Cozy it's not
May 20, 2012 9:48 AM   Subscribe

Highly functional large room ideas for a small family of three?

This is a (very) long interior design (not decorating) nerd question.

We live in a large midwestern city where big older homes have cheap rent. We actually rented this place sight unseen (almost four years ago) on the advice of another mefite who had lived here before with the same amazing landlord.

It's just me, my husband, and our five-year-old in 2,000+ square feet of space. It's a brownstone style, kitchen-parlour-livingroom-1/2 bath downstairs and 3 bedrooms and a bath upstairs. Full basement (unfinished) under and full attic (unfinished--though there is actually an old servant's quarters up there--unheated) over so there is an embarrassment of storage. The rent is way cheap and our landlord takes fabulous and timely care of the property; he regularly spends money on upgrades.

For all those reasons, even though we're just about done with the grad school (June) that brought us here and both have obtained jobs in our fields in this same town, we're not moving in order to (for example) purchase a home. We were home owners previously, on the west coast where we came from.

Sounds awesome, right? But we've been rattling around in this space for almost four years and it seems like we just can't figure out how to make the space functional for us--AT ALL.

I'm asking for any and all ideas for making every room functional when one doesn't need so much space. I hate 'catch-all' spaces and rooms, and with so much accessible storage, rooms that fill up with piles of random that no one cares about is depressing. I'd like to be able to work all the spaces as hard as we did with our 1/2 as big no storage bungalow on the west coast.

*The kitchen was most recently upgraded to include a powder room and new cabinets. The powder room ate up what was the eat-in breakfast area. There is almost no counter space. There is a small 5-foot bit of wall near the kitchen door that maybe could be mudroom like? There is room for a small eat-in table. We tend to work on things at the kitchen table but it gets crazy and crowded in here. We need a new kitchen table and storage/function ideas.

*The parlor is huge with a bump-out niche that has three full-size windows, a door that leads to the front porch, and can be separated from the living room via pocket door. We've been using it as a kind of playroom, but our sibling-less kid plays there very little since that would mean hanging out in a giant room by himself when he can just as well look at books and draw where we are. To give you an idea, right now there is a full-size tent set up in there, just because. Otherwise, there are three toy storage shelves and a thrifted chair. This room is kind of a black hole we use for almost nothing.

*The living room is also big. The walls are all curved in there, so it's hard to put anything against them. We have a small sectional and a little futon couch facing it, and that's it. It has a windows and a fireplace, so it's nice to sit in. We don't have a TV (we use our laptops to watch what we want).

*Upstairs is a master, and that's pretty sorted (but I do like better-living master bedroom ideas). A smaller bedroom for kiddo (and I'd love good kid bedroom ideas, especially for one entering school this fall), and a huge sunporch-like third bedroom that's kind of a office/sewing room but not totally functional for either. It's giant, and seems like it could be a his&her office space but it is warm in summer/colder in winter.

*Then, there is the main bath, which barely holds a clawfoot tub, toilet, and pedestal sink. You can easily rest a large body part on all three at the same time. There is a linen closet just outside the bath, but there is no "getting ready" or storage room in the bathroom. It is overrun with product bottles and bath toys. The tub is huge and amazing when you're in it, so I would like to not hate this bathroom on sight.

Weaknesses: piles. maintenance of such a big place with a busy family schedule. assigning function.
Strengths: not a ton of stuff/furniture so sort of starting from the bottom. space to burn (and feels spacious--hardwood floors, tall ceilings).
Extra needs: guests? (where). My office-y space should accommodate computer work/sewing habit. He is a researcher who is a messy worker with the computer/books/papers/beer bottles.

Thank you! I know many of you are way smart about this kind of thing and likely think I am missing the obvious, so I appreciate, doubly, your patience and ideas.
posted by rumposinc to Home & Garden (11 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: *I should have added to weaknesses that the spaces that tend to be those that contemporary people (versus 19th century people) like large (bathroom, kitchen) are the tiniest spaces in this house.
posted by rumposinc at 9:54 AM on May 20, 2012

One way to use extra space would be to fill it with people.

The local University has students reliably cycling in and out of the renting market and you might consider renting out a room or two. It is non-trivial to do, but generates some income and is a great way to make lasting friendships with awesome young people.

The local couchsurfing scene is also pretty awesome
posted by Blasdelb at 10:02 AM on May 20, 2012

Response by poster: Blasdelb--we'd absolutely rent a room if not for the terms of our lease/landlord preference. We have been on and off couchsurfers depending on the craziness of our school schedule (and will have more time for that, so dedicated guest space would be nice).
posted by rumposinc at 10:14 AM on May 20, 2012

Have you perused online design sites? I recommend Young House Love, The Brick House, Apartment Therapy, Loft Living and The Lettered Cottage. All of those have been consistently good, I think Young House Love has done the most with "look at this crazy space? wtf were they thinking when they built it?" and then they turn it into something totally functional. Local furniture stores are also good places to see furniture staged and give you ideas.

I will give you the best piece of advice i ever got: pull the furniture away from the walls. Arranging everything around the edges of the room means you will see the area as a corridor, not as a place to stop and do stuff. Create seating areas and reading areas and drawing areas. You have a lot of space so you have options.
posted by fshgrl at 10:20 AM on May 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

My thoughts, move the kitchen table to the parlor so that those activities happen there rather than in the too small kitchen. Fora while I had a lot of kitchen/pantry stuff stored in my dining room because of the lack of space in my kitchen. It also meant that while cooking I was going in and out of the dining room and continuing g conversations. If the living room is actually closer to the kitchen then use that room for eating instead and switch the purpose/furniture of the living room to the parlour.

