Features: 35 Ways To Live Small

Dozens of tips to get you started on your way to living small.

Despite the prevailing trends, you don’t actually need a 10,000-square-foot house to live well. Or a bathroom the size of Montana. Or a closet that could hold the fancy-dress department at Saks. The truth is, you can probably fit everything you need into a small house or condo, if you remember a few simple rules: Buy sparingly. Find furniture that does double duty. And look on the upside, like Queen Village resident Denise Fike, who with her husband raised two sons and a Great Dane in her 1,300-square-foot trinity. “I can redecorate every few years without it costing an arm and leg,” Fike says. “My friends in big houses certainly can’t do that.” Of course, the key to living small is in the planning. Here are dozens of tips to get you started.

Plan, plan, plan. “Think of your home like the interior of a ship,” says Cara Carroccia, a Center City architect who specializes in small spaces. “It’s square inches that matter, not square feet, so you need items that do two or three things at a time — like a coffee table that stores books” (Cara Carroccia Architects, 406 South Camac Street, 215-790-1927). To design it yourself, start with a workbook like The Space Planner by Meg Mateo Ilasco, with grids of every possible room and more than 300 movable stickers of appliances and furnishings, so you can try different combinations ($19.95 at AIA Bookstore, 117 South 17th Street, 215-569-3188, aiabookstore.com).

“Having less is one way to fit everything into a small space,” says Susan Sabo, of West Chester’s Organizers, Inc. (207 North Matlack Street, West Chester, 610-738-9220, organizersinc.com). “Focus on things that you really delight in owning and using.” The Salvation Army will send a truck for your old furniture (call 800-95-TRUCK for pickup), and several area Goodwill Industries locations will pass on old computers to those in need (goodwill.org for the nearest store). Both donations are tax-deductible. Take your old clothes to your local church or Philly AIDS Thrift, which donates proceeds to the AIDS Fund, a local charity (514 Bainbridge Street, 215-922-3186).

Forget about rescuing a greyhound. Instead, adopt a parrot, or start a small aquarium. Find your perfect finned friend at Levittown’s The Hidden Reef, with its 6,000 square feet of fish (4501 New Falls Road, 215-269-4930, thehiddenreef.com), or Mele’s Pet Shop in Springfield, where you can also pick up a kindly frog for your tank (428 Baltimore Pike, 610-543-5660). For a variety of birds, try Bird Paradise in Burlington (551 Route 130 South, Burlington, 609-747-7777, birdparadise.biz).

Living Room

Sit and sleep. No room for guests? No problem. Simply unfold Design Within Reach’s $1,500 Twilight Sleep Sofa — with its ultra-modern aluminum frame and conical foam bolster — to turn your living room into a cozy bedroom for two (1710 Walnut Street, 215-735-3195, dwr.com). And don’t be fooled by the name: Kiel’s futon isn’t the lumpy mattress you took to college. Sleek and soft, it converts from a three-person sofa to a loveseat with arms to a bed, by manipulating its cushions as needed. And it’s a steal at just $399 at By Design (1605 West Marlton Pike, Cherry Hill, 856-267-2799, bydesignfurniture.com).

Sit and store. DWR’s Nexus storage cube may be the best thing ever invented for a small home. At 19 inches square, the leather ottoman is also a small coffee table whose lid turns upside down to reveal a wooden tray. It’s a spare stool for extra guests. And it’s a toy box, for that dastardly collection of small, tacky kid’s gear that would otherwise clutter the living room. “This was our best buy,” says architect Kevin Rasmussen of Rasmussen/Su architects, who lives (and works) with his family in a 1,400-square-foot house in Fairmount. “We couldn’t do without it.” It’s $700 at DWR, or get the faux leather knockoff at Target for $70 (target.com for locations).

Convert a coffee table.
At first glance, BoConcept’s $799 functional coffee table seems like a standard wooden/glass piece from the ultra-modern furniture store. But then it surprises: Two small panels lift up high enough to serve as TV trays or lap desks, revealing small storage bins beneath for remote controls, magazines and other unsightlies (1719 Chestnut Street, 215-564-5656, boconcept.us). In lacquered steel and glass, Ligne Roset’s sleek Yoyo adjustable table doesn’t exactly warm a room. But it’s the perfect solution for avid entertainers who live in small lofts: Just lift, like an ironing board, and the coffee table becomes a dinette, with room for at least six (4131 Main Street, Manayunk, 215-487-2800, rosetphilly.com).

