Small spaces: packing those precious inches with pure charm

Odd-shaped nooks, niches, and crannies offer intriguing possibilities for creative decoration and living-area expansion. In small houses those bits of balconies and lofts, those corners and crevices can be used to make every inch count. In larger houses these areas can become interesting hideaways for reading or dreaming, offices-at-home, sewing quarters, flower-arranging and gift-wrapping nooks, hobby or audio closets, even under-the-staircase playhouses for small children or telephone booths for teen-agers.

''If you collect beautiful objects, you must have a place to show them off with lots of space around them,'' says New York designer Diane Love. ''I find that old-fashioned stairwells and landings provide wonderful display places. Deep shelves can be put along the walls and over the doors of upstairs hallways for exhibiting prize Japanese baskets, pottery, silk-flower arrangements, and art objects. I often put a mirror behind such shelves in order to reflect back these lovely objects. Why not make these spaces that people just tend to walk through more rich in texture and visual interest?''

In Corte Madera, Calif., the Michael Sands family had a few nooks and crannies deliberately built into their new house. These included a ''reading balcony'' that juts out over the main floor living area, and a tiny upstairs wedge-shaped retreat big enough for a cleverly built-in composition of bookshelves, television table, and banquet sofa seating. The built-in sofa is wide enough to be used to put up the occasional guest at night. This nook is small and snug, but a family favorite as a getaway spot.

Last summer designers Jean Simmers and Fredericka Kemp of the Manhattan firm of Kemp & Simmers demonstrated what could be done to give character and wit to a tiny 5-foot by 6-foot bathroom on the first floor of a Southampton mansion decorator showhouse.

''The ugly little room was so small that we felt we had to do something elegant that was in keeping with the great old Victorian house itself,'' explains Jean Simmers. ''So we marbleized the toilet and the sink in the manner of the period. We faked a library wall or two of books. There was no room for real books, so we glued book spines on the wall by hand and completed the effect with a brass-studded library ladder.''

They then placed a few real books and magazines on a small antique table and an 18th-century stool. They dressed up the window with a fancy turn-back tasseled drapery and upholstered one wall and ceiling with a Lee Jofa cotton fabric printed to look like mottled book-end paper. They chose a deep navy blue glaze for woodwork and dado, and a period brass mirror and fixtures.

Dubbed ''the reading room,'' it was one of the hits of the showhouse. The secret, the team has found, ''is not to ignore these funny little spaces, but to make the decorative most of them and treat them with a little humor and a rakishly grand style.''

It was in the same vein that designers Carolyn Miller and Susan Garfinkel of East Hills, N.Y., decorated a ''reading niche'' in a passageway at the recent Design Showhouse of the International Society of Interior Designers in Manhattan. The less-than-24-inch-deep niche to which they gave such charm and distinction was actually a five-foot long boarded-up window.

They felt challenged by its utterly bleak appearance. But what emerged was a delightful area with built-in bookshelves at the top, a deeply padded windowsill for curling up on with a good book, and a bona fide Putnam rolling ladder for reaching the high shelves.

''We have discovered in our design practice,'' Susan Garfinkel explains, ''that people always love the unexpected treatment of such offbeat spaces. That means we can feel free to be as creative as possible with them.''

Jack Childs of The Child/Dreyfus Group of Chicago, a specialist in designing compact houses, utilizes all kinds of balcony and loft areas in his effort to stretch interior spaces. Good spot lighting, he says, and a well-placed skylight in the ceiling, can do a lot to enhance such a nook. And small-scale love seat convertibles and tables and floor-to-ceiling built-in shelves can make a small reading and relaxing area look remarkably large and inviting. His nooks are always unified with the rest of the space in the house to keep a sense of visual flow throughout.

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