Sweat the Small Stuff
Bigger isn’t always better. Sometimes a small space that’s well designed can be just right.
Not all of the homes in our area are blessed with an abundance of voluminous spaces. And yet many residents are willing to trade square footage for an easy commute, a cool neighborhood and proximity to the city lights—both D.C.’s and Arlington’s own.
Still, outfitting small quarters for maximum style and function can be vexing at best. In the worst-case scenarios, design missteps can turn into expensive mistakes.
“I was spending an inordinate amount of money, and nothing looked right,” Rae Arduini says of her trial-and-error spending sprees to perk up her small condo in Falls Church. “I just didn’t get it. I was giving things to Goodwill left and right that were barely used.”
Single-family homes (the older ones) can present similar problems—particularly when owners find themselves struggling to fit their modern lifestyles into compartmentalized floor plans that were designed for an earlier time. The solution, as Arlington Ridge residents Karen and Jim Fort will tell you, isn’t always as easy as knocking out walls between rooms.
How can you get the most mileage out of every nook and cranny of your home without building an addition or moving to larger digs? Feast your eyes on these small-space success stories.
Anne Gunning didn’t care what the interior looked like when she bought her condo in 1995. The real prize was the huge terrace outside—a rarity in Ballston, or anywhere else, for that matter.
“To have that kind of [outdoor] space in a 900-square-foot condo is pretty significant,” she says.
Still, Gunning eventually grew tired of the charmless, white builder-grade kitchen, the cheap wall-to-wall carpeting, and the dark teal window trim that matched the building’s exterior trim. “We redid everything. I don’t think there was a surface we didn’t touch,” says Arlington designer Andrea Houck, whom Gunning brought in for an overhaul. But before they even tackled cosmetic improvements, they had to deal with the structural barriers that were clogging up the space.
The biggest offender was a wall separating the entry and kitchen from the living and dining areas, which cut off the unit’s expansive terrace view. A lesser problem: French doors opening outward from a small den into the dining area, which prevented Gunning from placing a proper table there.
Houck called on Marc Leon of FSI Construction to take out the wall between the kitchen and living room, replacing it with a half-wall that allows unobstructed views to the outside. This wasn’t just a drywall job, however; it involved re-routing some major pipes and ductwork in the process.
“In a condo like this, everything [dealing with plumbing] is connecting from upper [floors] to lower,” Houck explains. But the result was worth the hassle, she says. “Now, when you walk in, you see this space and that view, which is what she bought it for.”
The cramped dining area was resolved by replacing the den’s French doors with pocket doors that slide (rather than swing open), freeing up space for a vivid Zebrawood table and chairs. Houck also created extra storage in the den by filling an open niche with custom cabinetry and built-in shelving.
Custom consoles on either side of the living room fireplace serve a similar function. One holds TV and stereo equipment, while the other contains slide-out drawers and shelves for files and office supplies. “I had all this space I didn’t think I had,” says Gunning, a government communications consultant.
Built-in lighting (in lieu of floor and table lamps) can also be a space-saver, although here it required some ingenuity, given that the building’s floors are concrete slab. Houck had the ceilings lowered so she could install recessed and pendant lighting. That lighting now illuminates rich finishes such as metallic-toned cocoa wall paint and iridescent tile.
The end result, Gunning says, feels like a plush suite in a boutique hotel. “I’m going to live here forever.”
Rae Arduini bought her 1,235-square-foot condo in Fairview Park in 1984, but until she met designer Dolly Howarth three years ago, she says, “I just didn’t like the look of my house.” She kept buying new furniture that looked fabulous in the showroom, but it always ended up being far too big and bulky for her small space.
Plus, the layout wasn’t conducive to her daily lifestyle. “I like to come home from work, eat my dinner, read my e-mails and watch TV—all at the same time,” says Arduini, a program manager for a defense contractor.
However, such multitasking was impossible in the room’s original configuration. The TV wasn’t visible from the dining nook, and a sofa was pushed up against the only wall with a cable jack, resulting in a mass of exposed cables that snaked across the room—an arrangement Arduini had made on the theory that sofas should always be against a wall. “I didn’t have the vision to see any other option,” she says.
But Howarth did. The designer started by replacing the old sofa with a sleek console, above which she mounted a large flat-screen TV. She then floated a petite settee from Baker in the middle of the room, across from the TV, allowing the back of the settee to serve as a partition between the living and dining areas. In this free-standing position, the little sofa creates visual separation between the two functional zones without blocking Arduini’s view of the evening news.
Realizing that the diminutive space could not accommodate a standard dining table, Howarth found a contemporary table from (the now-defunct) Maurice Villency that fit the room’s scale. “It was perfect for her style,” says the Arlington-based designer. “It could look like a desk, it could look like a dining table.”
A curvy, klismos-inspired occasional chair from Donghia balances out the living room, but it can be pressed into service as an additional dining chair when needed.
To complete the ensemble, Arduini splurged on a custom glass sliding door, built with German hardware, which beautifully hides a printer and other office supplies in the dining space. “It slides like butter,” she says, noting how the door conceals shelves that previously held large, unsightly stereo components. (These have since been upgraded and tucked inside the console underneath the wall-mounted TV.)
