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Big ideas to liven up small spaces

Small spaces hold big design possibilities—they can be whimsical, minimal, anything you want them to be. Architects and designers share ideas to make such spaces come alive

Many designers look at small spaces as design labs where they can play with novel ideas. Photo: iSTOCKPHOTO
Many designers look at small spaces as design labs where they can play with novel ideas. Photo: iSTOCKPHOTO

Call it the Instagram effect, but Indian homes have gone from being basic and functional to uniquely stylish within the space of a decade. Interior design, once the province of the uber rich, has become more accessible and even inevitable when one is purchasing a home of any shape and size. While earlier people would only dream of enlisting design support if and when they could afford a bigger house, experts are now offering creative solutions for smaller spaces as well. Given the rising urban density, home sizes are shrinking, while functional needs are growing. In such a scenario, how can you come up with a look that is an extension of your family’s personality as well?

While speaking to leading Indian architects and designers who have worked on small spaces recently, what stood out was the need to counter the perception that restricted square footage offers design constraints—on the contrary, many designers look at them as design labs where they can play with novel ideas. For the sake of clarity, we have defined a small space as anything around 1,300 sq. ft. Though the architects and designers work across cities, they have cited examples of projects in Mumbai, where finding space is a luxury not everyone can afford. And yet these practical insights can be applied to a residences in any city across India.

This festive season, as you perhaps mull a home-makeover, or are in the process of finalising a home buy, we have put together this guide to assure you of the big possibilities that a small space holds—it can be whimsical, whacky, minimal, vibrant, anything that you want it to be. By creating flexible walls, and playing with shapes, interior designers are maximising functionality that was earlier hard to come by.

Also read: Designing for friends in the single life

The 1,350 sq. ft, three-bedroom apartment in Mumbai’s Sion Circle neighbourhood, from Prachi Kothari Designs. Photo: courtesy Prachi Kothari Designs/Yadnyesh Joshi
The 1,350 sq. ft, three-bedroom apartment in Mumbai’s Sion Circle neighbourhood, from Prachi Kothari Designs. Photo: courtesy Prachi Kothari Designs/Yadnyesh Joshi

When maximalism and minimalism meet under one roof

Prachi Kothari likes to describe her approach to design as “smart designing”. A designer from Mumbai, she’s used to working on compact spaces that should be able to address the multiple demands of clients. That’s why her work focuses on bringing together aesthetics and warmth, along with functionality. “I don’t believe there are any restrictions in a smaller place to design,” says Kothari, known for creating spaces that speak to minimalism and luxe living. “We can customise every piece of furniture in a home and style it (depending on the requirement).”

For instance, in a recent project, a 1,350sq. ft, three-bedroom apartment in Mumbai’s Sion Circle neighbourhood, she and her team at Prachi Kothari Designs decided to use the foyer and passage area, leading to the bedrooms, to address the requirement for a more functional space.

“We introduced elements, such as adding a sofa bench seating on one side of the dining area, and saved 1ft width-wise,” Kothari explains. They also introduced an L-shaped, sectional sofa to accommodate more seating “and added a lounge chair in the corner that can be pulled close to the main formal seating when expecting guests”.

One of the challenges in the project was the child’s room, which was only 100 sq. ft. Kothari’s solution? “We gave full height sliding shutter wardrobes and a Murphy bed (pull-down bed) to give their son ample space to be creative when the bed is not required.”

For the master bedroom, which was large enough to have separate seating, Kothari created bay window seating so one could admire the view outside. The result was a home with grey and white flooring, bespoke furniture, beige wall paint, marble artefacts, French doors and enough natural lighting, offering minimalism as well as maximalism under one roof.

—Pooja Singh

Also read: Creating intimacy in a home takes some planning

Earth tones, neutral walls and flooring blend harmoniously with bright home décor. Photo: courtesy Insitu Design Studio
Earth tones, neutral walls and flooring blend harmoniously with bright home décor. Photo: courtesy Insitu Design Studio

Seamless functionality

Functionality is a word that pops up regularly in conversations with Sahiba Madan. Quite natural, considering her base is Mumbai, a city starved for space. But it’s that lack of space, and what to do with what’s available, in residences that span 1,100 sq.ft or 1,400 sq.ft that goads Madan and her team to come up with solutions that blend looks with utility.

