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Originally published October 13, 2012 at 8:35 AM | Page modified October 18, 2012 at 10:55 PM

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Author offers big thoughts about small design

Tips to living successfully in a smaller space.

Chicago Tribune

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Nice tips. It's always complicated decorating a small space and enjoy it in the best... MORE


Tight quarters don’t have to make you squirrelly. Just ask Janet Lee, a freelance producer, home design blogger and author of “Living in a Nutshell: Posh and Portable Decorating Ideas for Small Spaces” (Harper Design, $25). “Emphasize what you have, not what you don’t,” Lee said. “It’s sort of a mind game. Make every inch count. Make it unique, funny, colorful. Make it interesting.”

You’ll see plenty of examples of how to do it in her book, which features the interiors of actual apartments, including one studio apartment with a tiny sleeping loft sporting just a 4-foot-tall ceiling. Lee’s ideas work in the notoriously cramped apartments of New York City, where she lives, and in urban spaces nationwide. Yet she notes the ideas can translate into suburban houses as well, where there’s always a room that’s too small or must perform double duty, like a home office/guest bedroom.

“Small-space solutions and storage solutions apply universally,” she said. Where to start? Learn from Lee’s example.

“I’m a serial small-space nester with an unique vantage point,” she wrote in her book’s introduction. “Each apartment I’ve lived in — with its laundry list of lighting and structural flaws — has become a personal decorating lab where I’ve created and road-tested my ideas.”

Here are some of her tips to living successfully in a smaller space.

• Adapt the right attitude. “Most people adopt a size-ist attitude,” Lee said. “They buy small and they decorate small. And I say they just shrunk the look of the space. A small space doesn’t mean you have to decorate on a small scale.”

• Think big. Lee believes in going for a bigger scale on certain essential pieces that anchor a room. Her apartment has a 6-foot-long glass table that subs as a desk. “It doesn’t take up a lot of visual real estate,” she said, nor do large mirrors. Go with a regular-size sofa, too. Just make sure to factor in how deep the sofa will be; you want it to fit in the space, she said.

• Don’t be afraid of color. Walls don’t have to be white just because the space is small, Lee said. Use dark, cool tones that seem to recede, making the room look larger.

In her book, Lee also endorses the use of paint-on wide horizontal stripes to trick the eye into thinking a space is roomier than it is.

• Be architectural. “Most small spaces have inherent flaws. Usually they’re just a box,” Lee said. Jazz up that “plain Jane” look with some sort of 3-D architectural element. Lee hangs a collection of salvaged picture frames painted the exact color of her walls to break up the smoothness. She uses artist stretcher bars and self-sticking adhesive strips to create panel molding on closet doors.

• Go stylish with storage. “A lot of my storage is open storage. I want it stylishly undercover because I can’t hide anything,” Lee said. Her solutions range from spiffing up an old file cabinet in pretty, patterned shrink-wrap plastic (the kind used to wrap city buses in advertising) to mounting white rubber boating straps on the walls to hold items that would otherwise clutter a counter.

• Be crafty, even if you aren’t a crafter. Outsource the task, said Lee, who rates the projects in her books by how long they’ll take you to do. “Most are quickies,” she said. “I’m assuming most people don’t know how to sew or do decoupage and don’t own a glue gun.” Lee hopes readers will tackle an easy project, see how it turns out and gradually move on to more challenging things to liven up their small spaces.

• Mix it up. Occasionally freshen the look. “I move things around all the time,” she said, suggesting that change can be as simple as changing the pillow shams or replacing the throw on the sofa.

After 12 “pocket-size” apartments over 20 years — none larger than 750 square feet — Lee has nailed the concept of living smartly. Would she, could she, live larger?

“I would be fine with that,” she said. “I’m hoping my next move will be back to California and spaces will be a little easier for me. I’d really love not to have my office in my living room. I’m always having to put things away, and I’m not always neat and tidy. I have to fight the clutter bug.”

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