Go vertical.
Start with your curtains, which should span floor to ceiling, so the room looks taller and your windows bigger. “That little space above the windows can make your ceilings seem low,” says interior designer Rebecca Paul. “Instead, you want to expand the boundaries” (Rebecca Paul Residential Design, 215-836-1697, rebeccapauldesign.com). Then get everything else up off the floor — TV, stereos, books, CDs — so the room looks airier and there’s more space to walk around. Built-in bookshelves, like those customized by the fellows at Philly’s Pappajohn Woodworking, cut down even on the footprint of storage units (4355 Orchard Street, 215-289-8625, pappajohnwoodworking.com), as do smaller floating shelves from BoConcept. And DWR’s Parallel Shelving is airy, but sturdy enough to serve a dual purpose as a room divider.

Think flat.
First, post an ad on Craigslist (philadelphia.craigslist.org) to sell your 40-inch CRT television, the one that fills half your living room. Then revel in finally having a reason to get that wall-mounted flat-screen you’ve been eying for months at HiFi House, whose three locations include one in Wilmington, where you won’t pay sales tax (2304 Concord Pike, 302-655-4780, hifi.hifihousegroup.com), or Bob & Ron’s (754 Route 309, Montgomeryville, 215-368-8343, or 58 Greenfield Avenue, Ardmore, 610-649-7002; wwstereo.com).

Go old-school. “The scale of modern-day furniture is way too big for small houses,” says architect Carroccia. “You won’t even get a new living room set through the door, much less squeeze it into your tiny space.” Antiques, on the other hand, were designed when houses were smaller and are scaled accordingly. Carroccia recommends browsing Antique Row (Pine Street between 9th and 12th), or attending auctions at Freeman’s (1808 Chestnut Street, 215-563-9275, freemansauction.com) and South Jersey’s S&S Auctions (62 Repaupo Station Road, Repaupo, 856-467-3778, ssauction.com).

Be like Sven. Face it: Americans aren’t good at small. Luckily, we are good at importing furniture from the Scandinavians, known for their sleek lines and smaller footprints. Every frugal owner of a small home has done time in Ikea, whose modular furnishings, shelves and accessories are designed to fit in any space (400 Alan Wood Road, Conshohocken, 610-834-1520; 2206 South Columbus Boulevard, 215-551-4532; ikea.com). But for those few standout pieces, get yourself to Dane Decor and buy … anything. Whatever it is — table, lamp, one single chair — it’s bound to be the nicest thing you own. (Four area locations, including 216 East Lancaster Avenue, Downingtown, 610-269-2991, and 315 Arch Street, 215-922-2104; danedecor.com.)

Miniaturize it.
Stick to new furniture lines catering to petite spaces, like Rowe Furniture’s Mini Mod, whose curved Arcadia armchair is only 30 inches wide by 31 inches deep — and still so, so elegant. Available at Dwelling (4050 Main Street, Manayunk, 215-487-7400, dwellinghome.com) and Griffith and Bixler (4444 New Holland Road, Mohnton, 610-777-1326, griffithandbixler.com). Pottery Barn’s line of furniture for small spaces includes everything from desks to beds to sofas, like the cushiony Collins Slipcovered Daybed, for $1,199. (Locations in Manayunk, Marlton, King of Prussia and Christiana; potterybarn.com.)

Tap your inner Liberace. So what if you can’t fit Gramma’s baby grand through the front door? A Yamaha digital piano may not be a Steinway baby grand, but it won’t take the space of one either: They come as small as 17 inches deep, and cost between $1,100 and $2300. Find one at Center City’s Jacobs Music (1425 Walnut Street, 215-568-0021, jacobsmusic.com) or Sam Ash Music Stores (1887 Franklin Mills Circle, 215-612-1339; 2100 Route 38, Cherry Hill, 856-667-6696; 139 East DeKalb Pike, King of Prussia, 610-265-6444; samashmusic.com)

Reflect who you are. Glass surfaces, especially mirrors, make a room seem brighter and larger, and make for easy wall art. Foster’s Homeware’s Rolly storage mirror also includes a small walnut shelf and concealed cabinet — the perfect place to stash keys, cell phones and wallets (399 Market Street, 215-925-0950, shopfosters.com).


Not so small.
Yes, your kitchen’s petite. No, that doesn’t mean you can’t cook or entertain. But you do need to plan the space carefully. “The flow of the room is the most important thing,” says Shola Olunloyo, private chef and kitchen design consultant (215-662-5307, studiokitchen@gmail.com). “You don’t want to kill floor and counter space with doors that open the wrong way, or unnecessary appliances.” Instead, use every available wall space, especially overhead, with cabinets that reach all the way to the ceiling for extra storage and to make the room feel extra-tall. To get an idea of how much space you really need, Chestnut Hill architect Jamie Swidler recommends mocking up your counters and appliances with cardboard cutouts, then walking between the pieces to get a feel for how to arrange the room. “You’ll often find you can get away with less space than you think,” Swidler says (In House Studio, 215-247-1169).

