New York designer Matthew Patrick Smyth is known for interiors that have a traditional bent and careful attention to detail. He designs everything from romantic beach houses to edgy lofts.
His latest book “Through a Designer's Eye: A Focus on Interiors” includes the photos and story of his own 1970s prefabricated deck house in Salisbury, Connecticut, which has an open living/dining room filled with antiques, artworks and curiosities from all over the world.
The first-person narrative focuses on what he believes are the five vital elements of interior design: hand-crafted pieces, history and context, surroundings, atmosphere and drama.
Here he gives advice on how to make an open space cosy, unify lighting and rugs, control noise, and set up individual work spaces.
Q: What should you do if your whole studio apartment has an open plan? How can I make it cozy?
A: I love studio apartments; my favourite and first apartment was a studio. What you can do is invest in the best bedding you can afford. Add touches of luxury, because it's a personal space, and you should feel good in it. Add artwork that makes you feel good, and surround yourself with colours and textures that you can relate to. Add good storage pieces to keep clutter to a minimum. Invest in good closet systems to maximize storage space, which will make the apartment more functional.
Q: The refrigerator in my open loft is so loud, and it's driving me crazy. The loft is only 111m², so the refrigerator is only 4m away. It doesn't have an ice maker, but I think it's the automatic defroster that's going off. How do I deal with it?
A: The age-old problem with an open plan is noise control. Look around, and make sure you have maximised the “soft furnishings” like upholstered sofas, chairs, curtains and especially carpets that help absorb sound. If you've already done this, consider boxing it in first with insulation inside the enclosure. Check that your refrigerator model is fine to be enclosed, and look up the minimum airspace needed around it. Start with the furnishings, but if all else fails, enclose the kitchen.
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Q: My living room and dining room used to be separate rooms. A previous owner knocked out all but 25cm on each side of the wall between them, so now they're open to each other but are clearly divided. How differently should the two rooms be decorated? I'd rather not treat them as one, because they're not that big to begin with. Can they have different wall colours and colour schemes, or should it be harmonious? What about curtains?
A: Separate them with colours that work together. Would using two colours be sufficient for you to feel as if they're separate? If so, then keep the treatments the same. If not, try a printed curtain on one window and a solid that blends with it on the other. Add colours to each space to blend the rooms together.
Q: My dining room and living room open to one another in an especially long, rectangular area. What should I do with the “dead space” in between the spaces? There's a cluster in front of the fireplace and then space.
A: I had the same problem with my open space. I created an alcove for the sofa in the middle, then balanced it on the other side with a console and chairs to create another seating area. I essentially created three separate areas. I painted the alcove a darker colour to highlight the different space, and I kept a pathway in the centre to keep the flow among the three areas.
Q: What are the most important aspects to consider when choosing light fixtures that unify an open space?
A: Look at the finishes on the fixtures. It's usually best to keep some visual consistency.
Q: I have a big, open kitchen/living room/dining area that's being used as a learning centre for multiple family members. Is there a way to set up individual pods while keeping the room stylish?
A: I recently bought a few canvas folding screens on Amazon. They're four feet high and can be folded up at dinnertime. My friend's children drew on the canvas to make it more personal and fun. Look online and even at Ikea for stylish desktop accessories to make it feel like a thought-out, designated space.
Q: I bought a small ranch house that the owner had started making into an open concept by removing the wall between the kitchen and living room. The owner took out a whole wall of kitchen cabinets and counters, so there's not enough storage or counter space. I'm considering putting in an island and installing either a stove or oven on the island. Which would function better?
A: The island sounds like a good idea. I would consider putting the sink on the island, as long as you have room for a dishwasher next to it. I worry about ovens and cooktops on an island, where there are people, especially children, moving around the space while cooking is being done. I prefer to keep flames and heat in a more protected and controlled spot in the kitchen.
Q: We have wood floors. What kind of area rug should we get for the different parts of an open floor plan? Do they have to be similar?
A: They should blend, but you could do a mix. Try a pattern in the middle and a more solid texture on each side. I have a sea-grass rug that covers most of the space, and I put carpets on top of that. I recommend you use carpets to soften the sounds that can hamper an open space and to add a layer of comfort.
Q: I'm looking to move to a new one-bedroom or studio apartment, but I hate that all of the options I'm seeing have open floor plans. A lot of advice I see online says to get some big shelves that can act as dividers, but I don't like that look. How can I create some functional separation between the spaces without it looking like a dorm?
A: A divider doesn't have to be a solid wall or a piece of furniture; for instance, you could do it with a screen. It will always be a studio, so why not embrace that? You want to create a subconscious sense that there are two separate spaces. A folding screen will create that effect. I had a fig tree in my studio years ago that worked as a divider. There are so many screens on the market that can also add a visual effect.
Q: My small, old colonial has a separate kitchen and dining room, both very small, and a good-size living room. None of them have an open plan. We don't mind, but is this a bad thing for resale?
A: I would check with a local real estate person for advice on what your potential buyer might be looking for. I wouldn't sacrifice the charm your house may have with a separate kitchen and dining room if you like it as is. You never know how a buyer will react. Some people like to cook without a group around them. If you are looking to sell in the near future, check in with a good real estate agent in your area for advice.
Q: How do you choose light fixtures? Do your clients ever worry about being too bold? I am afraid to take risks, but I love a beautiful light.
A: It is all about the space it's in. Try being bold in one spot and quiet in others, perhaps in the entry hall or the dining room. Balance out bold fixtures with quiet fixtures, so each complements the other.
Q: I have a dining/living room combo and would like to replace my small glass-top dining table with a wooden high-top table that you would see in a pub. Have you seen this done before? I'm trying to bring the happy hour to me during the pandemic.
A: I haven't purchased this before for a client, but it's all about how you use a space. If sitting at that level works for you, try it. This idea limits your dinner party options, but that's all very subjective. Do what makes you feel good. Wayfair has many choices. These days, I would never deny anyone a good shot at happy hour.
Q: I just moved into a smallish apartment and am working from home most of the time. I am combining a large, long room to be a dining area one side and an office area on the other. I am not sure what to do about the rugs. Should they be the same for both areas? There is a three-foot-wide entrance that separates them. I also think it's too long and skinny to have one rug span the entire space.
A: A single rug that long may give a runner effect. Definitely add rugs; ones that are the same could work, especially if they don't have patterns. If you can get rugs that are more or less a square shape, that may offset the long, rectangular look of the space.