Space Craft

The quest for clean-lined rooms has led to some ingenious architectural subterfuge.

It may be "the final frontier" for Star Trek fans, but for millions of earthbound city-dwellers, space is the ultimate luxury. In major urban areas, where both density and real estate prices are high and heading higher, space is a status symbol. It's no less so in the more expansive suburbs, where bigger is better is a maxim.

However, no matter how much space one has, it never seems to be enough. Savvy architects and designers know that one of their main selling points is the ability to maximize space, both actual and perceived, with techniques ranging from broad strokes like removing walls, raising ceilings, and enlarging windows to finer ones, such as so-called soft divisions (for example, partial walls, movable partitions and translucent panels) and smoothly concealed custom storage.

"Space is a perennial concern, particularly in New York, where it's at such a premium," says Mayer Rus, editor in chief of Interior Design. "Good design can balance our need for space with our need for stuff." Stuff and space are the matter and anti-matter of interior design. Given the tidal force of consumer culture, shedding stuff requires constant effort. For many, the pristine, nothing-out-of-place interiors featured in home-style magazines are as unrealistic an ideal as anorexic fashion models. It's one thing to admire the minimalism of anorexic interiors, quite another to embrace their bony austerity. Monastic living is commendable—if you're a monk. We take comfort in our possessions, which have sentimental and utilitarian value beyond their monetary worth. Like the tools and talismans of yore, they reflect our inner life as well as our mastery of the world beyond our walls. Besides, we tell ourselves, clutter can be a sign of creative ferment. Isn't neatness the hobgoblin of little minds?

Perhaps . . . and yet, there's a widespread yearning for clutter-free interiors, reflected in everything from the rise of closet-organizing consultants and public-storage units to the vogue for sleek modernist (as opposed to minimalist) design. We've come to appreciate the clarity of free-flowing spaces and to realize that if our possessions overrun our homes, they can seem to own us, not vice versa. Uncluttered interiors can be a refuge from the visual cacophony outside, encouraging clear thinking and serenity. They can suggest both rigor and, paradoxically, plenty—the sense that generous spaces, however spare, must have cupboards that are far from bare. Call it Zen materialism, with an ancient mantra: "Out of sight, out of mind."

Aside from banishing clutter, enhancing space can mean layering it with surfaces that move, conceal, or reveal in diverse ways. Much of this is geared toward the current demand for rooms that are more versatile and elastic. If the computer's promise of a paperless office has indeed proved hollow (more stuff!), computer software has given us one of contemporary home design's main tropes—the "multi-tasking environment." Example: In the 3,800-square-foot loft designed by architects Thomas Hanrahan and Victoria Meyers for lawyer Steven Holley, the space next to the master bedroom serves as office and guest bedroom. To close it off from the main living space, a pivoting door meets a sliding one, their notched edges seemingly interlocking. Perpendicular to the doors is a folding wall that can divide the office from the guestroom, which has a separate entrance. ("The design permits him to sell it as a three-bedroom," explains Meyers.) Assembled from hollow-core doors, the big doors are surprisingly easy to move. Window walls and maple cabinetry that stops short of the 13-foot ceiling also figure in the loft's elegant balance between openness and privacy.

Contrast this luxuriant spareness with the horror vacui of Victorian times. A typical Victorian parlor was a colorful collision of patterned wallpaper, fabrics, and carpets, overstuffed chairs, heavy swagged drapes, dark decorative woodwork, plaster reliefs, curios, and framed art. In our century amor vacui has been ascendant, heralded by society decorator Elsie de Wolfe in her House in Good Taste (1915). "When you have emptied the tables of rubbish so that you can put things on them at need . . . your rooms will have meaning."

In the past, upper-crust households kept their stuff in freestanding chests and cabinets; built-ins were for the most part limited to bookshelves in a library or study. Not that they lacked storage space: stately country houses, for example, had no end of specialized storerooms—sculleries, pantries, larders, butteries, cellars for wine and beer, rooms dedicated to the keeping of knives, lamps, and guns, rooms for washing, drying, and ironing laundry—and the servants to attend to them. Today, when even the wealthy want multipurpose spaces, the plethora of specialized rooms (billiards, anyone?) in old manors seems as quaint as a buggy whip. The end of Victorian excess was hastened by everything from a shortage of cheap domestic help to high maintenance costs, but one culprit is often overlooked: the light bulb, which dispelled the gaslit gloom and revealed the musty fussiness of overstuffed interiors.

