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Small Space: The Final Frontier

Single-story detached homes are so ... 20th century

By Matthew Craggs

Our world is not growing--but our population is. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the global population has doubled in the past 40 years, and though the agency predicts growth will slow in the next 40 years, it still foresees an increase of 50 percent by the year 2050. We're going from roughly 6.7 billion people to 9.5 billion people, and we're running out of places to put them. Space is becoming as valuable as wood and oil.

Space in town is especially dear. This year, for the first time in history, more human beings live in cities than in the country; by 2050, 70 percent of those 9.5 billion souls will be city dwellers. So it's no surprise that many new developments are taking the form of multistory, compact condominiums, single bedroom apartments and lofts. In the city of Santa Cruz, hundreds of new condominiums are coming online in the next 15 years. In a society that has come to expect family rooms, livings rooms, gourmet kitchens, multiple bedrooms and bathrooms alongside a garage and perhaps a study, transitioning to modest living environments can be quite a challenge. But little doesn't have to cramp your style. You can still think big and act small. Herein, a few tips on pulling off the masterful illusion of living large in a small place.

Living Large in Small Spaces

Banish clutter! Buy big furniture! Back away from the Ikea entrance!

By Matthew Craggs

Downtown Santa Cruz's newest community is at 2030 N. Pacific. These new condominiums range from roughly 800 square feet for a one bedroom/one bath to 1,500 square feet for a three bedroom/two bath. From the standpoint of square footage, the addition of two extra bedrooms and another bathroom doesn't even double the size of the condo. These are places built with size in mind.

Many prospective buyers interested in Santa Cruz's new developments will be of a younger demographic. Making their way from living with parents or friends or in a dorm room, these buyers are not only switching up their living arrangements but are also probably adjusting from a college or part-time job schedule to the proverbial 9 to 5 with all of the adult responsibilities. This could be the first chance to decorate and design something they can truly call their own. A small living space may have been the norm for many years, but the differences between living somewhere and making a home for yourself quickly become apparent.

If you've ever walked within 100 feet of a college campus, you've undoubtedly heard someone gushing about the wonders of Ikea. The Swedish superstore is a favorite for anyone who has ever needed to furnish a room for under $100 (and the closest one to Santa Cruz, in East Palo Alto, is hands-down the most multiculti experience available to Central Californians without boarding a plane).

Space-conscious themselves, Ikea stores even have mock-ups of living spaces ranging from 500 to 900 square feet. These floor models are entire rooms that take the guesswork out of mixing and matching and making decisions. But a trip to Ikea can in fact be a grueling waste of time. While it seems like a no-brainer, Santa Cruz interior designer Lorri Kershner cautions against blindly buying into the Ikea appeal.

"They're selling products, remember," she says. "I would rather have a great hand-me-down than five or six inexpensive things that'll fall apart in a few years. It's a much better idea to pull something out of your grandmother's garage.

"There's nothing wrong with hand-me-downs," she adds. "They give the room a lot of character.

"After talking with Kershner for a few minutes, it becomes evident that the thing to remember when furnishing a small living space is: less is more. Kershner advises being very selective.

"Try to get three or four large pieces of functional furniture instead of a lot of little pieces, because those tend to clutter the room. It's the best parlor trick in the world; it will actually visually enlarge the space."

The principal of L. Kershner Design believes that the more you give an eye to look at, the busier your eye and the room will be. Imagine standing in an empty room with nothing in sight. Now imagine that same room packed with boxes in columns creating a maze. As you walk through the maze, how much smaller would that room seem to you? Your eye travels a room the same way. Every couch, chair, table, bookshelf, television and lamp takes away the empty space that provides a sense of openness.

The key to minimizing the amount of furniture you place in a room is to make each item multifunctional. If your dining room and your living room share the same section of the house--this is true in many compact condos--Kershner suggests using a large coffee table as your dining room table. Ottomans or cushions can be stored underneath, pulled out for dining and once again concealed after the meal. Two people looking to cozy up with a glass of wine at a party, she points out, could easily share a large ottoman.

Skylight's the Limit
When choosing your big furniture pieces, consider not only the floor space but the ceiling as well. "A lot of these [condos] have high ceilings, which make the space look bigger but tend to give echoes," Kershner warns.

