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With Some Creativity, Big Things Can Happen in the Smallest of Places

October 22, 2000|From Washington Post

The most frequently asked question by readers is how to make tiny rooms look and function bigger than they are.

Interior designer Skip Sroka of Bethesda, Md., proved to be the right person to turn to for ideas. Faced with frequent business trips to Manhattan, he and his partner leased a pint-size pied-a-terre, a 485-square-foot studio apartment.

It was, he says, one room "with the world's smallest bathroom and kitchenette." It also was an opportunity to put some space-stretching ideas to the test. "We used swing-arm lamps to free up tables," he says. "We kept down clutter. We stuffed our dressers in a closet."

They used light-reflecting mirrors and silver paint to make the bathroom look bigger than it was. They were careful with color, paid attention to lighting and made furniture do double duty. It all paid off in a big way.

Sroka says one cure for a claustrophobic room is a monochromatic color scheme. "When you use the same color on the walls, the floor and ceiling, the corners disappear. The mind implies a larger space than the one that's there," he says.

While this is true with any color--even dark colors--light tones will make a room feel even more expansive.

"It's one thing to have a nice big house and an intimate library that you paint deep green or blue, because you have other rooms to go to," Sroka says. "But when the only space you have is small and you've made the whole thing chocolate brown, coming home is like crawling into a black hole."

In his New York apartment, he chose a tawny off-white paint, a pale Berber carpet and had the dark wood floors bleached.

He also kept pattern to a minimum. In diminutive rooms, he says, a solid background is more restful than pattern. For those who really want a pattern, he suggests vertical stripes, which can make a small, low-ceilinged space seem taller. Pouring on the light also can make rooms look bigger--especially when it's directed at the ceiling and walls.

Like many apartments, Sroka's had a windowless back wall. To compensate for the lack of light, he used a mix of halogen fixtures, chosen because they cast white beams that mimic sunlight. Wall sconces, which were open at the top, lit up the ceiling. And adjustable ceiling track lights, clipped onto thin, current-bearing wires, freed floor and table space while illuminating the room below. To make the most of the natural light from the front windows while maintaining privacy, Sroka installed translucent Hunter Douglas Duette shades, but anchored them to the sill instead of the top of the window. "Upside-down shades let in light from the neck up," he says.

When every square inch counts, flexible furniture that's easy to move around is the way to go, says Sroka. A sleep sofa was one of the few fixed pieces in his New York space. The TV sat on a cart that could be rolled into a closet. The coffee table had a top that came off to use as a serving tray and a base that could be folded up and stashed out of sight. A rectangular table worked as a desk and became a dining table when surrounded with folding chairs. Ready-made slipcovers dress the folding chairs for company dinner.

Other furnishings that can do double duty: a flip-top ottoman can provide an extra seat as well as hidden storage; a chest of drawers can double as a bedside table; a window seat can be both additional seating and spare bed.

Sroka says even the smallest space needs one grand gesture: maybe a monumental mirror or one giant painting. Or Sroka's solution--a pedestal topped by a bust of Alexander the Great. Made of plastic, the bust was painted purple when he bought it for $20. He spray-painted it cream and, years later, had it professionally faux-marbled. "I still have it," he says. "Unless you pick it up, you'd never know it wasn't the real thing."

"In a small space, think about what you can do--not what you can't do," says Sroka. "We made the apartment work. We had friends over all the time. I loved going there."

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