Maximize your open floor plan – even in minimal space

08/21/2014 11:30 PM

08/21/2014 11:30 PM

It’s hard to talk about design trends without mentioning open floor plans, which have officially replaced granite countertops as a national obsession. But what do they mean for renters? These days, many apartment buildings have responded to open-plan demand by slyly combining the kitchen, living room and dining room into one small space.

Sure, it’s fluid. But it’s also one room at the price of three.

In these layouts, the dining area suffers. Kitchens are too permanent and expensive to bother tweaking, and nobody wants to trade a comfy sofa for one with a smaller footprint. But dining areas – even makeshift, informal ones – shouldn’t be discounted entirely.

“Dining tables are extra-crucial in small spaces, because there usually isn’t a kitchen island to congregate around,” said designer Joe Ireland of Washington. “They are the magnet.”

Placement can be the biggest hurdle in designating an apartment dining area. Many units have front doors that open directly into the living-dining-kitchenette, and the only logical place for a table is a few feet from the entryway. For these spaces, Ireland suggests tables with a single, sculptural base rather than a bunch of legs. Sometimes called pedestal tables, they look less awkward without chairs and can serve as a center hall table, dining table and desk.

“Feel free to leave a chair or two out if you need to,” he said, but if you can spare a bit of closet space, “stack extras in a closet to bring out when you have company over.”

The next step is to choose a shape. Although there is no right or wrong choice, most designers recommend round tables in small spaces because they de-emphasize the corners of a room, making it appear larger. Round tables are also easier to move around in cramped quarters.

“The tighter the space, the less square things you want,” Ireland said. “Otherwise you’re bumping into everything, bruising yourself. Curves make small spaces seem manageable.”

If you prefer square or rectangular tables, try ponying one side up to a window. It’s one fewer place setting and chair to squeeze in, and it offers a dose of natural light to mealtime.

When it comes to diameter, you’re generally safe buying a 36-inch round tabletop or larger for two to three people; anything less might not be worth the squishing. Aim for 42 inches if space will allow. Remember that you’ll need about 28 inches between the table and the wall for chairs to be pulled out easily.

Table height is also worth considering. A higher bar table, such as West Elm’s rustic round counter table ($499), can be placed right next to the kitchen and seat several people on the fly. Plus it offers visual relief by drawing your eyes up and away from the floor.

If you’re strapped for cabinet space, some dining tables even offer storage. Itsy Bitsy Ritzy, a Connecticut company that designs and manufactures furniture for small spaces, offers a modern storage pedestal that has a thick, 28-inch-high base with three drawers ($1,140 for the base only; pair it with your own tabletop). It’s one of the company’s best sellers and can store eight dinner plates, four coffee mugs, four glasses and silverware.

In a small space, choose a glass top to “keep the look light and airy,” said Marcia Harris, who founded the business with her husband, Dean, in 2012. She uses transparent glass or acrylic surfaces because they make a space look bigger. “The more your eye line is interrupted, the smaller the space feels,” she said.

Harris applied the same strategy to dining chairs. Itsy Bitsy Ritzy carries a modern acrylic chair that folds up ($140). Ikea’s Tobias dining chair ($79) and LexMod’s Casper dining armchair ($99) are inexpensive alternatives to Philippe Starck’s classic Louis Ghost chair ($450), which is sold at Design Within Reach.

Of course, perhaps the most popular solution to small-space dining is an extension or drop-leaf table that can expand to fit more place settings when the doorbell rings. Ireland is designing a custom extension table for a client in Washington. It makes for a tight room when it’s fully extended, but that doesn’t matter, he said.

“Part of the fun of big family dinners like Thanksgiving is everyone piling up around the table,” he said. “Then you just tuck the sides back in after everyone leaves. It’s the furniture equivalent of exhaling.”

Other apartment ideas

Ikea has embraced the mobile-renter demographic with its P.S. collections. Now eight years running, the collections feature pieces that are portable and inexpensive but well-designed. The Havet sofa beds and sofa chairs are on wheels; a stool has an embedded LED lamp (www.ikea.com).

Peter Klinkert heads the retailer’s Special Collections. Buy furniture that’s multifunctional, he advises: storage cubes that also work as coffee tables or a dining table that offers storage so it can be used as a workspace. Consider floating bookshelves that take advantage of wall space without taking up floor space.

Ikea’s Lack wall shelves come in a variety of colors, and there’s also a corner shelving unit in the P.S. 2014 collection to maximize dead space.

Check out Umbra’s clever Conceal wall shelves that give you a steel bar on which to anchor a hardcover book; stack a few more, or add a small accessory, for a neat combination of wall storage and art (www.umbra.com).

Consider mirrored or clear acrylic pieces to give the illusion of more space. Overstock has side tables and chairs priced a lot lower than high-end designer pieces (www.overstock.com).

A great coffee table can serve a lot of functions. Entertaining, dining and crafting can all happen at a decent table in front of the sofa and television. Dania has the cool Harwich oak-veneered table: four stacked slabs, and the top two swivel. Two sturdy levels of elm veneer and steel create a workhorse piece in the Matson coffee table (www.daniafurniture.com).

Meg Volk, a New York producer and photographer who at 22 is on her third under-300-square-foot studio apartment, says her spaces seem bigger when she uses furniture with legs rather than pieces that squat solidly on the ground. Choosing light-colored woods and fabrics also contribute a sense of airiness.

If you’re strapped for cash, consider TV trays for side tables, and park a bin or basket underneath for storage. Target sells them individually for around $10, or buy a set of four and use them in both the living room and bedroom (www.target.com).

For good deals, hit the sale sections at your favorite retailers; dents, torn wrapping and scratches often warrant heavier discounts, so keep checking in.

One good thing about a small living space is that it doesn’t take much to add a lot of punch. A peaceful palette may be just right, but if you love color and pattern, inexpensive textiles are easy to add. Buy a couple of yards of interesting cotton, or use neat towels or cute baby blankets to cover seat cushions or throw pillows. You don’t need sewing skills – staple guns handle the job on furniture, while iron-on tack, Velcro, diaper pins or knots work on pillows (www.joann.com).

A block-printed shower curtain can work in the bathroom or at the window and be cheaper than drapes (www.worldmarket.com).

Finally, exercise self-control when it comes to tchotchke displays and tempting but unnecessary gear.

Contributing: Associated Press

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