Almost 20 years ago, my then-husband and I went to a real estate open house where I promptly fell in love with a crazy fixer upper.
It was originally built in 1750 and early on it had been split in half, added onto, and moved to a few different locations in town. It had narrow hallways, a gazillion little rooms, and a full family of squirrels living under the floorboards in the attic. The floorplan was wonky and it was a little disorienting to walk through. The type of place that makes you want to leave a trail of breadcrumbs.
Well, we bought that crazy house anyway. We renovated it, and certainly improved on the floor plan, but it remained a quirky house. It was just in its bones.
It reminds me though, that wrestling with tight quarters is not an uncommon problem in New England. These parts are loaded with antique homes. And even if yours isn’t an antique, you may still struggle with wishing that you had more space. With this in mind, I’d like to offer a few words of advice.
First off, remember: initial impressions matter. If, when you enter a home, you are immediately met with a series of cramped, over-cluttered or over-furnished rooms—your brain latches on to that and says, “This is a cramped space.” Even if the home eventually opens up to a comfortable family room in the back. It’s just too late. That tricky brain of yours has already mailed in its verdict.
So prioritize opening up that floor plan. It will take working with a professional but get some sightlines going so you can see from one room into the next. Broaden some doorways, open up a staircase wall, heck, take down other walls too. Be bold and you shall be rewarded. And, oh yes, definitely remove doors that don’t need to be there.
It’s amazing how many times I hear myself suggest that. I mean, most of us just don’t need a door to their living room.
With all of that work you just did to open up your walls, your floors may take a hit. But don’t sweat it. Work with a professional to patch them up as best they can. Sometimes that means they can weave in the new wood perfectly with the old. But even if they can’t, (wide pine floors are hard for instance) I don’t usually get hung up on the patches. You can minimize their impact by staining all your floors when you refinish them. But I think patched floors sometimes just tell the story of the house and are not that big of a deal.
My second words of advice: inches matter. You’ve just addressed the big stuff, now it’s time to focus on the little stuff. Because it’s a series of small changes that will amount to the larger change you are searching for in your small-scale home. For instance, consider your clutter.
Now, I personally like a warm home that is populated with mementos unique to the people that live there. I am also well aware that we are messy humans and we need junk drawers and a counter to drop our mail and keys on.
But that being said, keep in mind that you are trying to create the illusion of space. So, move the stacks of bills to the office and eliminate the random gee-gaws from HomeGoods. Display only meaningful items. It’s a good rule of thumb for all of us.
Where else do inches matter? Well, consider your window treatments. You would be surprised how much “visual space” heavy curtains can take up in a small room. Also, you’ve now got those great sightlines going, maybe you want to use one privacy method for all of them. In small houses sometimes simple, consistent window solutions make the most sense. I like ones that sit nice and tidy inside the window jambs, like blinds or shutters or even cafe curtains. And an added bonus is your exterior view will look great with that consistency as well.
And finally, here are a few words about your furnishings. Small spaces like furniture on legs. Like dining sideboards, and TV stands, and couches (just three inches will do.) For similar reasons, small spaces also like glass. Perhaps for your coffee table or your end tables. You want that feeling of airy-ness around your furniture. And with that said, please don’t fill every corner of the room with wobbly tables that you may put a plastic succulent on. Only include the furniture that has a purpose.
But balance that advice with this advice: always consider storage. So yes, get a sideboard on legs (5-8 inches is fine) but also make sure it’s got the cabinets and drawers you need. You can’t do this with your glass coffee table of course. But do it where it makes sense. Because your small-scale home has no business housing frivolous pieces of furniture that don’t offer you the double duty benefit of added storage.
Your bonus topic is color. There are so many rules of thumb out there about color in small spaces. And honestly, I don’t subscribe to any of them. I’ve seen rich colors work in small spaces, and I’ve also seen the benefits that a light neutral can bring. So you do you, just get samples and swatch, swatch, swatch until you find what works.
But in small spaces, especially those with open sightlines into other rooms, you want to reduce this feeling of chaos. Because chaos is a close cousin to cramped. So, I do tend to go more neutral on the walls in a smaller home, and handle my pops of color carefully. Like a jewel green mudroom, or a black island, or built-in bookshelves. Or even a purple couch. Yes, color is BACK baby, and I love it! But for small homes the biggest priority is making them feel open, welcoming and livable.
Jennifer Coles is a local interior designer. Her website is: colescoloranddesign.com