Make that too cold/too warm room the defacto guest room (you don't want them to get too comfortable, lest they'd never leave!) and storage/sewing. For your bathroom, move the toys into the child's bedroom (in a pail he/she can carry into AND BACK OUT OF the bathroom). Ivest in a nice mirror/dressing table for yourself in your bedroom (or guest room) so the bathroom is used for cleaning/toileting rather than general "getting ready" activities.
posted by saucysault at 10:20 AM on May 20, 2012 [3 favorites]

"The parlor is huge with a bump-out niche that has three full-size windows"; "The powder room ate up what was the eat-in breakfast area."

This sounds like the perfect opportunity to create a breakfast nook in the parlour. Without pictures, it's hard to imagine what your layout is like, but could you turn your parlour into a dining room/library? So, set up the breakfast nook, maybe put a big craft table along one wall, then bookshelves all around? Someplace where everyone could go to do activities that aren't sitting around watching tv.

Do you actually want a mud room in your kitchen? It sounds like a pretty busy place already. A rolling cart or additional shelving might make better use of those five feet.
posted by valoius at 10:22 AM on May 20, 2012

btw, you should be able to get blinds that fix the temperature problem in the sunroom. if blinds are too costly (although the plain white ones are super cheap) that privacy film you get at Lowes and stick on the windows cuts the light and heat quite a bit on its own. In the winter add storm windows if you have them and warm, lined drapes. If you don't have storm windows get that plastic film and stick it on the insides of all the windows. Works great.
posted by fshgrl at 10:33 AM on May 20, 2012

I would start by purchasing the largest table that will comfortably fit in the Parlor. Use it as a dining room. Also use it for board games, puzzles, crafts, and work. Drape a sheet over one end to make a play fort. Consider purchasing a sideboard or buffet storage piece for your child's toys.

Its hard to picture the kitchen but think about a really small 2 seater table and using the parlor for meals. You may be able to fit pieces with additional counterspace, like a rolling island if you opt for a small table. I think a mudroom space is a great use of the blank wall. You'd probably just need a bench to slide shoes under and a row of hooks for coats.

My daughter's room has two twin beds in it and its worked out pretty well guestwise. If a man is spending the night my daughter sleeps with us in our room, but if its Grandma and Grandpa she sleeps with one of them. Her room is pretty small so the beds are against the walls with a nightstanf in the middle. Out of rotation toys are kept under the beds in tubs. Matching bedding keeps the room from looking too busy.

You are lucky to have so much potential to work with. has loads of pictures and ideas.
posted by MadMadam at 11:13 AM on May 20, 2012

Can you take some photos, or sketch out a floor plan for us? It would help a lot.

Floorplanner is free and very useful for messing around with furniture options without having to actually move the furniture.

I agree with the idea of shifting the table out of the kitchen and putting more bench space in. Though you probably want to somehow make a bit of space for kiddo, a stool at the end of the bench for example, so that he can watch you cook.
posted by kjs4 at 11:26 PM on May 20, 2012

Instead of a easily-overwhelmed kitchen table and a mudroom, how about one of those island-cart type to add counter space, and shelves for for anything currently on the counter or (closest cabinets to the counter) that does not absolutely need to be within immediate reach.

The parlour can either serve as your kitchen table space or as a guest room (it's semiprivate and leads to the porch and there's a half-bath downstairs, that sounds awesome for guests.)

If everyone likes to hang out in the living room, don't fight it. Does your kid play there? Put the toy shelves there. You can also designate part of it as the breakfast nook. Divide it from the couch-having part of the living room with rug placement, and you can further divide the space with the back of the couch or with a low etagere or bookshelf if you want. (Think living-room/dining-room setup.)

Reclaim bathroom space by putting cabinets/shelves on the walls. Bath toys can be kept in a basket and stored on a shelf in the linen closet. Pare down which products need to be kept in the bathroom all the time in their original packages.

Create getting-ready-space in your master bedroom. Think old-school vanity for makeup, and for both yours and his hairstyling needs, and even first-aid stuff.

What is awkward about the 3rd bedroom that prevents it from being shared office space? Temperature issues can be mitigated with fans in summer and space heater/window insulation in winter.

Wait, do you WANT shared office space? If you don't, give your husband the parlor for office space since it can be closed off to hide his mess (put curtains on the windows out to the porch.) Then make the guest room your office/sewing area and it can double as the guest room.
posted by desuetude at 11:43 PM on May 20, 2012

Not being able to see it, it sounds like you might need some more furniture and rugs.

Make some of the other rooms a destination. For example, from our kitchen, we traipse through the dining room and living room to eat on our screened front porch most spring and summer days, despite the fact that there is a island in the kitchen and a dining room table in the dining room.

As previously suggested, pull the furniture away from the walls. Cover up the floor with a rug, to create a seating area, anchoring the furniture.

One of my dreams is to have a sofa backed up with a table, so that I might work on drawing/sewing/whatnot, whilst other folks sit on the sofa and we watch TV or converse. This assumes the sofa back is not against the wall. You might use this or a large table in another room to work on projects simultaneously with the kiddo.
posted by sarajane at 3:26 PM on May 21, 2012

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