To lead the eye up toward the space, do what she describes as "staying vertical." Taller, skinnier bookshelves will save wall space and force the eye up toward the ceiling. To soften the echoes, rugs will act as sound dampeners--but once again, choose one or two large rugs and keep away from smaller ones that will clutter the floor.

Aside from the physical clutter of the room, you should also consider the perceived clutter. Light and color are both major culprits in making a small room seem like an even smaller living space. When looking to rent or buy a property, Kershner suggests paying attention to the location of the room's windows.

"If the windows face north or west, you might consider looking elsewhere. Northern lighting is somewhat flat, and the west is where the sun sets, so you get a lot of glare and end up keeping the windows covered. Good natural light is huge. It's going to warm up a space and seem bigger."

In addition, natural lighting will lessen the need for artificial lighting that can run up the electricity bill and splatter the room with lamps. Like mirrors, windows open up a room by providing perceived depth beyond the surrounding walls, but "if you're going to do any sort of drapery, make sure it extends to the floor and not just the window pane. It'll make the window seem more elegant and larger, and it has some acoustic benefits," Kershner says.

Powder Room Rules
These rules work well for living rooms and bedrooms, but ironically, they're almost useless in the tiniest rooms in the house: the kitchen and bathroom. This is where you're going to have a myriad of items just waiting to clutter your small space. From cucumbers and kitchen shears to cucumber eye mask and toenail clippers, it's a war zone.

However, prepare to hoist your Swedish flags: the time for Ikea is nigh. "You have to keep it very organized, and you have to find good storage options. ... It's really all about organization when you have a small kitchen--and then Ikea does come in handy because they have some great kitchen organizers," Kershner concedes. Organization rules supreme in the bathroom as well, but the interior designer believes it's also a place to splurge.

"[The] thing about bathrooms is they're really the last site of cultural ritual. Bathing really is a ritual. Whatever you do when you get up in the morning or before you go to bed at night is a ritual. Dining is a social ritual, but bathing is a personal ritual. It should be a warm inviting place. I really believe that. Have some candles or a really nice rug."

To make your small space work, it takes a little more attention to what you put into it. When you realize your space is limited, taking a conservative approach to the design of your home just makes sense. You use less furniture and knickknacks and optimize the items you do choose to employ, all the while taking advantage of natural resources such as light and color.

Now, if only we could hire an interior designer to take on the planet.

Less is more

Tips to bear in mind when turning a cubby into a domicile

  • Employ a few multipurpose pieces of large furniture.
  • Stay vertical.
  • Large rugs and drapery will absorb echoes from high ceilings.
  • Natural light warms up a room and makes it appear larger.
  • If necessary, overhead or recessed lighting is best.
  • Large mirrors double the size of a room.
  • Use understated, matching colors when painting a room.
  • Know your needs. Do you really need a 6-foot dining room table with eight chairs?
  • Organize necessary clutter such as media, kitchen utensils and toiletries.
  • If you have the option to buy appliances, consider an under-the-counter fridge,
    off-site laundry, stove with overhead microwave or skipping the dishwasher.
  • Ikea can be your friend--in moderation.

  • Pot Farming

    Balcony gardens for nomads, urbanites and other landless iconoclasts

    By Maureen Davidson

    Outside my mews flat in the Maida Vale neighborhood of London, there was a square brick planter that separated the entry door from the bustle of the little cobblestone street. The mews had originally housed grooms and other servants, living above what once were stables and carriage houses. Now it was me and my roommates above a garage, and that little cube of dirt--my first. In a heartbeat it was gushingly overplanted in a corny arrangement of geraniums and lobelia and trailing miniature ivy in the corners. But it thrilled me every time I passed it, nipping off any browning leaves or spent flowers.

    Forty years and 19 houses later, not counting temporary stays or vacations, I might be called a nomad, an expert at making a home out of whatever I've landed myself in. "Home" traveled with me: suitably nomadic textiles, art, books--and a score of longtime companions from the vegetable family who huddled into a lean 4 feet by 4 feet in a moving van then deployed in a thousand combinations as an instant garden, anywhere. Even in a tiny second-story apartment in San Francisco, since Maida Vale I have always had a garden.

