Interior Design Tips for Smaller Spaces

From townhouse to penthouse, interior designer Serena Sawyer shifts into a smaller space with wonderful results

Credit: Terry Guscott

The right design can really open up a smaller condo

Interior designer Serena Sawyer trades space for style when she makes the move from townhouse 

to penthouse 

It might sound rash, at first. Just over a year ago, Serena Sawyer sold the two-storey, two-bedroom peace-and-quiet townhouse in Richmond where she’d lived for more than a decade and purchased a 760-square-foot glass-and-concrete condo in the crook of commuter intensity, just south of the Cambie Street Bridge crossing into downtown Vancouver.

Finding the Perfect Space

Serena Sawyer seated at her turquoise blue egg chair (Image: Terry Guscott)

It certainly seems impulsive—trading nearly half her floor space for a fishbowl overlooking hulking big-box store neighbours. Even more so when you learn that this condo was the only property she actually viewed before making her pick. And it was all done the same year she launched a solo career in interior design. For Sawyer, who’d recently left behind a 12-year career in the tech industry, this drastic scene change was a symbol of arrival rather than upheaval.

A few steps into the expansive—yes, really!—space with its gallery-high ceilings and distinct areas for dining, working and relaxing, and you are convinced. Instead of feeling hemmed in or overlooked, the condo seems to float above the commerce and traffic below. Windows reaching nine feet high to the east, south and west deliver nourishing sunlight all day long as well as miles more square footage in views. Decks at either end of the large room channel a refreshing cross breeze. White walls, quartz stone and exposed concrete are calming and welcoming. And Sawyer executed this dramatic lifestyle shift in a perfectly “Serena” way: with patient and methodical planning over years.

“My last place was almost 1,200 square feet and for 14 years I looked at a hedge,” Sawyer explains of her decision to downsize. “Nothing else, just a hedge. I thought at the time that I really wanted two bedrooms, a fireplace, two levels to divide the space, but I didn’t need that. I feel this when I walk in the door now. I have everything I need.” 

Planning for a Smaller Space

But figuring out what those needs really were took time. Sawyer had always been creative in her off hours, stitching up a new dress every few weeks as a teen, and dabbling in painting, photography and plenty of DIY projects. She’d particularly enjoyed experimenting—sometimes successfully, sometimes not—with the decor in her townhouse over the years. In 2003, she decided that before spending any more money, she’d take an interior decorating course. The program was so inspiring, Sawyer was hooked, and after earning her diploma she soon embarked on a new career teaching interior decorating, while keeping her day job in tech. She bided her time, renovating her old place, waiting for the right market, researching neighbourhoods closer to downtown. Last year, the seventh-floor penthouse suite popped up. 

Padded coffee table in living room
(Image: Terry Guscott)

“I had been looking online for three months and as soon as I walked in here I saw the potential.” In addition to a gorgeous cityscape panorama, which includes the Cambie, Burrard and Granville Street bridges as well as False Creek, the building is separated from downtown by a SkyTrain station, meaning nothing can be built on top to obstruct the view—or the property value—in the future.

But by seeing the condo’s potential Serena didn’t just envision a new coat of paint. “It took about six months to get the renovations done,” she says. “I lived here through the entire thing. There was a month I didn’t have a kitchen, three weeks I didn’t have a bathroom. I was living off a toaster oven basically.” 

Decorating in the Space Provided

Twin wire chairs sit in forefront
of scenic Vancouver cityscape
(Image: Terry Guscott)

Knowing that she’d be spending most of her time in the kitchen of the one-room-plus-den condo, she focused her restricted budget here, stripping the previous cabinetry back to the studs. A trusted contractor built cupboard bases and gabling from scratch, using a darker wood finish to match her maple dining table, the only other wooden piece in the suite. Above the counter, the high-gloss white cabinet doors are from Ikea, including the extra row Sawyer had built along the upper level, masking the gap between the standard-height cupboard tops and the 10-foot high ceilings. Sawyer, meticulous with measurements, happily tiled the backsplash herself, using creamy sandstone quartz and a contrasting stripe of stainless steel.

Finally, she added a wide-topped island, which is now both metaphorically and literally the hub of her design studio and home office. Here, Sawyer spends most of her time, spreading out design layouts as well as bolts of fabric for her custom upholstery projects. She can approach her work from any angle, and for outside inspiration has only to lift her head. It’s easy to see why Sawyer says the condo is first and foremost a working and relaxing space, rather than a big entertainment zone. 

