Cool design for small spaces with Kyle Schuneman | Home Front

Sep 20, 2012

Decorating your first apartment? Trying to make the most of a little space? We'll be chatting with design and lifestyle expert Kyle Schuneman who recently wrote a book about cool design for small spaces and how to tackle a first apartment. Send in your questions now and join us live on Thursday at 11 a.m.!

Every week, Jura Koncius helps you in your quest to achieve domestic bliss. Got a question about decorating? She's happy to whip out her paint chips and suggest the perfect hue, call a retailer to help track down a hard-to-find accent piece or offer some do-it-yourself. Built on years of reporting experience, Home Front is an online conversation about the best way to feather the nest. We invite you to submit questions and share you own great tips, ideas and, yes, the occasional complaint.

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Hi Everyone! I'm delighted to be here talking with you all! My new book, "The First Apartment Book: Cool Design For Small Spaces", is my love letter to small spaces, the journey of design and DIY, and the ideas that design should be expressive. I am excited to be answering your questions today!

It's very nice to have Kyle Schuneman, author of "The First Apartment: Cool Designs for Small Spaces" with us today. He recently was named one of House Beautiful's "Next Wave of Top 20 Designers". His  Live Well Designs is a threefold venture: interior design, art direction and prop styling. His clients include Target, The Beverly Hills Hotel and Howard Miller Furniture. So, a great design talent to get advice from. Start posting your questions.

Do you have suggestions for a clever way to partition off a bed in an efficiency in a way to keep the room from becoming too claustrophobic? Is there some light-weight rigid (not curtain-like) material that could be hung from the ceiling? Maybe an opaque lucite? I don't want folding screens or tall ferns - something more private. Any thoughts greatly appreciated.

I would buy standard sheets of plexi and to personalize it place interesting decals on them- it could be as simple as a beautiful arrangement of white circles in a flowing pattern - at the ends of your bed and attach with wire hanging from the ceiling (and attached to the floor as well for stability). It will make your bed feel more built in and give a room within a room. Otherwise try using standard Ikea closet cabinets - I did this in a loft to partition off a bed.

What's yours?

I like walking into a space that feels effortless. Good design shouldn't feel like a designer came in and made it their own - it should reflect the person who lives there.  I like seeing how people live, their unique perspective, I don't like to dictate to them how they should live.

Good morning, Our house is way overdue for interior painting but we're short on funds. I'm thinking of painting just the trim to freshen things up. What is a good basic trim color (in the whites)? Thanks!

I would say Ivory White by Benjamin Moore.

We are in the midst of adding a master bath and after months of making selections, I'm overwhemed with the idea of choosing the paint color. The floor tiles are dark grey ceramic with a touch of cream streaks, the shower walls are cream ceramic and the accent tiles are glass mosaic with dark greyish brown, a medium brown, and very pale blue tiles. Cabinet is white oak. Any ideas on a paint color for the bathroom, and possibly a complementary color for the adjoining bedroom?

I like having a master bedroom and bath feel as one so I would paint them in complimentary colors that aren't exactly the same.  I think for the bathroom picking up the cream streaks and the cream in the showers would be good but go a shade darker for the walls so it feels varied.  For the bedroom I would choose a color that combines the cream and greys so I would go with a modern taupe for the bedroom. It's serene and calming.

Hi Ladies and Kyle, thank you for doing the chat. I have a small powder room that gets a lot of sunlight. I'd like to remove the dated wall paper and paint it. The sink and toilet are beige and the floor is teracotta color. I love bold colors. What should I paint it with? (preferably BM paints). Thanks

Good for you for going bold. I think about an orangey/pumpkin color. What about Benjamin Moore's Orange Parrot,  Calypso Orange, Soft Pumpkin or Coral Reef?

