From wall coverings to flooring, joinery to furniture, interior designer Octavia Dickinson shares her expert knowledge and practical design ideas to inspire your small spaces. By Rosalind Sack
(LEFT) BOLD COLOURS AND GLOSSY TEXTURES CREATE A SENSE OF FUN IN THIS BATHROOM AT THE BEAR INN, DESIGNED BY OCTAVIA DICKINSON. IMAGE: HELEN CATHCART; (RIGHT) OCTAVIA USES LARGE FURNITURE TO MAXIMISE THE SMALL COURTYARD SPACE. IMAGE: SOPHIE WRIGHT
Most of us have small spaces in our homes that tend to cause somewhat of a headache when it comes to design ideas. Whether it’s the more practical considerations of storage or furniture placement that are tricky to decipher, or the decorative touches such as colour, texture and finish, that can cause a conundrum, interior designer Octavia Dickinson is here to help.
Layered and decorative, Octavia’s spaces are always a joy and her love of fabrics and wallpapers, art, textiles and ceramics, result in spaces that are bold yet timeless; whether she’s designing a 16th century coaching inn or a snug townhouse bathroom. While there are tricks and tips to consider, few things are off-limits in small spaces, it’s all about balance, she says. Prepare to be inspired…
What kind of wall colours, finishes or coverings would you recommend, and avoid, in small spaces?
I don’t think you should ever set out to avoid any ideas in design; sometimes, using precisely what you are not ‘meant’ to use is when you get the most magical results. Small rooms and spaces are a designer’s dream as you can dramatize a small space in such a way that would be too overbearing (and expensive) in a large room. These rooms are where you want to use your secret crush wallpaper that you love but are worried would be too overpowering; a small space can take it. I like making jewel boxes of small spaces with lots of textures at play; gloss joinery, wallpaper or grasscloth walls; and mirrors to reflect the space, make it feel larger and amplify the design details. Bars, inside cupboards, small loos and the backs of shelves are all perfect places to decorate in this overpowering aesthetic. All-over tiling will shrink a space but create a significant impact and feel incredibly encompassing. If I had to avoid something in a small space, it would be to not make something of it.
(LEFT) OCTAVIA MAKES THE MOST OF A SMALL NOOK WITH THIS JEWEL-BOX BAR; (RIGHT) OCTAVIA DISGUISES THE UNDER EAVES STORAGE IN MATCHING WALLPAPER. IMAGES: HARRY CROWDER
How important is custom joinery in small spaces?
When attempting to fit a lot into a small space, bespoke joinery becomes your friend. Where possible, it is nice to design it to look moveable – for cupboards and vanity units, a trick is to add a space in the skirting with a recessed kickplate and for wardrobes not taking them right to the ceiling. I needed to squeeze a lot into a tiny bathroom in my first flat, so I built narrow cupboards along one wall that morphed on the perpendicular wall into a vanity unit, using the space on the right above counter level to install shelves. The bespoke joinery allowed me to be much more practical than buying pieces of furniture. There are so many tools to make joinery look interesting that you don’t need a cube box space. Use fabric, wallpaper, specialist paint effects or, if you can, find an antique piece that fits the space perfectly. You can customise it to make it more practical by altering the inside, adding shelves, a hanging rail… whatever you require.
What clever storage ideas have you employed in small spaces?
I think about every bit of space in an interior that I am decorating. I decide if the area needs to be left as a space (it is important to have some dead spaces in your house as everything is a balance, and these areas act as pauses between decorative details) or if the area wants to be used practically and/or aesthetically. When you are short of space, utilising nooks and crannies for storage becomes necessary. It helps to stand in the room to work out where you can steal space to use for storage. In our house in London, we needed wardrobe space for our son’s room, which we took from the ceiling of the stairs, following the line of the rise of the stairs inside the wardrobe, but this still provided some shelving and hanging inside. Laundry rooms are often small but need to be incredibly practical and house a lot. In our laundry room we made a basic frame so the tumble dryer and washing machine sat on top of each other but were easily accessible if they broke. We crammed in a half dishwasher next to the basin and in a dead space nook we installed shelving for all of our vases, extra kitchen equipment and various cleaning products. I always spend a lot of time fiddling around with floorplans, as sometimes moving a wall, even just by a few centimetres, can give you unexpected storage. We used the eave space in our London house to make storage cupboards, but designed jib doors which we wallpapered in the same design as the room to make them practically invisible. Practical does not have to be ugly!
