Small space living with designer Jessica Centella | Home Front

Jessica Centella
Apr 20, 2017

Washington designer Jessica Centella started interior design firm Residents Understood with Kiera Kushlan in 2010. Living in a 593-square-foot studio apartment, Centella has discovered creative ways to make small spaces usable, livable and beautiful. Centella and Kushlan’s recent project at the venerable Ontario in Adams Morgan, where they added a dose of girly glam into a one-bedroom co-op built in 1904, is featured in the Washington Post Magazine, read it here. Centella is here to answer your small space questions.

Every week, Jura Koncius helps you in your quest to achieve domestic bliss. She and weekly guests, whether Martha Stewart, the Property Brothers or Nate Berkus, answer your decorating and design questions. Jura is always happy to whip out her paint chips, track down a hard-to-find piece of furniture or offer her seasoned advice on practical living and decluttering. For more than 10 years, Home Front has been an online conversation about the best way to make your home comfortable, stylish and fun. We invite you to submit questions and share you own great tips, ideas and gripes. No problem is too big or too small, send them over.

Small spaces -it's a subject you all love to talk about. Washington designer Jessica Centella knows a lot about them. She started interior design firm Residents Understood with Kiera Kushlan in 2010 and they do a lot of small urban apartments and condos. Living in a 593-square-foot studio apartment herself, Centella has discovered creative ways to make small spaces usable, livable and beautiful. Centella and Kushlan’s recent project at the venerable Ontario in Adams Morgan, where they added a dose of girly glam into a one-bedroom co-op built in 1904, is featured in the latest Washington Post Magazine, read it here. Centella is here to answer your small space questions.

Hi everyone! Just returning from a design presentation for a small outdoor patio, so I've got my design wheels churning and I'm excited to chat with everyone about some challenges of their own!

Living in a small space can mean sacrificing form over function to maximize storage. How do you manage to keep a space from looking too "heavy" with storage furniture, while still maintaining necessary storage space?

People tend to be a little too cautious with furniture in small spaces - more doesn't necessarily equal bulky. The key to incorporating those very necessary storage pieces is to make sure they have legs, or space below them. If everything sits directly on the ground, this leads to the heavy feeling. It's also good to get a good balance of open vs. closed storage. If everything has doors on it that contributes to the heavy feeling. Try and incorporate storage pieces with open shelves to make things feel lighter. 

Living in 800 sq feet, what is the best way to utilize space with kids? How do you make your home not look like a toy store? Thanks!

Closed storage is key! Have a place for everything. Bins can be your best friends - but don't get the cute kids ones, get some nice "adult" looking bins that you like the look of. Makes clean up easier when you can just toss everything into a bin. We also like using small nightstands with drawers as side tables, because kids can use drawers easily, and they're great for separating toy cars, legos, etc. When we know a space is going to be used for toy storage, we try and keep things as neutral as possible because toys are inherently very colorful. 

what is the perfect white wall, white trim paint color right now. do you have some go-to favorites?

Decorators White by Benjamin Moore is our go-to for white wall color. We've also been using Simply White, for a softer white look. Ice Mist is our favorite for trim, in a good semi-gloss finish!

Hi Jessica! Would love your help with my bathroom. I bought my first condo (!!!!) about 6 months ago and since then have been struggling with the bathroom. The walls are a light pinkish brown and my beloved shower curtain is sort of sea-foam green paisley. Not a great mix. I think replacing the shower curtain would be much, MUCH easier than painting such a tiny, cramped space. In small spaces, do you suggest going white (or cream) to try and brighten it up?

Hmmm, how much do you love your shower curtain?! The wall color doesn't sound that thrilling. If you love your curtain that much, I would paint the bathroom. In small spaces, we actually tend to stay away from lighter colors because it's a good opportunity to be bold with wall color. If your bathroom is tiny, no wall color is going to make it look larger so just embrace it and pick a color you love that will go with the shower curtain you love!

We live in a small one bedroom apartment. What are your ideas to accommodate guests when they spend the night?

