January-February 2015 | Home & Garden

Small Wonders

Three local homeowners make the most of small living spaces


Many of our area’s older, established neighborhoods are desirable for their convenient locations, great schools and mature trees. The only drawback tends to be the small houses. When Marika Meyer moved into her 1,900-square-foot, 1949 colonial in Bethesda’s Wood Acres community, she knew it needed to be updated. “My husband and I were about to have a baby, and we wanted to make it approachable and family friendly, as well as good for entertaining.”

That was five years ago, and since then she has transformed the house without changing the existing footprint. As a professional interior designer, Meyer was familiar with many clever techniques to make the small house live larger.

In order to maximize seating in the home’s 225-square-foot living room, Meyer opted for a full-size sofa and several small side chairs that can be moved around if necessary. The fireplace is a natural focal point, and the long wall was the obvious place for the sofa, but she didn’t want all of the furniture against the walls, so she floated a pair of vintage, green velvet chairs. “Their 1940s scale is right for the house,” she says. A ceramic Asian garden stool provides a surface to rest a drink, and can be used as extra seating.

The pale color scheme for the walls, curtains and upholstery creates a calm foundation for colorful pillows and throws, which can be changed with the seasons. “Invest in neutrals for the greatest flexibility,” Meyer advises.

For consistency and a sense of flow, she used the same durable sisal floor covering (custom cut and bound) in all of the main rooms. “The larger the area rug, the larger the room will feel,” Meyer says. “I wouldn’t leave more than a 4-inch margin on the edges in a small space.”

In a busy household with small children, the living room gets a lot of use. The sofa is upholstered in an easy-to-clean indoor/outdoor fabric. To avoid making the room appear cramped, and to balance out the 86-inch-long sofa, Meyer used a clear Lucite coffee table and a small, round campaign-style side table.

“I’ve had this vintage secretary for years,” says Meyer, who repurposed it for storage in the dining room. She keeps linens in the drawers, stemware and accessories behind the glass-front cabinets, and uses the desktop as a bar or server. “Concealed storage is key in a small home,” she says.

Meyer loves to entertain, and needed a dining room that could accommodate eight to 10 people. The space is just 9 feet by 16 feet, but the fresh design gives it a spacious feel.

She removed the old chair rail to elongate the walls visually, and added a dramatic backdrop—chic lotus wallpaper with a vertical effect. “It really energized the room, and the scale of the pattern works even in a smaller space,” she explains. Pale blue paint on the ceiling is another optical illusion to make the 8-foot ceiling appear higher. Linen drapery panels flank the windows, and are hung just under the crown molding—Meyer’s rule of thumb for ceilings less than 9 feet.

With all of the neutrals in the room, Meyer injected bold colors and patterns with the dishes, table linens and accessories. “We host a lot of brunches, as well as more formal dinner parties,” she says, “so the decor feels appropriate for daytime and evening.”

Photos by Angie Seckinger


Kristen and Ben Abrams loved the location and vintage charm of their 85-year-old semidetached row home in Upper Northwest D.C., but the cramped kitchen wasn’t working for their growing family, which includes two small children. The couple lived in the house for five years before remodeling. “I took the time to be thoughtful about what we needed, and the look I wanted,” says Kristen, who hired Aidan Design in Silver Spring to help her find creative ways to maximize storage and make her vision a reality.

  The old kitchen was small, and had five openings—windows, doors and a hallway—which didn’t leave much space for cabinets. The solution was to borrow 2 feet from the dining room and close some of the openings to improve the flow. “If you’re short on kitchen space, look to the adjoining rooms,” says designer Megan Padilla of Aidan Design. “Built-ins always make sense in a dining room.”

Closing a passageway to the home’s entry hall made space for a pantry, which has a cabinetry-style door and is equipped with electricity inside for small appliances.

Removing a large portion of the wall between the kitchen and dining room created a physical and visual connection between the two spaces. An I beam supports the ceiling above the 9-foot span. “It’s not an eat-in kitchen, but feels like an extension,” Padilla says. The new counter space doubles as a food prep surface and a bar for serving.
Despite losing 2 feet, the dining room is still ample at 11 feet by 14½ feet. “It’s our only table and our everything table,” Abrams says of the dining room table, which the family uses for meals as well as kids’ crafts. A former breakfast nook beyond the dining room has become a play area for the children. The wall color and built-in storage cabinets are consistent with those in the kitchen and dining room, creating a uniform look throughout the whole open space.

Abrams’ good china and crystal are displayed in glass-front cabinets, while the lower half holds serving pieces and mixing bowls. The coffee maker lives on the counter at the opposite end of the dining room, above the cabinets where the pots and pans are stowed. “Everything is just a few steps away,” Abrams says.

Abrams had a very clear vision about the look of her new kitchen—white Shaker-style cabinets, honed Cararra marble countertops, and a white subway tile backsplash. “It’s organized, there’s a place for everything, and it’s easy to keep clean,” she says. “It has really changed the way we live.”

Photos by Robert Radifera | Photo of Kristen and Kate Abrams by David Friedman


Redesigning Jillian Roth’s condominium was a family affair. As vice president of the upscale home furnishings store Urban Country in Bethesda, she has access to great decorating resources. She enlisted the help of her mom, company President Rachelle Roth, and visual merchandiser Terri Johnson to help refresh her 1,200-square-foot, garden-style loft in North Bethesda.

Roth had owned the unit for 12 years, and the faux finishes that characterized the country cottage decor she favored a decade ago now seemed dated. She was ready for a more sophisticated, fun look that reflected her current lifestyle.

A large, sectional sofa bisects the open plan, defining the living and dining areas on the main floor. “I think the biggest misconception about designing a small space is thinking you have to use small furniture,” says Rachelle Roth, who recommends investing in at least one large piece. “That sofa really was the splurge,” she says. Its gray color offsets the pops of bold raspberry in the graphic area rug and drapes, and in an antique side chair that was reupholstered with a floral remnant.

If the sofa was a splurge, the chest behind it was a steal. Roth and Johnson enhanced a simple white Ikea cabinet with decorative overlays painted in a contrasting color. “It adds a touch of whimsy, and was an easy and inexpensive project,” Roth says. Her daughter uses the piece to store glassware and dishes, and the top serves as bar space.
The square footage of the living room may be small, but double-height ceilings make it feel larger. To further enhance that illusion, the women hung a tall floral triptych above the sofa to draw eyes upward.

An old pine door that was repurposed and turned into a coatrack and umbrella stand now occupies an otherwise unused part of the hallway. The new bright turquoise color pops against the pale gray walls (which contain a lavender tint) and the piece adds extra storage to the small condo.

Throughout the condo, Jillian Roth introduced a whimsical color scheme of lavender, hot pink, turquoise and gray, which makes the small condo feel open and airy. A bed with a stylish padded headboard is the centerpiece of the master bedroom. “The king-size bed fills the space perfectly, and actually makes the room feel larger,” she says. White furniture and cool robin’s egg blue walls and table lamps provide a serene background for the colorful bedding, which picks up the warm color palette found throughout the house.

Photos by Angie Seckinger

Carolyn Weber is a freelance writer specializing in home design. She lives in Silver Spring.