Home tips & tricks from the experts
Photography by Cheryl Gerber
City living often requires a different approach when it comes to space, and even though New Orleans homes are a far cry from your typical New York City condo, they can offer challenges you don’t encounter with new construction. The functions of historic home layouts are perhaps less functional for today’s families, and in some cases, multiple renovations over the decades have created awkward spaces that may have helped one tenant but hinder the next. From creating storage to highlighting strengths, improving a small space to fit your needs and aesthetic is attainable.
Many historic homes have few closets or none at all, and unfortunately in today’s world of mass consumption and “must haves” a single wardrobe closet or cedar chest isn’t likely to cut the mustard. Whether it’s designing a closet for a new build or reconfiguring an existing space to fit your storage needs, closet expert Don Wise of Louisiana Custom Closets has encountered it all in his more than 20 years of experience serving Southeast Louisiana and the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
“The most important thing, when it comes to small spaces, is to consult with the client for the use of the closet, shared closet, child’s closet, pantry, linen – you need to take inventory of what will be stored there,” says Wise. In other words, if you know in advance what you plan to store, you can better design the space to be most efficient.
In old New Orleans homes with high ceilings, Wise says it’s important to take advantage of all of the space by installing a hanging rod or high shelves to be used for off-season clothing or luggage. Do not just insert one hanging rod when there is room for two, or possibly three.
According to Penny D. Francis, Owner and Principal Designer at Eclectic Home, storage is a constant problem in New Orleans. For Francis, this makes form and function high priority.
“Purchase items that have a dual function. For example, use an ottoman with storage beneath for your cocktail table,” says Francis. “If you have a work area or desk, it can double as dining by night. Flip top tables are great for this. They can be moved off the wall, extended and used for dining,” she says. Echoing Wise’s recommendation, Francis suggests using vertical space when floor space is at a minimum by arranging wall cubes with bins as an interesting way to store items off the floor.
Bedrooms also offer a number of storage solutions, some visible, such as a trunk at the foot of the bed or a wardrobe for hanging, and others more subtle, such as under-the-bed bins and nightstands with drawers.
Furniture is always a consideration in a small space, and making sure the pieces fit the room can take an artful eye.
“Don’t crowd your room with a lot of furniture. It is important to make sure your furniture is scaled to your small space, and a design professional can help choose which pieces are a better fit,” says Beth Claybourn of Beth Claybourn Interiors, who was recently featured in Victoria for her exquisite collection of textiles and linens.
Claybourn recommends using leg furniture to keep your eye continually moving. Leg furniture can increase the spacious feel of a room, and Claybourn likes to use dark furniture with a light paint color on the ceiling or trim to open up a room. The best way to ensure the right items, she emphasizes, is not through Pinterest, but through a design consultation, which is offered free through Beth Claybourn Interiors.
Wall color is another consideration for a small space, and many people choose to play it safe with whites and beiges.
“Some people feel that you have to paint a small space a light color to keep the room from feeling small; however, I have found the opposite to be true,” says Tina Lagasse, Principal Designer for Jade. “A darker color tends to give the illusion that the walls recede, especially when the trim, walls and ceiling are all the same value,” she says. Lagasse likes the ability of dark walls and trim to create mood, which can make the space more dynamic and intimate.
She also recommends spending some time finding the right decorative light fixture for a small space, which she refers to as “jewelry for your room.” Jade’s design showroom located on Metairie Road includes a lighting gallery, a library of rug and fabric samples and “all things home,” says Lagasse.
Michiel Dop, owner of Dop Antiques and Architecturals, agrees with Lagasse on the use of dark wall colors and adds that the inclusion of antiques will add a touch of “rustic warmth.” Antiques with ornate, embellished details can add a sense of grandeur.
“It is a misconception that small spaces require small furnishings,” says Dop. Believing that several small pieces will make the space busy, he suggests a few larger pieces and even mixing the new with the old, the expensive with the inexpensive. Repurposing antiques and transforming them into new uses such as a bathroom vanity or sink can also make a space more dynamic, and in some cases help with space while adding a dynamic look.
With 20,000 square feet of warehouse space, Dop Antiques and Architecturals is an idea haven, with seemingly endless pieces from which to choose. They receive a 40-foot container of new arrivals every month. Additionally, they custom build furniture from reclaimed wood and custom paint upon request, so possibilities abound.
Over the decades, even centuries, New Orleans homes have seen their share of work, and many have been divided into condos or apartments that create unique layout problems for new buyers or tenants. When the kitchen takes the brunt of a bad renovation decision, finding ways to fit everything in can be a huge challenge. Randall Shaw, President of Nordic Kitchen & Baths, has seen his share of small kitchen renovations, including a beautiful 10-foot, along-the-wall kitchen with all the sought-after components.
Depending on where you’re able give or take space, using properly sized, smaller appliances can make a big difference to the kitchen while having little to no negative impact on use or functionality.
