Four years ago, designer Shavonda Gardner and her wife Naomi decided to downsize from their large house to a 1940s-era bungalow in Sacramento. Moving into a two-bedroom, one-bathroom was a challenge for the self-described maximalists (and their two kids) but Shavonda and her family have made this their dream home. Here, she gives us a look around, as well as some killer storage hacks…
On making the call to go small: Our first home together was larger — your basic tract house. It had four bedrooms, three bathrooms, and was about 2,400 square feet. We were in it for three years, and one day I just said to my wife, Naomi, ‘You know honey, we’re only really living in half of this house.’ There were a couple rooms we rarely went in — a formal dining room, a formal living room. I wanted to downsize into something smaller and simplify our lives. It was a great decision for us — but it is a shock to the system. Most of us grow up believing that bigger is better. We’re taught that you start out in a small house and then the next one gets bigger, and so on. It can be very challenging to set aside that mindset.
Paint: Martha Stewart Paint (discontinued), similar. Pouf ottoman: Thorn & Burrow. Coffee table: West Elm. Vase: Ikea. Rug: RugsUSA. Blinds: Blindster. Accent chair: Uttermost. Mirrored table: Varaluz.
On black walls: The first thing people say about living small is, ‘You’ve gotta paint the walls white. It’ll make it look so much bigger and bring in so much light.’ But your space is what it is. There is no color that’ll change the size, so paint it whatever color your want. I’m really inspired by British interiors — all those bold, moody colors like smoky gray, deep plum and black. When I walk into an all-white room, it makes me feel anxious, like it’s not finished. At first, we painted these walls in a dark teal, but I couldn’t stop myself from feeling that they needed to be black. And the minute I repainted them, it felt like, ‘This is it. This is right.’
On the heart of the home: For us, the living room is where everyone congregates — where we entertain, where the kids do homework, where we have game nights, everything. It needed to be spacious enough so we could fit a blow-up mattress for overnight guests or set up a larger table when we have people over for dinner. It’s also the first thing you see when you walk in the front door, so I wanted it to pack a visual punch.
On storage: When you live in a small house, storage is key, and this cabinet gives us a LOT. We store our printer, electronics, all my work folders and paper and pens. It’s one of my favorite pieces in the house. I love natural elements, particularly in a space like this where everything else is dark. The rattan caning gives it a light feel, so it doesn’t look like a big, chunky armoire. It’s tall, it has an open bottom so we can slide baskets underneath (more storage!), and it doesn’t dominate the room.
On the best buy ever: This is actually an Ikea shoe cabinet. It’s a fantastically useful piece, and I recommend it to everyone living in a small space. It’s narrow — eight or nine inches — and it’s where we drop our keys, mail and shoes in the entryway. I changed the basic handles out for these geode knobs from Anthropologie. It makes the piece look much more high end than it actually is!
On thinking outside the floor plan: The dining room was by far the most challenging space — and for me, the hardest transition to make when we moved. I love to entertain, and our old dining setup wouldn’t fit in here. And this space itself is tricky because it’s kind of a pass-through. That black door behind the table actually leads to our bedroom (which used to be the den).
On turning a den into a bedroom: This room is how we’re able to make this house work. It’s a true two-bedroom and the children got the actual bedrooms, whereas we sleep in the former den. That tapestry is a suzani (a type of hand-woven textile, traditional in Central Asia), which belonged to a dear friend of mine. She knew I’d been looking for one for years, and she contacted me one day and said, ‘I have a beautiful one, and I think it belongs in your house.’ I was astonished. It’s one of my most treasured possessions, and I wanted it to be displayed in a very special way.
On maximalism in minimal space: I’m not a minimalist, and neither is my wife. (This is her dedicated shoe storage, by the way.) We felt that just because we were downsizing that didn’t mean we had to get rid of everything we owned. I’m a bit of a collector and I like to be surrounded by the things I love. So, we found ways to create storage spaces and to display the things we love.
On a tricky kitchen: This was the one room we took down to the studs when we moved in. I loved that it looked like a little cottage kitchen, but it was not functional. I decided to keep the original checker floor and the corner window, and customized the space around those elements — as inexpensively as possible. Ikea to the rescue! I got this marble-top island at a Black Friday sale at Target, and it gives us both storage and an extra work surface.
On a game-changing swap: We have lots of large pans, stock pots, cast-iron cookware and other things that need to be hand-washed. So, we downsized our dishwasher and upsized our sink. Our small 18-inch dishwasher is the perfect size for all our daily dishes, forks, cups, etc. And I really wanted a classic farmhouse sink, but my wife was not a fan of the white porcelain. So, I found one that was stainless steel and felt a bit more modern. It was a great compromise: I got my big farm sink and she got one that didn’t look farm-style.
On colorful ceilings: I always remind people not to forget about the ceiling. It’s a great way to make a space fun, without all your walls being covered in color. Both kids chose the paint for their ceilings, and my daughter really wanted this pale blue. She then got that tapestry on Woot. It was hanging on her wall at first, but one day we were hanging out in her room and I said, ‘Hey, what if we hung this over your bed and made a canopy?’ She was immediately like, ‘Oh my god, Mom, I love it! Let’s do it!’
On a tough transition: My daughter was 11 when we moved, and she was NOT on board at first. In her mind, downsizing meant something was wrong. Like, ‘Why would my parents decide to leave our big, beautiful house in our neighborhood with all our friends, to live somewhere much smaller?’ She’s all good now, but it took time. There were a few high school options in our new area, so when she finished middle school we let her decide which one she wanted to go to. I think it helped to give her some sense of control. After that, everything got better. She loves her school and has great friends.
On kid-friendly carpeting: The flooring in my son’s room is actually Flor carpet tiles. These are perfect for a child or teenager’s room — or any kind of play space. Messes mean nothing. He can spill whatever, and they’re so easy to clean. If one of them gets truly damaged, we can pop it out and replace it with another tile. They’re fantastic.
On #BathroomGoals: I had very specific goals for the shared bathroom. First, I was like, ‘I need some color in here.’ Another priority was natural light. It’s an interior bathroom, so there was nowhere to put a window. So I thought: skylight. I’m so grateful we were able to make it work. It feels like the world opened up.
On one bathroom for a family of four: The most pressing issue was, of course, storage. So, we built these little niches into the shower, into the tub, and into this wall that was otherwise not being used. Now we have room to store our hand towels and daily toiletries. I mean, we’re a house with two women, a teenage girl, and an adolescent boy. We have things.
On the upsides of downsizing: Living small is a true lifestyle change, and it takes effort, but it was such a wonderful decision for us. I love how manageable this house is, and how easy it is to keep clean (and that no one has to spend their days off tidying). Things like heating and cooling are so much less expensive! We also spend a lot of time together now, and proximity plays a big role in that. After making this move, it feels like we have less house and more life! When guests come over, they notice it, too: Our home feels like a big hug.
Thank you so much, Shavonda!
(Photos by Lena Corwin for Cup of Jo.)