The furniture in my daughters' room is mismatched, the result of various Craigslist purchases (two identical vintage maple Ethan Allen beds), two dressers of different shape anfd styles, one white, the other is natural maple. the floor is hardwood, walls pale yellow. i would like to make it a more coesive and beautiful room, and was thinking about painting the dressers the same color. good idea? should I paint the bed also, and the desk we are going to buy, or that would be too much? if we paint the dressers, any suggestions for a beautiful classical color that can last for a while (no overly girlish colors)? we will eventually paint the walls too, but will choose some neutral color too. overall, I would like a serene, calming, classic and coesive look. thanks a lot for taking my questions, I Iove your chat

I think painting vintage furniture is a great way to make it feel more pulled together. For the dressers - I would suggest striping them for a fun twist. Creams and whites will be classic with the yellow walls but will still feel young for the girls and give the old dressers a facelift.  Use fun knobs from anthropologie for an easy girly touch that isn't permanent. I don't think you have to paint every piece of furniture the same - its good to mix textures and mediums. Remember when painting furniture you really need to sand the piece well before applying or it will come off. Also use satin finish.

I really enjoyed the article on the Evans' house renovation. Although most of us don't live in a Georgetown rowhouse, I felt there were lessons that could apply to all of us who are trying to make our spaces as functional as possible for our families. I found it interesting atht the house does not have a hall closet. Where does the family store coats? Thank you!

Glad you enjoyed the story. Here it is for those you you that did not see it: DC council member Jack Evans and his wife Michele's narrow rowhouse in Georgetown. Decorator Michele Evans had great ideas for using small spaces. And yes, no coat closet. She has a tiny vestibule as you walk into the house and she put big hooks on either side for coats. Some coats have to go into  bedroom closets.

Hi! We are refacing our kitchen cabinets and need to pick a Sherwin Williams white paint color to go with our tropical brown granite countertops. The back splash is stone -- beige, whites, grays, mocha marbled throughout. Cabinet pulls are oil-rubbed bronze, which I'd like to keep because I like them. Suggestions? Bright white? Off white? Eggshell? If you have a specific, I'd love it! The walls are painted SW Silver Strand but that could go if necessary! Thank you!

It sounds like you have a lot of creams and off whites in your space so I think a pure white white on the cabinets might make everything look dirty so I would suggest going with a darker cream even a taupe actually.  It will give some weight to the cabinets and will help to handle all the heavy textures - stones and metals in the space.

I read with great interest Megan Buerger's story about yellow from a month or so ago. Could we see more of these? I realize yellow is the trendy color of the moment, but decorating with white would be great, or perhaps black. More more more!

Yes! I agree. Megan did a fab job with that. Here it is. What other colors would you guys like to see featured? White and black are good ideas.

Hi Jura and Kyle! Thanks for joining us. I live in a small "english basement" apartment in Adams Morgan and our big problem is light. We actually do have a small patio area out front, but the light in the apartment is still dismal. We have tons of lighting -- overhead, floor, table lamps, etc. -- but the entire place still looks like a dungeon. Are we doomed? Any tips at all would be helpful!

Natural light is something you can't really control unfortunately.  I would say that keeping the walls light will help. I don't deter people in small spaces from painting dark colors on their walls but when you don't have enough light to support it it will get dungeon like. Try placing mirrors on the walls that would be reflecting the window wall to help bounce the light around the room. Use glass for tables to help make the space feel light and airy.

I hate having all of my jewelry in a closed box because I can't see any of it and I forget what I have. But my husband would kill me if it was flung all over the place. How can I store it properly?

I love bowls of jewelry on top of a chest or vanity table. If you don't have nice sized bowls, go to Pier 1 Imports, Target or a flea market or yard sale. Then pile your bracelets in one, and your necklaces in another. I love the small felt-covered drawer jewelry organizers from Container Store - they are inexpensive and great for earrings and rings. What other ideas are out there?

I love the idea of the chatter who wants to paint her powder room something bright and the suggestions for orange paint. However, what do you do when one person loves orange (me) and the other person (my husband) hates it? How do you make that work?? I'd like to convince him to get a pumpkin-hued rug like this one.

Love that rug. I think you have the right idea. Start with orange rugs or towels or pillows. And see if you can built up to painting a room. Compromise with a favorite color of his in another room.

My new house has low ceilings (7 feet) the door molding hits the ceiling. What can I do to make the ceiling seem higher?

I would get lower furniture to help with the scale. Lounge like sofas and low profile beds and then do dramatic wall treatments like vertical stripes to help your eye visually go up.

We have a small apartment in Dupont Circle and our landlords -- though lovely -- won't let us paint. This is so frustrating because the place really is beautiful! We have a large space above our couch in the living room that is screaming for something. Any creative suggestions? I'm not so into mirror collages....

