Spatial Specialists Share Big Ideas 
for Getting the Most Out of Small Spaces


Smaller can be better — but it takes some creative noodling to make it happen. Local interior designers and staging experts give tips.

My new home office is a cozy 3-foot by 5-foot nook tucked between two dormers in the kitchen. It has a sunny window and a high ceiling, shelves for books and supplies, a built-in surface for a desk and a set of bins on casters tucked underneath to hold files. Moving from a 2,000+ square foot home to a 650-square foot second-floor apartment has changed my perspective on all kinds of things, and necessitated that I think outside the big box when it comes to my living and working space. Smaller can be better — but it takes some creative noodling to make it happen. 

Val Nunnenkamp can be a miracle worker in this department. Nunnenkamp works his magic by transforming dismayingly small living spaces into desirable buying opportunities as a realtor and home staging pro for Prudential Fox and Roach in South Jersey. Double-duty furniture, a well-placed mirror and eye-catching color are a few of his favorite tools.

“The first thing I do when somebody is looking to sell a 900-square foot condo: move most of the furniture out,” he said. “The television goes on the wall, and we get a large, 4-foot by 6-foot mirror to lean against the wall in a corner to add the illusion of space.” The oversized sofa is out, replaced by a love seat and chair, and a tall standing lamp pushes light to the ceiling. A vividly colored throw rug is another trick for adding depth to the center of the space. 

In a small galley kitchen, Nunnenkamp banishes all hanging pots and bulky light fixtures, paints the room an airy celadon or buttercup and installs a small portable bar with two barstools for seating. Recessed lighting or a sleek pendant lamp adds light without taking up space. For the bedroom, a bed with built-in storage, losing nightstands altogether and utilizing recessed or hanging lighting makes the best use of compact real estate. “There are plenty of ways to get the most out of a room without making it feel claustrophobic,” he said.

Multitasking your spaces

As design director for Marguerite Rodgers for the past 18 years, Nina Pritzker Cohen has worked on restaurants and other commercial spaces, but her focus is on residential design. Like most of us, Pritzker Cohen is an experienced multitasker, and she expects nothing less from the spaces on which she works. 

She remembers one Center City condo that was billed as having three bedrooms, but the reality was more like two bedrooms and a closet. “We tore down the wall in between the two small bedrooms to create a bedroom/office space,” she said. In a Federal townhouse, the owners wanted a space for creative craft and sewing projects. A built-in cubby for the sewing machine and supplies and a trundle bed with storage solved the problem. “Assigning just one function to a room isn’t always practical,” she said. She’s also a fan of using a desk in a bedroom in lieu of a bedside table, and varying the size of side tables in the living room. “Things don’t need to match,” she emphasized. She adds that a swing arm lamp or sconce is another way to save space without losing light. 

A fan of deep colors, Pritzker Cohen finds that painting all walls the same shade makes the walls recede and seem larger. “I’m not a fan of the accent wall. It chops up the space,” she said. And her pet peeve is, well, illuminating. “Painting a small, dark space white won’t make it look big; it will just look dirty. The only thing that lightens a space is light. There are all kinds of options, even if you’re renting, for installing different kinds of lighting. Home Depot sells plastic cord covers that you cut to fit and paint over, and they disappear.”

It’s the little things

Giving a room the illusion of air and space can involve a little trickery, said Haddonfield interior designer Dana Falcione. “Go vertical when you can, use dual-purpose furniture, like ottomans with storage and day beds, and stick with a monochromatic palette,” she advised. “You want to give your eye the chance to rest — if it’s jumping from one thing to the next, nothing really stands out.” Be sure that the furniture you do choose is to scale, and doesn’t overwhelm or clutter the space. “Don’t use a lot of accessories in a small space. The effect will just be too busy.” Falcione loves mirrors and even used a mirrored backsplash in her own kitchen to reflect and extend her window view, adding depth to the space in the process.

Interior designer Hannah Dee finds opportunity in the oddest of spaces. In her own small kitchen, she turned a funky little niche space into a seating area, thanks to a built-in banquette. “I can seat four, and it really takes up almost no room at all,” she said. So when taking stock of your options, don’t ignore the forgotten spots in deep window wells, over radiators or in between dormers. 

And remember to look up, said Dee. “People forget to go vertical,” she said. “It’s easy to just put another piece of furniture on the floor, but that same storage can go on the walls for extra drama and tons of usable space.” Multifunctioning spaces can serve your practical needs without adding clutter. “I’ve turned a closet into a great office,” she said. “Adding a sleeper sofa into a guest room can let it easily double as an office. Most people don’t have houseguests all that often, so a bed would just be a waste of space.”

Architect Brett Webber’s firm manages both architecture and interior design for commercial and residential projects throughout Philadelphia, Bucks County and Manhattan, including restaurants like Center City’s Oyster House and the recently renovated Golden Pheasant Inn in Erwinna. “There is crossover between public and private spaces,” he said. “A lot of times, we can apply lessons learned in surprising places.” Philadelphia’s housing stock is diverse, drawing its design influences from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, with each era having its own challenges, said Webber. “There’s been a trend and migration in how we live,” he said. “Multi-use spaces, in buildings and environments, allow them to be more open and flexible. We embrace that.” As an example, he talked about reconfiguring the access to the basement stairs in a Pine Street rowhouse, which allowed the 10-foot by 12-foot kitchen to be fully utilized. “A lot of builders don’t think of bringing cabinetry all the way to the ceiling,” he said. “That’s an opportunity for seasonal storage, when every square inch counts.”

Addressing the idiosyncrasies of a space is one of Webber’s specialties. “Our goal is to reconfigure or modify the space in some way to make it more spacious and contiguous.” Adding strategic lighting is one secret weapon, including adding windows or skylights if possible. “The longer lines you have in a space, the more expansive it feels,” he explained.

Even if you have all the room in the world in your house, you still want to make the best use of the space. Falcione recalls a client with a 6,500-square foot home that had it all. But Falcione found herself asking, did the client really need that four-car garage? “We took that ‘leftover’ space and incorporated half of it into the home as a play area and TV room for the kids. The room was large enough for a big sectional sofa to go with the flatscreen. The entire family wound up congregating in there, because it was cozy. As human beings, we like that feeling.” 

Beth D’Addono’s friends are all hoping that she uses her newfound space-saving skills to create more guest bedrooms. This article originally appeared in Inside Magazine, a Jewish Exponent publication.


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