Furniture that has double function is always the easy answer, such as a sleeper sofa. If that's not possible, one of the things I like to do is hang a ceiling mounted curtain rod where I would set up an air bed, so the guests can pull the curtain closed and feel like they have a bit more privacy. 

Like many people, I am intimidated by the idea of hiring a design firm without having enough of a budget to make many changes. What are you best tips for designing a unique space with a very small budget?

Our design approach actually lends itself to clients in your situation. You have a small space that you want to love, but not the budget up front to make it all happen. We suggest coming up with a design plan up front, and then move through the space implementing those changes. Maybe you have your ideal room all chosen and you have a chair from West Elm that you want, but find something very similar on Craigslist and it fits the bill. Having a blueprint to go off of is the best way to tackle a small space with a small budget. Patience is the hardest part. 

I'm considering wallpaper in a small powder room but afraid it will make the space feel even smaller - what would you recommend?

I recommend going for it! There's no better place for wallpaper than a small space, especially a powder room. Go for something bold and fun. It gets guests talking and it's a fun surprise. There's no need for a powder room to feel large, so make it fun instead!

Good morning, I will be moving into an 1100 sq foot 2BR condo after a 3 BR house. Most of my furniture has been donated, I will need to purchase a "Murphy Bed" style unit for the second BR and a wall unit for hidden TV and storage in the LR. Do you have suggestions on where I can look into moderately priced units for these rooms? The LR is approximately 12'x13' with a French door to the small balcony. Thank you.

Check out "Lori Wall Beds" - it's a great option for Murphy Beds at good prices because it's somewhat DIY. For the living room, maybe consider an armoire to store your tv, perhaps a cabinet/drawer combo for extra storage. 


Hello, We live in an otherwise spacious suburban house, but as we're currently expecting our first child, would still like to combine the new baby room (which will be in a space currently used as an office / second guest bedroom) with mom's at-home office space. Any ideas or cautions of pitfalls to avoid? Thanks.

My number one suggestion is to create a space that you like to spend time in, skip the cute stuff, especially if you're going to be working in there. If you're really tight on space, try finding a desk that has a good amount of storage in it, maybe a pretty long one, and you can use it for the changing table if you don't have a huge computer. Having different levels of lighting will also be important, because your baby might sleep through you working but you'll want a little task lamp so you can see at night. Best of luck and congrats!

Can you paint small spaces a dark color without them feeling darker? Do you have any favorite dark colors?

Absolutely. Unless you have to do visually intense tasks in a small space, dark colors are always possible and fun. It makes a room more cozy/moody in my opinion. My favorite dark blue is BM Hale Navy, and dark gray is BM Chelsea Gray

I have a tiny house - its a DC duplex that was built 65-70 years ago, and while I love it I'm having a hard time figuring out how to keep it feeling spacious. I'm learning that I need to be very minimalist with furniture, and some of my pieces are too big yet too new to get rid of (I'm saving my pennies, it'll happen eventually). Right now, I only have a sofa in my living room, its too big and I can't replace it for a few more years - but I want an accent chair or 2 that have a small footprint and are comfortable to sit in. Where should I look? How can I tell if a chair is well made and will last?

Finding good, small chairs can be tricky as the least expensive options tend to be online - where you can't sit in them and try them out. Checking out the joints in the legs (where they meet the seat) to see how secure that connection is is important. We like Industry West for their prices and styles. We also love local places like Miss Pixie's and Good Wood for furniture like this. We've also found some great local people that sell on Etsy that make the furniture themselves and are reasonably priced and would certainly stand behind their small business products. Happy hunting!

Why did you add the crown molding in the bathroom of this project?

Good question! That was an electrical issue. Because Louisa's condo was built so long ago, we had to up her amperage (mainly to accommodate the washer dryer we added to the kitchen), which equals a ton of thick cables/cords. The bathroom was the best place to hide this, so those cords were run along the ceiling and covered with the crown moulding. It was a happy mistake because we love the bathroom so much more with the crown moulding in it!