    Robin Davidson, who as my daughter shared a few decades of these journeys, is now a local landscape designer who uses container plants to create intimate outdoor spaces, or to unite a sprawling landscape with dramatic accents of color and pattern. I asked her to recommend a garden of container plants that would take up no more than, say, 4 feet by 4 feet in a moving van.

    "For a full palette of color, shape, size and texture, I'd choose a few plants from each of four categories: large solo specimens; upright perennials; low, spreading accents; and trailers," she says. "These can be clustered together to create an instant green retreat where there is none, or used in targeted spots within a larger environment to lend harmony or drama. ... And every season I'd get a few six-packs of annuals and tuck them in for color."

    She recommends that beginners choose plants that tolerate a broad spectrum of light and temperature. Succulents, for instance, are endlessly varied in appearance, and thrive on benign neglect.

    "Think of foreground, background and accent," she advises. "Large specimen plants act as focal points, like freestanding sculpture. Upright perennials give you the overall color and feel, while low-lying spreaders literally 'ground' your composition. Then in just a few pots that will be seen up close, you might combine tall uprights at the rear or to a side, spreaders, a field of color, and an edge of trailers--all with similar needs for light, care and space."

    She also urges restraint when you first start out combining. "Try out prospective neighbors by planting them still in their own containers and observing for a while before digging them in," she added.

    The Stars
    Surprisingly--considering all the varieties available--a single style and color of ceramic pot actually allows for maximum design flexibility. The size should allow a plant to spread out its roots until it outgrows the pot. Raise some of the containers up off the ground using pedestals, ledges or steps to vary the height.

    Begin by choosing a large solo specimen plant. Varieties of the dramatically shaped, sharp-spined agave can reach a height of over 6 feet in the ground, but in containers may take a decade to reach 2 feet, eventually sprouting pups. They demand almost nothing except light--wanting full sun but surviving on dappled light for a while.

    "In a small space, though, watch out for those sharp spines," Robin cautions. Another easy specimen plant ("diva plant" is another way to think of it) is Phormium, or flax, with broad, thick, swordlike leaves in many colors growing up to about 4 feet in containers. A single flax is a study in line and color. A row in pots, though, can make any long path look like a colonnade or add design to a boring concrete patio. Just pick off the dead leaves, trim browning tips and limit water. Flax needs four hours a day of full sun.

    You can have the drama of these along with flowers if you choose the tropical cannas or the fragrant ginger (Hedychium). Both require full sun and are deciduous, needing to be cut back to soil level after flowering. Plant an annual in the now naked pot--to spend the winter months chez ginger.

    Leafier specimen plants have a softening effect that's perfect to counterbalance concrete or to blur harsh architectural lines. Many are shade-tolerant, like most ficus varieties; a few flowering shrubs like Brugmanzia (angel trumpet), which offers a deep canopy of soft fuzzy foliage and huge flowers that smell divine; most ferns (the Australian tree fern is the absolute drama queen); and shiny-leafed philodendrons. All of these are easy to maintain, though ficus doesn't like to be moved.

    Many tree-size plants do well in containers. Wisteria is one of the rare vines that adapt to container living, either rambling free, bowered or espaliered. It wants sun, as do citrus and apple, while rhododendrons want shade. All are spectacular container plants.

    "Choose your focal point plant to suit your light and space requirements and then work off of that to choose the rest," says Robin.

    The Chorus
    Upright perennials can act as background color: Heuchera (coral bells) becomes a blanket of dark purple, apricot and green leaves with silver tints; coleus varieties come in so many dense leafy colors that you can apply them like a painter would a broad background tone. Some succulents come in here planted in clusters, like the shiny lime-green or dark bronze-purple Aeonium, with large fleshy leaves, or Sedum, Crassula and Dudlea varieties. All of these need a few hours of direct sun, but are broadly tolerant.

    With a little more sun comes the possibility of more vivid flowers, like chocolate cosmos, Coreopsis, Nemesia or Diascia, which all offer a mass of color. And for fragrance, try heliotrope, rosemary, lavender or daphne.

