Home Renewal: The Final Frontier
With an abundance of stuff and an imperative to live smaller, modern Americans are on a quest for storage and efficient living
cheryl gerber photographs
Our consumer society has taught us to buy so much stuff that a self-storage industry has emerged just so we can put it all somewhere. And because we consume like locusts, we have more clothes and more gadgets than people just a few decades ago could have imagined. People used to live smaller. One of my grandfathers grew up in half of a double-shotgun on Orleans Avenue alongside five siblings – but that was in an age before televisions, reclining sectional sofas, computers, refrigerators, laundry rooms and walk-in closets.
Looking forward, demographic trends have families getting smaller, empty-nesters living longer and more people choosing not to have kids at all. Some real estate analysts say that these factors, along with the overextension of urban sprawl and the rise in energy costs, portend a return to smaller dwellings in higher density surroundings. They tell us to expect living patterns to look more like they did before the comparative inefficiency of the suburbs became the predominant American model.
In other words, we’re expected to move back into the double shotgun on Orleans, just not with six kids.
How can we meet this supposed imperative to live smaller in a consumer society where we love our wardrobes, our gadgets, our appliances, our stuff?
Answering that question is one of the ways architectural designer Marie Palumbo makes a living. Palumbo had to answer it for herself when she moved with her husband and child into a Warehouse District condo some years ago. There was no space for a home office, but there was a rather large walk-in closet, so she cut it in half. Nowadays, her firm Creative Spaces & Elements LLC, a part of her larger M.A. Palumbo Studio, helps others solve their space problems.
Some of the solutions she offers apply to common problems, such as the failure to take advantage of vertical space. Palumbo often suggests building floor-to-ceiling storage, with rolling ladders if necessary to reach high shelves and cabinets. Her firm has made a specialty of such built-ins, and she has her own team to do the millwork. This approach works for kitchens, walk-in closets, bedrooms and home offices.
In addition to the failure to use vertical space, there are a couple of problems Palumbo finds that are specific to kitchens. Often, she encounters U-shaped countertop layouts, which tend to leave a lot of dead space in the corners; she prefers an L-shape or, in some cases, a galley-style layout.
Free-standing appliances also gobble up space. Inserting stoves and refrigerators into the layout not only saves space but also tends to look more attractive. “You don’t need a 1,000-square-foot space to have a great kitchen,” Palumbo says.
However, adding and reconfiguring storage isn’t always enough. Sometimes a wall has to move, shrink or disappear. Although Palumbo urges seeking out the advice of a trained architectural professional, she says people need to get over their fear of opening up walls.
Before taking that step, however, there are some immediate measures for making a home more spacious.
First, if you’re a bit of a pack rat, reform yourself. Take an inventory of the stuff around your house that you don’t use anymore. Distinguish necessities from emotional attachments. Have a garage sale. Sell on Craigslist or eBay. Recycle old personal papers.
Second, learn to let go of things that are cramping your style. You paid $1,000 for that sofa eight years ago, but it’s a behemoth, and you need something smaller. Kiss it goodbye.
Third, invest in versatile furniture, such as storage ottomans, a coffee table with drawers or a drop-leaf dining table. If you spend enough waking hours in a claustrophobic bedroom, you can even consider installing a Murphy bed; some double as libraries, with sliding shelves to conceal a retracted bed.
There are also steps you can take to make a small space seem bigger. At Palumbo’s office, the reception area is not a large space, but it feels airy because the walls are painted a light blue, there’s plenty of natural light from the storefront windows and everything is organized. “Everything needs to have a place,” Palumbo says.
Lighting is also critical, Palumbo says. If adding windows is not an option, you can add lamps, canister lights or track lighting to open up shadowy spaces.
The den in Palumbo’s home benefits from a couple of tricks, as well. Her sofa and coffee table are low to the ground. The sofa is armless, and her coffee table has a glass top. The result is an expansive look.
Designers and decorators offer other standard bits of advice:
• Keep walkways clear.
• Place bulky furniture against the wall; furniture in open spaces should be lighter.
• Draw open the curtains, and let in the sunshine, or use shear or translucent window treatments rather than heavy drapes.
• Use longer window treatments to draw attention to the full height of the room.
• Use mirrors, preferably opposite a window, to add a sense of depth and more light to a room.
• Use plain upholstery rather than busy patterns.
Some problems, however, have to do more with the homeowner than the home or the furniture. “I call it the disease of the upper-middle-class female,” Palumbo says. Compulsive shopping, hoarding – “a lot of these are psychological problems,” she says.
Yes, you have to live in this consumer society.
But to live spaciously, you have to rebel against it and resist the temptation to consume so much.
Or, of course, you could just rent a self-storage unit.