Recently we were asked to give a beachside living room a refresh ahead of its most important season. The home is a one-bedroom apartment in Vancouver's Kitsilano neighbourhood that belongs to a friend of mine, a teacher named Jane.
She wanted to fling open the windows, so to speak, and let summer's warmer winds carry in an air of sun-bleached sophistication.
Like most buildings in Kits, Jane's was built between 1950 and 1960. A three-storey walkup with a large Arbutus tree in the front yard, its 10 or so suites are on the weathered side, but saved by wonderfully simple floor plans, hardwood floors, and, of course, proximity to the beach.
Our design mission was to bring the atmosphere of the seashore inside, giving an older apartment an update without attempting to make it look like the modern condo it isn't.
Here are the three big questions we answered in undertaking the design mission:
Why the light walls and window finishes?
The 700-square-foot apartment has windows on the its north side only. They have two drawbacks – the light they let through (not much) and the view (of a Dumpster in the alley).
It's well-known that white walls are desirable because they make a dim space brighter. What's understood less is that such walls need a measure of pigment to look their best. A truly white space – especially here on the West Coast, where the light is naturally flat and grey – needs a lot of light to save it from dinginess.
Our choice for the task was Natural Linen, by Benjamin Moore. It's one of my favourite neutrals.
It doesn't look too tawny and pairs well with both cool and warm hues.
For window coverings, we used the existing valance to our advantage.
The drywall drop you see was common in Vancouver from the 1940s through the 1970s. Although the feature is an emblem of its era, Jane has always felt it an ugly one. (I agree.)
But removing the drop would have cost $1500 – too much for a simple refresh.
Instead, we played the hand we were dealt, installing two layers of custom Roman blinds. One is sheer and diaphanous, and it's almost always down.
It allows light in while screening sight lines to and from the apartments across the alley.
The other, higher layer of natural linen is very close in colour to the wall, one Jane can deploy for evening privacy.
Why the odd collection of tables?
It's not often that tables, plural, play so prominent a role in a single design, but it was the case in Jane's living room.
The challenge was to find tables that worked well with the existing furnishings, whose air was one of artful casualness. Matched tables, we knew, would add nothing to the room, so we gave ourselves the more difficult job of hunting down an ensemble cast of complementary pieces.
The side table gave us the most trouble: it needed to be unusually tall to look good beside the over-height sofa (which had 36-inch arms). And it needed to be delicate; anything substantial would look blocky and out of place.
To our delight, local design boutique The Cross offered up a bronze and glass side table that met our odd requirements. Its silhouette adds intrigue to the room, its antique gold finish brings warmth, and its glass shelves provide welcome display space.
By comparison, the coffee and accent tables are organic.
The kidney bean of the coffee table, in particular, exudes softness. In a small space, it's much easier to move around than a piece with sharp edges and corners, and its glossy white deploys a hit of playfulness.
The wood stool came from a consignment store, though it might have escaped from a log boom.
Its elemental chunkiness offers the room an important injection of rawness and "un-design."
No one should fuss about setting a cup of coffee or glass of wine on it.
Why such big art?
In an open floor plan with an eclectic mix of furnishings, it's always a sound plan to make the artwork large and powerful. The alternative – arranging a gallery wall or grid of photographs – will add busyness to busyness, unhappily congesting the room.
Our approach was to start with a large investment piece – this magnificent David Burdenay photograph of gondolas in Venice – over the sofa.
The scale and atmosphere of the image define the living room without overwhelming it.
For the area over the desk we chose a quiet, modern painting. It distinguishes the work from the living room without trying to compete with it.
And on the wall adjacent the sofa, over the console, we placed two prints we'd selected from an artist online and framed in store-bought frames.
In the curation of a small space one thing we always consider is how the viewer interacts with each piece of art.
Here, the large photograph meets you the moment you walk in the room – you need some distance to appreciate it, while the subtlety of the painting over the desk rewards closer scrutiny.
The prints are full of whimsicality whose detail requires that you lean over and study it. Three kinds of interactions; three considerations of space.