Small Spaces Need Big Design Ideas

In a cranky, late-afternoon slump, I wander by the vending machine to find a line of similarly slumping folks debating snack options. The hold up, it seems, is the Peppermint Patty, which may or may not have shrunk in size, according to popular opinion, and may or may not be worth a buck and a quarter.

When the girl holding up the line begins to poll everyone, I finally snap, “Yes, it’s smaller! Everything’s smaller! Get used to it!”

Nearly a decade since Susan Susanka came out with the first of her Not So Big design books, the concept has gone from quaint to commonplace. And that’s particularly true in the kitchen and bath industry, where “clean” and “green” have become the hottest trends, and “how well it works for me” has come to mean more than the size, trophy effect or what the Joneses think.

In the midst of new economic realities, there’s a new mindset. New realities. A new normal.

And it’s a lot smaller than it used to be.

Now it’s easy to write that off as a bad thing. From the super-sized meal at McDonalds to the jetted tub big enough to swim laps in, we’re trained to think of more as better, more desirable, more luxurious. But is it, really?

Just as most of us don’t want or need a gallon of soda with our lunch or a tub that takes half an hour to fill and can seat a family of four, bigger spaces don’t always make for a better design. In fact, sometimes, greater creativity can be implemented in not-so-big spaces, where every detail works together to create a perfect – and perfectly organized – whole.

As Ellen Cheever shows us this month in her Designer’s Notebook (see 'Big' Small Kitchens), well-designed small spaces can feel and function like their larger-sized counterparts, maximizing beauty and functionality – if the designer is willing to get creative.

And contrary to popular belief, it’s not just about the economy; it’s about how we live, our changing values, and perhaps a realization that sometimes, simplifying our environments helps us to simplify
our over-complicated lives.

Multi-tasking isn’t just a buzzword; it’s the way of the world. And as a result, there’s a blurring between spaces. If our laptop can follow us from the office to the bedroom to the kitchen to the deck, it’s natural to want the same convenience with other aspects of our home. Wine in the living room, snacks in the den, coffee in the master bedroom suite, orange juice in the bathroom, a prep sink and refrigeration out on the patio – why shouldn’t we have what we want, where we want it?

Even within individual rooms, we’ve come to expect products to cater to how we live, regardless of the size of our space or whether or not we are “the norm.” Flexibility is essential in today’s world, and this continues to have a tremendous impact on the design world, especially as the Baby Boomers continue to age (see Planning & Design). We see this in appliance placement, in cabinet storage, in specialty appliance trends (see Product Trend Report), in seating designs and multi-purpose spaces. We see this in products that give us greater control over our carbon footprint. We see this in a new consumer who knows that downsizing doesn’t have to mean downgrading, and that big design can happen in any size space.

Talking to kitchen and bath professionals who are heading to Chicago for this month’s K/BIS, I’m hearing many of the same sentiments. While everyone is happy about the wealth of new product introductions (see K/BIS Product Coverage), and what that says about our industry, the consensus is that it’s less about quantity than quality. As one designer concludes: “I don’t care about big, bigger, biggest. My clients don’t want a million meaningless bells and whistles anymore. I just want to find some great, high quality products that will enhance my clients’ lives – and help me to design beautiful spaces that work for how they live.”