Making a smaller space work takes vision and willpower. We looked at three spaces – all 1,200 square feet or smaller – and found three very different takes on space, light, volume and the magic touch of reclaiming the old to bring in the new. Here are those three wonderful and artistic homes, and the owners who made them work gracefully.
by DIANNA CAHN
photography by ERIC LUSHER
The room, with its white bare walls and dark alcove kitchen, was a blank canvas when Wendy Umanoff first saw it.
She liked the high ceilings, the clean lines and the light – all that light – pouring through its 12-foot-tall rectangular
windows and into its 1,100 square feet.
The space felt like her – open, reaching, ready for new stories. She saw its potential to be calm and inspirational, a place where she could become that, too.
In truth, Umanoff knew that the loft off Franklin Street in downtown Richmond would be her new home before she ever laid eyes on it. She knew, she says, the minute she saw the ad on Craigslist.
An artist who designs light fixtures, she imagined it as she steadied her fears and prepared to move out of her house of 24 years.
A year earlier, Umanoff and her ex-husband had agreed that it was time to sell the 3,000-square-foot home where, after the divorce, she’d continued to raise their son and daughter.
Umanoff sifted through her eclectic artwork collection and 24 years of her life as mother and wife. She parted with her beloved dining room chairs, but the wood-carved statues of a man, a woman, a boy and a girl – the ones that after the split, she would occasionally find repositioned by one of her children – those would come with her.
She filled box upon box and thought about the New York City loft where she and her husband had lived before they had children.
“I loved it. I thought that’s where we would live the rest of our lives,” she says. “It’s always been my vision to go back to loft living.”
With her flowing dark hair and her casual aesthetic, Umanoff radiates energy and ideas. She sees the world as endless creation, using birds’ nests and letters of the alphabet as building blocks to texture her space and collecting reclaimed objects to use in her lighting designs.
Everything is a metaphor, a piece of something bigger, something that will give pause.
Her lighting fixtures are large, rugged pieces, designed with old pulleys, brake rotors or truck coils housing exposed bulbs. They are raw yet soothing, creating playful shadows, and are emblematic of her design approach – influenced by her father, a midcentury furniture designer.
The loft was just another expression of her vision. To use the space for both living and work, she needed defined areas while remaining faithful to the airiness and sense of freedom the space gave her. “You need plenty of room so you don’t get stuck,” she says. “Allowing flow allows creativity.”
The living room was the center of the space, opposite the kitchen and separating the work and sleep areas. She put her bed on the windowless wall farthest from the door, fastening old shutters as a screen. A small bright rug accentuates the dressing area; a multi-tiered bakery rack, filled with favorite items and small works of art, gives the area some shelter.
A large pink patchwork rug defines her work space by the entrance, and the kitchen island from her old house – an old desk – doubles as a work table and a dining table.
Almost everything in the space is reclaimed. A section of an old wood banister serves as a picture shelf; a ladder with shelves added leans against a wall, celebrating the height of the ceiling. “I like using familiar objects in unfamiliar ways,” she says. “How far you are going to push yourself to do something different?”
It’s also about storytelling, she adds: “Most things I am attracted to have a prior history.”
Yet the centerpiece of her living space is a contemporary turquoise leather sofa – a declarative shock of fresh color.
“I decided this was going to be the ceremonial piece for me. It’s the first piece I bought on my own to declare my sense of freedom.”
Story by story, layer by layer, Umanoff filled each corner. She mixes found objects and art, messages with metaphors: a book by mythologist Joseph Campbell piled atop the The Catcher in the Rye, and another, Love and Will, because she likes the words. She likes the creative power of letters, and litters the letter U throughout the room in various forms. Painting and drawings hang high and low on the walls – wherever she can find space. Three of her own paintings peek out from below the windows behind two chairs that look like ones her father designed.
Beside her bed is a photo of a dark, foggy pier in San Francisco.
“This was my symbol of fear,” she says, “and now I feel really good about it.”
After the divorce, Umanoff says she was negative and unsettled. But these days, she feels still and content. Her space has become a respite, a place that soothes and inspires. And she has grown her business. “This time in my life is all about reclaiming who I am as a person, re-meeting myself, getting to know who I am,” she says.
“What this did was offer me a huge sense of freedom. Freedom is open space. This has just allowed me to be more creative.”
Oh, you must come here at night!” Charles Powell exclaims over the telephone. “It’s just lovely!”
Stepping into the modern rectangular, third-floor apartment near the Oceanfront that he shares with his husband, one is struck by the brightness that stretches back past an open kitchen, through the dining area and finally the living room wrapped in windows and flanked by lush green plants.
