Finding Your Niche

Creative, personal niches are breathing new life into areas that were once considered dead spaces. Small on square footage, they’re big on personality.

Creative, personal niches are breathing new life into areas that were once considered dead spaces. Small on square footage, they’re big on personality.

By Jennifer Shapira

foyerCreative, personal niches are breathing new life into areas that were once considered dead spaces. Cleverly carved into otherwise useless corners, closets or counters, niches in today’s homes can be playful yet purposeful, often existing at the intersection of fashion and function. While these pocket-size spaces may be small on square footage, they are big with design personality.

Where a kitchen was once just a kitchen, part of it now operates as a mini office area: A laptop sits on the granite island poised for paying bills, checking e-mail or consulting a recipe. A family’s grocery list is no longer stuck by a magnet on the refrigerator; it now exists on a framed swatch of blackboard paint, pastel chalk swipes denoting “milk, eggs, dog food.”

In a small nursery, the closet might one day be used for the child’s clothes, but for now, with the doors removed, the space is perfect for the baby’s changing table. A quilted window seat or a comfy chaise makes for a peaceful reading nook. An entryway wall provides a blank canvas for artfully arranged family photographs or kids’ drawings in a gallery format—creating an inviting, yet instant conversation starter as guests arrive and shrug off their coats. A butler’s pantry might find new life as a convenient laundry room—where folding clothes feels less like a chore and more like you’re still part of the home’s nucleus.

Mudrooms or foyers outfitted with benches serve as a comfortable spot to remove shoes and coats; a well-appointed chest of drawers or a simple shelf maximizes the space, constructing a center of coming and going with a real purpose, not just a dumping ground. This is the prime spot where you drop your keys on the shelf and check yourself in the mirror, says Kathy Alexander, a McLean-based interior designer.

Beautifying a Small Space or EntryWay: Tips from interior designer June Shea
A small but interesting round table with a collection of accessories and a lamp creates a welcoming visual as you walk in, and makes guests feel welcome.

A trick to using accessories is to start with taller items and gradually add incrementally lower heights so that you can see all items, and it creates a balanced statement. Items on the table should be of varying height. The same concept is used on the overall setting: art and flower highest; table and topper, medium; with the suitcases lowest, creating a balanced and harmonious end result.

The key to making an entryway welcoming is to provide some fill and texture to the space, but to leave enough space for welcoming company.

Because the foyer is the first space you see when you open the door, that’s priority number one. Even if it is a small space, you can add an interesting vignette for a great touch.
Even the smallest two-foot-by-two-foot space can look amazing when a small table is topped by a beautiful piece of art and a lamp. And a stool or small bench can be added in front of the table. The key is balance, harmony and a connection to the surrounding space.

Staying Put
People are staying in their homes rather than moving up and out, says Centreville-based interior designer Antonia Korby. Of one client who was steadily outgrowing her small home, Korby says, “They love their neighbors; they love their house.” But they needed more space, so they decided to bump out the back.

“Moving ‘up’ has slowed down,” she says. “Adding on has increased as a trend. It’s the mindset: I’m going to make my house as nice as I can.”

And owning a big home is no longer the American dream.

“You think all the specialness is in the size, but a lot of the time, it’s the materials that you’ve used, and the way you’ve decorated it,” says Korby. With a few simple, yet thoughtful, updates, “You can certainly make a small house really beautiful.”

For a little girl, Korby made over a basement space into a tiny, whimsical theater where she could stage puppet shows and stash her toys from view. Designed as a space she can grow into, the “bright and girly curtain” can be easily removed; the nook later replaced with a desk for completing homework.

“Even 10 years from now, when they want to reclaim that space as a family, there’s nothing to do but take down that tension rod with the curtain on it,” says Korby. “So it’s not that expensive of a way to transform a little space.”

Korby also recalls a client’s basement rec room/study area that was heavy on their kids’ influence. She covered one wall with blackboard paint, providing a large canvas for solving lengthy math problems. But the space itself was hardly all work and no play—outfitted with a computer, games and big-screen TV. The room’s main purpose was twofold: to serve as a place for the family to gather and to function as a teenagers’ hangout.

Storage Tips From Designer Marika Meyer
When it comes to clever, concealed storage, Meyer encourages clients to think outside the box.
Traditional pieces of furniture can make clutter disappear, but other items at home can also be useful.

hallwayOne example she cites: a family’s large marble-topped kitchen island, a portion of which was never visible to guests. They had plenty of room to store pots and pans elsewhere, so the boys’ shoes found homes in cubbies beneath.

1 Employ Secretaries – Secretaries are great pieces for storage. We’ve used them as a bar, as desks. Chests of drawers are used just about anywhere and everywhere, as side tables, in entryways. You can always tuck stuff away and there’s never a room where a chest will look inappropriate.

2 Reading Nooks – Consider upholstered window spaces, like a simple, built-in bench, with a pretty seat cushion and some artfully placed throw pillows. It doesn’t have to be cost-prohibitive. A simple one-inch foam seat cushion, pillows and a small standing lamp—especially for children—is a great use of space and storage. There are even options where the tops open up or drawers pull out.

3 Ottoman Empire – There are great storage ottomans right now that we use especially with families. We use them for concealing magazines, remotes, throws, extra pillows—anything. Rather than having a coffee table, you could have pairs of ottomans. Or a couple in a family room, in an entryway. If you’ve got a console table, you could have a couple of small storage ottomans underneath. Ottomans offer storage and seating, and can even serve as coffee tables. Another bonus: They’re great for young children. Because they are upholstered, you don’t have to worry about their little fingers getting pinched.