Good morning, I am redecorating the basement rec room now that the kids are getting older, and am planning on dark gray patterned carpet and a medium gray sofa. We also have a lot of cabinetry in a medium walnut wood tone, baseboards and window trim are also wood. I am not sure about what color would do well with all that. I was thinking white, since there is a lot of dark going on, but doesn't white need a lot of light to look good? There are windows in the basement, so it isn't entirely cave-like, but not as much natural light as a typical main level. I am open to various shades of blues or grays or greens as well. Can you suggest a few options, BM paint? And if you think a white would work, could you recommend a white as well? Thanks!!

People tend to be scared of white for the reason you stated, about getting good light. We're not 100% behind that theory, I think white can be a good thing in a basement. In your case, I might try Simply White because it's softer. Classic Gray looks great against wood trim, it's a really pretty light gray with some warmth to it. Owl Gray is another light gray option, with blue undertones that also look good with warm wood trim. If you want to go a bit darker, Stonington Gray is one of our favorite. If you want to do something with a bit more color, we love Oystershell and Palladian Blue. So many options, I know it's hard! Paint a bunch of samples and check them out at different times of the day, with different amounts of sunlight. 

Hi, I have a SMALL closet (3'X2' square, with a 24 inch door) into which I'm trying to fit a printer, file drawers, shelves, supplies, etc. (There is a free-standing desk in the room proper). Who would you recommend for a very custom design for such a task?

I think you can definitely make that all work if the space is used efficiently! We always recommend going to The Container Store for projects like this, using their Elfa System. If you bring them your dimensions, they'll work with you on exactly what you need to store in the closet and come up with several options for you to look at. It's a much more affordable version of a closet organizer than the more expensive brands, but still feels very custom. 

I am looking for a twin bed with storage drawers underneath it for a small bedroom.

For something like this I would recommend checking out places that cater to kids - even if it's for an adult space. Places like Land of Nod, PB Kids/Teen, RH Baby & Child - they are great with offering furniture that provides extra storage, particularly beds. 

Like many small-space dwellers, I'm hoping to add more built-in storage. Where does one start? Do we look for a general contractor? A carpenter? A designer? Do designers want to work with homeowners on such a small project?

We have come to be quite the designers of built-ins lately - it seems like more and more people are realizing the value of them and how they can make a space more usable and beautiful. A contractor can certainly do the work, but I would first ask them if they have carpentry skills or work with a carpenter. I would honestly go straight to a carpenter, though. They're going to be the most knowledgable and likely be able to give you 3D drawings and make it more customized. This also cuts out the middle man that a general contractor would be. I would come up with a list of storage priorities before meeting with someone, or create Pinterest board with ideas. 

Hi there. I have four closets in my house with bi-fold doors. I'd love to replace them with regular doors, but it looks like they're not standard size. Any idea on (1) who does this kind of work and (2) how expensive of a job it is? Thanks!

Hard to say without knowing the details, but this shouldn't be too expensive of a job. If you know of a handyman, they could likely do this for you, otherwise get in touch with a general contractor. Glad you're switching out the bi-fold doors, we always recommend this to clients. 

I have a small living room that is both the entryway from the front door and the only way to get to the bedrooms in our small house. I'm having trouble figuring out how to arrange the seating to make the room feel cohesive. Right now we have two large couches and a rug that's it. I'm planning to get a new couch/chairs but am not sure what size or where to put them. The room also has a large window and fireplace on the same wall. We don't have a tv in the room and it's not an open floor plan house, so I'm trying to make it a cohesive space and a place for my young kids to play. Right now it just feels like an oversized entrance and walkway - I'm stuck on where to start!

We work with a lot of clients who have a living room that also serves as an entryway. If possible, we always try and put a piece perpendicular to the door way to try and designate that space as the entry. It's hard to say, but it sounds like your space is causing confusion because of some imbalance caused by a fireplace and window being on the same wall. You might be a good candidate for some built-ins, which helps balance things out and make the room feel more grounded. It's also great for storage for the kids. If you have the back of a sofa to the room, try adding a bookcase behind it for kids storage, that always helps make the space feel more intentional when you use console tables behind sofas. 

