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Designing a small space, like this 1,100-square-foot, three-bedroom condo, can be a conjuring trick. It's all about directing - and, when need be, misdirecting - the eye. (Photo by Barry Calhoun)
Designing a small space, like this 1,100-square-foot, three-bedroom condo, can be a conjuring trick. It's all about directing - and, when need be, misdirecting - the eye. (Photo by Barry Calhoun)

Small condo? Think big Add to ...

Downsizing from the family home to a condominium needn't make you feel as though you're moving into your car. By understanding space and how it works, you can make even a small space feel roomy and accommodating.

We've just finished decorating an 1100-square-foot, three-bedroom condo in a lush neighbourhood near the University of British Columbia. The clients, 20-year residents of Vancouver's west side, came to a decision familiar to empty-nesters across Canada. With their daughter away at university, was it time to dispense with the big yard and house, the regimen of near-constant maintenance? Indeed, it was.

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But there was a wrinkle, and it had to do with transition. Moving into a tiny condo from a house with double the square footage presented several challenges. The biggest: how to go from an XL to an S without feeling squeezed.

Design-wise, a constrained area means high stakes. Arm yourself with these four tips for getting the most out of your small-space condo.

Keep furniture low and avoid visual obstructions

When you want to exaggerate the spaciousness of a room, your goal is to make it feel tall. It's a case of glass half full, glass half empty - literally. The room is the vessel, and you want furnishings like whisky - two fingers, neat, pinned by gravity to the bottom of the glass.

In the UBC condo, the main living area gave onto floor-to-ceiling windows. Although it's best to avoid obstructing windows, we had no choice but to do it. The good news for condo-dwellers is that the lowest third of your view - streetscape, concrete ledge, or, in our case, stone-clad deck railing - is usually unimportant. We designed a low sofa (back height of 34 inches) and upholstered it in a soft neutral to match the walls.

The exception to our Keep it Low dictum is the chandelier. Lighting is always tricky in an open-plan design with sweeping views beyond its windows. You want a piece whose structure is forceful enough to make a statement, but its substance can't block sight lines. The answer, clearly, is chandeliers that let light through (the one in the photo is the Twiggy Chandelier 2097 by Flos.) To this end, go with slender glass cylinders or balls - or chandeliers with wiry, diaphanous frames. Avoid at all costs drum lights or frosted glass orbs. Both will only jar the eye and disrupt the room.

Keel the walls quiet

The idea here is to keep the inessential elements of the room speaking sotto voce. In an open floor plan, you want two things: brightness, and the blurring of walls, openings, ceilings, and windows. There's no point in creating visual density when your space is small. In the UBC condo we coloured the walls a soft oyster-coloured neutral. Then, using a low-sheen latex - no glare - we painted the baseboards, doors, and millwork the same hue. The like colours reduce the room's visible lines, eliminating clutter and focusing attention on the two highlights: the art and the view.

Buy a slipper chair

A slipper chair has a low back and no arms, and is one of the best investments condo-dwellers can make. The piece, like a coffee cup, succeeds because of what it lacks, namely, bulk and heft. Undemanding visually and deliciously lightweight, the chair comes in many shapes and styles. You'll want a modern model in a small condo - the Barcelona chair is an excellent choice. The one we used here - the Flexus Fireside, by Ligne Roset - is my favourite. Its slim frame and open legs allow light to pass beneath it. And it's beautiful from all angles - particularly from behind, where you can enjoy its back of webbed leather.

Create neighbourhoods

Too many condo-owners duck the challenge an open floor plan poses. Fearing that visual competition will result from varying styles in close quarters, they design for the entire unit as if it were a single entity, creating one bland suburb where there might have stood several distinct neighbourhoods.

A better plan is to imbue each cluster of furniture with its own character, and draw a defining element of one vignette into the others. In the UBC condo, the kitchen didn't have much to distinguish it, and so we didn't modify it, except by adding black bar stools. That was the element we picked up in the dining area, in the oak table with ebony stain and the chandelier's exposed black wires.

The chairs in the dining room were the vehicles we used to go crosstown, so to speak, creating a bold contrast to the other forms and colours in the home. We invested in six of designer Philippe Starck's 245 Caprice chairs, at a cost of more than $1,000 each. The chairs have a tantalizing curve, and legs like unicorn horns, impossibly slim and provocative. As a neighbourhood, they represent a passage from broad lawns and well-heeled refinement into the nightclub glitter and glam.

There you have it - a few easy tricks for condo-dwellers to expand their feeling of space and of home. I hope you find them helpful. Remember, designing for small spaces is a conjuring trick. It's about directing - and, when need be, misdirecting - the eye.

 

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