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Skinny Spaces
by Vanessa Gardner Nagel, APLD

If you’ve ever owned a home with a long, narrow hall, you’ve probably faced the dilemma of how to decorate a skinny space.   Interior designers who specialize in commercial spaces face a similar design challenge with long corridors in office buildings, hospitals, schools, hotels, etc.  Designers apply many tricks of the trade which you can apply to your home’s narrow hallways.  Why are these tricks applied in the first place?  What’s the problem with skinny spaces?

Long, narrow spaces have a tendency to feel a bit like a bowling alley.  If you bowl as infrequently as I do, let me remind you that this is a space with 10 pins at the other end that feel like they are much farther away.  Why?  All of the boards that make up the lane run in the direction of the ball’s travel to enhance the ball’s performance and speed.  Gutters that run in the same direction on either side not only capture errant balls but also visually emphasize the length of the alley.  While this may be best thing for a bowling alley, it definitely is not for other interior spaces.  Narrow spaces feel longer because the length is usually disproportionate to its width and possibly the height.  So anything that creates a line running in the direction of the corridor visually augments the length by making the space feel longer than it actually is.  This could be a wainscot molding, a floor or wall-covering pattern or possibly a ceiling bulkhead.  Long, narrow spaces affect our psychology.  We may not comprehend what the problem is; we just don’t feel good in the space.  We may even feel claustrophobic.  The more elongated the hallway or the perceived length, the longer we imagine it will take us to exit the space.  It’s a little like the feeling we may experience when having an MRI.

The designer of the gardens of Versailles used a very interesting trick to fool the viewer into believing a long narrow avenue was shorter; he widened the other end to alter the perspective.  This is normally not an alternative with an existing space.  If you enter the hall from the widest end, looking towards the narrow end will make the hall feel even longer.

Speaking of Versailles, the Hall of Mirrors comes to mind.  This long corridor is wider than the average long corridor, reminding me a bit of some airport passageways.  There are also regularly placed, equally-sized mirrors along the walls the length of the corridor on one side.  The mirrors visually expand the perceived width of the space because they reflect the windows on other side of the hallway.  Outside the windows is an expanse of verdant garden, which is a wonderful thing to reflect to the inside of one’s home, if you happen to be so lucky.  The lesson is that one way to address a skinny space is to change the apparent width.  Mirrors have this ability due to their reflecting quality.  Just think of what a room full of mirrors does at a carnival.  It completely alters one’s perspective, particularly where the exit may be.

Perhaps mirrors are not your favorite solution, especially if you’d prefer to treat the space more like a gallery for art or family photographs.  The concept of something regularly spaced, as in the Hall of Mirrors also provides a tool for diminishing the length of a space.  This visually breaks the space into smaller segments, so the long space seems shorter.  Commercial interior designers use a number of things to create that regular intersection.  Creating a change in ceiling heights through the use of regularly spaced soffits is a well-known method.  A soffit can be enhanced by allowing the soffit to continue down the side of the wall, becoming a pediment or partial column.  The ceiling spaces between the soffits become coffers, and the wall spaces between the pediments become alcoves.  Often, doors are recessed into the alcoves.  In the ceiling, the soffits provide opportunities for recessed lighting.  Introducing changes in architectural detailing offers another opportunity - paint color variation.  Change of color assists in recognizing the architectural changes, and can enhance the experience of shorter spaces within a longer space.  Caution here: stronger color can also make walls feel closer, so avoid the use of strong colors and high contrast between colors on the long walls of narrow spaces.  Painting the end wall or door a contrasting color will foreshorten the hall.

Lighting is also used to alter a lengthy perspective.  Linear lighting, installed perpendicular to the corridor is one way to segment the length.  Another is to use either recessed, surface mounted or individual pendant lights that designed to “wash” walls. Then alternate which side of the corridor the wall washers illuminate. Your ceiling height may restrict you to one or two of these concepts. If you use a straight track system, you are creating a line that can enhance the length of the corridor, unless the track is painted the same color as the ceiling, which would minimize the effect.  Perhaps one of the new flexible cable systems would be a better choice.  Natural light can come into play even if you don’t currently have natural light coming into the hall.  Installing a window in one of the walls or doors, perhaps with rice-paper patterned glass, will allow light to spill into the hall and still maintain privacy on the other side.

Pattern can play a huge role in altering perspective.  If a flooring material comes in square units (i.e. tiles), installing the material on the diagonal will visually expand the distance between two walls.  Also, diagonal lines are more dynamic than straight lines.  The experience of traversing a hall that feels more energetic will be psychologically more interesting.  Another way to use the floor is to use a hall runner that is shorter than the length of the hall.  This divides the length into three portions.

Skinny spaces are also areas that can be over-done.  We wouldn’t want the space to be so invigorating that we feel worn out by the time we reach the end of the corridor.  We would also want to avoid being over-stimulated to the point where we couldn’t concentrate.  Neither of these situations is likely given the length of the hallways in most homes.  As in all things, balance is needed to achieve the best effect.

Skinny Spaces-1An average residential corridor.  What works: The low-key
 colors of soft peach and cream, the shorter area rug with bold bands running perpendicular to the length of the hall and the alcove off to the left.  Possible improvements: lighting to
 enhance the gallery effect, a glass “re-lite” (or window) into the exercise room on the right to allow natural spill light into the hall or possibly a sky-light.

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Skinny Spaces-2A quick sketch of the hall shows a painted floor pattern, a brighter color on the door at the end of the hall, wall wash lighting that alternates to create a pattern of shadow and light and a sky-light.