    As low-lying accents, succulents shine with their endlessly fascinating shapes: echeverias (hens and chicks) propagate like mad so that they can soon spread into a dense, showy expanse with delicate flower spikes in season. Or use that six-pack of annuals like zinnias, pansies, violas, lobelias: all tolerant of filtered to full sun conditions.

    Trailing plants help create a forest out of containers by softening the lip of the pots.

    Lime-green or dark purple Ipomea has large, soft, heart-shaped leaves that form a rainforest cascade; the round bright green Lysmachia falls more compactly. Kalanchoe, Lobelia regatta and fragrant Bacopa are other choices. Don't let any of these get bone dry; all like filtered sun.

    Plants become rootbound over the years, needing more water as the roots become crowded, when it's time to repot in a larger container. Use all-purpose, slow-release fertilizers like Dr. Earth. Apply the recommended amounts in weaker, more frequent dilutions. And be sure to strap them securely in the moving van.

    Container plants can follow you over a lifetime of homes. We know. See some examples at

    Ogling for Dollars

    Everyone does it--you go to someone's house, you check out their décor. An innovative fundraiser capitalizes on the human urge to snoop.

    By Traci Hukill

    From the get-go, Nataliya Aprile wanted the green.

    "I thought she was crazy, but I gave in in the end," says Tony Aprile. "And everyone who comes in here comments on it."

    The sea-green countertops in the Apriles' newly remodeled kitchen truly are the stars of the show. Flecked with bits of mirror, they form a gleaming expanse of irresistible, unusual color in an open, airy kitchen designed to capitalize on the couple's upper Westside view of the bay. Pale maple cabinetry reflects ample sunlight pouring in from a kitchen bay window, a skylight and the two generous picture windows in the corner of the living room. The Dacor gas range has a completely retractable down-draft ventilation system instead of a range hood, which would obscure the chef's lovely view. Radiant heat in the tiles underfoot are on a timer, so the Apriles need never risk discomfort to their tootsies.

    Jealous yet? Just wait till you see the self-closing cabinets in action. This Saturday the Apriles and seven other homeowners are opening up their remodeled kitchens for charity. The Santa Cruz Literacy Program's First Annual Kitchen Tour is the brainchild of literacy volunteer Ed Perry, a successful fundraiser in his own right who imported the concept from his daughter, who runs a literacy program back East. The Literacy Program's "signature fundraiser" takes lookie-loos and do-gooders on a tour from Aptos to the Westside of Santa Cruz, where they get to see what must be some of the area's all-time spectacular kitchens.

    One is 600 square feet, with a multilevel island and built-in breakfast nook, not to mention ginormous views. Another features custom cherry wood cabinetry and retractable electrical outlets. Mike and Joyce Assar's open-construction kitchen is a playful riot of red, blue, yellow and lime green with a theme: two sinks, two dishwashers, two refrigerators and a freezer.

    "We kept promising people we'd have a Fourth of July party when we moved in. So we had 160 to 200 people, and we had plenty of refrigerator space," says Joyce.

    Guests on the tour may notice some trends, among them a move away from stainless steel appliances--still plenty popular--to cabinetry-concealed appliances. Joyce Assar gives some insight as to why.

    "We had stainless steel in our other house and there were fingerprints all over it," she says. "I said, 'No more.'"

    Another trend might be heralded by the Apriles' choice in countertop material: instead of the ubiquitous granite, they picked Silestone, a man-made quartz composite. They like its density and lack of porosity for different, and telling, reasons. "She rolls pizza dough out on it!" says Tony."It's easier to clean," says Nataliya.

    Countertops may come and go, but some things never change.

    THE FIRST ANNUAL SANTA CRUZ LITERACY PROGRAM KITCHEN TOUR is Sunday, Aug. 24, from noon to 4pm. Booklets containing directions to each kitchen are available for $15 at the following locations: Bookshop Santa Cruz, Bookworks in Aptos, Capitola Book Café, Outback Trading in Felton, Bailey Properties in Scotts Valley, Baker Brothers in Watsonville, Greenspace in Santa Cruz and John Fuchs in Rio del Mar.

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