Electricity also generated modern appliances that save space as well as time. Built-in appliances and cabinets have made the kitchen the best-organized space in many homes. Its ideal of attractive utility is now spreading to other rooms. Just as modern kitchens can be given any style, so, designers say, can any style of architecture gracefully incorporate space-enhancing elements. Indeed, old-fashioned architecture contains many such elements—domes and cupolas, clerestory, dormer, and bay windows, alcoves, niches, and pocket doors. Thomas Jefferson's design for Monticello included a variety of space-maximizing tricks: instead of a grand staircase, a pair of small, winding stairs; a semioctagonal tearoom (polygonal rooms appear larger); a revolving-door pass-through from kitchen stair to dining room; and Jefferson's bed, in an open-sided alcove between bedroom and study.

"Good architectural solutions come out of solving problems," declares Lee Mindel of Shelton Mindel & Associates Architects. "You want the solution to seem inevitable." Storage and space enhancers should be integral design elements, he says—especially in modern interiors, with their spare surfaces. "But these solutions are driven by function, not style," he adds. "They're not limited to a modernist aesthetic. We've incorporated them into lots of traditional-style projects as well—for example, we'll 'slice and dice' paneled walls to create unobtrusive in-wall storage, as they did in eighteenth-century houses." In fact, traditional paneling can easily conceal cabinetry—whoever heard of a mystery involving a secret compartment in a modernist house?

Still, modernism remains the wellspring of design that magnifies space. Pioneering modernists like Frank Lloyd Wright, Adolf Loos, and Le Corbusier advocated an open, flexible approach to living areas. Rejecting the multiple rooms and corridors of traditional plans, these architects reduced or eliminated dividing walls. Generous windows, sliding doors, and built-in furniture and storage added to the sense of openness in their houses. One touchstone is Gerrit Rietveld's Schröder House, built in Utrecht in 1924, cited for its then-radical use of the sort of simple forms seen in his famous Red-Blue chair; Rietveld employed sliding partitions to achieve maximum flexibility and designed furnishings and storage that read as an extension of the architecture. In Pierre Chareau's landmark Maison de Verre (1928-31) in Paris, the French architect (in association with Bernard Bijvoet) championed the versatility of sliding doors, revolving closets, double-sided cupboards, and built-in furniture which (like his freestanding pieces) frequently used hinged or pivoting surfaces to assume different forms.

Early modernists praised the vast volumes and honest functionalism of industrial buildings; little wonder that much of the most striking exploration of residential space in recent years has occurred in the urban loft. Designed to house factories and warehouses, these gritty but grand spaces were first converted to homes by artists in urban areas like New York's SoHo. Others followed their example, responding—as Mayer Rus writes in Loft (The Monacelli Press)—to "the loft's siren call of glorious, expansive space in a hard, claustrophobic city." His book illustrates why lofts have been called the interior design laboratories of our time. Their raw spaces offer designers a rare opportunity to experiment with versatile plans and functional forms.

Lee Mindel's own loft—designed with partner Peter Shelton and associate architect Reed Morrison—has, says Rus, "a big 'wow' factor." Occupying the top floor of a former Chelsea hat factory, it centers on a soaring, light-filled rotunda that culminates in a penthouse sitting room and garden deck. Mindel made his 4,000-square-foot roost seem even more spacious with meticulous planning and detailing, including plenty of now-you-see-it-now-you-don't storage. "The luxury of space is appreciated only when you have the luxury of putting things away," notes the architect. The long wall bordering a casual lounge area and an adjacent dining room is as tricky as a magician's trunk: It has compartments for books, media equipment, a wet bar, dinnerware, and clothing; its hinged doors and drawers are concealed behind sliding doors that can close off corridors to bedrooms. Made of lightweight laminated basswood, the sliding doors are trimmed with stainless-steel rods that serve as picture rails.

The Mindel loft contains other examples of architectural legerdemain: hidden doors that form part of the master bedroom paneling, a sliding pantry door that matches the stainless-steel fronts of kitchen appliances, hinged pocket doors that conceal or reveal the upstairs bar. Such elements contrast with what the architect dismisses as "bimbo design"—offering nothing more than beautiful surfaces. Avers Mindel, "The goal of smoothly integrating doors and storage is a conceptual restraint that results in visual freedom."