(LEFT) OCTAVIA USES CLEVER BUILT-IN STORAGE TO HOUSE APPLIANCES IN A SNUG LAUNDRY ROOM; (RIGHT) AND BOLD WALLPAPER TO MAKE A STATEMENT IN A SMALL SPACE. IMAGES SOPHIE WRIGHT
Are there specific pieces of furniture that you would look for, or avoid, in a small space?
Don’t go too small with furniture in small spaces – you can fill the space. Using small pieces in a small room will make it feel smaller, and it is not a good use of the space. As in every interior, it is all about balance; the balance of textures, of colours, of light and dark, hard and soft surfaces. In a small space you can enhance this balance and stretch it to the extremes. Small spaces are wonderful places to tent the ceiling with fabric, play with contrasting paint colours and squeeze in the large piece of furniture or chandelier which just fits. I always keep an open mind that most things are doable, maybe with a compromise. I once removed a wardrobe cornice to fit it into a small space, but it looked wonderful, like it was built for that position.
How would you approach lighting in a small space?
I am generally against overlighting anything and believe that you want to have light and dark areas within a room. A small space does not need much to light it, but be mindful of what you are using the space for or what you want to notice in the space. I like any task lighting (spots, LED strips etc) to be on a dimmer so I can control the levels, and I also often put wall and pendant lights on dimmers, too. I personally don’t want to see the lightbulb glaring into my eyes, so think about the lightbulbs, shades and the way the light faces. I prefer low-level lighting, so I always try to have table lamp points and think about how many circuits I want. In a tiny downstairs loo, it makes sense to have a spotlight on one circuit and wall lights over the vanity on another. So, in the evening, I would turn the spot off and have more ambient lighting. It is worth thinking about how you want the space to look in different parts of the day.
OCTAVIA USES BOLD COLOURS, LARGE FURNITURE, CUSTOM JOINERY AND CAREFULLY CONSIDERED LIGHTING TO MAKE AN IMPACT IN THIS COSY LIVING ROOM. IMAGE: SOPHIE WRIGHT
What are the common myths or mistakes that people tend to make when decorating small spaces?
People often steer towards buying small furniture which, as I have mentioned, makes the room look smaller and needs to be a better use of space. It is also a belief that small spaces should be kept clean and minimalist so as not to make them look small when, in fact, this is often not the case as they can become a waste of space and be absorbed into their surroundings. Details and clutter give small spaces a purpose. It has been vocalised a lot now, so people are more clued up, that small spaces don’t have to be light and can take dark colours. I do harp on about it, but when decorating it is very important to keep in the forefront of your mind that everything is about balance, and the best interiors have everything balanced in such a way to create perfect harmony. So give as much thought to decorating a small space as a large one, and allow these spaces to have their own character and balance.
Can your choice of flooring have a big effect in small spaces? What would you recommend?
On a practical level, it is helpful to have easy-to-clean flooring in a small room where it is harder to get the hoover or duster out; however, something striking can add to the overall effect. There are so many wonderful types of vinyl on the market, especially the Forbo Marmoleum which is a natural flooring that is durable, sustainable and long-lasting. It comes in lots of colours and can be cut into lovely designs (see Sinclair Till) I also love the utilitarian feel of Dalhaus DalWerk classic for a laundry room – I used the yellow Yolk shade in our laundry room which gave it a wonderful zest of colour. If you have leftover floorboards, painting them a plain colour and adding a decorative design on top is highly effective. And to soften a small space, I would use a carpet. Again, think in textures making sure to balance them out in the different areas of the room. A small room is also a good place to use leftover flooring, but you do want to ensure that what you are using works with the overall aesthetics of the room.
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