You know the classic mid-century bathroom gracing many DC condo buildings- either pink or grey tile halfway up the wall with matching sinks, toilet, and bathtub/shower combo. How would you "update" this without gutting the entire thing and starting fresh? I've read about the DIY tile paint kits, but they don't seem to yield great results. Any tips for working around this very dated design?

I say if you can't change the crazy, embrace it! Some of those old tiles can actually look pretty cool if you tone down some other aspects. If you are up for a challenge, find some bathroom friendly wallpaper (vinyl usually) and make the space a fun wallpaper/tile combo. Or, paint it a fun color and add some artwork that incorporates the tile color so it all looks intentional. Kiera moved into a place with yellow wall tile prior to gutting the bathroom, so she bought a fun shower curtain with some yellow flowers and just embraced the yellow. Make it look like you meant for it to be there :)

Good morning! I live in a fairly small open-concept apartment, and I'm looking for a rug that will help define the LR space (currently our only real "statement piece" is a teal couch). I also have a shaggy haired dog so I'm looking for something that will be easy to vacuum and won't show too much dust. What materials do you recommend for dog-owners who still want to have a stylish space?

Ahh I am all too familiar with this scenario! This somewhat depends on the color of your dog. I have a black dog that sheds, and a somewhat shaggy rug in several different colors. I think the more variation the rug has, the better it is at hiding hair and dust. If it has a bit of a pile (you don't have to go full on shaggy), it also hides surface dirt and dog hair. Try and find a rug that incorporates the color of your dog's hair, with some other colors mixed in (maybe a bit of teal to go with your couch?) to add to that variation you really need. 

Beautiful job on the Adams Morgan coop. No too cutesy or too cold. I loved the 3D tour; I'm always wondering what's just out of frame. Hope this is an ongoing feature.

Hi - We are using the Matterport 360 technology more and more often in our home and design stories. It's really fun to work your way around the place and get a surprise at every corner. We have a team here that does the work and we are glad you like it . Will pass that along.

I'm curious what tips you have for a small, enclosed (brick) outdoor patio. I just downsized from a house with 1 acre and a pond to a condo with this space (small brick pavers that would hold a small table/2 chairs and the rest lava rock. I will remove most of that.) Any suggestions for specimen plants, containers, etc.?

That is quite a transition, but I'm sure you can make the new patio something you'll love! I would recommend trying to do something a little more casual than just a table and chairs. Folks with small outdoor spaces tend to shy away from adding more than just a table and chairs for fear of cramping the space, but I think it's more welcoming/cozy to go with more "loungey" furniture and lots of plants. I wish I had a green thumb and could tell you what to buy, but a lot of the plant shops in the Capitol Hill area are great at advising on things like this. CB2 has some great planter options. We also love recommending climbing plants, to cover any drab fences or weathered brick walls. 

Hi Jessica! I have a small bedroom and it just feels cramped. A friend who has authority suggested putting mirrors on one or two walls to make it seem bigger, but I think this might be a bit intimidating. Have you ever tried this?

We love using mirrors in small spaces, it really does make the space brighter and larger in my opinion. It's tricky in the bedroom, because you don't want it across from your bed because that can be weird. I don't think I'd do more than one. If you have the space, try going for a big floor leaning mirror, ideally across from a window so it reflects light. 

what is your favorite local flea market?

I love wandering around Community Forklift! I also love Miss Pixie's on 14th street. Georgetown Flea has some interesting things to browse, too. 

What are your favorite Instagram accounts?

We are running out of time to name too many but my latest obsession is Jungalow!

That was a great chat with lots of great chunks of information we can all use, whether living in a small or large place. Thank you for being with us. Next week. Washington architect Chris Snowber will join the chat to talk about some of his recent interesting projects and answer your questions about architecture and renovating. Until then...

Thanks for all of your questions, good luck making your small homes be spaces you can love!

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.

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Jessica Centella
Washington designer Jessica Centella is half of the interior design firm Residents Understood.
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