Buy Bulthaup. Is it the sleek glass cabinet hiding knives and a cutting board that won us over? The wall-mounted spice jars with secret oils cabinet beneath? Or the whole thing: multi-use cabinets, pieces that float above the floor for a lighter feel — all utterly gorgeous in shades of wood, metal and glass? Who cares? If you can afford the $30,000-and-way-up price tag, let us live vicariously, please. Call the consultants at the German manufacturer’s Old City studio, open by appointment only (132 North 3rd Street, 215-574-4990, philadelphia.bulthaup.com).

Or buy Ikea. Get the ideas from Bulthaup or NYLoft, an upscale kitchen and home design studio in Center City (2300 Chestnut Street, suite 150, 215-557-0050, nyloft.net). Then take your vision to the planners at Ikea, whose inexpensive kitchens are surprisingly lovely, sturdy and customizable. While there, make sure to check out the cabinet hardware — pot-lid holders, pull-out shelves — that help keep visible clutter to a minimum. “Cabinets are all about the hardware inside them,” says Olunloyo. “You want to hide everything away, so you need to find a maximum use for every space.”

The (less) Big Chill.
You can’t skimp on your fridge. But you can make it as unobtrusive as possible by opting for a model that’s wide, rather than deep, so it takes up wall space but doesn’t intrude into the room. Fisher & Paykel’s popular refrigerators are around 32 inches wide and 27 inches deep — nearly counter-depth, so they seem built in. Liebherr’s 30-inch-wide fridge is just 25 inches deep — and has an Energy Star rating, so it saves you electricity as well as space. Both are available at ABC Discount Appliances & Video (6013 Mansion Boulevard, Pennsauken, 856-665-0711, abcdiscountappliances.com)

Decant. The eternal quandary: Where to store my wine when I need my cellar for storage? The answer: A Chambrer portable refrigerated wine cellar, with room for six bottles but just a six-inch footprint. Find it at Pinot, the wine accessory store in Old City (227 Market Street, 215-627-9463, pinotboutique.com). If you’re less fussy about temperature, get Ikea’s wall-mounted Perfekt wine shelf, with two small drawers and room for four bottles.

Buy your own island. The rollable kitchen cart is a many-splendored thing. Topped with a butcher block, it’s an extra space for chopping vegetables; it rolls into the living room to serve as a bar, or to the middle of the kitchen to serve food; its shelves store wine or oils or extra appliances. And then it hides away in the corner until called into service again. The Container Store’s Metro Commercial Chef’s Cart is utterly simple — just a butcher block above metal shelves and wheels, for $250. (Opening in November in Cherry Hill; containerstore.com.)

Hang it. Pots, pans, utensils, spices, cutting boards, cups, knives — anything that can go on the ceiling or wall. “Save your cabinets for things that really have to be put away,” says Olunloyo. Bed Bath & Beyond carries several overhead pot racks, as well as wall-mounted spice racks, cup hangers and magnetic knife holders — which Olunloyo insists are best for preserving your choppers. (Several locations; find the nearest at bedbathandbeyond.com.)

Home Office

Desk and dine. By day, DWR’s Più Desk is a glass-topped, modernist workspace (with funky movable hanging shelves). By night, its metal legs swivel to make room for four dining chairs at a glass-topped, modernist eating space.

Go vertical II. Shelves to the ceiling, drawers beneath your table — use every piece of the wall, from floor to ceiling, for maximum storage and minimal clutter. “Think about how you use your office,” says Sabo. “You want it neat, but still convenient. Form has to follow function.” Easy-to-install shelving/desk systems by Elfa are spare, affordable and adjustable, so you can reconfigure them as needed (available at the Container Store). But for something really sleek, splurge on Usona’s Sail Office Unit, in metal, wood or — our favorite — red glass. It makes even work a pleasure.

In the closet. Ready to finally clean out that guest room junk closet? Follow the example of Rebecca Paul, who recently turned a double-door closet into a freelancer’s workspace: corkboards on the doors for notes and calendars, recessed lighting in the low ceiling, a small desk with folders, baskets and shelves for storage. “The best part is, you can simply close the doors when guests come over, and no one knows it’s there,” says Paul. Closet companies can easily adapt even a tiny closet into an office — or, designer Sabo notes, turn any corner of your house into a neatly designed workspace. “Closet companies are really misnamed,” says Sabo. “Some of them do great custom work for offices, which people often don’t realize.” She suggests Closets By Design (928 Springdale Drive, Exton, 610-644-4143, closetsbydesign.com).

Be magnetic. No drawer space? Use the walls instead, with Foster’s line of magnetic storage items, from bulletin boards to paper clips, pencil cups and hooks. Plus, they come in lovely colors to match whatever room your home office is in. While you’re at it, pick up colored folders and storage bins from Target or Ikea. “Lucite containers and matching colors can help an office blend in with a room so it’s unobtrusive,” says Paul.