In my book I have an apartment where we couldn't paint and created fabric panels using foam core boards, batting, and fabric.  You can make these as big as you want to create an upholstered wall feel or just individual panels as art - fabric has so many choices (try looking at Spoonflower).  Attach to the wall by placing blue painters tape down on the wall first and then industrial adhesive over it. It won't mess up the walls that way.

I vote for green. Not "green" as in environmentally friendly - I mean the color!


Hi Kyle, thanks for joining us. I look forward to reading your book! To be honest, this chat is a godsend because I'm struggling with moving my son into his first apartment in New York. We all know that NY apartments are pricey to begin with, but our struggle is coming in the decor. Of course, he's very excited about having his first apartment in the big city after college -- and we're excited for him -- but he probably won't be there for longer than a year or two so we're reluctant to spend a ton of money on decorations that will suit specifically this place. What if they don't fit in the next one? Will all that money go wasted? But we don't want him to live with crappy stuff now that he's an adult. How do we find the right balance and the right pieces to invest in?

This is exactly what my book is about so I think it will be invaluable to you and your son. NYC apartments are always a challenge. It's important to not always be thinking about the future and forget about living in the moment so I am a big believer in buying what works now. Not spending a lot of money will help swallow that pill.  I love Housing Works in NYC, The Hells Kitchen Flea Market, and local thrift stores as great resources.  Buy pieces that aren't perfect and paint them and do interesting things to them - I have many projects in my book about this. I would suggest investing in the upholstered pieces and not to buy those second hand because of the bed bug problem in NY. Knowing that he will be in small spaces wherever he lives buy smaller scale pieces that can be moved. The book is full of projects for him to personalize his space with the idea that it is a rental.

In my bedroom there are two good size windows along the wall and the bed is between, however a section of the headboard overlaps each window (about 4 inches?) What would be a good way to cover them or make this look less awkward?

I would suggest draping the entire wall behind the bed. That way people won't be able to tell where the windows start and stop.

In a small space, where do you put all your shoes? I've seen shoe organizers, but they never seem to have enough space.

You need to be honest with how you live and what you live with. If you don't have space and no shoe organizer has enough space then I think you have to rethink things. I suggest using interesting bookcases as a cool way to display them as art if they really are a big collection for you.  If you are trying to conceal them than I would just go to a place like container store and create a specific system for your closet knowing how many shoes you need to store.

My 50s era home has the black and white basket weave type tile so typical of Arlington. It is in good shape, and the iron tub isn't going anywhere, so eventually I just need to replace the wall tile. What would be a good suggestion? I am thinking subway tile if I can find one that is not sparkling white (the pedestal sink, toilet, tub, and floor are all pretty much a bone/ivory color. I am also somewhat tempted by a marble that would include the black and various whites and grays. Thanks for any advice!

My 1930s era home in Washington has the same black and white basket weave tile. I would definitely keep to white tile and a matte subway tile would be the perfect classic complement to that. I am always amazed that the floor tiles in my bathroom are in perfect condition after so many years and I still love the way they look.

I bought a beautiful old wooden mirrored medicine cabinet, hung hooks inside it, and keep my jewelry inside it. It is uncluttered and pretty in the bedroom. Beaded chain strung from one side to the other inside lets my earrings hang without slipping.

Lovely idea. Thanks for chiming in.

Let him buy and choose his own stuff, he's an adult, he's left the nest. Yes, you may grimace at the milk crate side tables, but it's necessary to struggle a bit in early adulthood. My first apartment had flea market plates, an inflatable couch, and a mattress on the floor, and I survived.


Thank you for the idea of letting my husband pick the colors for one room in exchange for letting me use a color he doesn't like (orange) in another one! "...Start with orange rugs or towels or pillows. And see if you can built up to painting a room. Compromise with a favorite color of his in another room." I hadn't even thought of bringing another room into the equation to keep everyone happy :).


Hi! I just heard about your book and am glad because I live in a small condo. I have two levels of stairs and they are very narrow. My stairwells have so many scratches because of all the daily wear and tear -- lugging grocery bags and furniture upstairs. I was hoping to figure a way to mask them or deal with them.   Dark paint is not faesible since the stairwell is already dark. The entire house has some kind of white paint at this time. I was thinking of getting some kind of mural art painted or wall papered, but it probably will look tacky if it's only on the stairwells. Ideas?

