The Elbowroom artist

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March 28, 2011
By: Gregory J. Scott
Gregory J. Scott
// Top interior designer Greg Walsh offers big fixes for your small spaces — even if they aren’t really that small //

W orking Downtown can mean accepting a cubicle. Living Downtown doesn’t.

While in-city condo developments across the country race toward the vanishing point with their square-footage — the popular interiors blog Apartment Therapy considers 500 square feet “the new small,” and in uber-expensive San Francisco, efficiencies in the freshly built Cubix condominiums top out at 350 — Minneapolis is still living large.

According to the Downtown Resource Group’s Joe Grunnet, the average size of a one-bedroom condo Downtown is 850–1,000 square feet. But, he says, “I’ve been in 1,000-square-foot units that felt like 850, and in 850-square-foot units that felt like 1,000.”

The difference? Interior design. And one of the best guys to spatially trick out your condo is Greg Walsh, founder of Walsh Design Group, which recently settled into a gorgeous new (and much bigger) space of its own in the Colonial Warehouse Building.

We met with Walsh in his new offices to talk about making too-small spaces seem larger, making too-high loft ceilings seem lower and a handful of other tips for Downtown living.

The Journal: First of all, are we lucky to have such roomy condos in Minneapolis?

Walsh: Oh absolutely. It’s a very generous square footage allowance for a studio or a one-bedroom. I’ve got clients who just moved from New York City into a unit in St. Anthony Village, some 2,200 square feet. For them it was like massive luxury overdose. Two bathrooms, separate laundry, a study, an office. But on the flipside, you’ll have people who grew up in the suburbs, and you’ll hear, ‘Oh, it’s really small, it’s really tight.’

So what’s an easy fix for a space that is feeling too cramped?

A couple of things: lowering the ceiling and stepping it in some detail. With smaller, stepped soffits, you get the illusion of more steps so that it feels like there are bigger jumps in between. I think cleaning up sightlines so that you get a longer, cleaner, bigger mass, rather than three individual components along a wall. The TV, the fireplace, the built-in all become one element rather than three individual elements that read independently. And then just material selection. Over-sizing a tile helps. Running tile diagonally can give the illusion of longer lines through the space.

A lot of [Downtown condos] have a bowling alley feel to them. So you might want to try to segment that, either architecturally or with furniture, so that you have some stop points when you move through the house.

But you’ve also been in lofts where the ceiling is too high.

Yeah, high ceilings can be uncomfortable. They don’t have a human scale. You feel like you’re in a hotel lobby. So you do a big drop soffit that comes out over the seating area or the kitchen. That can give a feel of intimacy.

Speaking of kitchens, those can be tricky in a small condo.  How do you fit all of the cabinetry and appliances in a smaller space?

There’s really two different camps. It’s either, the clients eat out all the time, so they just want the kitchen to look good. Aesthetics over function. But then the other side is, ‘I do cook.’ It’s important for those clients to have a checklist of appliances. Workability is important. And that comes down to just really thoughtful cabinet design and layout. And really assessing what’s critical. There are a lot of great economical appliances: under-counter refrigeration, under-counter freezers, dish washer drawers. There are a lot of European brands, but places like Warners’ Stellian have all of them.

You’ve done a lot of home renovations. What are the biggest headaches of revamping a condo space?

Just the parameters that you have to stay within. These are all concrete constructions. The plumbing can’t be moved. There are things that you’re tied to that can’t be moved or altered. In condos built in the last six or seven years, [interior] selections were kept to a minimum. The option for a homeowner was stuff that was probably more suburban than urban. You were really penalized if you stepped outside of the box by making selections outside of their selection center. It was lighting pattern A, B or C. The cabinet is either maple or cherry.

We see a lot of people buying these units now who are like, ‘Oh, it’s a cultured marble countertop? It’s not granite?’ The cabinets are cheap. They’re stylistically not quite right. So people are going in and upgrading bathrooms. It’s really bathrooms and kitchens and lighting.

So who is this second generation of condo owners? What are their tastes like?

I think the demographic Downtown has leveled out a little more. When the condo/loft thing first was hot, there was actually more of a swing from the empty nesters, a lot of intrigue from the upper suburb areas to simplify, move Downtown, be urban. We had clients who sold the lake house, came Downtown and did it for three of four years, and then realized, ‘We need more elbow room. This isn’t quite what we thought.’

And so I see it now as kind of the 30s age group. First home experience. They have much more of a modernism feel to them. I’ve been in a lot of units that were first done with older clientele, units that were very much about reproducing suburbia. So you go in and it’s cherry raised-panel kitchen, cherry floors, enameled mill work, sheetrock-smooth ceiling. With the younger generation, it’s like, ‘The space is what it is.’ So I’m OK having these exposed concrete columns, or concrete floors, or duct work. I don’t mind seeing conduit on the ceilings. And that’s obviously more on the loft side, versus a finished place like the Carlyle. But I think it’s a mentality of a simpler lifestyle. Less clutter, less distraction.