One chair fits all. The Saarinen executive chair isn’t just a classic piece of modern design. It doubles as both desk chair and lounge seat for an evening hang with friends. Available at Knoll (2300 Chestnut Street, suite 410, 215-988-1788, knoll.com).


Sleep and store. Who needs a dresser when you have Blu Dot’s Modulicious wooden platform bed, with six wide drawers beneath? Between $1,099 and $2,099 at Matthew Izzo (1109 Walnut Street, 215-829-0606, matthewizzo.com). Get even more drawer space with an industrial do-it-yourself version: a mattress on top of long, wide filing cabinets, like the bright orange ones from Knoll. Or stick with your old bed and simply raise it six inches, with $10 bed risers from Linens ’n Things (three area locations, including 2110 South Columbus Boulevard, 215-775-0891, lnt.com).

Table it. The thing about Ikea’s Malm nightstand isn’t just that it never touches the ground, providing at least the illusion of empty floor space. It’s that it’s also so simple and useful: a nook for magazines and books above a tabletop for clocks and glasses. Oh, and cheap, too — just $40.

Befriend your closet. If it isn’t enough comfort to know that pretty much everyone longs for more closet space, take heart in the enormous array of organizing tools out there for you. Ikea’s ready-made closet solutions — from drawers to shelves to shoe organizers — are famous for a reason: The options boggle the mind, and the prices really can’t be beat. For customized options, try California Closets (californiaclosets.com).

Ban doors.
Save three feet of precious bedroom space by replacing your old hinged doors with sliding units, anchored on the floor and ceiling. Usona’s Maxima sliding door units are gorgeous slabs of textured wood that could double as wall art in a minimalist space — as well they should, at $10,000 a pair.

Get better doors.
Replace hollow, flimsy doors with solid ones that can be used to hang things — like an ironing board, shoes or mirrors. For solid salvaged doors, try Port Richmond’s ReStore, which specializes in architectural salvage and often carries pieces from old churches or houses (3016 East Thompson Street, 215-634-3474, re-store-online.com). For new, check out Newtown Square’s Door Stop, which has a huge assortment of interior and exterior doors (3727 West Chester Pike, 610-353-8707, doorstopltd.com).

Keep it simple. First, pick a simple color scheme, so nothing is jarring to the eye. Then, keep only what you really need in the bathroom — basic cosmetics, attractive shampoo bottles, a few towels. Everything else is just clutter. “Get rid of any detritus,” says Barbara Sallick, senior vice president of design at Waterworks (1525 Walnut Street, 215-568-0151, waterworks.com). “Know that you only need two lipsticks, and find appropriate storage for linens someplace else. More just won’t fit.”

Go fancy. On the other hand, with so little space, you should feel fully justified in splurging on gorgeous tiles for the walls and floors. Ceramic tiles from Avalon Carpet, Tile, and Flooring evoke an old European style that’s warm and comforting (several area locations, including the main showroom in Cherry Hill, 2030 Springdale Road, 877-950-8453, avaloncarpettile.com). But we’re partial to the cooling effect of Waterworks’ Waterglass collection of five-eighths-inch squares — $17 for a sheet (sizes vary) — that come in stunning shades from blue ice to crimson (though Sallick recommends lighter, cool hues for a small space).

Toss the old toilet.
And get a new model; they tend to be sleeker (not to mention more water-efficient). At just over 25 inches long, Kohler’s Rialto one-piece is the smallest throne out there, leaving slightly more room for toweling off after a bath. Available at Lavish (661 2nd Street Pike, Southampton, 215-322-9901), Weinstein Supply (816 Haddon Avenue, Collingswood, 856-833-1576), and area Lowe’s and Home Depots.

Embrace the toilet. Duravit’s award-winning Happy D series is so lovely, you may regret hiding it away in the bath. Tiny sinks top swinging wooden cabinets, perfectly sized for the petite bathroom; toilets are wall-mounted and quiet; showers are crystalline boxes of glass and porcelain. Order from Ferguson Kitchen and Bath Gallery (2020 Springdale Road, Cherry Hill, 856-489-5620; 302 Hansen Access Road, King of Prussia, 610-337-8856; ferguson.com).

Don’t forget storage. Yes, the bathroom may look airier with a pedestal sink and a few open shelves. But when you actually use it, you’ll find yourself wishing you had someplace to stash the blush brush. “You need storage in the bathroom, or it will just end up cluttered,” says Sabo. “What started out neat ends up worse than before.” Sallick suggests cutting into the wall and mounting shelves between the studs — a four-inch-deep space waiting to be utilized. Or find long, narrow cabinets that can go in corners, like those from Ikea or by Harborview, a contemporary bath furniture line that fits compartments into drawers for even more organization. Available at Reico Kitchen & Bath (3602 Horizon Drive, King of Prussia, 610-382-1137, reico.com).