Living far from home, it's inevitable that my family and I host a lot of guests: parents, siblings, the family of six we met last year on vacation, who are "just passing through" for a week. We're reasonably equipped, with enormous bunk beds for the children to share, a double air bed and a convertible sofa in the den. Though my husband can't bear to sleep on it himself, we're often compelled to when a grandparent arrives with a bad back and a penchant for guilt.
This time of year, especially, I'd rather share my home with the entire Salvation Army band than leave my sofa to get on a plane. Having a house full of people at the holidays is the whole point of said holidays – a treat to look forward to, laundry aside.
My experiences on the other side, conversely, have not always been a treat. We've been lured to "come stay" with central locations, keys to the car, even offers to babysit. But a guest room? Not so much. "Follow us," our hosts urge, hauling our bags downstairs (surely as disappointing a direction as turning right on an airplane). "Just push aside that stroller. Watch out for stray Lego. And don't mind the kitty-litter smell."
I've slept in more children's beds than is proper, on blow-up mattresses that deflate through the night, been bitten by bedbugs, licked by puppies and tackled by toddlers. But at least it was behind closed doors.
Last year I spent a week on a camp mattress in a hallway outside the bathroom of a colossal, just-renovated house. The hostess was so delighted with the set-up, I hadn't the nerve to tell her I could hear her shaving in the shower.
If you have grown kids, in-laws, siblings abroad … even if your door is darkened but once a year by a backpacking nephew: You've got to make space for them – say, enough to swing a kitty without stepping in its litter.
Of course, not all of us have a spare room to fill. It's a luxury even to have a combination home office, den and children's play room to work with. "It's a rare occurrence when someone has enough room to devote to a guest," says Karen Cole of ColeDesign Studio in Toronto.
"But it's great to at least have a space that's away from things."
The ideal, Cole says, would be the illusion of B&B-style accommodation: high-thread-count linens, L'Occitane toiletries in the ensuite bathroom, window shades, slippers and, yes, a door. The reality is more often a repurposed cupboard with fluorescent lighting and a bathroom shared by two toddlers and a potty.
Cole offers some tips for wedging in extra bodies, however. In her own home she's equipped a small room at the top of the stairs, like a glorified landing, with wide pocket doors, a small desk, wall storage, a reading chair and an armoire with a mirror – "a key ingredient for a guest room."
When she's alone in the house, it's a place to sit, work or watch TV. Twin beds against the wall can be pushed together. "I use a featherbed [mattress topper] to put on top to join the divide," she says. "Together, the two beds become a king."
For clients, Cole has an ace up her sleeve: banquettes. If you've got just a foot of depth on the edge of a room, you could have space for one … or more. "I usually make them extra deep and will often do a pull-out beneath. It looks like drawer, but it's a surface that you can top with a matching cushion."
If the hallway is all the space you've got, though, there are ways to get around it. "Cordon it off for people," says Cole. "Install a track in the ceiling and keep a thick curtain in storage to hang on the track when someone's there."
Cole says she's kept every curtain ever removed from a window in her house. "When they're closed, it creates the sense of a private space." Behind the curtain, you could mount a Murphy bed so it folds down from the side. "Think of it like being on a boat. On a 29-foot boat you can create a piece of space that's completely yours."
"Almost every room can incorporate a small ottoman that unfolds into a single bed," says Deb Nelson, a Halifax-based decorator and stylist. "Or a foam mattress you can push under a bed and pull out for guests."
She recommends keeping a stash of mattresses from defunct cribs, banquettes or window seats. "If you're expecting children, they're not too concerned with quality."
Nelson's guest-bed pin-up is from a magazine that featured one bedroom split into two. A wall comes halfway into the room to conceal a single bed on one side and a queen on the other. Both areas have built-in shelving and side tables. It's something that could easily be built from one side of a chimney breast, or mocked-up with a folding screen or a bookcase on casters.
Sound like fun? It should, because a guest space gives you licence to let loose, design-wise, even at the expense of your guests. Cole proposes wallpapering everything, "even the ceiling," or painting the walls a colour you wouldn't dream of elsewhere.
You could take all those old family photographs that have come off the living-room walls and group them together in a shrine to … yourself. "In a guest room you have a captive audience," Cole reminds me.
It's not all "cabinet of curiosities," though. Cole says, "A spare room is also a fun place to experiment with bedside lighting, or pendants that hang on either side of the bed, something more romantic."
I'm on board. My husband, I have to say, has gone overboard. Visions of Cole's B&B are dancing in his head and our family den is at stake. "Stop!" I say, my superstitions taking over. "If we're too prepared, we may scare off the guests entirely."
But what I really mean is the opposite. If you build it, they will come. And they may not ever leave.
A place to sleep. For inspiration, Deb Nelson checks out the New York company Sit Down NY and the Danish manufacturer Innovation Living. They have dozens of convertible sofas, love seats and ottomans "that look like something you'd get at ABC Carpet & Home." Karen Cole's go-to is the Comfort Sleeper collection by American Leather, which you can get through the Chesterfield Shop in Toronto. I like the Richmond, B.C., company Mobler for chairs that unroll into single beds.
A comfortable place to sleep. A featherbed or an extra duvet under the fitted sheet go a long way toward making a surface tolerable.
Technology. Charging cords, docking stations and easy access to WiFi passwords. The world is changing. These things are as important to guests as a hot shower. Set it all up beforehand so you aren't scrambling at midnight.
Local guide books and maps.
Repurposed furniture. A guest space should have a bedside table and a lamp, even a side chair for draping clothes in the absence of a closet. Give those tired old pieces a coat of paint and put them to work.
NICE TO HAVE
Trundle beds. "Families should expect to all pile in together," Cole says, "but if the host has kids, too, the ideal scenario would be to have trundle beds – if it's not imposing on their kids." If the host children have double beds and can handle sharing for a few nights, that will free up a bed for another body.
Extra pillows and blankets. Best to offer a choice.
Blinds on the windows. They make a big difference for visitors with jet lag.
Magazines and books. Keep reading material, with a local theme, stacked on the bedside table.
Fine linens. These go a long way toward making a guest forget that the mattress belongs in an army tent. Ditto plush towels fluffed up in the dryer.
Snacks. A pitcher of water and a tea kettle with glasses and mugs, plus a packet of cookies or nuts. Do you want guests banging cupboards when they're up in the middle of the night with jet lag? Thought not.
A basket of luxury toiletries. Pull out that basket where mini-bottles of Molton Brown moisturizer go to die.
An ensuite bathroom. You're not building one just so your backpacking nephew can do his business in private; you're building one because it's a good investment in your home.