Designing for Small Spaces Is a Big Deal

Christopher Grubb, star of HGTV’s Small Space, Big Style program, reveals the hidden opportunities that modest spaces provide for lighting and home décor retailers. By Linda Longo

[dropcap]W[/dropcap]hen it comes to designing for tight quarters, interior designer Christopher Grubb – president of Beverly Hills-based Arch-Interiors Design Group Inc., and owner/lead product designer for The C.G. Collection of products and furnishings for the home – had plenty of experience to share with the retailer audience at his Las Vegas Market seminar.

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Jessica Charles-Angie Sleeper Sofa

Right now, demographics are playing an opportune role in the growing importance of small spaces: Baby Boomers are looking to downsize for convenience sake as they become senior citizens, and Millennials are choosing condos in major cities as their first living space as working professionals.

“I don’t believe in trends; I believe in movements,” Grubb explained. “Millennials are waiting longer than previous generations to have children, therefore smaller spaces are fine for them.”

There is a common assumption that Millennials all want “smart” homes, but Grubb has observed something different. “They are used to technology changing so fast that they are constantly having to update their phones and TVs. I don’t see many young homebuyers asking for smart homes, and perhaps it’s because they fear the systems will be obsolete quickly. Millennials want environmentally friendly products, so weave that into the narrative when selling to this demographic instead. They are looking for better quality,” he noted.

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“I don’t subscribe to the ‘darker rooms make a space feel smaller’ adage. I think it makes a small room look more intimate.”


Small Space Style

When it comes to homeowner preferences today, “natural light is a big deal,” according to Grubb. “As open floor plans have become more popular, the living room has been sacrificed while the entryway has become larger to make more of a visual statement,” he remarked. “I consider ‘living rooms’ to be on the endangered species list.”

“I don’t subscribe to the ‘darker rooms make a space feel smaller’ adage. I think it makes a small room look more intimate,” Grubb stated. He also likes placing bookcases against the wall, behind sofas, to add visual movement that brings the eye up vertically.

There are several design techniques he employs to help visually enlarge a space. “I think having zero thresholds always makes a room look larger, especially in homes with universal/aging-in-place design,” he commented. “I will also use cantilevered cabinets that can be moved when necessary, for example, to permit wheelchair access.”

In kitchens, “everyone is getting stainless fatigue. Putting panels on the appliance doors (i.e. refrigerators, dishwashers etc.) makes the room look bigger,” Grubb added. “I also like to use sconces in small spaces, especially tall ones, because it makes the room seem larger.”

Specifying neutral colors also aids in the illusion of a larger space. “Where we will put color is on a rug or perhaps slipcovers for the sofa so the clients can quickly update it with a spring/winter look,” he suggested.

In bedrooms, Grubb opts for swing-arm, wall-mounted lighting fixtures instead of large table lamps on the nightstand. “For bathrooms, I’m doing a lot of half-drawers and floating vanities. I hate fully mirrored walls, but I’ll do a mirror with a frame around it. By specifying taller bathroom mirrors, the room appears bigger,” he said.

One of the simplest ways to achieve a more spacious look is to cantilever the furniture. “Keep things off the floor,” he advised. For clients who want to display something special without taking up much room, Grubb likes to create a niche into the wall. Having stepped or floating shelves is another way to maintain the illusion of more space.

Multi-Functional Furniture

When it comes to furniture, Grubb prefers low furniture that helps make a room seem larger plus accent, cocktail, and bar tables that have a slim profile. “I like using a lot of stools; it’s my signature,” he remarked. Transparent glass as a table top is another space-enlarging technique. “Glass tops on tables don’t optically block one’s eye,” he explained. For the coffee table, Grubb looks for styles that have one large drawer than can be opened from either side for convenience.

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“I love using nesting tables when designing for small spaces,” Grubb commented. “I also do a lot of tables with two shelves for storage, and I like tucking in ottomans under tables until they are needed.” If possible, open-backed dining chairs are a style that can visually expand the room by not stopping the eye with a solid block of color.

“A lot of builders are adding amenities to apartments, such as communal kitchens and common outdoor entertaining areas,” Grubb said. “In addition to having outdoor fabric in those areas, we’ve also specified outdoor fabric for the indoor furniture. It’s great if you have kids or pets!”

As the grandson of a successful gift store owner, Grubb shared a few techniques that his grandmother used. “The perception was that her store was expensive, so she put a few items at the entrance that were at affordable price points. That way, when people came in, they’d see the price and think, ‘Oh, I can afford to shop here.’ Remember to romance whatever it is you are selling,” he emphasized.

“Accessorizing your design projects is the most work, but it’s one of the most important things,” Grubb stated. “When we go to photograph a project, I often bring in accessories. Once they’re there for the shoot, they typically end up staying there for good because now the client wants them. Designers, find a showroom partner who can help you accessorize your projects. Show the staff what the palette of the room is and pay them a service fee to bring over a van-load of accessories. Lighting stores, here’s the opportunity to highlight some really cool lighting fixtures or lamps that you have.”

Grubb also advised retailers to organize designer-created vignettes and student design displays inside the showroom as a community event to raise awareness for a cause. Such partnerships are a great way to connect your store and the design community with the consumer. 

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