Post-and-beam construction and sliding doors and screens gave traditional Japanese houses spatial flexibility long before modernism. Combinations of opaque doors and translucent shoji screens created a refined layering of space and light; even in rooms as compact as a haiku, interiors are serenely uncluttered. Architects Scott Marble and Karen Fairbanks drew inspiration from Japanese architecture for a 4,500-square-foot Chelsea loft they designed for a couple of lawyers and their two children. Dividing the living room from kitchen and breakfast room and from a study area are sliding doors made of medium-density fiberboard (MDF) and sandblasted glass; their diagonal lines echo the sunlight that slants through the living room's south-facing windows and filters through the sandblasted glass. The nearly eight-foot-high doors are hung on parallel tracks so they may be sandwiched together or arranged in various compositions. Separating study from master bedroom are pivoting doors with big circular cutouts that glow like full moons when they catch the light. "These doors," explains Fairbanks, "are graphic elements that transform as the light changes around them. They can be opened to create a big space or closed when a more intimate scale is desired. People want large open spaces, with the option of breaking them down into smaller ones. Lifestyles are so fluid today, with people working at home. We're interested in the possibility of different relationships between domestic spaces over the course of a day or a life."

Movable translucent panels, inhabiting a material zone between solid walls and windows, can add complexity and ambiguity to interiors. New York's Architecture Research Office used them to impose order on a sprawling, 6,400-square-foot loft in the Flatiron district. The loft occupies an entire floor and a third of the floor below it, with a double-height corner volume linking the two. On the lower level tall pivoting doors of sandblasted glass divide a gallery-sitting room from a guest bedroom located beneath a mezzanine library.

"The doors allow for the guestroom to appropriate the gallery space and share the light from its windows," explains Stephen Cassell, an ARO partner. Upstairs, translucent sliding panels along one wall of the living room give gauzy intimations of adjacent spaces: bedroom, bath, office, exercise room (additional white wooden doors offer the option of opacity for the bedroom and bath). After considering myriad materials for the translucent panels, says Cassell, "we ended up using a very fine cotton fabric, almost handkerchief cloth." It's a bravura demonstration of the spatial and visual adaptability of sliding panels.

Eliminating walls or replacing them with sliding and pivoting partitions results in greater spatial flow but fewer storage sites. As urban interiors are pared down to a fare-thee-well, architects are responding by designing storage elements as multifunctional as a Swiss Army knife—units that can organize all sorts of stuff, screen or preserve views, even serve as sculptural objects. In an audiophile's New York apartment architect Dean Maltz (in association with architect Carey Davis) anchored the intersection of living, dining, and kitchen areas with an imposing mahogany-sheathed storage unit, a home-within-a-home for all kinds of things. Doors on one side open to reveal shelves for audio equipment and pull-out "CD pantries" that can accommodate 2,000 CDs. The unit meets a granite counter with a notch containing undercabinet downlighting, then turns a corner and morphs into kitchen cabinetry. "I am interested in designs that can be transformed from one state to another," explains Maltz, citing classic small-space environments like boats and Pullman-train compartments that convert from sitting rooms to bedrooms.

Why are designers creating chameleonlike interiors? Why not? Why not design sliding partitions that can cover windows or bookshelves, as Maltz did in one New York apartment? Why not fashion a sliding door that closes off a living room from adjacent rooms, as architect David Ling did in another Gotham flat? And why not make doors covering a media wall double as screening-room walls, as architects Henry Smith-Miller and Laurie Hawkinson did in the New York loft of digital-effects maven Robert Greenberg and painter Corvova Lee?

Spatial design has come a long way since 1934, when Frank Lloyd Wright proposed a house with no closets at all. When the client objected, Wright retorted, "Closets are rotten. They just accumulate junk." That house—never built—seems almost inconceivable now, when our mounting "junk" plays a part in every home-design brief. Wright ultimately came to terms with stuff in his protean designs, as we must in our own places. Fortunately, inventive architects are better than ever at nonbimbo design: multilayered, multifunctional spaces and surfaces that are beautiful and smart.

Space Designers

Architecture Research Office, LLP
180 Varick Street, New York
212-675-1870 (Stephen Cassell, ext. 13); fax 212-675-1645.

Hanrahan and Meyers, Architects
Victoria Meyers, Thomas Hanrahan
22 West 21st Street (Suite 1201), New York
212-989-6026; fax 212-255-3776.

David Ling Architect
110 East 17th Street, New York
212-982-7089; fax 212-475-1336.

Dean Maltz Architect
330 West 38th Street (Suite 811), New York
212-925-2211; fax 212-925-2249.

Marble Fairbanks Architects
66 West Broadway (Suite 600), New York
212-233-0653; fax 212-233-0654.

Shelton, Mindel & Associates Architects
Lee Mindel
216 West 18th Street, New York
212-243-3939.

Smith-Miller + Hawkinson Architects
Henry Smith-Miller, Laurie Hawkinson
305 Canal Street, New York
212-966-3875; fax 212-966-3877.