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Eye Opener

To see potential in a small space, it helps to have real vision

A doorway in what had been a solid wall between the living room and bedroom doubles the feeling of space in each room  : : : View Photo Gallery
 

When architect David Ries bought a worn-out one-bedroom East Lake View condo for himself in 2005, it helped that he was a man of vision. Two elderly sisters had been sharing the 700-square-foot space for 20 years and had done little to keep the place up to date. Ripping out the shag carpeting and lemon yellow appliances was a given, but Ries also knew he wanted to redo the layout to give the diminutive flat a more expansive feel.

Ries in his bedroom. The mirror behind him has been strategically placed to capture the view of Wrigley Field to the west  : : : View Photo Gallery

As in many Chicago high-rise apartments, the front door opened onto a narrow hallway, with a coat closet to the immediate right. A few steps inside the entryway, on the left, was the kitchen; straight ahead at the end of the hall was the bedroom door, with the living room opening off to the left. Around the corner was a small pass-through between the kitchen and living room. “The pass-through didn’t serve a purpose—it was too small for stools, and it forced the kitchen to have an L-shape with no countertop space,” Ries recalls. Furthermore, it failed to take advantage of the living room’s most dramatic feature: an entire north-facing wall of windows, with a view of Wrigley Field to the west and the lake to the east.

Ries closed off the kitchen and bedroom doorways and reconfigured them to open onto the living room, transforming what had been a cramped-feeling cluster of rooms into spaces that flow easily into one another. “Actually, I had the idea for doing this kind of layout before I even saw the apartment,” Ries says. “The idea was to have two bookcases in the living room flanking French doors [to the bedroom] that would be centered on the wall. You can borrow space when you have a layout like this: With those doors open, the space in the bedroom really becomes part of the living room. Your eye continues so you don’t feel so claustrophobic.” He also enlarged the space in the entryway, knocking out the closet to create a two-foot-deep nook where he hung grasscloth on the wall and placed a small table for keys and mail.

The antique scooter (in kitchen) can serve as a shelf. When extra seating isn’t needed a chair becomes a plant stand.   : : : View Photo Gallery

Opening up the kitchen to the living room brightened Ries’s cooking space and also gave him two solid walls to line with appliances and countertops. Though he originally envisioned a light, white-painted kitchen, he ultimately rejected that idea in favor of dark-stained oak cabinets from Ikea and slate floors, along with sleek stainless steel appliances. Then he decided to take the manly vibe a step further.

“I thought, if I want to sell this and it’s a masculine space, the kitchen may not be used—so it should look more like a bar,” Ries says. “You can display barware on open shelves and jazz it up with some sleek liquor bottles.” Installing a subway-tile backsplash to the ceiling was an inexpensive way to create a custom look and allowed Ries to splurge on a Waterworks faucet and Statuario marble countertops.

By doing nearly all the work himself (except for the electrical and the countertops), Ries kept the tab for the entire rehab to an astonishingly low $15,000. He has been equally thrifty in choosing furnishings and accessories, then tweaking them to create an eclectic, stylish abode.

The bookshelves flanking the French doors in the living room, which hold childhood treasures and antique-store finds, came from Ikea; painting the sides the same color as the walls gives them a built-in look. Ries purchased the wicker armchairs in the bedroom online from Target but thought the beige cushions they came with looked cheap and weren’t comfortable enough, so he swapped out the back pillows. The dramatic black-and-white photos over his bed came from a coffee-table book he cut apart. Hanging in the main hallway are lovely silk and velvet fabric remnants that he framed. “I call it my textile wall,” he says. “It’s totally cheap—go to Fishman’s or an upholstery shop, ask if they have scraps, and frame them.”

Thoughtful editing of possessions keeps small homes from feeling cluttered—but needn’t eliminate dramatic tableaux. Lying in bed at night, for instance, Ries’s view is of a painting in the living room, “Three Seeds,” by Chicago artist Jenny Miller, a friend.   : : : View Photo Gallery

Ries’s inventiveness also has allowed him to find ways to push the limits of his space to maximum capacity. He has seating for as many as 15 people, but by mixing the styles and scale of the chairs and ottomans scattered throughout the apartment, he has avoided overcrowding. The rustic dining table (purchased on the cheap at an antique store in Wisconsin) has leaves that fold down, allowing him to push it against the wall and use it as a buffet for dinner parties; guests eat around an attractive folding table that he stores under his bed, along with his architecture supplies and household tools. His clothes and shoes are hidden behind curtains, which require less floor space than closet doors.

“This concept could be carried over to a ton of apartments in Chicago,” Ries says. “The big thing is opening up the spaces to share square footage in the rooms. Also, at each spot, create an interesting composition—so when you walk in the front door you’re not walking into a closet, you’re walking into grasscloth and a great framed piece. When you’re in the living room, you’re not looking at kitchen cabinets, you’re looking at tile and a cool object. Even sitting in bed I have great pieces of art to look at in the living room.” After all, it isn’t the size of the space that matters, it’s the vision.

For information on resources, see Buyer’s Guide.

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