There is a clever saying that goes like this, “When Americans get money, they feather their nests.” In America today, we see examples of the exorbitant feathering of nests, which has resulted in a sort of wake-up call—the rethinking of the design program, the design process and the result: is it livable? Finally, we are beginning to look realistically and pragmatically at how we live and how much space we really need.
There is a home not far from mine that is 40,000 square feet. When it was first
built a few years ago, I toured it privately with an interior design friend who
is a cousin to the owner. The style is contemporary French Baroque.
Let me give you the quick tour: The seven-car garage connects to the home with
a 12-foot wide interior corridor. The family computer room is the size of a high
school classroom. There are two main-floor family rooms (one very high-tech),
a music room, dining room, gigantic kitchen with two dining spaces, a grand staircase
and impressive entrance hall, a formal parlor and a fully paneled office.
There is a master suite on the main floor and four bedroom suites each with full
baths upstairs, plus another family room. There are laundry facilities on two
levels, even an elevator.
The lower level features bedrooms, a dance floor and large media room, a video
game room, a racquetball court, two areas that can function as restaurants and
indoor and outdoor swimming pools.
The furnishings are custom and lavish (hundreds of yards of fabulous imported
silk drapery fabric, for example). The grounds are extensive and expertly landscaped
and, naturally, the home and property require a number of staff to manage the
I was exhausted from just walking through it, which took three hours! The owner
inherited a huge sum of money and was counseled to build a big house rather than
to give up the same sum in taxes, so this is not a case of overzealous over-extension
of personal resources and grandiose pride. The house is paid for and the owner
is a genuinely nice and charitable person.
In other ways, the mansion is archetypical of a major trend in America: building
a house that is so large that ostentation becomes obsession. All over America
the feathering of nests for those with means has reached a level of the ridiculous.
For example, the October 14, 2002, issue of Time magazine ran the feature article “Inside
the New American Home,” which spotlighted extra-spacious and feature-filled,
appliance- and tech-savvy homes as a trend not to be ignored. Perhaps you have
helped decorate a few of these mansions. And perhaps you know of their benefits
Impressive? Showy? Exorbitantly pricey? Yes.
Livable? Not necessarily.
Cozy, human, intimate? No.
Cost efficient and environmentally responsible? Are you kidding?
BACK TO COMMON SENSE
There now is a counter-trend away from extra big. Even in some upscale residential
areas, restrictive covenants are being passed to limit the amount of square footage
of new home construction. In one of the traditionally ritzier Chicago suburbs,
for example, an ordinance was recently passed limiting the size of new homes
being built. The new huge mansions were overwhelming the surrounding smaller
existing homes. They were so out of character that they were dramatically changing
the feel of the neighborhood.
It appears that many Americans have finally reached square footage saturation
and want to help others to see that big is not necessarily better.
Another name for this counter-trend might be the back-to-common-sense trend.
In many cultures around the world, a 1,000-square-foot apartment, flat or home
might house four to 10 people. Many studies have been conducted on the psychological
and physical spatial needs of humans. The results show that less than 200 square
feet of living space per person results in pathologies (more murders take place
per capita in densely populated areas of major world cities, for example). Yet
the opposite results are strikingly similar: too much square footage, say over
800 square feet, also results in insecurities, phobias and negative behavior.
The most comfortable range for living appears to be 400 to 500 square feet per
person. Now let’s translate this into some real figures. At 500 square
feet per person, a 40,000-square- foot house theoretically could accommodate
80 people. The average American family with two adults and 1.5 children would
need only 1,250 square feet. That’s quite a contrast, and excellent food
One assignment I give to my introduction to interior design classes at Brigham
Young University is to create a reasonably sized floor plan. They seem to find
this difficult because most floor plans begin at 3,000 square feet (main floor
and upstairs). We spend time looking at the costs required for building, furnishing
and maintaining such a large structure and what the realistic needs of a family
the size each student projects to have someday. It’s an eye-opening experience.
One semester I had a student from Sweden who asked her mother to mail her a floor
plan book from home. She could not find any plans in America that were modest
and to her liking, something simple and well designed.
NOT SO BIG MIGHT BE BETTER
The combined influence of modern Scandinavia, the Greene brothers’ Craftsman
style and the Frank Lloyd Wright Midwest Prairie style home is seen on every
page of the best-selling book, “The Not So Big House: A Blueprint for the
Way We Really Live” (Newtown, CT: The Taunton Press, 1998; e-mail: email@example.com).
