The decorator's den

Small spaces

12:47 PM

Before I continue in my room to room guide in home decor, I feel it is time to tackle the cliché “Small space living”. most magazines tackle it year after years, because a vast majority of urban middle class Indians live in apartment buildings that are crunched for space (even more so in Mumbai were the square foot comes at a premium).
The most common tip I hear and read is : White walls, light furniture to give the illusion of space. Leading to the idea that white is the ONLY way to get a feeling of space and airiness into a home. idea that could not be further from the truth.

White is the safe colour, it’s the generic one size fits all of decoration, it doesn’t require much thinking, and frankly speaking I am getting tired of seeing all white houses around, this is the commercial, safe and very sterile “designer” approach.
that doesn’t mean other colours should be avoided in small spaces, just that you will need to think a little more to make them work.
The rule that states you should keep the walls in light hues actually holds true, but light hue doesn’t just mean white. It can be pastels in shades of yellow, blue, reds, oranges…just avoid painting your whole living room hot red if it is small, opt for a watered down hue in the red family, saving the hot bold hue for the accents instead.
The rule that states furniture should be light coloured or made of glass however…is a myth, you can have a supremely claustrophobic space using these just the same you can have a nice airy space using dark woods. What matters the most when you have a small space to furnish is to go for furniture that have minimalistic lines, and are scaled to fit the space. One of the common mistake is to try to cram a heavily carved bed or table in a tiny space. Or trying to fit a 3 seater sofa plus 2 arm chairs all belonging to a matching set in a living room.
I’ll go into detail about the sofa sets once I tackle the living room decor, here is not the place, but you get the idea.
Another thing that matters when you are dealing with a small space is a sense of unity, not all the item need to match each other, but keep to a similar hue for all woods, avoiding to have too many style clashing in a limited carpet area is more important than the colour of said furniture.
Create ONE big focal point, preferably on one of the short walls at the end of the room, that will draw your eyes there giving the illusion of depth. Do it on the wall that is the further away from the door, or in just one corner so that when you step into the room it is the first thing you notice.
One of the easiest trick is to aim at a window and maximise the Window treatment of bring in the outdoor in if you have a nice view.

As an example I will take the living room of our current flat, when we moved in last December this is how it looked:


Don’t mind the Christmas tree, it’s gone now, and I have a better place for it this year, but look at the room, this living room has been the smallest we’ve had since the rooftop terrace apartment in Bangalore. I already used the balcony as the focal point with intent to do more about it. That is still a work in progress, but I took a picture just now to show you that very little improvement will make a difference:


Notice that the angle at which I took this picture is the same, the lighting is somewhat similar too, but the turquoise strip I painted a few month ago at the bottom of the balcony banister stands out. My eye doesn’t stop at the TV or the curtains, it stops shortly at the blue strip and then takes a better sight at the outdoor. Nothing else has changed in the room between December and now (Christmas tree aside).
Now of course you don’t have to necessarily paint stuff, I could have achieved that same effect placing brightly coloured pots and plants there, or a bright coloured mats with some cushions and achieved the same effect.
But coming back to the topic of bright coloured walls, while they have a tendency to dwarf a room if you pain all four walls in the same colour, the opposite can be true if you paint only the further away from the door wall in that bold shade and reserve a lighter one for the remaining three walls, and then place an interesting picture or object in the center of the bold wall as to really drag the eye deep in the room. So remember, create depth in a small room, and you need one single sharp contrast to do it (so much for the keep it all white idea huh?).

Small spaces are totally unforgiving to clutter too, so keep it tidy. And because you can’t put too many storage unit in such places, find some that will do double duty: a bed with a hidden compartment underneath,  a coffee table with hidden storage compartments. Decorative bins that blend with the decor of the room but conceal some of the mess you don’t want your guests to see, better yet, storage boxes sturdy enough to double as extra seating in your living room while keeping your kid’s toys away.
Another thing to keep in mind with small spaces, or any space or that matter is that you don’t live in Square feet, your flat is not only two dimensional, but is a 3D space, so start thinking in CUBIC feet instead. free up some space on the ground by mounting display cases and shelves on the walls. You don’t need to have only art on your walls, a nice looking shelf will not only look good but keep your books or decorative figurine without taking some carpet area space.

