"IT MAY SOUND funny, but instead of designing for your present home, we design for the time that you move," says June Benham, president of Small Spaces, Ltd., which she co-founded with her husband, Jim Benham, last May.
"It's a matter of economics, especially here in Washington where families pack their bags every four years, or so. They need to have a home that can move with them," agrees Jim Benham.
Small Spaces, which operates at 4401 East-West Highway in Bethesda, provides homeowners with a fresh approach to laying out and decorating their homes. Jim admits that many of the ideas they incorporate in designing for small spaces have been around for a long time. However, the idea of an interior-design firm that specializes in small quarters is novel.
One project they collaborated on was their own efficiency condominium at Grosvenor Park in Rockville (an American Invesco conversion), which they bought last spring.
Talk about small spaces -- this was more of a small space. They moved into a box-shaped 565-square-foot efficiency whose only advantage was a wall of windows at the far end of room. The narrow entrance hall was lined with two sets of closets on right. To reach their bathroom you originally had to walk through the closet. The Benhams were left with an uninteresting rectagular-shaped room and their imaginations.
"The first thing we did was knock ou the second hall closet and the dressing room, leaving a small hall that led directly to the bathroom. To replace the knocked-down closet, we were able to fit an equally large closet into what was originally wasted space between the bathroom and the entrance hall. We then built two perpendicular walls that squared off the right-hand corner of the room, making a bedroom," Jim Benham recalls. "We put two entrances into the bedroom -- one led to the bathroom, the other to the living room.
"What most people don't realize when they remodel a condominium is that they can often tear down walls without causing the building to collapse," he says. "Educating the consumer on construction possibilities is something we try to do."
The Benhams also used French doors on the bedroom entrance to the living room. "We wanted to get maximum use from all our windows" says Jean Benham. "This way the sunlight from the bedroom windows is received in the living room as well."
Jim Benham agrees. "It's a great idea. The only problem is when we have sleep-over guests -- then we have to hang a sheet over the door so that both rooms have some privacy."
In several spots the Benhams lowered the ceilings to add storage to spaces that were never used before. One place where the Benhams lowered the ceiling was the area separating the kitchen from the living room.
"We had one of those awful accordion doors that so many apartments have," remembers Jean Benham. "We took it out and lowered the ceiling across that entire side of the kitchen. We left the kitchen entrance open for bulk storage and built in bookshelves and cabinets -- facing out toward the living rom -- on either side of the entrance. The lowered ceiling gave the wall units a more built-in look."
The built-in bookcase units provide more storage. Jean has outfitted the shelves with a ceramic lamp (made by Donald Robinson of Georgia and sold by many area furniture stores, including Theodore's in Georgetown) that fits between shelves. Jim Benham found a stereo console that looks as if it were made for the long, horizontal and narrow bottom shelf of the built-in unit. The cabinets hide the stereo speakers on one side and a television set on the other.
"All that equipment really doesn't add anything to the look of the apartment and camouflaging it behind cabinet doors also makes it more difficult for potential burglars," say Jim Benham.
Another Small Spaces idea the Benhams used in their own place was furniture that serves two purposes. The sofa that folds out to a bed is a well-known trick. In addition, Jim Benham made a pine wood dining table, with a leather-looking vinyl top attached to a hutch at one end. The hutch's shelves end about two-thirds of the way down, where the table is inserted. The parson's bench table folds out to seat three more. When folded up, it seats two for dinner or can be used as a desk.
In the 13-by-9-by-6-foot bedroom, where most people wouldn't think of putting a queen-size bed, the Benhams have angled their bed against a triangle table that fits neatly in one corner. The triangle is covered in the same fabric as their bedspread, and doubles as a night table -- eliminating the need for traditional space-wasting two table on either side of the bed.
The now one-bedroom condo is lit with brown metal track lighting throughout -- the dining area, the kitchen, even the entrance hall. "We like drama in lighting," says Jean Benham. "Track lighting works better for us because it lights up the nooks and crannies -- particularly in the kitchen where you really need it."
"Track lighting is also nice because it highlights a painting or wall hanging. It allows each piece to speak for itself," adds Jim Benham.
The Benhams have a number of unusual pieces in their home including a late 1870s English armoire of inlaid wood with two large beveled mirrors on either side. The hat tree that sits against the wall in the entrance hall is also an antique English piece. The Benhams picked up both while in Atlanta a few years ago.
"Many designers work by themselves -- talking with the homeowner once or twice. We visit with our clients in their homes often," says Jean Benham. "We ask them questions about their life style: In what room (or what part of the room) do you spend the most time? How do use your home -- does it also serve as an office or workshop? Do you like a lot of sunlight? And during the midst of demolition with dust flying in all directions, the Benhams often send flowers to the customers undergoing what Jean Benham calls "a very traumatic disruption" in their life. "We do a lot of hand-holding," laughs Jean.
"And of course," says Jim Benham, "very often the work the homeowner thinks he wants done must be trimmed to stay within his budget."
Once the Benhams have established what the client's priorities are, they will proceed with the design for the part of the home. "We can always come back in a month or a year to work on other areas," says Jim Benham.
"I think a lot of homeowners have two misconceptions," says Jean Benham. "First, that interior designers only work with the very rich. And second, that once the designer has told you what he/she would like to do with your space, you have to agree to it, no matter what the cost. This simply is not true. A customer should not be intimidated by the designer. After all, the designer is, or at least should be, working for you."
Jean Benham always itemizes the cost of the new design to help customers understand what they're getting into. As do most designers, Jim Benham provides the customer with a floor plan of the new design -- with the furniture in place.
"It's very important," he says, "if the customer is buying any new furniture that it be scaled in proportion to other pieces in the room. Buying furniture piecemeal can be dangerous, unless you know the measurements of the other pieces of furniture. Very often a customer will say, 'I don't know what the matter is with my living room, but I'm just not happy with it.' I can usually see the problem the minute I walk into a room -- an over-scale coffee table with a small sofa makes for an ill-fitting room."
Jim Benham, who is also a partner in Melrose Waterproofing in Rockville ("we don't do basements"), is the architect of the duo. He enjoys working with the structure of the room. Jean, on the other hand, is more concerned with what goes in the room -- the furniture, the accessories, the colors, etc.
Their backgrounds complement each other perfectly. He was formerly the national director in charge of construction with America Invesco, a Chicago-based condominium-conversion firm that's best-known in the Washington area for its conversion of the Promenade apartments. She worked with another design firm in Rockville -- Karen Chase Interiors -- until she met Jim during a project they had each been contracted for at the Grosvenor.
They collaborated on a few more projects and decided to merge their talents -- in business and marriage.