex-husband, at the beginning of this blog, and I wrote about Collectors in an earlier post.)  Have you encountered them? If so, how do you help them?

Claire: I write haiku poems about clutter. Here’s one about Collectors:

Museum lovers
Create their own collections
But lack the warehouse.

When Collectors really can’t part with anything, no matter what condition the things are in, it doesn’t work to apply logic. As you mentioned, this is a tricky topic. I will ask if there are other family members who would want some of the heirlooms. Sometimes I suggest photographing them. These days you can make lovely coffee table books yourself and that would be a great way to preserve and honor the memories associated with the possessions. Sometimes it works to sort the things and then have the client select the ten best from each category. Another tactic is to buy a display cabinet for the objects and then choose only what will fit inside it.

The dragon that disrupted the honeymoon home
A dragon like the one that disrupted the honeymooner's home

The collection is about the past. I had a client who consulted me because his sweetheart feared there was no room for her in his life. His home was still full of stuff that belonged to his deceased wife. We worked on ways to honor his previous marriage, while still welcoming the present and future.

Nicolette: (Laughing) I have a very similar story about a newlywed couple who had quite a contretemps over a Mexican sculpture called a “alebrije.” Even though he liked primitive art, he hated this particular little dragon of hers. He knew that it was a souvenir of a trip his new bride had taken with her old boyfriend, and he just couldn’t stand to have his rival in a place of honor on the mantle of the fireplace!

Claire, I love your haiku. It’s so uncluttered! Did you know that I often end my blog posts with a bit of poetry? Would you mind being the poet laureate for this post?

Claire: Not at all!

Resource Links


The Haiku of Clutter

If I kick that box
Under the desk one more time
I’ll just have to scream.

Storage Ottoman from Improvements
Storage ottoman from Improvements
A Finnish art student decided to inventory every object in her 250 square meter home (about 2,700 square feet) and present it as her thesis. Using archaeological methods, she found that she owned 6,126 objects. Here’s her analysis of how often she used each object:

  • Never used objects – 1457
  • Objects used less frequently than once a year – 2209
  • Objects used once or twice a year – 1411
  • Objects used every month – 587
  • Objects used every week – 401
  • Objects used every day – 61

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!



When God Made Space, She Made Enough of It

Have you ever complained that you don’t have enough storage space? I’m willing to bet that you have – and I’m also willing to wager that you’re at least partly wrong. Although the lack of closet, book, filing, and storage space is the single most common housing complaint I hear, I find that it often results from using the space that we do have rather poorly.

The window of Meg's kitchen now, with a book case centered under the window. The door at left leads to a closet; the door at right leads to the bathroom.
The window of Meg’s kitchen as it looks now, with a book case under the window. The left door leads to a closet; the right door opens to a bathroom.

Take my friend Meg, who recently moved to the wine country. Like most retired ministers, Reverend Meg Whitaker-Green has a lot of books. A gifted photographer, she also has hundreds of photos. But her house was built as a cottage and has only two tiny clothes closets – each about three feet wide and two feet deep. The linen closet is so tiny that it holds only towels; sheets must live elsewhere. Meg would like to rent out her house when she travels, but right now it’s too cluttered.

With tongue in cheek, I could say that she has no vacancy right now because the place “is booked solid.”

Here's how I envisioned creating far more book storage without reducing the floor space in the room. The shelf above the window would be easy to install - the left and right sides could be supported by the tops of the closet and bathroom door frames, while the back side would rest of the top of the window frame. The shelf would receive center support from brackets mounted to left and right sides of the window; because there's an internal frame that supports the window, I know that there will be support studs behind the window framing.
Here’s how I envisioned more book storage. The high shelf would be easy to install because the closet and bathroom door frames would support the sides, while the window frame would support the back. Brackets would be mounted into the  internal frame that supports the window, holding the middle so it doesn’t sag under the books’ weight.

Except for the baths, every room has at least one book case, and every one is stuffed solid! Yet there are still books piled on the kitchen table, on the desk, on the hearth, on the mantle… on almost every flat surface, including the floor.  Clearly, Meg needs to find more and better ways to house her beloved books.

That’s the kind of challenge I love!

Although Meg insisted that I had been invited to rest during my visit, and not to work, I just couldn’t help myself. I can no more keep myself from solving spacial puzzles than I can prevent myself from reading the promotional drivel on the back of cereal boxes. As I moved around her house, I kept seeing one “wasted” space after another. There were many ways to solve Meg’s storage problems.

