Minhal Baig always wanted an office. In her previous apartments, all she had was a desk pushed up against a wall.
When she moved from Los Angeles to a house in the North Beach neighborhood of Seattle, it was time. “I’m a filmmaker/writer/director in feature films and TV, and this is my first official office,” Baig says. “My job is very stressful, so I wanted it to feel serene.”
The office sits in a small basement with very little light, so Baig’s designer, Pallavi Kale, of Pallavi Kale Interiors in Seattle, created a “Writer’s Lair” to maximize the space and cultivate creativity.
“Six and a half feet is not a lot of height for a basement,” says Kale. “Vertical trees on the wallpaper, which was already there, make the space feel taller.”
The tree motif also helps bring in an outdoor vibe.
“Always bring nature into a space,” Kale says. “Especially a basement.” Baig agrees: “Sometimes the life of a writer can feel quite insular, but bringing in nature helps so you’re not feeling like you’re in a dark cave 14 hours a day. Plants make every space better. It’s a really good investment — makes every room feel a bit more alive.”
Light wood and natural fibers completed the look and kept the color palette neutral. And the space leads to the actual outdoors. “Even though it’s small, there’s a door that leads out to the backyard,” Baig says. “I can hear the creek from my office. It’s the perfect backdrop to writing — very inspiring.”
Along with bringing the outdoors in, here are some other tips from local designers, homeowners and realtors for making the smaller areas of your home feel more roomy.
Store it away
To organize Baig’s writing retreat, Kale installed customized built-in oak shelves, working around a tiny 2-by-2-foot window. Baig wanted one area to house the computer, and an open space for an idea board she can look at every day. The modular system hides the printer and other small desk items.
Built-ins are great for containing clutter and maximizing small spaces, says Jeff Pelletier, managing principal and founder of Board & Vellum architecture and design firm on Capitol Hill in Seattle. “We love designing custom built-ins, and they are especially helpful in small spaces because you can really make the most out of every inch in a way furniture just can’t,” he says.
Board & Vellum designed the Crow’s Nest Cottage, a 180-square-foot guest house on Capitol Hill that packs in a loft bedroom, 3/4 bath, bar, washer/dryer, clothes closet and flexible main space that converts from living room to dining room to a second bedroom.
“With small spaces, we encourage you to think not only about how to maximize the use of your space — such as with adaptable furniture or hidden storage solutions — but also how to make it feel bigger than it actually is,” Pelletier says. For the Crow’s Nest, this includes built-in bookcases and a Murphy bed with a drop table, for starters.
“Floor to ceiling shelving is a huge space saver,” says Kale, who often uses the Vitsoe Universal Shelving System for small spaces.
She recommends hiding things away to create clean, open spaces, and employs the strategy in her own home: “I live in a small space with a large sideboard that hides under the TV,” Kale says. “If kids’ toys have to stay in the living room, they better be in a nice sideboard.”
Get creative in the kitchen
Lindsay McDonald, a real estate broker with Berkshire Hathaway and a stager for Reveal Home Staging in Seattle, recommends dining nooks with built-in bench seats for small spaces — preferably ones that open or have built-in drawers below for storage.
“Bench seating for your dining table takes up less space than chairs,” she says. “In a home we staged recently, we made a cramped dining space hold a table for six by choosing a long, narrow table paired with a large, upholstered settee pushed up to the wall for seating on one side, and three more chairs on the other side. The settee was a space-saver and ended up making the whole room feel cozier and more comfortable than a typical dining room.”
Designer Angie Harpole, of Harpole Home on Vashon Island, says every client asks her about increasing storage space in the kitchen. One technique is to hide the microwave in the pantry instead of allowing it to take up valuable counter space. She also recommends installing cabinets on the back of an island or peninsula in a small kitchen. This storage area can hold lesser-used items like serving plates or canning supplies.
Vashon Island homeowner India Alarcon hired Harpole to fix her problem pantry. “We went from an extremely cramped closet in our kitchen that was hard to access and had shelves that blocked the water heater. With having a designer come in and lay out a proper pantry, we almost quadrupled our storage space,” Alarcon says.
Another big trend in kitchen design is appliance garages, Harpole says. “Everyone wants a clean, clutter-free countertop, and that can only be achieved if appliances and utilitarian items are tucked away,” she says.
Harpole designed a coffee station in a Seattle home with an espresso machine that slides out in its own tray and plugs in at the back of the cabinet. All of the coffee supplies are located on the shelf above the machine, saving counter space and keeping it looking neat and tidy. Her client, Katie Keefe, loves it.
“My appliance garage for my espresso machine is a game changer,” Keefe says. “When I am bleary-eyed and just need my morning coffee, I can slide the machine in and out and not have to worry about cleaning the coffee grounds on my countertop. I just shut the cabinet door, and there’s no mess.”
Let it float
Sometimes less is more. “Simple things, like opting for a floating vanity in the bathroom, hardly eliminates any storage, but makes a small room feel larger since your eyes — and feet — experience more floor space,” Pelletier says.
Harpole likes that floating vanities make the room feel “weightless.” She also likes to add large mirrors to bounce light throughout the space. Another visual trick is to lay out large-scale tiles vertically to create a feeling of a higher ceiling. “Having floor tiles the same size and same direction as the wall tiles enhances this visual effect,” Harpole says.
Another space-saving measure in the bathroom is to use sliding pocket doors.
McDonald likes floating shelves for any room of the house. “They can work well in any space, but in a small living space they have the benefit of taking up less space than cabinetry and provide a lighter, airier feel,” she says.
Let the light in
We need as much light as possible in our Pacific Northwest homes, Harpole says. “Don’t be afraid to put the bed against windows,” she says. If you do, she suggests a slat-style headboard, since it won’t block light, rather than a tall, upholstered headboard.
Harpole also suggests getting a bed frame that allows for storage under the bed. “This increases space and makes the bed visually lighter in the room, making the room appear bigger,” she says.
Lighter paint colors also help a space feel larger. “In small spaces, it’s best to choose shades of white or other lighter colors that reflect light to make the space feel open,” McDonald says.
Baig also has practical advice for fellow homeowners: pare down your stuff. “One of the things I learned is that I need a lot less than I think I do,” she says. “That minimalist approach has made the space feel more open and larger than it is.”
Her small-but-airy writer’s lair has anchored and inspired her. “In the last two years, I’ve been more productive than the last seven,” she says. “I wrote more pages in two years than I did in the five before.”