Even at night, the space that Powell and his business partner designed is incandescent with recessed lighting and a ventless gas fireplace that sets the place aglow. Low, midcentury modern furniture and selectively chosen artifacts adorn the flowing room.
It is defined by the light, by architectural form and – as Powell likes to call it – the distinct volume of the space. “Look at this window,” he says, pointing to one of three 7-foot-wide fenestrations that embrace the living room. “Now honey, that’s a window.
Each area of the long rectangular space is identified by architectural details. Limed oak cabinets beside an old stainless steel restaurant counter and sink unit form the kitchen wall, while a stove hood hangs over the center island like an exclamation point.
Beyond the kitchen, a wood dining table with scroll-carved legs – it was from Montgomery Ward and was delivered “by horse and cart” to a pig farm in Norfolk, Nebraska, he says – sits diagonally, moving the visitor forward toward the living room, with its windows and greenery and a door at the far end that he likes to keep open to the large balcony.
The ceiling in the dining room and living room rises a few inches higher – a rectangle within a rectangle – just enough to designate a new area. The floor is a clean off-white material that could be stone or paint or colored concrete.
“The moment you step off the stairs, it’s the same flooring throughout,” Powell says. “It’s – look at me, please – it’s linoleum!”
“It creates visual noise,” he says.
The doors off the main space – to the bedrooms and closet – are nearly all frosted glass. This way, Powell says, even when he wants to keep those doors closed, they can still transmit light.
Behind them, his sense of luxury continues. A rain showerhead patters – “it speaks to a fountain” – and the electronic toilet is also a bidet that sits in its own separate water closet.
The high-end finishes were important to Powell, who, as a high-end designer for wealthy clients, has come a long way from his boyhood poverty.
“I grew up on welfare,” he says. “Our clients are mostly one-percenters. We are always having to create huge spaces.”
“How do you create a small space that makes it luxurious? Volume, floor space and light.”
His 1,125-square-foot home has him intoning the Russian word svoboda. It means, he says, the freedom to choose within the constraints afforded you.
It’s easy to imagine the red brick home nestled at the end of Freemason Street as the carriage house it once was.
The large garage opening is sealed in with a clean black planking, as is a doorway at the very end, where the cobblestone street gives way to a glorious view of the Elizabeth River and the Portsmouth naval hospital on the opposite.
Inside, history washes over present day.
Owner Bruce Besley says he felt it instantly when he walked in here nearly six years ago. When he bought the two-story, 1,170-square-foot home, his furniture – mostly antiques – fit as if it had been made to be here.
“It’s a no-brainer,” he says. “I put in my stuff and it worked perfectly. Everything fit great.”
But it wasn’t just the updated layout that spoke to him – the formal entrance hall, the spacious central living room with high ceilings and refinished hardwoods, the modern kitchen with a wall of windows that capture a magnificent and changing view of ships and the occasional cownose ray.
It was also the past – embraced with artful attention to detail – that captured Besley’s heart and imagination.
The home was restored 17 years ago, adding a wide, turning staircase at the back of the living room and creamy white wainscoting punctuated by a stately Federal-style fireplace.
A windowed alcove, perfect for Besley’s antique desk and hutch, contains another layer of history. The building served as an auxiliary firehouse in World War II and he has a black-and-white photo of six men sitting in that very corner around a pot-bellied stove, laughing and “chewing on stogies, waiting for the bell to ring.”
Double barn doors still hang on their original rail, tacked back against whitewashed brick walls to frame the living room doorway and anchored by the baseboard molding that continues right over the doors as it runs along the walls. They, along with the rough original plank-and-timber beam ceiling – the underside of the floor above – are also painted white. And Besley has discovered that if he leaves the light on in the master bedroom above, he can see specks of light peeking through the floorboards.
His fascination with history and his love of the sea fit the space. Old paintings and framed maps grace the walls and his shelves hold a mix of history books and old wood statues like the carved southeast Asian warriors that his father, a former cargo pilot in the Air Force, brought back years ago. A giant model sailboat fills the stairway window overlooking Freemason Street.
Upstairs, the former hayloft is now a contemporary bedroom with cathedral ceilings and inset lighting. Glass doors open to a large balcony overlooking the river.
Even in bad storms, when water leaks through the kitchen windows and the river rises to near-threatening heights, Besley loves his oasis. At sunset, with the light bouncing off the river and into his unusual home, he sits listening to the whoosh of the water as barges go by, crashing against the brick like beach waves.
“I don’t see myself leaving anytime soon,” he says.