She even evicted the table from the windowed dining nook (pushing it to the only non-windowed corner), commissioned a built-in desk and installed more lacquered white kitchen cabinets at table height for an office that shares a wall with the neighbouring kitchen. This is also where she placed a reproduction of an Arne Jacobsen piece she’d been craving: a swivelling, turquoise “Egg” chair. “You feel wrapped in it,” says Sawyer.

Her other indulgence was a stacked quartz wall in the living room. “I’ve wanted to do this wall for the last four years. [The room] needed texture because I wanted the walls white to minimize contrast. When you turn the lights on at night, it sparkles like crazy.” (The television hides here behind another set of white cabinets.)

Den to Bedroom Transformation

Previously a den, Sawyer created her master bedroom (Image: Terry Guscott)

Loving sunshine as she does, Sawyer installed mirrored closets along the entrance hall. These bounce natural light into the bathroom and act as the fourth “wall” to the open-plan bedroom, previously a den. Sawyer replaced one wall with translucent sliding panels that just clear the end of the queen-sized bed when closed. The closets across the narrow hall conceal clothes, shoes and laundry hampers—essential since the bedroom has no other storage space.

As for accent colours, it was the yellow floor—tolerated only because of budget constraints—that dictated the plan. “I had to stick with yellow, but I didn’t want it to stand out like a sore thumb.” An analogous colour scheme, or three neigbouring hues on the colour wheel, was the answer. In this case, bright turquoise blue and olive green accents draw the spotlight away from the painted concrete floor, a decision best showcased by the slipcovered ottoman. “It’s the perfect fabric,” says Sawyer of the flocked velvety material she stitched up herself. “It’s got the same taupe from the couch and the same blue in the Egg chair, so it ties the room together.”

The Interior Designer Touch

Bathroom with large mirrors and natural
lighting (Image: Terry Guscott)

More fabrics and textures personalize a potentially industrial-looking room with its exposed concrete and ductwork: a snuggly high-pile rug, cheery puffed pillows, and canvases wrapped in subtle printed cottons and silks. Taking a cue from her retro-look bar cart, she’s also thrown in plenty of curves: a giant petal-fringed globe light over the dining table, a starburst mirror on the quartz wall and a tangled-galaxy chandelier over the bed. The overall effect is feminine without being girlie—or as Sawyer says, “urban glam.” 

Sawyer reflects that the toughest part of designing for herself is no longer figuring out what she wants, but finding an exact match to her vision. Still, with her painstaking approach to research and a willingness to do it herself if necessary, she can afford to be uncompromising, though she insists that doesn’t mean static. 

“I’ve learned what I like, what I want. I think someone would walk in here and say, “Oh that looks like you.” Well, this is my personality in this space, where I am in life right now. Ask me in 10 years, it’s probably something different.”

Tips for Decorating A Smaller Space

BEDROOM SECRETS Mount a free-floating headboard on cleats, and push a basic bed frame flush against the wall. “Often a headboard will go right to the floor, using up an extra four inches of space.” Sawyer upholstered and covered a piece of leftover wood from the kitchen cabinets in a silvery tweed fabric using Velcro, making it simple to wash or change. 

SOAKING UP VALUE Despite being the only one in the building to do so, Sawyer insisted on installing a tub in the bathroom. “Otherwise, its just a utility room where you get ready in the morning. This way, you can soak for an hour, have a glass of wine, read a magazine and it’s an extra living space. 

PATIENCE, MY PRETTY Sawyer spent six months searching for the perfect bar stools. Why the bother? Not only are they small enough to tuck under the island’s narrow 10-inch overhang, they’re also on piston bases so they can swivel around as extra seating in the living room too. 

WRAP IT UP Match paint on the wall to the ceiling colour to make a tiny room such as a bathroom or bedroom appear larger. Sawyer used the same soft grey on her bedroom walls as the concrete hue of the roof. “Wrapping,” she explains, stops the ceiling from an illusion of dropping.

Originally published in BC Home magazine. For monthly updates, subscribe to the free BC Home e-newsletter, or purchase a subscription to the bi-monthly magazine.