“Today there is a tremendous amount of 24-inch wide refrigerator/freezers that are available. There are quite a few 24-inch-wide ovens and cooktops, too,” says Shaw. “There are combination units – instead of having a separate microwave and oven, you can combine microwave and oven technology together,” he says. Other downsizes could include dishwashers as small as 18 inches and a single-bowl sink which can improve your ability to wash large items.
While asking about small spaces, numerous designers praised the benefits of mirrors, and a kitchen is no different. Shaw has seen a return to the mirrored backsplash in the form of mirrored subway tiles.
Bathrooms present another area where a little give and take can go along way.
“So many clients come to us with a small bathroom, and they want to put everything in it. First, people need to be realistic with their expectations about what they’re going to fit in there,” says Shaw. If you have more than one bathroom, for instance, consider a walk-in shower in one if you have a tub or shower/tub combination in the other. Installing a round-bowl toilet instead of an elongated toilet can save up to four inches of space.
Committing additional wall space to mirrors in a bathroom is a trick often employed by Payne & Mason, LLC, an architecture and design studio founded by Kristen Mason Klamer and Kimberly Payne Allen, two LSU graduates with design experience garnered in New York City.
“We believe in mirrors. Even with small bathrooms, stretching a 1/4-inch mirror across the vanity and continuing across the toilet can surprisingly open up a bathroom to feel twice as large,” says Mason Klamer. As a space-saver, the pair likes to utilize built-ins when possible as a way to contain clutter. When designing millwork, Payne & Mason puts the emphasis on vertical lines in order to draw the eye upward, accentuating the tall ceilings of most historic New Orleans homes.
While a “small space” more often than not conjures a small room, small houses are another consideration altogether.
“For small houses, we typically recommend using the same architectural detailing and choosing materials and finishes from the same color and style palate for all rooms. It tends to blend spaces together, making one contiguous space, rather than further compartmentalizing rooms,” says Mason Klamer.
The “Great” Outdoors
In addition to small indoor spaces, New Orleans has its fair share of tiny outdoor spaces. Many homes have little to no yard, and small patios, stoops and courtyards are aplenty. But small outdoor spaces are valuable additions to a home, especially when functional and well curated with plants.
According to Jeannette Roussell, Landscape Architect with Landscape Images Ltd., the first thing to do is to decide how the space will be used. Once you know that, be judicious about what you put in it.
“If it’s going to be a viewing garden, then concentrating on the plant material would be the most important thing. If it’s going to be courtyard where you’re going to gather, then you need more patio with landscaping around it,” says Roussell.
It is also important in the planning process to be aware of the space’s surroundings. Roussell recommends being conscientious of unsightly places such as trashcans, the A/C unit or even neighbor’s windows that might impede your privacy. Consider the views inside and out, and how you might want to screen them with a fence, tree or large plant material.
“The other thing that’s really important I think is choosing plant material that can be what we call ‘well mannered’ and doesn’t just take over,” says Roussell. She recommends a Japanese Yew for a vertical space, or even magnolias of the Little Gem or Teddy Bear varieties. Other popular and fun plants that work well in New Orleans include cleyera, nandina, jasmine, bower vines, espaliered camellia and climbing roses.
A final perspective to consider – since some renovators are more interested in selling a home than personalizing it – is that of the real estate professional that can help buy or sell the home based on its space and functionality.
“Opening up walls and creating larger rooms gives the appearance of more square footage,” says Kelleye Rhein with Keller Williams Realty New Orleans. “And if it doesn’t require moving plumbing or knocking down a load-bearing wall, it’s often an easy fix that makes a huge difference. This is especially effective with our traditional New Orleans shotguns,” she says. Storage is often important to a prospective buyer, so Rhein echoes what many design experts have recommended: built-in shelving or floor-to-ceiling cabinetry.
When considering a renovation, whether or large or small, Rhein reminds us that with 100-year-old homes, you never know what you might uncover. Some discoveries, such as an intact fireplace, might be a welcome architectural treasure, while termite or water damage could delay or derail a project.
“So my advice is to be prepared by creating a realistic timetable for your renovation that includes extra time for those unknowns,” says Rhein. No matter your dilemma, though, one thing is certain: no small space is too small to be useful. With a little creativity and consideration, small spaces can yield big results.
Louisiana Custom Closets, Multiple locations, 885-3188, LouisianaCustomClosets.com • Eclectic Home, 8211 Oak St., 866-6654, EclecticHome.net • Beth Claybourn Interiors, 401 Tchoupitoulas St., 342-2630, BethClaybournInteriors.com • Jade, 324 Metairie Road, Metairie, 875-4420, JadeNola.com • Dop Antiques, 300 Jefferson Highway, 231-3397, DopAntiques.com • Nordic Kitchen & Baths, 1818 Veterans Blvd., Metairie, 888-2300, NordicKitchens.com • Payne & Mason, LLC, 250-8407, PayneAndMason.com • Landscape Images, Ltd., 734-8380, LandscapeImagesLTD.com • Kelleye Rhein, Keller Williams Realty New Orleans, 862-0100, KellerWilliamsNewOrleans.com,