Volumizing your small space


Designer David Overholt transformed this 400-square-foot space into a studio with a separate bedroom

In the early ’80s, people who worked with designers lived in a world of Champagne wishes and caviar dreams. It was the late great design legend Mark Hampton who said that it wasn’t until the ’80s that a decorator entered through the front door and not the trade entrance. But these days, it seems like everyone is working with a designer.

In fact, I can’t remember a week passing without someone asking, “Can you give me the name of a good designer?”

The answer: Yes. As a design editor at Style at Home magazine, I have worked with hundreds of the best and brightest as well as rising stars.

From mansions where you can park 10 cars in the entrance, to teeny nests where you’d barely have room to store a bicycle, I’m always awestruck by the way designers can manipulate space. A professional can make a sprawling space feel cozy and a small space feel, well, spacious.

You may be thinking, “There isn’t much a designer can do with my 500-square-foot condo.” Or, a small space is easy to furnish because you need a lot less. Au contraire. Tiny spaces can be the toughest to design, but somehow designers have a knack for making them feel larger. On one of the first photo shoots I assisted at, designer David Overholt divided a 400-sq.-ft. bachelor pad to give it a wall of storage including bar, office, bedroom, living area-cum-TV-watching spot, plus dining table. If you’ve ever lived in a bachelor pad, you know that’s a lot of function in a very small space.

I understand if you may not have the budget to go all Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, but there are so many capacities in which you can work with a designer, from consults to full-service design. There are even online services popping up all over the Web.

Croma Design, a full-service company owned by Amy Kent and Ryan Martin, recently opened a subsidiary company, Croma Express. Instead of driving all over the city, you go to their downtown Toronto studio, where you can view different Ikea cabinet doors alongside other hardware and finishes. With the help of one of their designers, you pull together the kitchen of your dreams. “Designing a kitchen can be overwhelming; we help people make the right choices and upgrades to make it look like a million bucks,” Mr. Martin says. Croma Express focuses primarily on kitchens. “But we also open our design library of wallpaper, paint, fabric and other samples for those working on other rooms,” he says. Shopping all over the city is time-consuming. “Having everything under one roof with a designer to guide you in the right direction saves multiple trips and hassle.”

The right fit: Find someone whose style is simpatico with your own. If you like ultra-white spaces, you may want to rethink working with someone whose portfolio is filled with red floral sofas and bouillon fringe. Plus, there are designers who shift from mod to trad with ease, but be sure to see examples of their work.

Go online, extract names from decorating magazines, watch the daytime TV shows that feature designers’ work, and, of course, ask your friends. If a designer you love is too busy to take on your project, ask them to recommend someone.

One-time consultation: Next, determine the level of service you need. One-time two-hour consults can cost $500 and are for people who have done their research and have images of furniture, paint chips and fabric swatches. If you know what you like, but have specific decorating questions or you’re worried you’ll make a mistake, a consult will give you the affirmation you need. (Tip: If you can’t remember what colour underwear you’re wearing, then take notes. Two hours of decorating talk is a lot to take in.)

Many designers don’t give consults because it’s difficult to download in two hours everything that one needs to do to a space. Moreover, one thing that’s guaranteed in the land of design is that something will go wrong. The chandelier will be too small for the dining table or the floors will have been stained the wrong colour.

Every time something goes wrong or changes, 10 other things have to change, too. It’s the domino effect.

And two hours of consultation will not really equip you for a soup-to-nuts makeover.

Designer floor plan: This is ideal for anyone confident in his or her style and colour choices, but who wants a furniture roadmap. Explain your needs to a good designer and he or she can give you a floor plan that tells you where your furniture should go and what the maximum sizes should be. This will prevent you from buying a sectional that will block both entrances of your living room (ahem, not that I know anyone who did that a long time ago).

For those who like to do the legwork, a designer Web package will give you a paint-by-numbers design plan. Online packages range from floor plans to complete room designs. You are required to fill out a questionnaire about your decorating and lifestyle, as well as submit a photograph, and you’ll need to measure your space and send inspirations shots. Prices range from $350 to $2,500.

Full-service design works just like the full-service gas station. A designer will take care of everything, you just have to sign off. “It alleviates stress for people who don’t have the time or expertise to pull their space together,” says designer Kimberley Seldon of Kimberley Seldon Design Group, who offers many different levels of design. Like anything that makes your life easier, good design costs money. Hourly rates start at $125 per hour for a junior designer. A senior designer with a well-known reputation can command $325 per hour.

“Busy working couples understand the value of having something taken care of properly,” Ms. Seldon says. Indeed, a designer will pay attention to every detail, help you make purchases that last, save you from costly mistakes, and project-manage (ever try to arrange a plumber, cabinet maker, electrician and painter in that order?).

If this sounds costly, remember you don’t need every square inch of your home professionally designed. “We’ve occasionally worked on a task-only basis for clients, preparing lighting plans, sourcing furniture for a single room, or styling a large bookcase,” Ms. Seldon says.

Treat your designer right: Your full-service designer may feel like your best friend, but respect that your project is a job (kind of like when you go to the hair salon). Many designers work around the clock ”if you’ve ever designed a room you know that it’s a time-consuming process ”but will keep contact hours between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. Emails at 11 p.m. count as work, too. I don’t know any lawyer who doesn’t clock and charge every phone call and email. And unless you only use your home’s back door yourself, be sure to see your designer in through the front.


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James Chung

Founder & Editor in Chief of Hello Vancity magazine. Email [email protected]

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