Authored by architect Sarah Susanka, who drew on her own experience and that
of dozens of professionals who have worked in her architectural firm, this book
is a refreshing and logical approach to building and remodeling. The theory is
that when some square feet are sacrificed, there is more budget for great architectural
detail, and there is creative opportunity to use space more efficiently, effectively
and wisely. The result is space for gracious family living with enough space
for comfortable group entertaining.
Open floor planning is a foundation concept, with an essential great room where
all can congregate to interact, be entertained, dine and participate with the
cook by assisting or visiting. However, if all space were open, some human needs
would be unmet. And so, the open areas are countered with a modestly human-scaled “away
room” for the private times in life—times when being alone to read,
ponder, listen to music, have quiet personal conversation, study or do computer
work, for example, can be accommodated. Intimate bedroom areas are still respected,
but often do double-duty as offices, for example. Hence, both group and personal
space become more usable.
THE BENEFITS OF NOT SO BIG
The upside to this Not So Big approach is that the human scale once again can
become the measure for architectural space, for furnishings and for art. As an
illustration, there is a good reason why eight-foot ceilings were used for most
of the 20th century as the standard. Very tall or very short ceilings produce
negative feelings. Even where the client or customer wants the impressive quality
of high or vaulted ceilings, a dropped soffit or beam will help to give feelings
of security and comfort.
Likewise, small scale is the key to success in small spaces. Today’s furniture
styles have become obsessively large and, as a result, are not comfortable to
the human scale. They are meant to impress and intimidate. Keeping human/modest
scale at the focal point of all selections requires effort, searching and determination
because smaller scale is not necessarily in vogue right now. Window treatment
companies are doing better than most furniture companies in presenting scale
that is livable while still meeting the needs of the larger mansions with a few
Susanka suggests that we really can get by with a lot less square footage if
our homes are planned and designed well. She makes several good points: smaller
rooms/houses require better design than larger spaces, multi-functional rooms
and furnishings help to effectively utilize modest spaces. There is an emphasis
on sight lines—by being able to see into other rooms and outside from anywhere
you stand spaces will feel much larger than they really are. Bringing nature
visually into the interiors also makes the spaces feel larger and more connected
with the site.
One approach to making small spaces feel comfortable is the less-is-more concept.
Where there is less pattern, less texture, less visual clutter, the space feels
larger. Hence, less visual stimuli equals more space.
The way to make this type of interior not appear sterile is to use a variety
of textures in different hues and add small touches of bright accent colors.
Many interiors focus on natural materials that are self-finishing and need no
further decorating. These include stainless steel, ceramic tile, cement and brick.
These are, of course, cold and hard materials, so softness that can be found
only in fabric becomes a key to emotional survival.
One style that accomplishes less is more is Mid-century Modern, which has become
a major, apparently long-term trend in which simplicity of design, purity of
form and honesty of materials are the hallmark of excellence. Spaces designed
to be sleek always feel larger because of the lack of decorating. Keep walls
plain, window treatments functional and accessories sculptural and interesting.
Traditional design also can be intimate, even when the interior is lofty or spacious.
Take a corner and fill it with smaller scale furnishings, artfully arranged,
and the result is an away space even if it is part of a larger room. The key
to success is grouping elements that are alike, but with each piece respectful
of the other’s space, form, color and texture. This is known as “massing” and
is a highly successful tool interior designers use to make a focal point, a finished
grouping or a selection of furnishings that is skillfully connected to others.
It is art in the most tactile sense of the word.
Evaluating the scale or overall size of each piece will be a beginning point.
Even better, group the furnishings as an anchor under a window so that the view
and the window treatments become the focal point where work or dreaming can become
a personal and uplifting experience.
Not So Big will inspire and fulfill human needs because its concepts remove the
burden of trying to impress others. This can provide a wonderful sense of freedom
and contentment. Look for opportunities to help your clients see the satisfaction
and rewards of living a sensibly scaled life. They may live so well they may
thank you for years to come.
J. Nielson, Allied ASID, WCAA, is assistant professor of design at
Brigham Young University. She has authored several books including
Window Treatments, Understanding Fabrics and Interiors: An Introduction,
3rd Ed. Nielson is a regular correspondent for Draperies & Window
Coverings addressing the areas of fashion, education and merchandising.