Open-concept floor plans may be the single biggest design trend of the past decade. Even in Washington, a city known for its traditional interiors, new apartment buildings and condominiums have embraced open layouts.
But the flip side of these floor plans is that in a small space, you’re often forced to cook, sleep, eat and relax in one room. That can be a blessing and a curse.
“When all of your spaces flow together, it can feel suffocating in a different way,” says Megan Blake, who runs an interior design firm in Alexandria. “Sometimes, it’s nice to have a little visual separation.”
For renters, whose contracts probably don’t permit custom woodwork, the easiest solution is a room screen or tall shelving unit. Both have benefits: Decorative screens bring privacy and style to a dull space, and shelving units provide extra storage.
The most important things to consider when shopping for any type of room divider are height and light, Blake says. Most pieces measure between five and six feet high, leaving a few feet of space between the top of the unit and the ceiling. This height tends to work well because it allows the room to retain a little feeling of loftiness and lets light from the windows flow over the top.
“Low wall dividers can seem awkward in a small room unless they’re done just right,” she said.
Her rule of thumb is to match the height of the screen or bookshelf to the tallest person living in the space, allowing two to three feet of space between the top of the unit and the ceiling. The exception would be an opaque divider, such as a paper screen or open shelving unit, that lets light through the center. These units can be ceiling height because of their transparency.
“Chances are, you chose the place because of the light or view it offers you,” she said. “You can have a partition without losing that.”
Folding screens can be difficult to keep in the center of a room because they aren’t always sturdy enough to stay in one place. So for design novices who are looking to split one room into two, the safest bet is a modular-style bookcase that looks like open square boxes stacked on top of one another.
Many retailers offer pieces this shape, but perhaps the most common is Ikea’s Kallax Shelving Unit ($139, www.ikea.com), which comes in white, black and birch finishes and has 16 cubes. Bush Furniture also produces a few 16-cube room dividers that are sold at retailers such as Staples and Wayfair. Almost identical but offering a bit more detailing: The Bush Aero Bookcase ($283-$360, www.staples.com) has curved lines and quarter-turned legs, and Kathy Ireland’s New York Skyline Bookcase for Bush ($452-$499, www.wayfair.com) has four cubes with backs for display.
Alison Fedderson, a senior designer with Garrison Hullinger Interior Design in Portland, Ore., said she frequently uses double-sided bookcases to break up a space, and they don’t always have to be floated in the middle of a room. They can also be placed against larger pieces of furniture, such as a sofa or bed. “This trick helps create a defined space and gives your larger pieces of furniture something to anchor to,” she said.
Screens come in handy when making use of wasted corners. Whether you want to section off a private area, shield some luggage or just add visual interest to a wall that you can’t paint, a modern, decorative screen can be a cheap fix.
One of Blake’s Bethesda clients works out of her dining room and uses a mirrored folding screen from Arteriors to hide her printer, files and bags when she has company. “Nobody ever wonders about what’s behind the screen,” Blake said. “If anything, they’re commenting about how nicely the screen reflects the rest of the room’s lighting.”
For crafty types, there are endless ways to make your own divider. String a decorative sheet from the ceiling. Or follow Diane Henkler’s step-by-step instructions on her blog, In My Own Style (www.inmyownstyle.com), for how to use bifold doors to create your own folding screen.
If your space could use a little more greenery, consider ordering a modular planting system from the Italian design studio Supercake. Its stylish iPot is an indoor gardening unit that doubles as a bookcase or room divider (starting at $60 for the smallest unit with one planter bag, www.ipotdesign.it).
Whatever you choose, it’s important that the piece match the aesthetic of your existing furniture. If your taste leans rustic, try the Nantucket Painted Four-Panel Room Divider Sfrom Screen Gems ($664, www.walmart.com), which comes in six colors and offers a farmhouse feel. If your style is more modern, Ikea’s Risor room divider screen ($129, www.ikea.com) will do the trick.
“It has to mesh,” Blake said. “So if the rest of your decor isn’t traditional Oriental or Zen, don’t go buy one of those Japanese paper screen dividers. It will look like it’s from another era.”
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Buerger is a freelance writer.