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Living (small)
All He Needs In 187 Square Feet

By Terri Sapienza
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 24, 2007

When Marc Boutin went house hunting in Dupont Circle three years ago, he found that even the small ones were out of his price range. So he bought "the next best choice" -- a really small condo.

Here's how small: The main -- the only -- living space measures 11 feet by 17 feet. That's 187 square feet. There is a compact, well-equipped kitchen on the same floor, plus a bedroom and bath upstairs. But that single living room has to accommodate everything else: dining, reading, watching television, desk work and entertaining. And oh, yes: putting up overnight guests.

Boutin remodeled the kitchen and bathroom on his own. But when it came to that main room, he struggled.

The usual suspects crowded the space: a sofa marketed as "apartment style" that still overwhelmed the space; a matching oversize chair; bookcases for the TV and storage; and an antique card table with two chairs for dining. Accessories and treasured collections were banished to storage. "If you had more than two people, you felt like you were on top of each other," says Boutin, 40, executive vice president of the National Health Council.

Hunting for a smaller sofa one day, Boutin met Jason Claire, a designer and co-owner of Vastu, a home furnishings store on 14th Street NW. The shop, in a burgeoning neighborhood of condos, apartments and lofts, specializes in mid-century modern design and furniture that can be customized to fit any space.

Boutin showed Claire his one-room challenge and ticked off everything he wanted from it: a living room, dining room, guest room and den, with space to display his collections of Buddhas and antique clocks. He also wanted a "wow" factor.

"I didn't want people to walk in and think, 'What a small place to live.' I wanted them to walk in and think, 'What a cool/unique place to live,' " e-mailed Boutin. "I didn't want the size of the place to dictate my guest's first impression."

Claire was undaunted. Small spaces can be perfectly comfortable and functional, he said. "They can be handled in a way that makes them feel larger."

Boutin was specific about what he wanted, Claire says. "He had very beautiful collections and was open-minded about mixing Asian antiques and dark wood with mid-century objects and designs from the '50s and '60s. It was a great collaboration."

Boutin had already used a creamy parchment paint color to enlarge and soothe the space (Tangier Island by Ralph Lauren) and chose a custom-mixed off-white for the ceiling. The light shade makes the ceiling seem higher.

Claire recommended a warm, neutral color for a new sofa, chosen for its sleek profile and smaller scale. The 66-inch Vastu sofa built specifically for the space houses a full-size air mattress for overnight guests.

Boutin invested in built-ins rather than free-standing furniture pieces to open the space: a dining banquette that provides seating for four (or six when the armchairs are pulled over) with storage under the pale blue cushions for pots and pans.

A shelving unit tucked under the stairs holds the television, Boutin's collection of antique clocks and storage for media equipment, books and bed linens. In one inventive touch, the unit even conceals a litter box for Boutin's 23-year-old cat, Peep, with an unobtrusive opening cut into the side of the cabinet so the cat can come and go.

Claire argued strongly for recessed toe kicks under the cabinets and banquette. Adding even that small amount of floor space, he says, makes the room seem larger, as do upholstered pieces with exposed legs rather than skirts.

Furniture choices are crucial in small spaces, Claire says. He steered Boutin toward open - back chairs and a glass-top end table that the eye can see right through, giving the illusion of more space. Lightweight, movable pieces also add welcome versatility.

Claire pointed out that in a small space, having too many objects at different heights can create a chaotic effect. He recommends picking only a few heights and aligning furniture and accessories along those lines. In Boutin's room, the top of the wood screen behind the sofa aligns with the bottom of the chandelier; the top of the built-in cabinets is the same height as the dining table; the cushions on the banquette align with the cushions on the chairs and sofa.

Boutin is thrilled with how it all turned out, including the investment in the built-ins, which came in under budget, and the custom-made sofa.

Custom work might sound expensive, he said, but it can be a surprising cost-saver. He paid $2,775 for his perfectly sized couch -- about as much as standard-size sofas found in some big-box stores -- and just under $3,000 for the shelving, storage and banquette -- agreat deal considering he had been pondering a $5,000 armoire.

"You can't buy furniture at that price that would work as well in this space," Boutin says. "There are a lot of people, like me, who are spending lots of money [on furnishings] and not having it work."

Six months ago, Boutin's space felt crowded even when he was alone. Today, he comfortably entertains small groups of friends. "I've had six people here for drinks and food, and it works," he says. "It's close enough, but functional. Intimate, but not crowded."

Though he had never before considered paying to hire a designer, Boutin now wouldn't work without one. "There is definite value in hiring an expert," he says. "I spent more money the first go-round because I bought furniture I didn't use. I ended up paying twice.

"When I bought this [condo], this is what I could afford in this area. By now, I could have bought a bigger space, but what's the point? I love this area, I love this space and it functions perfectly for me."

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