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Before I even start with furniture, I try to understand the character of the empty space. I interrogate the house or apartment in the same way I question clients. How does light enter the space? Are the ceilings high or low? What are the architectural features? Where are the views? Do the walls need to be reconfigured? The idea is to turn deficits into assets, and emphasize the existing pluses.
The designers I admire most treat interior space as a kind of three-dimensional frame for furniture that they deploy like sculpture. In order to make that work, I first have to establish the clarity of a room's volume. I'm not sentimental about decoration, so I just strip out moldings if they're weak. Often all they do is add extra lines you really don't want to see. Even the modest contractor molding around doors and floors in bland 1950s houses can distract the eye. Similarly, I remove valances that hang above windows at awkward heights. I'm ruthless about stripping away what seem like well-intended details when they interfere with the unity of the room. I want to get down to a clean, well-proportioned shell.
Some rooms have real architectural problems. A jittery floor plan, with walls moving in and out and forming awkward alcoves and niches, weakens the volume and takes away that sense of boundary against which a piece of furniture needs to play. Strong pieces deserve a good backdrop. If a room isn't regular, square it by filling in alcoves, for example, with closets or bookcases. A running shelf gives a wall a horizontal line that can help belt the space, making it feel tighter and more contained. Making the space square or rectangular gives a sense of containment; with defined boundaries, a room somehow looks bigger.
You can further push the sense of a room being one big space by wrapping its walls, ceilings, and floors in a single color. Even if the floor plan is not so simple, you can give the appearance of unity-and expand the room-with a monochromatic palette that masks many sins. Blend the windows into the walls with shades the color of the walls. The strategy helps establish a continuity. Complete the wrapping of a room by bleaching or staining the floor, or laying a wall-to-wall carpet to match. The floors simply disappear into the walls and ceiling; you don't really know where one ends and the other begins.
By neutralizing the perimeter and keeping everything off the pale walls, the space seems to expand forever, creating a feeling of lightness, spareness, and calm, even in rooms with a full quota of furniture.Wraparound color, especially if it's white, sets off the furniture-and people-and liberates the pieces so that they float away from the wall, toward the center. A clean light shell looks modern.
Correcting a run-of-the-mill room with no "there" there can sometimes be done with design moves halfway between architecture and furniture. When you're sitting in a living room with a view of the dining table, you're looking at an absence, a room waiting to happen. The emptiness drains off the energy because the whole space feels less than full. If an open plan is too undefined, subdivide the space with a freestanding wall, perhaps with a built-in cabinet on one side, to give more definition, intimacy, and a little mystery to each side.
Give better definition to a room by bracketing either end with the same piece of furniture-a screen, mirror, or a pair of anything big enough to read across the space.When you have simplified the shell, what's left really matters. You can make a lot of moves that influence the architecture without ever committing the house to major surgery. And when a room is disciplined, pure, and clear, it invites the grand gesture and the broad stroke.
Simple solutions to tight spaces
A lot of 1950s-style houses are coming up for renovation, and their low horizon line inside makes them constraining. In my house in Montauk, I stripped the rooms completely, taking out the baseboards and contractor molding. I took out the header over the door into the living room to give the low ceilings some verticality, and to create continuity between rooms. Then I broke out the satin paint. I lacquered all the hallways, so that the walls reflected off each other, and then buffed the ceilings to a satin sheen. With the reflections, you don't know where the ceiling stops and the walls begin. This gives the illusion of height. I don't recommend a high gloss on the floors because it's not going to last and it shows all the dust. I'd rather see shiny ceilings, which take your eyes up, than shiny floors, which take your eyes down. When I want to raise the ceiling visually, I use window treatments that go all the way up in the space above the window, to give a room that extra lift and to make the wall continuous, floor to ceiling. That helps the wrap.
One of my most interesting projects was a Greenwich Village studio apartment that measured only seventeen by twenty-two feet, but had a thirteen-foot-high ceiling. When I walked into the room, it felt like a perfect cube. My strategy was to do just enough to bring out its character while retaining the original charm and scope of the space. The apartment still had the original crown moldings and baseboards, which in New York after a century of paint jobs can be a mixed blessing. I cleaned them up and upgraded the flawed sections without elaborating. There was no need to beef up the moldings. I wasn't "restoring" the apartment to make it look older or more genteel; age wasn't the most exciting aspect of this space. I was trying to clarify its physical stature. Too much molding would have trivialized the space with pretension.
All it needed was a few touches. I lined the open-weave linen curtains with a black fabric. This formed a graphic stripe at the edge, which guided the eye up like a gestural line drawing in space. A Parentisi floor-to-ceiling lamp accentuated the height with another, finer line. The idea was to activate the full volume of the space, even in its upper reaches, expanding the apparent size of the room.
Then, as though it were a big bowl of space, I floated objects inside. Too many pieces would have made it impossible to appreciate the clarity and integrity of the space, but luckily my client had a connoisseur's eye. He already owned an intriguing mix of objects that hopscotched continents and decades-French art deco, eighteenth-century English, contemporary African. I composed them into self-contained vignettes so as not to clutter the space. The bed, heaped with pillows, became a luxurious sofa during the day. Its tall black wrought-iron frame-hung with more diaphanous linen the minimalist's version of a canopied four-poster-reiterated the dimensions of the space, creating a virtual cube within the cube.
Few of us live in rooms that aspire to such height, but even tight spaces can be significantly improved. In a way, it is more gratifying to reinvent a contractor-built 1960s beach house or a cramped apartment in a vanilla building than a house already equipped with gorgeous bones and aristocratic bearing-not that I'm ready to give those up. When you're fortunate enough to be working on a great space, sometimes it's more interesting to hold yourself back. Like a beautiful woman who knows not to overdress, you can play down the space and let the natural features come through. You're complementing the space, not starting over.
Posted January 6, 2010
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Posted April 14, 2009
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