“A space has to be aesthetic, sure, but our intervention, especially when it comes to smaller apartments, tends to be about problem-solving. Our vision for the project then becomes about coming up with a design that’s a good balance of functionality and aesthetics,” says Madan.

While doing interiors for smaller residences, Madan’s design thinking leans towards solutions that use the available space seamlessly. This, going by her recent projects, translates into creative use of both materials and space that lend a sense of expansiveness. “Traditional materials like wood, cane and stone that are sturdy and have stood the test of time serve as our base canvas, over which we add elements like wallpaper, colour, decals, stucco or art works to bring a touch of novelty to the space,” Madan explains.

In terms of spatial exploration, Madan and her team at Insitu Design Studio like to utilise ignored spaces like corners and passageways and create concealed storage solutions that blend in quietly with the larger space. “Most new homes in Mumbai tend to have long passageways that are usually overlooked despite being an integral part of the home. So we look at ways in which they can be utilised,” says Madan. “We have converted a passageway into a gallery wall to showcase a client’s art collection. In another, we used it to hold memorabilia, and in a third, the passageway was packed with concealed panelling to store crockery.”

In an apartment in Lower Parel, Mumbai, completed in 2022, Insitu’s design wove in multipurpose spaces like a den and play zones into the basic layout. There were storage zones neatly concealed behind wallpapers. In another example of smart use of space, Madan talks about how the Insitu team converted a triangular space in a 130-year-old property, used till then to dump unwanted stuff, into a study. “It was an irregularly-shaped space, so we ended up sculpting a small study area out of it. We did it up with wallpaper, added a sliding door and air-conditioning, and made it into a cosy nook.”

Practicality underlines Madan’s focus on storage solutions. This comes to the fore when she shares instances of shaving nine inches off apartment bathroom walls to fit the toiletries cabinet. It also reflects in Insitu’s choice of repurposing unused or waste material from the site to make these shelves or cabinets. It is, in one way, a Mumbai thing when you consider how the city’s residents tend to shrewdly use every available space, like turning their grilled windows into tiny gardens, for instance. “Everything is thought through in terms of storage solutions because we like to use space smartly,” she says.  Madan’s expertise in aesthetics comes into play in the design of these drawers, shelves and panels: They are minimalist, compact, don’t draw attention to themselves and are easy to use. “You may not read the storage element as an almirah but as an additional detail that is quietly sitting in the corner,” she adds.

Discussing the use of colour, Madan says: “I don’t find colour restrictive in any way and we have used colours surprisingly in the smallest of rooms.” The way she sees it, colour is a commitment. That’s one of the main reasons she doesn’t recommend doing up primary rooms like the living room or bedroom in colour. “I wouldn’t want my living room or bedroom to have colour, even more so in a smaller home. These are rooms where you spend most of your time to relax, so having colour would be in your eyes.” For these spaces, Madan suggests adding pops of colour with cushions, upholstery, decals or artwork—essentially, things you can change with time. “Colour is better in a nook or a secondary space like the study or the media room, where your interaction with the space is less,” she advises.

—Mahalakshmi Prabhakaran

Also read: Designing a home? Figure out how you want to L.I.V.E

Partitions leave a smaller footprint than walls in layouts. Photo: courtesy Design Storie
Partitions leave a smaller footprint than walls in layouts. Photo: courtesy Design Storie

Lighting, right colours are key

Working with small spaces has its own set of challenges, says architect Janvi Mehta, founder, Design Storie, a Mumbai-based interior and architecture design studio. There’s a limited budget, you need to make space for circulation and storage, and choosing the right colour palette to make the tight space appear larger becomes key.

But it also presents opportunities. “We get to explore creativity and come up with innovative ideas, personalisation and customisation of furniture to make use of every inch of available space, incorporating technology in this limited space and making it effective, aesthetically pleasing and functional, all at the same time,” says Mehta on email, adding that small spaces are subjective and depend on the context and location. “But in general, any area/space with limited square footage for usage and circulation combined qualifies for a small space: For example, an apartment less than 500 sq. ft is a tight space to fit in a 1 BHK.”