You can try using temporary wallpaper like Tempaper for just the faces of the staircase or another cool product is Stikwood which is peel and stick wood panels. I would do a contrast on the tread of the stair (the top) like a modern grey and then seal it really well to protect it.  You could also try painting the faces in a chalkboard matte black and do some fun things depending on your mood.

You probably get this all the time, but shoes are a major issue in small apartments. I, personally, have a lot of them and nowhere for them to go. I am considering getting this organizer from Ballard but lets be honest -- it's a little overpriced. Any suggestions that don't include the cheap, wire-y racks from the Container Store?

You could try going to a local flea market/thrift store and finding an old bookcase and then having some simple dividers made for cheap and then paint the whole piece so it feels like the Ballard Designs option.

I live in a teeny 1930s bungalow in Takoma Park (900 sq ft!). I converted the extra small second bedroom into my tv room. Bought a small loveseat from lazyboy that I love but needed some sort of coffee table/ottoman. Found these on QVC, just got them yesterday and LOVE them. Just the right size and they fold up for storage! (No, I don't work for QVC but am a QVC junky)

Good for you. Great price for the look. These would be great for storing tax papers or shoes! QVC has amazing stuff.

Hi! I've been debating this for months, so I'm hoping you can help! We live in a typical early 1940s Cape Cod in Arlington. Our living room is 20 by 14, with a fireplace on the outside wall. The fireplace has floor-to-ceiling bookcases on either side, painted white. The brick fireplace surround is also white, but it's a little stained. The walls in the room are a cream color, and the floors and crown modeling are dark wood. Curtains are a buffalo-check. I want to repaint the brick surround of the fireplace, but I can't figure out what color to use. Cream? A color that matches the buffalo-check, like a slate grey? Or just white again? Do I need a satin finish? Thanks!

They make masonry paint so you should use this. For safety reasons as well. I would pull something from the buffalo check. It will make the room feel "on purpose" and planned. I like the idea of the slate grey - it will give your space a nice update and make all the white pop so if thats the color in the buffalo check I say go for that!

The master bath in our 1950s house is tiny. It's only large enough to fit a shower (not wide enough for a tub). THe shower is in the back of the room, so you face it directly when you enter the room. Currently the tile is pink and does not reach the ceiling; it ends about three feet below. When we remodel, should we tile up to the ceiling to make the room seem larger?

Yes I am a big fan of tiling up the walls.  Especially if you do a white subway tile around the room it will feel clean and fresh.

Do you think painting a room a very dark color makes it look smaller?

No. I don't think you are fooling anyone with a lighter color in a small space - people know you don't live in Versailles. I will say that if you are in a dark space than a dark color can make it feel more cave like. Light bounces around a room so the darker the color the more it will be swallowed up if the color is on 4 walls but if your room has a good amount of natural light then it will be able to hold up to it.

I also loved the story on yellow and agree that black/white would be interesting. Other idea: dark red which is big this fall in fashion.

Yes. Good idea. Dark red is hard to incorporate into a lot of interiors unless you are channeling Diana Vreeland.

I have a lot of fact, so many that I can't close the closet door the whole way! So I put up Tempaper in an art nouveau pattern on the inside of the door, put an over-door shoe hanger on top, and tried to arrange my shoes in an artful way. It's a nice (and inexpensive) middle ground between ugly wire racks and overpriced shoe cabinets.

Artfully arranging your shoes inside the door sounds like a great solution.

Just read that Whirlpool is launching it's newest color in NY this week. It's called Ice White. White w/ chrome colored handles. Looks sharp and I love the look of the two together.

And GE is doing appliances in slate...

I have a small dining "ell" about 8 feet wide by 11 feet long. I'm trying to decide whether to go with a 48" round table or stick with a rectangular table. Which do you think would enhance the shape of the room better?

I'm a fan of playing with shapes so a round table in a rectangular room to me will soften the space. I think either would work honestly its just about what aesthetic do you want - a rectangular table in a rectangle will have a much cleaner, severe, modern aesthetic which can definitely be cool where a round table will be a much softer effect. Personally, I like eating at round tables as I think it helps conversation.