Movable parts can be key to small-space functionality, and one of Arduini’s favorite pieces is a double-sided, custom screen by Lee Industries. One side of the partition is upholstered in a delicate floral pattern that matches her bedroom, where it normally hides her Christmas tree in the off-seasons.
When she entertains, however, she relocates the screen to the living room and flips it around to show its bolder side, which is clad in black-and-gold stripes. It’s the perfect solution for hiding her parrot’s empty cage if the bird is over at her mom’s house for the night.
Feminine yet sophisticated by design, this little gem counts among Howarth’s favorite projects. “Small spaces are always the most challenging,” she says, “but it’s so rewarding in the end.”
Straight and Narrow
For years, Karen and Jim Fort struggled with the long, narrow living room they ended up with after a 1995 renovation eliminated a wall between two smaller rooms in their Arlington Ridge home.
“We wanted a more open floor plan that would handle more people for a party, so we put all of the bedrooms upstairs,” Karen says, explaining the rationale behind the remodel. They got what they wanted, but the resulting 20-by-12-foot space presented a new set of problems.
“I couldn’t get it to work as a whole space,” she says. “It was always two parts, and the ends fell away.” As a retired exhibit manager for the Smithsonian Institution, she was all the more frustrated that her own home’s “exhibit” area wasn’t living up to its potential.
For help, the Forts turned to Arlington designer Nicole Lanteri, who had already decorated their master bedroom and kitchen. Her diagnosis? “It’s almost too small and too big in a funny way,” Lanteri says. Although the wall was gone, the space was still visually split in two, with a piano on one end and a fireplace on the other. “What is the focal point, and where does your eye rest?” she asked, summarizing their design conundrum. Her solution was to have the two sides “talk to each other.”
Lanteri’s first move was to paint the far end of the living room a bright reddish coral that echoes the same accent color in the kitchen. That wall now “talks” to an area rug in similarly bright colors in front of the fireplace. A tan sectional from Design Within Reach balances out the vibrant rug, and a pair of original Knoll Barcelona chairs (bought from another of Lanteri’s clients who was looking to sell) can be moved around the room, adding flair to either side.
“I like visual surprises and unexpected solutions,” the designer says.
The oversize floor lamp that stands by the fireplace is an example. “That was always an awkward space,” Karen observes. “Now, this gargantuan lamp owns the corner.”
Recognizing that built-in shelving would have been too heavy, Lanteri instead hung open display boxes from CB2 on the accent wall. “In a small space, you can’t have everything displayed at once—that’s where you run into trouble,” she advises. The Forts now cycle different pieces in and out of the boxes with relative ease.
And the crowning touch? In lieu of additional side tables, which would have cluttered up the room, the accent wall is anchored by a custom soapstone ledge. Its slim profile reads more like a shelf than furniture, and yet the ledge is wide enough to hold drinks and other items.
“She was my alter ego,” Karen says of Lanteri’s intuitive sense of balance and proportion. “I can’t believe it was that easy.”
When Carmen and Toby Romero bought their 1930s-era home in Country Club Hills, the 300-square-foot basement wasn’t an immediate priority. For a while, its primary use was as a place for their kids to play kickball. But once their children (now 10, 8 and 4) graduated to video games and movies—and Toby began craving a place to watch sports over snacks and beer—they set their sights downward.
The wish list they shared with Arlington designer Melanie Whittington called for both a basement bar and a comfortable seating area where they could socialize and watch TV.
“Creating two different areas in a small space was a challenge,” Whittington says, but it didn’t necessitate an expansion. “[They] didn’t need a huge lower level,” she explains. “That’s just wasted square footage.”
Taking their aesthetic cues from reference photos that Carmen had assembled on Houzz.com, Whittington and associate designer Kate Stoyek designed built-in cabinetry with a barn-style sliding door that reveals a bar and wine fridge on one side and toy storage on the other.
“Sometimes built-ins are more expensive, but they allow you to really utilize the space,” Whittington says, crediting Ed Graham of Virginia Homes for all of the construction and carpentry.
After trying a few different layouts, the designers devised a tiered plan that puts a bar counter and stools facing the TV, with the half-wall underneath the bar serving as a backdrop for the sofa. The result is a cozy space that’s conducive to eating and drinking, relaxing and socializing. And because the project involved no major structural changes, the Romeros were able to splurge on a vivid wall of tile for the fireplace surround.
Given the room’s dual function, flexible furnishings were a must. These include swiveling Vanguard club chairs, which can face either the fireplace or the TV, and a custom ottoman with a sliding wood bench that offers a spot to rest a drink and put up your feet.
“There was no room for an end table,” Whittington explains. “It was such a tight space that we had to be creative with the surfaces.”
Since the redesign, the Romeros have hosted baseball and Super Bowl parties, but their basement hideaway also sees plenty of daily action.
“We use it all the time,” Carmen says. “We took a room that was never used—that was surplus storage—and now it’s become a fun place to entertain, and for the kids to hang out and spend time with their dad.”
Design writer and blogger Jennifer Sergent lives in Waverly Hills with her husband and two sons.