Look to the Heavens for Help


While sitting at Meg’s kitchen table, gazing at the window, I spotted the empty space above the window and envisioned the book shelf illustrated above. Heavens! This would be a great spot to keep volumes that aren’t often needed, such as Meg’s theology texts and over-sized art books.

In my own house, which lacked closet space, I installed the “hotel shelf” shown at left over the bathroom door. Meg could do the same in her powder room. Because the toilet blocks access to the wall, and because the wall also holds the TP dispenser, it’s shielded from traffic. Even a tall person wouldn’t bump into the shelf. If Meg moved the towels there, she would be able to put her sheets in the linen closet. (A note about the title of this blog: I have no special knowledge about the gender of god. But since the Reverend Whitaker-Green is a feminist minister, I’m assuming that Meg addresses god as “she.”)

What’s Over the Refrigerator?

Meg also has a problem with finding a spot for her photos. Because they need to be kept dry, they can’t be stored in the basement. Right now, they are piled on the floor near her desk.

This handy step stool makes it easy to reach the towels, and it doubles as a seat when I want to sit down next to the bath. Designed for Pullman porters on railroads, this kind of stool has a built-in handle that makes it easy to move. This one is about one foot square and one foot high, and is available for less than $20 from Stacks and Stacks.
This handy step stool doubles as a seat next to the bath. Designed for porters on railroads, the Pullman 12″ high step has a built-in handle and is easy to move. This stool costs less than $20 at Stacks and Stacks.

During breakfast, I spotted a home for Meg’s photos – over the refrigerator! A cabinet is mounted alongside the refrigerator, and it reaches the ceiling. But there’s no parallel cabinet over the refrigerator – just a big, open box of space. Given the height, depth, and width of the refrigerator, that space is about 30 inches square and three feet high. I have a similar space above a stackable washer and dryer, and I use that space for storing large, rolled-up architectural drawings. Meg could use her warm, dry, over-the-fridge space in a similar way.

To reclaim this forgotten spot, Meg should ask her carpenter to build a box to fit the space. It should have horizontal shelves; it could optionally include a hinged front door. Because Meg’s cabinets are painted, rather than wood-stained, this box will be easy to finish, too. She can match the color by removing one of the painted wooden knobs from the front of an existing cabinet door and taking it with her to the paint store.

Look for Hidden Spaces

Unfortunately, many houses have been designed – or even remodeled – without enough attention to space planning.

Both of the older houses I have remodeled included odd doglegs, uselessly shallow closets, and mysterious enclosed dead spaces that could be effectively re-purposed for storage. In my current house, only two of the three bedrooms had closets. Those odd little spaces were only about one foot deep – far too shallow to hang clothes! After I retrofitted them with shelves that used the space efficiently, I immediately began looking for places to put functional closets. (There’s a photo of an efficiently redesigned narrow closet near the end of this blog.)

The turquoise areas in the floor plan below show where I found space for closets. I enclosed one end of a bedroom to create the 10-foot-wide closet pictured at left. Note the white sliding doors above the mirrored doors. These wooden doors enclose a somewhat inaccessible space that is used for storing Christmas lights, back taxes, and memorabilia.

When you plan your storage, you should place the items you use daily close to where you need them. For example, our everyday clothing is located behind the mirrored doors. Holiday supplies, out-of-season clothes and items you rarely need should not be taking up space in your most-accessible storage areas.

As you can see in the floor plan below, I created a second closet by enclosing an odd dogleg in the hallway between the bathroom and dining room. This created a much-needed coat closet near the front door. I saw no need to remove the existing door into the dining room, and this closet now has doors on either side, making it accessible from both the entry hall and the dining room.

If you’re looking for tips on how to better use closet space, you might want to visit my Comfort and Joy Design website. You’ll find great ideas in the Solutions Gallery and also on the Space Planning page.

Floor plan of the entry way in the author's house. The gray walls are original and the turquoise spaces indicate closets that were added in minor remodeling. The yellow rectangle shows where walls probably enclose nothing but air. This dead space was likely created by an unimaginative contractor who installed the tub and then found that he had left-over space at its foot. This may in time become another closet that opens into the dining room.
Floor plan of the entry way in the author’s house. The gray walls are original and the turquoise spaces indicate closets that were added in minor remodeling. The yellow rectangle shows where walls probably enclose nothing but air. This dead space was likely created by an unimaginative contractor who installed the tub and then found that he had left-over space at its foot. This may in time become another closet that opens into the dining room.

What’s Behind the Wall?

