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Small spaces, big ideas


Believe or not, it can take more creativity to plan a small room than a large one. Thatís obvious when you look at some of the big mistakes people make when they attempt to design their small spaces, according to local experts.

1. Take it Away

Cramming too much into a small room is high on the list of designer "doníts." A single large piece of furniture can actually make a small space feel bigger, as long as it is carefully selected. "Pull something out; donít overwhelm the space," says Bill Koehnlein of Collaborative Design in Waukesha. This idea also translates to accessories. "A coffee table covered with many small items is too much," says Sharon Beste of 1340 Design in Cedarburg. "A single large vase or glass bowl is a much better idea."

2. Proportion and Scale

Scaling back the size of the furniture to match the size of a room is also important. "I frequently see people buying things that donít look good in a smaller space," Koehnlein says. "Something as simple as the arm width on a couch or chair can create a big change. Going from an 8-inch arm to a 3- or 4-inch arm makes a world of difference," he says.

3. Multifunction

When you have a smaller home or loft, consider all of the uses for each room, says Ed Miller of E. Miller and Associates in Cedarburg. "Making the maximum use of a space by getting creative is the key," he says. For example, figure out a way to hide a desk or a table when you arenít using it. If you canít go horizontal, go vertical, Miller says. "Put storage in any available place. In a small bathroom, place storage cabinets all the way up to the ceiling or even above a bathtub," he says. When you have one open room ó such as you often do in condominiums or studio apartments ó donít be afraid to be creative, he says. Divide a room geometrically into task-oriented zones ó working, sleeping, relaxing and dining. "People are afraid of an open space, especially if you are used to separate rooms. But you can use movable partitions or bookshelves to separate the space into different areas if you like, without making the space look too chopped up," he says. Using glass tables and shelves that allow light to pass through can make a small space look less cluttered. "You can create a transparent architectural barrier," Miller says.

4. Shed Some Light

"One thing I see all the time is improper lighting," Koehnlein says. "How you light a small room really affects the way it appears. Raise light fixtures higher to draw the eye up and to splash light on the ceiling," he says. And, try placing indirect lighting in the corners.

5. Reflecting Space

Itís not a new idea, but the use of mirrors can make a smaller space look larger simply by adding the illusion of more space, says Koehnlein. Speaking of reflection, hardwood floors with a high-gloss shine or floor tile can be a plus in a small space. Instead of absorbing light as carpets do, shiny floors reflect the light.

6. Be a Drama Queen

"Iím all for adding a little drama to a space," Beste says. "I redesigned a small galley kitchen in a loft. The room had a lot of grainy cabinets and decorative hardware along with a lot of faux greenery hanging above the cabinets. We put in some simple white cabinets with glass knobs and we painted the walls a little different shade of white," she says. "For some drama, we added a small crystal chandelier and it worked out great." Koehnlein agrees, "If someone wants drama in their home, a small bathroom or powder room is a perfect place for it, especially if it has a high ceiling."

7. Add Some Color

Donít fall for the old idea that small rooms canít be painted dark colors, say the experts. Dark colors can really open up a space. "Iíve put dark gray on the walls of a small powder room," Koehnlein says. "If you have the proper lighting to balance the darkness, it can make the room look larger."

8. Take Chances

You donít have to play it safe with color or pattern in a small home. You can have bold prints on upholstery or on wallpaper. In fact, it can be easier to experiment in smaller spaces because thereís less of a commitment. Using large floor tile in a small bathroom or kitchen is OK, too, says Koehnlein. "Try laying the tile on a 45-degree angle," he says. On the other hand, donít go crazy trying to define spaces with different types of flooring, Miller says. "Trying to combine too many different materials can be a big mistake," he says. Using tile in one part of a loft or condominium, then hardwood in another, can look too busy. Itís better to use area rugs or seating arrangements to define a space.

9. Strategize

Of all the mistakes people make designing a small home, the biggest is not taking the time to plan. "Make scaled-to-size cutouts of your furniture and lay it out before you bring in anything," Miller says. "Itís the best way to determine what is going to fit." Working within small confines requires a new perspective, but it could yield some interesting results.