Small Wonder

450 sq. ft. with all the comforts of home—and style to spare

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Photography by Alan Shortall
Styling by Diane Ewing

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After moving into his Logan Square loft in 2003, architect Wayne F. Tjaden felt a little squeezed. Storage was a problem. And, he thought, wouldn’t it be great to have an actual guest room? “I looked around the building and found an empty space on the floor below my apartment,” he says. The small but high-ceilinged area had been used as a laundry room and a women’s restroom in the building’s previous incarnations.

Tjaden bought the room, as well as air rights in the upper part of the adjoining corridor, and set about creating a guest room/storage closet. The living area encompasses about 450 square feet; the space from the hallway became a squat storage closet accessed through the sleeping loft.

But plans change. Doug Birkenheuer, a photographer and longtime friend of Tjaden’s, saw design plans for the apartment and was instantly smitten. “The whole idea of a small, manageable space with all those modern, beautiful lines was very appealing,” he says. Prompted by his friend’s enthusiasm, Tjaden decided he didn’t need a guest suite after all. He added a pint-sized dishwasher and refrigerator to transform the place into a self-sufficient apartment (but kept most of the new storage space for himself). Tjaden’s custom-designed cabinetry, bedroom furniture, and an ingeniously minimal staircase give the apartment the snug, sleek feel of a well-built boat. Birkenheuer has lived there for nearly two years now.

To give an illusion of depth in quarters that could have felt claustrophobic, Tjaden fiddled with the room’s angles. The stainless steel countertop bends around the corner of the kitchen and gently veers off toward the opposite wall. A wall separating the bathroom and living area follows the same angle, as do the cutout in the floor of the loft bedroom, the floor of the shower, and the work surface of the custom-made desk.

“There aren’t hard lines separating spaces,” Tjaden says. “The angles give a sense of things opening and changing and a dynamism that makes a very small space interesting to be in. It ends up being modest but not boxy.”

Uncluttered expanses of white wall and a large window keep the apartment airy and light. Spare as it is, the place feels warmly inviting. The lofted bedroom, queen-size headboard, kitchen counter, and staircase all seem to float, tricking the eye into seeing additional space behind and beneath them. “There’s always something happening in here, and you’re never really sure where one thing ends and another begins,” Tjaden says. “That ambiguity makes it seem larger.”

Birkenheuer, who solves his own storage problem by stashing most of his photography equipment in a separate studio, couldn’t be happier. “I have the same aesthetic tendencies as Wayne, to keep things minimal, so I run a pretty tight ship,” he says. “I’ve lived in small spaces a lot, and I’ve made them work for me-but living here is a real treat.”

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