The Art of Living in Small Spaces

How to make the most of a house that isn't huge.

An antique chest becomes a pivot point between the kitchen, staircase, front entry and open living spaces on the first floor. Photo by Stacy Zarin Goldberg.

Classy Cottage

2,073 square feet

“I like living in a smaller home,” Andy Liverman says of the Ashton Heights cottage he shares with his wife, Cathy. “It’s nice and compact. You can be in your own separate zones, but can easily meet in the middle for meals!”

The empty-nester couple moved to Arlington after selling their tech company and vacating a larger house in Herndon.

Cathy’s preferred hangout is a cozy living area at the front of the house, with its abundant windows, fireplace and built-in bookshelves; Andy is often just steps away in an adjacent family room.


Photo by Stacy Zarin Goldberg.

“The house needed a lot of TLC,” says remodeler Michael Winn, who updated the 1925 abode for the Livermans in 2017. “We took it down to its framing before opening up the floor plan. Its footprint is small, so to take full advantage of all the spaces, we gave each space more than one function.”


Fairfax Marble & Granite supplied the Cambria quartz island countertop. Photos by Stacy Zarin Goldberg.


Navy blue is a unifying accent color throughout the house. Benjamin Moore’s “Hale Navy” is a wall color that’s repeated in more than one spot. Photo by Stacy Zarin Goldberg.

The mudroom, for example, doubles as a laundry room. And while the house has no formal dining room, there are plenty of places to enjoy a meal, whether it’s at the small table tucked into the family room, the bar seats at the kitchen island, or on the back porch in nice weather.

Gutting the original house allowed the couple to allocate more square footage where they needed it and less where they didn’t. They deliberately devoted a little extra wiggle room to the kitchen, which acts as a central hub.

“The new kitchen didn’t need to be large but it needed to multitask,” Winn says. “The island is for food prep and has storage, but it also serves as an eat-in bar for two, or as a place for buffet service for bigger gatherings.”

“We enjoy having less clutter and being more purposeful with our use of space,” Cathy says. “For us, it’s more relaxing and enjoyable.”



Project Credit: Winn Design + Build Falls Church,



A small, circular cocktail table from Random Harvest is easy to navigate around and doesn’t impede traffic flow. Photo by Robert Radifera.

Row House Proud

1,100 square feet

Yes, a family of five can live happily in 1,100 square feet, contends Kristin Try, owner of Gingham & Grosgrain Fine Art & Interiors.

She and her husband, Greg, share a Del Ray row house with their three daughters, ages 6, 8 and 12. They’ve lived there since 2005.


The dining nook’s built-in banquette includes lower storage for cookbooks and kitchen appliances. The end chairs are from Red Barn Mercantile in Old Town Alexandria. Photo by Robert Radifera.


“We love living in a smaller home,” says the designer, who also does fine art paintings on commission—from a studio in the same little house, no less. “The key to making it work was reconfiguring the former kitchen and dining room to create one open space for spending quality time with family and friends.”

Working with Brian Elias of Equity Renovations, and within the home’s existing footprint, Try removed a nonstructural wall between the kitchen and dining room to make the communal areas less compartmentalized.

“The important thing was keeping circulation flowing, so I also chose to do a kitchen island instead of a peninsula,” she adds.


Space-savers in the kitchen include a tall, narrow Bosch fridge (designed for tight spaces) and a built-in cubby for the toaster oven. Ceiling fixtures by Circa Lighting. Photos by Robert Radifera.


A Pottery Barn secretary marks the transition from foyer to living room and can serve as a desk, a bar or a buffet serving area. Try wallpapered the backs of the upper cabinets for visual interest. Photo by Robert Radifera.

There’s a lot packed into that tidy island—including a sink, dishwasher, 16-inch-deep pantry, built-in spice rack, utensil drawers and more—which Try designed with professional organizer Rachel Rosenthal.

While it may be small, the kitchen is crafted with top-grade materials. The custom oak cabinets are finished in matte-gray paint, and the countertops and backsplash are marble.

Other furnishings are equally thoughtful. Just beyond the island, an antique trestle dining table sidles up to a built-in window seat that doubles as a banquette. “We can seat eight to 10 people for a party,” Try says. “It’s also where the girls do their homework while I make dinner.”

The adjoining living room also serves multiple functions. It contains a sofa and chair for lounging or entertaining, plus a tall secretary, which can do double duty as a desk or bar.

