Counterintuitive advice for your next design project

As they say, the devil is in the details. Sometimes the secret to getting a small space to feel larger is based on confusing principles that generate questions.

If you put thought and care into redoing a kitchen or bathroom, you will undoubtedly encounter such issues: How far to take a countertop? Where to stop a paint color? How high to make the upper cabinets?

Very often the best solution is counterintuitive. For example, it is easy to assume that keeping everything light is best. In the example show in this photograph, the floor and lower cabinets are not particularly light in tone. However, they are close in what we designers term as “value” of lightness and darkness.

The result of those elements, and the countertop and backsplash being a midtone, is a cohesive kitchen. The floor becomes the lower cabinets and the value of the backsplash just flows right on up to the upper cabinets. In this way, the small kitchen is unified.

Another way to create continuity is to meet the ceiling with built-in cabinets. For years it was the style to leave about 10 inches of space between the upper cabinet top and the ceiling. Often this space was just a dust-collector and left barely enough room to position display items. The practice was likely started because of the standard dimension for upper cabinets. Kitchen design was not oriented toward custom dimensions in tract homes.

Today, we almost always take the upper cabinets up to the ceiling, especially if we have a lower than typical ceiling height. If the dimensions don't work out perfectly when using standard dimensions for the upper cabinet, then often a larger-than-typical crown molding is used to make up the difference between the ceiling and the cabinet. The principal at work here is to eliminate negative space. By closing any vertical or horizontal gaps, a built-in unit looks larger.

Continuity is the goal. This can apply to paint as well. You will not create the sense of more space by painting two accent walls in a small bedroom. It is much better to paint all the walls a color than to break up the room. Sometimes it is even best to paint the ceiling in the color. You have the option of mixing your color in a 50 percent formula so that the ceiling is a lighter version of the same color used on walls or you might consider painting the ceiling white.

When confused about where to break a color or a trim color, use common sense. If painting an architectural element or woodwork detail in the trim color will break things up too much, think about keeping everything the same.

Even details like cabinet hardware or base molding can be disconcerting if they are too much of a contrast. In tiny spaces, think continuity and friendly contrasts. In other words, you don't want to shock viewers.

Black and white is the starkest version of contrast. Everything works backward from that measurement. So when you work in a midrange to softer difference of contrast in a tiny space, you are going to be more successful in coaxing the best result.

Connect the various pieces of your room instead of separating them. For example, if your windows came from the factory with a stark white trim, do not paint the wood trim a navy blue. Instead, match the window color and use that for your interior trim.

Conversely, if your windows came with a dark bronze tone, consider staining your window trim a medium to dark wood color.

• Christine Brun is a San Diego-based interior designer and the author of “Small Space Living.” Send questions and comments to her by email at

© 2018, Creators Syndicate

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