In our home Ishita’s bedrooms over the years have been the prime example of that concept. This is a picture of her room in our previous flat:


This shelf was at one point in our living room mounted high on the wall to store our DVDs and paperbacks. It is now her toy shelf. In our old flat the room was narrow, her toddler bed was on one side, and we mounted the shelf just high enough to slide two regular twin size mattresses we use when we have guests over. When it’s not used as guest bedding it’s doubling as a reading nook/play mat for Ishita. if we had a conventional bookshelf you keep on the ground, it would not have been possible. The shelf is still in Ishi’s room right now, the mattresses aren’t. So we mounted the shelf low enough she can still access her stuff, but in the future should we suddenly need more space on the ground to add a bed or a desk, all we have to do is mount the shelf a bit higher to slide something else underneath.

Back in Switzerland my tiny studio apartment had a total carpet area of 280 square feet, bathroom and kitchen bench included, to make it even more challenging it was under the slanted roof of an old house’s attic. It took me two minutes to realise that it’s strong point was that it was L shaped. I divided the area in two, using a drawer unit and a low open shelf unit. In 280 square feet with 32 of these eaten by the bathroom alone I managed to have a computer desk, a 4 seats dinning table, and a big king size thick mattress on the ground, as well as a regular size double door wardrobe, 2 book shelves and still had enough space to move around. the secret was to use low shelves against the wall where the roof was low, use storage boxes above the wardrobe to store my craft supplies and less used clothes. One of my bookshelf was wall mounted above the “bed” the other in a corner of my dinning area and the computer desk was a corner desk set just where the room was getting low, because I didn’t need a high ceiling to sit at the desk anyway. I wish I had pictures in digital format to share of the place, to show you how I managed that one. I might scan some old pics or find some of the CDs I have of that time, until then, you’ll have to just have my words for it.
The best way to make the best out of a matchbox sized space it to literally think out of the box.


  1. Beatrix6:51 PM

    I've never understood why most of the furniture sold in India is so 'over scaled' & way too large for the average Indian living space.

    I wish the Indian furniture makers would also take a cue from IKEA on scale & furniture pieces that serve 'double duty' as storage (i.e. sofas & chairs that have storage built in under the cushions).

  2. I know!!! My theory is that India is fairly new at the concept of apartment living and those who had beig enough quarters in the past were those living in big family homes where there was planty of space for big heavily carved furnitures and bulky sofas, but haven't yet adapted to living compact the way we have back in Switzerland. Cities like Mumbai are in huge need of Ikea or stores with similar concept, because the average 2BHK in appartment buildings in Mumbai has a total carpet area of 700 square feet.
    Just the idea of getting a round table seem to be a though one here, DH and I had to settle for a rectangle one, we took it big enough to sit 6 persons because that space is multitasking, being a dinning table, a craft table and my laptop using spot. The flat we are living in right now has the smallest living room we had, that's where having a round table would have come in super handy freeing tons of space on the ground. I keep thinking of the Ikea one we had growing up that had a split in the middle whcih we could open to insert an extension to make it oval and bigger to seat bigger parties when needed. the table was a 4 seater when round, but up to an 8 when both extensions where used.
    The fact that back in Switzerland people have been used to small space living for ages mean that we have taken to the concept of modular space, smething that is yet to happen on a large scale in India.

