A folding guest room? Dog crates that double as furniture? These ideas for custom built-ins blow away basic bookshelves.
Like a bespoke suit tailored to flatter your body, custom-made built-ins can enhance the appearance of a home — elevating the design, offering creative solutions to everyday problems and disguising unsightly features like exposed pipes or air ducts.
“If you do it right, the built-in becomes a hybrid of a work of art and a hardworking machine that should last a long time and be a sound investment,” said Robert Garneau, an architect in Brooklyn at Architecture Workshop who has designed a range of imaginative built-ins, from storage concealed behind a kitchen backsplash to a guest room that folds out of a wall. “Investing in functionality will never go out of style — it should always work for you.”
With that in mind, The New York Times asked Garneau and other designers for advice on how to think creatively about built-ins.
Think about your daily routine
“Built-in storage should address your unique requirements and respond to your daily rituals,” Garneau said. “Think about how you move through and use various spaces, your daily actions, and what spatial modifications could increase functionality and joy of use.”
In other words, he said, “Ask yourself, ‘What space bothers me the most, where is there the most friction?’ ”
That might be the tangle of shoes and sports gear you keep tripping over near the door or the pile of wood beside the fireplace. Or it could be the need for an extra bedroom, even if you think you don’t have space for one.
Last spring, Garneau created a built-in guest room in an 1,800-square-foot loft for a family of five in Tribeca, so the grandparents could come for extended visits and still allow the children room to play.
The folding wall he designed has two large panels that pivot outward to create a sleeping area with a Murphy bed, shelving and night stands, offering overnight guests storage and privacy. An integrated closet with drawers and hanging space provides room to unpack.
And after the guests leave, “it all folds up and away into a compact, inconspicuous blank wall, allowing the living space to be maximized,” Garneau said. The area can also be used as a playroom “by partially deploying the walls to keep the mess out of sight.”
“Make a list of everything you want to store,” said Jess Cooney, a designer in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. “Then you’ll know what kind of storage you’re in need of — and how much of it you need.”
It will also help you establish good habits. “I always tell my clients, ‘If your family has a place where something lives, then they can be accountable to keep it there,’” Cooney said.
If you tend to create clutter, then closed storage or baskets that hide things on shelves may be the best option, she said. But if you want to show off some of the things you’re storing — your wedding china, for example — consider open shelving or a built-in glass cabinet.
Even if you’re renting, this can be a useful exercise. Because while it might seem counterintuitive, some built-ins are designed to go with you when you leave.
“My first project with built-in furniture was for my first apartment rental in New York City,” Garneau said. “I made it myself, as a modular system of off-the-shelf components to keep it inexpensive, which moved with me into other apartments.”
Look for inspiration
Once you have an idea of what you need, gather images from books and magazines and start thinking about materials.
“Because built-ins are by definition custom pieces, they are not generally inexpensive,” said Sarah Zames, founder of General Assembly, an interior architecture firm in Brooklyn.
“Pricing depends on materials — site-painted, shop spray-painted, wood veneer, solid wood, etc. — and functionality,” she said. “Designing a radiator cover will be less expensive than a desk with drawers. The more complex the design, the more expensive the piece.”
“I recommend always working with a designer on this,” she added, “and a great millworker, to really maximize the use of space and create something individual.”
Choose timeless materials
Garneau’s preference is for “natural” materials, like oak or walnut. But whatever you choose, make sure you “invest wisely, by looking at all the available options,” he advised, so you “make an informed decision you won’t regret.”
Cooney’s recommendation? Something durable, like “reclaimed wood for bench seats, mudrooms or areas where kids will frequently use the space — the wood already has a distressed feel and will take a great deal of wear and tear while still looking great.”
For a family in Great Barrington, Cooney combined reclaimed and new materials in a built-in desk she designed for a kitchen. The desk, which sits in a niche discovered during a renovation, is a mix of walnut (the desktop), white maple (a set of small cabinets) and reclaimed pine (the larger overhead storage), all of which complement the exposed brick of the kitchen wall.
Make use of odd corners and nooks
One way to come up with ideas for creative built-ins is to look around your home for wasted space. Taking advantage of any oddly shaped leftover space is a great way to integrate storage while reducing the need for free-standing pieces, said Zames, of General Assembly.
For a design-conscious couple in Vinegar Hill, Brooklyn, she created a desk and cabinet under the staircase. During the day, the desk is used as a home office. At night, the cabinet opens to reveal a rollout mattress for guests.
Turn flaws into features
Just because a room is small and has unsightly elements like ductwork — and happens to be in the attic — doesn’t mean it’s beyond redemption. Sometimes those flaws can inspire a design solution that makes it one of the most charming rooms in the house.
That’s what happened when Christie Leu turned an attic space with a peaked ceiling into a guest bedroom. Leu, an interior designer in Chevy Chase, Maryland, created a built-in desk and shelving unit along one wall, concealing the ducts behind the lower cabinets. And she used the shelves to frame a window, adding visual interest to the room and making the window look bigger.
“We set them well outside the window,” she said, and added draperies “to create the illusion of a much larger window.”
And just outside the bedroom, at the top of the stairs, she created an inviting reading area by putting a window seat over a radiator.
Don’t overlook the details
“Whatever type of built-in you choose to build, pay special attention to how the piece touches the floor and ceiling,” said Jean Brownhill, founder and chief executive of Sweeten, a service that matches homeowners with vetted professionals. “Will it have the same baseboard and ceiling molding as the rest of the room? If not, how will it connect? It’s very easy to see a poorly installed built-in by the crooked shadow line at the ceiling.”
And then there’s the hardware.
“Do you want your cabinet to open by an invisible touch-latch, a discreet custom-routed pull or an elegant metal hardware?” asked Garneau, who carved out closet space under the staircase in a three-story brownstone and disguised the closet doors with touch latches instead of visible hardware.
Brownhill said that many of her clients are installing similar built-ins, designed to blend seamlessly into a wall instead of calling attention to themselves, from storage closets and kitchen appliances behind hidden doors to wall panels that conceal light switches or toiletries.
“They send a signal of stealth wealth and attention to detail,” she said. “Built-ins have gone from being a statement to being a secret.”
Reimagine old storage
If your home already has solid built-ins, but they’re not exactly what you need, don’t tear them out before considering some alternatives.
While working on a kitchen renovation in Katonah, New York, Kimberly Handler, an interior designer in Greenwich, Connecticut, spotted an opportunity to solve two problems with one existing built-in.
“The family had two dogs, and when I came into the project the dog crates were taking up a good deal of space in the kitchen,” Handler said. She noticed that a free-standing wall of built-ins separating the kitchen from the living area had cabinets below the open shelves that were not particularly useful. So she suggested transforming that lower portion into built-in dog crates, using brass wire mesh on each side.
“It was a relatively easy conversion,” she said. “We made the built-in function better for client, and at the same time we gained space in their kitchen by eliminating the dog crates.”