Design Storie recently handed over a 2BHK project, with a carpet area of 870 sq. ft, at Lodha Park Kiara in Mumbai’s Lower Parel area, to a family of four. The project’s centrepiece, The Enchanted House, is the living room, with a neutral colour palette and pops of red and blue as its foundation, creating a warm, inviting atmosphere. The walls are painted in a soft shade of textured pearl white to provide a soothing backdrop for the area, which includes a nicely detailed study corner next to a window.

Mehta retained the original kitchen, since the client wanted it, but broke down the wall dividing the kitchen and dining area. “We instead made a fluted storage design unit with a marble top with suspended bar display cabinets above. Fluted hidden cabinet units act as a partition between the kitchen and dining area, providing storage and display space for bar bottles, and also act as a convenient serving station during gatherings,” says Mehta.

A grand fixed mirror flushed within slatted panelling is placed opposite the dining area. This doubles the space visually by reflecting natural light to the kitchen area, which is a darker space, with a balcony door opening to a courtyard that gets very little sunlight, Mehta explains.

Both bedrooms have a cosy and serene feel, with modern, functional and minimal elements. The parents’ room—with shades of white, cream and beige as the base, complemented by accents of earthy tones like warm browns—has an upholstered bed, with a tufted wall-scale headboard, as its focal point. The second room, for the children, features a space-saving Murphy bed, with a sofa below it. Clean, stacked storage and open shelves for books deal smartly with the room’s smallness.

Partitions are often a common theme in Design Storie’s work, along with clever and subtle use of geometrical shapes and textures on both walls and floors, highlighted by good lighting that makes spaces look larger than life. Selecting the right colours and material palette, including fabrics and textures, is important, Mehta says, for it contributes to the visual expansion of smaller areas.

“We try to introduce partitions wherever possible as they take up lesser footprint in layouts as compared to walls, but that said, we verify the purpose of every room and structural stability before proposing the same,” says Mehta. “Lighting plays a major role in smaller spaces by incorporating effective light solutions to enhance the perception of space and creating ambience. Ceiling height is again very important, so by maximising vertical spaces, we try to create an illusion of height through ceiling design.”

—Nitin Sreedhar

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Simple choices in terms of flooring, whether it’s a poured epoxy floor, highly polished limestone or even engineered wood, are always choices that are specific to the end user. Photo: reD Architects
Simple choices in terms of flooring, whether it’s a poured epoxy floor, highly polished limestone or even engineered wood, are always choices that are specific to the end user. Photo: reD Architects

Creating the illusion of space

When building a small space, the focus is on creating an illusion of larger spaces. According to Mumbai-based Ekta Parekh, who has worked on small design studios as well as large-scale corporate spaces, both in India and abroad, this can be achieved by surface treatments of mirrors or glass in strategic locations to emphasise depth and perspective. Another successful strategy, she says, is to make multipurpose adaptive spaces by using walls/partitions between spaces that can slide off and integrate two spaces into one.

To create a sense of space in a recent project, Parekh and her reD team used a sliding door in a bedroom, almost like a wall panel, to mark the difference between the sleeping space and the walk-in wardrobe, with a basin counter outside it. “We made the counter like a cantilevered unit from the side wall, so when the door behind it slid to the side, it could be used as a console from the side of the room,” she explains. “In this way, for most times of the day the door could be kept open, giving the bedroom a larger sense of space, while not making it appear that you were staring at the bathroom from the bed.”

One of the easiest ways to create a sense of space in small houses or offices is to keep the palette light, whether in terms of wall colours, wallpapers or fabrics for furniture. “The other most important thing is to maintain the ceiling heights to a maximum, so that volumetrically the space looks large,” adds Parekh, known for building adaptive spaces. And lastly, the generous and strategic use of mirrors and clear glass to enhance the areas that are dark, or to multiply the reflections of the inside/outside experience.”