I bought a jewelry "tree" at pottery barn, but they sell them everywhere, and it holds all my necklaces; bangles are in front of it in a glass bowl I bought in Venice but never used. Now I see it every morning!

I love bracelets in glass bowls. Go to your kitchen tonight guys and see what's in the cabinets that you could use to store jewels.

I live in a small Capitol Hill row house with a bay window in the living room. The space is too small for a table or seating, and I don't want to block the large windows. (I believe the alcove is about 50 inches wide at its narrowest point, and the windows are 27 inches off the ground.) Ideally, I'd like to get some sort of highly practical storage unit for my toddler's mounds of toys, but I want it disguised as pretty furniture. Any ideas?

I think its important for kids to be able to get at their toys so I like building low benches and then having rolling units that tuck underneath that the kids can pull out and push back easily.  Try a really sophisticated wallpaper on the square units with cool industrial wheels for a really sophisticated urban effect and then put a great upholstered seat on top of the unit for a window seat effect in a neutral pattern.  

Hi, I recently purchased a large and luxurious paprika/cinnamon colored sectional couch for my family room and need to change the wall colors to bring out the richness. I am open to new colors for the family room, the back of the bookshelves that span a wall and the kitchen. I have a pretty open floor plan and you can see the couch from the entrance. My kitchen has natural oak cabinets (that I hate) and uba tuba countertops. I currently have BM Summer Harvest in the downstairs, except for the kitchen, which is BM Dill Weed. I also need a side chair for the FM to coordinate with the couch.

I think greys and oranges pair really well together so I think a dove grey/slate grey would both be good options to set off your new sofa.  Think about refinishing the cabinets you dislike in a similar color - it will coordinate with the uba tuba and update the look of your space. 

What are your favorite online sources for small end and coffee tables?

The website shows you a bunch of options from different online retailers so I like to go there first to see different options.  My book also has an extensive resource guide list - online and physical stores.

I found a steel office file with 30 drawers, each measuring 12"x9"x3". It's perfect for storing shoes, especially since each drawer has a little space for a label. The footprint (ha) of the piece takes up very little room and I can change out the labels as I add new shoes.

Love this! Thanks.

Hi, I live in a small condo and was talking to contractors about remodelling the bathroom. I told one contractor that I am looking to reglaze the tub. This tub was reglazed by the previous owners when I bought the condo 7 years ago and some of the glazing is peeling now. One contractor told me that in the last year 13 people died b'coz of reglazing, it's highly toxic and I should never do it. Is reglazing supposed to be toxic to our health? I never heard this before. Thought you guys might have run into this kind of talk before.

I've never heard of anyone dying from this so I can't speak to that but I do know that it is a process where you want to avoid the room for atleast 24-48 hours for the drying time to happen.

Where do you live and what's your place look like?

I currently live in LA. My place is small, modern, and full of quirky things I have collected over time. My old place in LA is in my book - The Homebody chapter. And I lived in San Francisco for a year which that was photographed for Sunset Magazine and will be in the January issue. So long story short - I move a lot and am constantly changing my style. I think that is what design is about - creating surroundings that are beautiful and the backdrop for memories but ever changing.

In closing, I want to thank Kyle for his thoughtful and informative answers. I'm going to go back and read through the transcript carefully. Meanwhile, thanks everyone for the color ideas - I think Megan is loving the idea of dark red for another color splash story. We have a big issue on closets coming up next Thursday so I'll be back then. And again, thanks to Kyle for a terrific chat.

Thank you everyone for your questions! I had a great time answering them!

In This Chat
Jura Koncius
Jura Koncius is a Washington Post staff writer who specializes in home and design. Read her daily twitter feed @jurakoncius for the latest in decorating trends, shopping, decluttering, organizing and DC retail.

Home Q&A archive
Kyle Schuneman
Kyle Schuneman is the founder of Live Well Designs. He has been featured in Dwell, Real Simple, Esquire, This Old House and has frequently appeared on NBC and HGTV. Named one of House Beautiful's Next Wave of Top 20 Designers, his first book, "The First Apartment Book," hit shelves last month. Find out more at
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