“Ours is a cozy, happy home,” Try says, “and shows that quality can exist even in the smallest of spaces.”


Project Credit: Gingham & Grosgrain, Alexandria,; Rachel & Co., Bethesda,; Equity Renovations, Arlington,


A transparent Lucite cocktail table makes the living room feel airy and open. Streamlined armchairs from Ballard Designs can swivel to face the TV or the sofa. Photo by Robert Radifera.

Divine Duplex

1,296 square feet

In 2018, Sandra Hale moved from a five-bedroom, 5,000-square-foot house in Donaldson Run to a sunny, two-bedroom duplex in the heart of Maywood.

“I downsized to lessen the financial burden and upkeep of a larger home,” says Hale, a widow who is retired. “There’s also a freedom that comes from having fewer things to care for.”


The master bedroom’s right-size furnishings include a narrow grass cloth desk from Palecek and antique side tables from the owner’s former home. The slim legs maintain a feeling of breathing room. Photo by Robert Radifera.


Transparent acrylic chair legs and corner shelves, and a clear glass chandelier give the dining area a sense of lightness. Photo by Robert Radifera.

To make the move seamless, she turned to the mother-daughter design team of Nancy Powell and Bethany Brower. Hale’s previous house had been furnished with many large pieces that simply wouldn’t fit in her new home. Plus, she wanted a cleaner look.

“The overall concept was to keep everything open, bright and uncluttered,” explains Powell, who painted most of the walls a light color and replaced the home’s wood-laminate and carpeted floors with white oak hardwood. An Oriental rug that Hale already owned became a jumping-off point for a new palette—neutrals accented with raspberry-reds and blues.

From there, the designers went with fresh furnishings. “We incorporated lots of mirrored elements and acrylic pieces that reflect light and enlarge the space,” Powell says. Upholstered Caracole dining chairs with transparent acrylic legs seemingly float around a cherry dining table. Hale has additional acrylic folding chairs that she brings out for parties.

“I really love, love, love living small in a simple style, with elegant touches,” she says. “It’s a new beginning for me.”


Project Credit: Powell Brower Interiors, Manassas,



Thibaut wallpaper and a rattan bench create a welcoming foyer. A circular wall mirror makes the vestibule feel larger than it really is. Photo by Barry Harley.

Cape Cod Charm

2,600 square feet

Regan and Bill Davis bought their Falls Church City home in 2003 after they got engaged. Three kids later, the tiny footprint of the 1942 Cape Cod no longer worked for them. They wanted a bigger house, but not a giant one.

“As our family grew, so did our ties to the community. For us the idea of moving to a different neighborhood was never a possibility,” Regan says. So in 2016, they took the plunge and renovated.


Peale was careful not to overstuff the small parlor with too much furniture. A new area rug complements a small-scaled sofa and a pair of rattan-backed chairs. Photos by Barry Harley.


Architect Scott Williams and remodeler Rob Lancaster (Oyster Builders) put a 1,500-square-foot addition on the existing 1,100-square-foot  house and reconfigured the main level.

“Our goal was to move the bedrooms upstairs—we had two down and one up—away from our main living space,” Regan says, “and then increase the size of our kitchen and family room, where we spend most of our time.”


The makeover didn’t require all new furniture. The family’s existing sectional sofa now serves as a neutral anchor for patterned elements such as ikat-print Duralee drapes and a Momeni rug with a geometric design. Photos by Barry Harley.


A custom window seat has storage drawers underneath. The niche is accented with “Magic Ginkgo” wallpaper from WallsNeedLove and throw pillows in the same color scheme. Photo by Barry Harley.

In 2018, the couple hired architect Charles Moore to further define the new layout with details such as decorative beams and moldings. Then they brought in designer Erica Peale to give the interiors more character and vibrancy through soft furnishings.

“Regan and Bill love color and pattern,” Peale says. “Most people think that’s overwhelming in a smaller home, but color and pattern can actually complement a small space and make it warm and cozy.”

In this case, bold patterns in varying sizes and shapes—in elements ranging from window treatments and rugs to wallpaper and accent pillows—make even modest little spaces feel like precious vignettes.






Project Credit: Erica Peale Design, Arlington,; Moore Architects, Falls Church,; Oyster Builders, Oakton,; Williams Design Group, Clifton,


Charlotte Safavi, a writer and stylist, lives in Alexandria with her husband and son.


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