But how can you create functional spaces that express the client’s individuality? “Any space you design has to work at a functional level first and only then can one move towards making it beautiful,” says Parekh. Simple choices in terms of flooring, whether it’s a poured epoxy floor, highly polished limestone or even engineered wood, are always choices that are specific to the end user, she adds. “Spaces we design will always reflect the client’s personality and taste, along with a distilling of an image for the lifestyle they lead.”

—Pooja Singh

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Project 330, a 330 sq. ft home office, by Purple Backyard. Photo: courtesy Purple Backyard
Project 330, a 330 sq. ft home office, by Purple Backyard. Photo: courtesy Purple Backyard

More multi-functional spaces

An interplay of textures, patterns and shapes on a largely monochrome background marks designer Kumple Vaid’s work. The founder of Purple Backyard, a Mumbai-based interior design studio established in 2010, believes in creating “decluttered, intelligent spaces” using local materials aligned with the topography and landscape. The studio has designed homes and offices across Indian cities, and is also creating products that align with its aesthetic values. During and after the pandemic, they have worked on a number of projects that involve smaller spaces, either secondary homes or extensions to existing properties.

“We wouldn’t call our work minimal—it is simple but joyous,” says Vaid. “Materiality is our strong suit.”

Vaid’s advice to those looking for ideas to do up small spaces is to choose organic, curved shapes for furniture and décor; use mirrors and reflective surfaces; keep the colour palette neutral but add variety through textures; and be consistent in the use of materials so as to not “cut up” the space —for instance, not using too many different materials for flooring.

“Keep in mind the functionality of the space—what will it be used for? In Indian homes, the same space is used for multiple purposes—the dining table will also occasionally be used by children to do their homework, etc.—so keep that in mind. Similarly, while looking for lighting solutions, divide it into task lights, general or ambient lights, and decorative lights. Dividing your lighting needs and assigning a purpose to each light will minimise the need for a false ceiling and multiple ceiling lights, which will make the space look bigger,” says Vaid.

One of the studio’s most challenging and satisfying assignments was designing a home office in 330 sq. ft space in a Mumbai suburb, with a washroom and a kitchenette. Calling it Project 330, Vaid and her team divided the area using glass partitions, keeping natural light flowing through the space, while adding interesting elements like a black marble-topped table paired with rattan chairs; a mint green wainscoted wall (see above); and a forest green door. “Our aim is to make a space feel lived in and not something you would see in a catalogue,” says Vaid.

—Shrabonti Bagchi

Also read: Design child-friendly spaces at home for online learning

In the Apartment 1101 project, Dhvani Shah used different textures to create depth. Photo: courtesy Dhvani Shah
In the Apartment 1101 project, Dhvani Shah used different textures to create depth. Photo: courtesy Dhvani Shah

A sense of volume and warmth

Aclean, bright, almost Nordic minimalism defines designer Dhvani Shah’s work. Yet the spaces she creates are not cold and bare—they are suffused with warmth and a certain quirkiness. The Mumbai-based interiors studio run by her, which works on residential, commercial, retail and hospitality spaces, has recently finished a few projects that are standard in space-starved Mumbai but would probably count as small spaces elsewhere: apartments under 1,200 sq. ft in carpeted area. “Designing in small spaces is all about making every square foot count. But the exciting part is you have the chance to be super intentional. You only bring in what’s truly needed, which can create a sense of comfort and cosiness,” says Shah,who was featured, along with other leading architects and interior designers, in the small spaces segment in Architectural Digest India.

For the project called Apartment 1101, the challenge was to create a sense of volume and spaciousness within a 900 sq. ft apartment in Andheri, Mumbai. Shah used neutral shades for the flooring and walls, with pops of colour for excitement. The living room features a rust sofa and terrazzo shelves adorned with artefacts, set against white walls and grey Italian marble flooring. In one bedroom, a wainscoted green wall creates a cool, airy effect, while the accompanying bathroom has pink and blue tiles. There is a mid-century modern feel to the entire space, with certain boho-chic elements like throws, rugs and cushions.

“With small spaces, partitions, colour palettes and aesthetics play a big role. For example, the colour palette is usually light, neutral or pastel. Using the beauty of natural materials to add warmth to the design, like cane furniture or light wooden textures, is a great idea. Thirdly, adding partitioned foyers that create a great transition between two spaces also makes the best choice for the functionality, leaving open spaces to move around,” says Shah. Warm lights and ambient settings enhance the space around multifunctional furniture, she believes, where you might have a dining table with storage or a sofa bed to maximise utility.