The website for Apartment Therapy New York has a great article on using space between the studs. The photo shows a vanity alcove that has been placed between the studs; click the image to visit the full article in Apartment Therapy.
The website for Apartment Therapy New York has a great article on using space between the studs. The photo shows a vanity alcove that has been placed between the studs; click the image to visit the full article in Apartment Therapy.

Unless you’re friendly with contractors or have done some remodeling, you might not have thought about what’s behind the surface of your walls. Most modern residential walls are formed by a half-inch-thick sheet of gypsum board (also called “drywall”), which is like plaster. Older houses’ walls are formed by plaster on top of lath, thin wooden strips that look like they came from orange crates.
Under these plaster surfaces are parallel uprights called “studs.” Studs are usually made of two-by-fours, boards that nowadays measure slightly less than four inches wide and two inches deep. They are placed at 12 or 18 inch intervals, and on rare occasion, every 24 inches. Between them is open space.

That space can provide room for insulation, electrical wires or plumbing. However, in many cases, it’s just an open area. Although the cavity is not deep, its space can be used for recessed storage. For the vanity shown here, a space has been cut between studs, and then finished in tile that matches the bathroom walls so that the assembly looks like it was designed in from the start.

If you decide you’d like to recover some of the space inside your walls, get a contractor’s help.  Your shelving will need to be placed between the electrical outlets on the wall. Even in places where you don’t see outlets, wires could be running inside the wall to an attic or basement. Hidden wires could be severed when you cut into the drywall. (Whoever remodeled my current house managed to cut through all of the phone wires! When I moved in, not one of the three phone jacks was working.) In addition, some homes have heating and cooling registers in the floor; if this is the case and the house sits on a concrete slab, duct work will be positioned between wall studs.

If you have an unfinished garage or basement, however, the space between the studs is easy to use. You can even buy “Stud Buddies“, pre-made shelves that can be quickly mounted as storage space for tools and other small items.

Vertical vs. Horizontal Space

Recently, when Meg wanted to frame a photo, she tried to do it on the carpeted floor. Having tried that myself, I can testify that it doesn’t work. Matting and framing require a stable, unmoving surface. Accordingly, Meg has been shopping for a credenza. That will work, and it won’t take up any more floor space than her stacked photos are currently occupying.

Built in drawers recapture the open space under the stairs

But a credenza may not be the best solution: it will not use the space

e above the work surface, nor will it extend the full length of the wall. I suggested two options:

  1. Install modular shelving above the credenza, with the wider shelves placed higher so that they don’t cramp the tabletop work space, or
  2. Have a carpenter build a box that extends the wall’s full length, and include horizontal shelves sized for the photos. She can install a counter top on the workspace (she can probably even find a used counter top and recycle it for this purpose). By placing a sheet of glass over part of it, she can create an area where she can cut with Exacto knives without gouging the counter top.

Meg’s credenza v. cabinet decision illustrates a couple of key storage principles:

  • Determine whether you need horizontal or vertical storage space and design the closet or shelving to accommodate those needs.
  • If you’re pressed for storage and spot usable space, use all of it – don’t leave a hole at the top or gaps at the side. Often, when people purchase furniture, they fail to measure the space and/or fail to buy something that truly makes fits the area. For this reason, it’s often better to ask a designer to plan built-in storage and then have a carpenter build shelving or counters from the plan.
  • Create spaces and places that accommodate multiple uses.

A good example of this last principle would be the space plan I designed for my clients Ron and Claire, who were moving into a condominium where picture windows wrapped around two adjacent sides of the living/dining room. They weren’t sure how to position the furniture, or what to bring from their old place. As Claire observed, “You can’t just put the furniture around the walls because there would be a big hole in the center!”

Ron and Claire needed to divide the big space horizontally while preserving its open character; they also needed places to tuck the papers away. For them, I created a floor plan showing which pieces of existing furniture would work and what needed to be replaced. The keys to using the big, open room were:

  • Two credenzas that were finished on the back as well as the front to separate the dining room from the living area. The matched credenzas create a low wall that divides the two spaces, and in addition to hiding papers, the credenzas’ flat, open tops double as a buffet surface. It can be used for serving meals or to provide canapes accessible from either area when Ron and Claire are entertaining.
  • New swivel recliners that do double-duty because they can face either the TV or the conversation area.
  • A neat storage hassock that hides newspapers. It can be used as a seat, and the removable top also flips over so that it can be used as a small side table.

More Tips on Better Storage and Space Usage