  3. Big, ornate, gaudy heavily carved or decorated furniture is popular in India, because to the Indian eye it looks expensive and nice, and therefore denotes status and money. Scandinavian-style clean lines, modern furniture is just not to the average Indian's taste

  4. The trend is changing though, but the furnitures have clean line but are still twice as big as they should be. The clean scandinavian lines become brag material only if the owner can brag about the fact it's Imported furniture, and for some reason from Italy. The bookshelf has to compensate being minimalistic by having a price tag close or above 1 lakh rupee :(

  5. sudha7:29 PM

    hi ...posting in a dfrnt write up pls pardon ..thanx a ton fr the idea about kids room ..we might finaly go in for teh curtains ....the topic u touched upon is extremly usefull ...true mumbai apartment are a big challenge to decorate and at the same time have utilty ...thats the reason we stuck to cane furnitures and will soon add a tv wall unit to keep in our tv ..dvd player ...set top boxes...etc etc we might do our house after a few more yrs!!!!i see most of the homes which are been doen ..too many good things all put in teh living area..a decorative false ceiling..a heavy chandelier...heavy colour contrast in the walls... a shiny or mat finish wall facing the tv area ...and teh biggest eye sore a biiiig ...sofa set ..looks like indians can never get over the sofa set addiction!!!hopefully thing will change ..but presently our living area most of the time looks like war struck or eartquake struck place with toys all around...chairs facing the wall ...and the dining table stacked with some odd clutter!!!

  6. I will touch the living room very soon :)
    The sofa set thing is something that need to stop, they are a great idea if you have a huge living room, but most people living in cities don't have that kind of space. I have friends who got stuck having only their sofa set in their living room because appartments in Mumbai just won;t allow the set AND a dinning table. I'd rather have one 3 seater sofa and a dinning table and use floor cushions, ottomans or bean bags as extra seating that I can push in corners when not in use to free space.
    The toys exploding in a living room when you have kids is unavoidable, mine looks like something exploded in it every night, but I can clear it away very quickly as I have planned quick storage solutions for them.

  7. younger one hasnt got her own bed with storage ....she will get hers next yr ...hence the clutter will be i must say our living area looks far more spacious than most in our complex may be the minimalistic furniture is the answer ...also once when teh wall unit comes in and a wall mounted tv ...things will be more spacious...not to forget we have 5 huge aquariums here which is just mind blowing!!!our house jst need a bit of colouring and thats it to give it a 5 star look ... ;)

  8. Beatrix9:54 PM

    Hey Cyn,
    Can you do a post on 'lighting' rooms in India. I find the lack of table lamps (or places to plug them in) to be frustrating.
    And the wall mounted light fixtures are ungodly ugly & useless.

  9. Oh wow! I had aquariums growing up, 2 in the living room which was a big room in my childhood flat. My dad loved having fishes around :) They definitely add colours and dimention to a room and it's an always in motion piece of art.

  10. Will do, lighting is such a big topic I will do a separate post for it. One thing I always hated since I moved to India is the overuse of tube light, and not even the one that looks nice, just the bare industrial tube light mounted right smack on the wall! The light is garish, harsh and makes me think of a hospital or office. The only place I get the use of having one is in the kitchen.
    I personally much prefer table level lights to ceiling lights...but that is a matter of taste more than anthing else. I find that tube lights tend to stimulate me way too much at night so much so I find it more difficult to find sleep afterward (I'm a light sleeper prone to insomnia) so having soft warm white light from table lights is something essential for me, somehow the warm but not too bright glow of these lamps ease my transition into sleep mode much better.
    In many of the flats I lived in the plugs were fortunately at the right level for table lamps, in two flats including the one I am in right now, I had to have some plug points added in the bedrooms.
    One thing I really miss and don't see happening anytime soon, is a low ceiling lampshade hanging above the dinning table, when I eat in the evening or on a gloomy day like today I would love to have a lamp close to the table top but not harsh enough to light the whole room. They usuall make meals fare more convivial, but then the concept of dinning table seem to be pretty new in India too.

  11. Most of the Indian furniture has nostalgic value. Grandfather's table, wardrobe or bed. Indians don't want to part with these old things and get them repaired. These furniture are strong and last for decades compared to today's furniture where you don't know what wood is being used.


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