Shah says it’s important to make sure your architect and interior designer are talking to each other. “Interior designers often collaborate closely with architects to optimise space utilisation. They can work on layout design, furniture placement and interior finishes to create a sense of space within a small apartment or office,” she says.

Creating a small space does not necessarily mean working to a template, though. If someone were to ask for a more maximalist and vibrant aesthetic, Shah says she wouldn’t dissuade them from expressing their personality but give the client alternatives she thought would work better. “I would try to understand their vision and would probably recommend keeping neutral tones with elements that are bright and bold, which create a popping effect,” says Shah. If a client asks for bright pink walls, for instance, she says she would approach it by adding a wallpaper with a pink tone instead, or adding a bright piece of furniture, or even just having one wall painted in that tone coexisting with other neutral palettes.

—Shrabonti Bagchi

Also read: Home decor trends you must follow in 2023

The painting has a spotlight to draw attention to it; and you can place a hero item, like a sofa, and strike a balance with complementary elements. Photo: O & A Architects
The painting has a spotlight to draw attention to it; and you can place a hero item, like a sofa, and strike a balance with complementary elements. Photo: O & A Architects

Letting spaces breathe

Think of a small space as a hobbit home: cosy, orderly, with a touch of green as window grills turn into a mini garden.

Mumbai-based architect Rishi Vora, who runs O & A Architects, transforms 400 sq. ft 1BHK and 700 sq. ft 2BHKs into cosy homes, reflecting the owner’s individual tastes and preferences. He does so with keen attention to utilising every corner, creating “window simulations” and playing with lighting.

Before getting to the design, Vora works on the functional aspects of an apartment. The height of Mumbai flats is shrinking, from 12ft about three decades ago to about 8ft in newer residential complexes, thanks to restrictions on the height of buildings and real estate developers crowding them with apartments. He gets into granular detail, explaining how architects divide a home into a plan and sections. Imagine looking at a home from the top, like a drone, and one can ascertain where the furniture would be placed and how the rooms would be divided.

“If you slice this vertically, just like a cake, you will get sections. Utilising each wall and corner of these sections in a small space is crucial,” he explains. These will determine the smallest yet essential items, like umbrellas, newspapers and tennis rackets, are stored well. For example, if a study table is placed against a wall, an aesthetic long storage cabinet can be built above it to keep umbrellas and newspapers.

Another crucial need is laundry. Space-crunched flats have no drying areas or balconies. Looking for solutions like where to keep the washing machine, store used clothes, place the ironing board, hang laundry and belts become part of the functional plan. Vora calls it the laundry cycle.

In one project in Mumbai’s Chembur, he found a few inches of space just above the study table in a client’s bedroom. He refashioned an old vintage door, bought from Chor Bazaar, into a box to keep used clothes, and fixed it above the study table. To hang belts, he placed hooks in the cabinet that stores the ironing board. Every inch of space is measured to store the minutest item, like perfume bottles and toiletries. “Just as humans, each object needs its own space. As architects, it’s our duty to give space to every item.”

Design harmony is crucial, he says “Every element in a room should talk to one another, and not shout at the top of their voices.” So while one can have a striking sofa set, which acts as a protagonist, get carpets and interior elements in tones that create balance and “converse with each other” or act like supporting cast. The window simulation is an effective trick if an apartment is sandwiched between two buildings—a common phenomena in the city. In the Chembur project, Vora painted a wall white, placed frames to mimic a window and stuck a wallpaper with monochrome tree designs to “open up the space”. Another way to expand interiors is using the age-old trick of long mirrors and full-length curtains.These design elements allow a space to breathe.

Do not undermine the power of lighting to amplify space. Vora says tubelights are most underrated, though they give a sense of a bigger space. Get the ones that have mood lighting to control the intensity, depending on whether one is on a video call or watching Netflix. The aim is to build a small home that’s warm, inviting, and filled with character.

—Jahnabee Borah

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