Hallway desk
Courtesy of Marika Meyer

Divine Desk Space
Bethesda-based interior designer Marika Meyer recently remodeled a Queen Anne Victorian in Georgetown. She converted the dining room into the family room. There was a built-in corner cabinet that she had retrofitted and fashioned into a little ladylike desk.

Meyer and the homeowner are thrilled with the outcome because, says Meyer, “You have the original molding that goes back a hundred years and it feels completely different than the original intent.”

Set on the stair landing of the historic home’s second floor, a beautiful desk serves as the perch’s focal point. The downstairs nook is open to the entire family and guests; upstairs, the homeowner keeps her laptop, correspondence cards and stationery at the ready. Despite its close proximity to the kids’ rooms, the space remains private and all her own.

Meyer also repurposed the room’s built-in bookcases, hauling them up to a new life on the second-floor landing. The result: a divine desk space where everything is in its place thanks to the built-in’s great bones: “It has doors, it has drawers, it has files, so she can conceal everything,” she says.

And that, most designers agree, really is key. Being able to close closet doors or shut drawers gives the illusion of a tidy work space, no matter how much work is left undone. No one needs to know that disheveled papers or an unfinished project lurks behind.

Whether a work project or a hobby, you can leave it for a time, says Korby, “when you want to finish it tomorrow and close that door. Sometimes people don’t want to see the mess that can be created by working on the computer or trying to write a paper. Or they don’t want someone else to touch it.” The beauty of concealed spaces is the benefit of shutting away the mess.

On Exhibit
Leesburg-based interior designer Andrea Schwartz says she’s seen a big push toward the green effect, especially in today’s climate; that is, repurposing or recycling pieces of furniture in a more economical way.

In one area home, she converted an underused, wide first-floor walkway that was adjacent to a great room into a super-useful office space. In this so-called “mini office-sunroom,” she added an armoire for the desktop computer, a reading chair and a parcel of plants that proved happy in the room thanks to its wealth of natural light.

For a home in Stone Bridge, Schwartz has begun working with a young client: a pre-teen girl with numerous collections. From an extensive doll collection to a rainbow of horseback-riding ribbons to pieces of school nostalgia, she decided on serious shelving that would include molding around the windows, then topped them with a pretty cornice. On those shelves the pre-teen girl can put various displays of a few of her favorite things, tastefully, of course, and carefully curated.

“I told her I thought the best thing would be to create shelving around her windows so we would utilize all that space instead of having her stick things up there with tape,” says Schwartz. “I suggested she make it a rotating collection, like they do in a museum.”

Her closet will consist of an organized system, nothing fancy, but certainly functional, that will include areas where she can label her collections that are currently in reserve. She can swap out her themes as she likes and as the mood strikes.

Courtesy of Rust-Oleum
Courtesy of Rust-Oleum

Chalk It Up
Think back to grade school and most of us can recall a handful of times when it was actually cool to be sent to the blackboard.

But in keeping with that old adage: “Everything old is new again,” that iconic surface can grace almost any wall in your home with relative ease. Roll on two coats, to get the full effect, says Joel Steidel, customer service and sales associate at Benjamin Moore in Ashburn. “It goes on just like paint, and you just have to let it dry.” And when you want to erase, “it cleans up easily,” he says. “You just wipe it down with a damp cloth.”

In recent years, do-it-yourself chalkboard paint has found its way into rec rooms and kids’ play rooms where it might function as an oversized easel, or get those creative juices flowing. It serves its purpose in kitchens as well; from scribbling grocery and to-do lists to leaving messages for family members, those notes can be in plain sight. Keep a few sticks of chalk nearby, and everyone in the family can provide their input. Paint an entire wall, or a portion surrounded by a frame of decorative molding. And the paint colors extend beyond the classic black or green. Manufacturers like Rust-Oleum have created versions available in a rainbow of tints.

Whatever its purpose, blackboard paint can make for a truly retro-cool message center. So cool, in fact, says designer Marika Meyer, she’s planning to use it in a powder room for a stylish Dupont Circle couple.

They love to entertain, she says, so “it’s such fun for when they have company over. It sounds wacky, but it’s really hysterical.”

Meyer adds one note of caution: Because the chalk generates dust, the paint is better suited for a child’s playroom than for the room in which the child counts sheep.

flowersBig Changes, Small Bucks
Think small and affordable. Little punches of color and texture don’t have to cost big bucks. In fact, enhancing a niche space can be as simple as a well-placed, vibrant bouquet of flowers atop an end table, says Annandale-based interior designer Rebecca Hubler. But they can sure make you feel special, she says. And that’s the idea.

“I think that small spaces are a good opportunity to create drama and interest,” says Hubler. “Maybe it’s by mirroring, maybe it’s by color—it’s a way to display things that are personal to you—as a personal little space.”

Interior design is a way that we take care of ourselves, she says, adding that these small changes can be low cost, or no cost at all.

Her own foyer includes a mirrored wall, which kaleidoscopes an ordinary flower arrangement into a gorgeous bouquet. On gray or gloomy days, Hubler flips on a spotlight, adding more spectacle to the space. She shops for flowers weekly, but if she’s short on time she’ll use dried flowers, and amp up the vase with branches or twigs from her own garden.

“Every time I walk down the stairs, I see it,” she says, adding, “Here’s what the flowers do for me: They make me feel good.”

(April 2011)