A Room of One’s Own

Small-scale design projects prove great things come in small packages

We all want open floor plans, but most of us live in Victorians, bungalows, or foursquares. And many of us are in our homes for longer than we’d planned. So what do we do with those small spaces we’ve got?

Jackie Millea, architect and interior designer at Shelter Architecture in Minneapolis, tackled this problem when she was approached by a couple who own a St. Paul carriage house. Three rooms weren’t working for them: Victorian–style houses are often riddled with tiny spaces—and they aren’t exactly rich in closet space.

The space shortage was critical: the client was a vintage-clothing collector. “My client had clothes on makeshift two-by-fours with rods,” Millea says.  “We really wanted to keep with the character of the house but give it a modern use.”

After a consult, Millea realized her client wished to create a space where she and her husband could relax and get ready for evenings out. She also wanted a private space for lingerie. Based on what Millea calls her client’s “fun, vampy” personality, they created a suite: a husband-and-wife dressing room/closet with a secret dressing room, accessed through a mirror that otherwise hangs innocently on the wall. (An office was added across the hall.)

Instead of feeling limited by the footprint, Millea loved the challenge. “Small little spaces are already a surprise,” Millea says. “Even though this was a budget project, we could pump up the cost a bit. The leopard-print carpet we used was $300 a yard because we didn’t need much. Making a statement is important for small spaces.”

Once the design of the main dressing room was set—a modern unisex feel; marble countertops; custom storage; and an eggplant, pink, and gold color palette—Millea began amping up the secret-room design, which was converted from a floorless, uninsulated closet. “We wanted it to be very feminine. We kept the built-ins the same, but then added the leopard-print carpet, padded silk-damask walls, and we restored an old vintage light from her collection. It is over-the-top and luxurious.”

This isn’t the only small space Millea has worked on recently. While overseeing a kitchen remodel, Millea noticed a door ajar under a staircase, so she peeked. “I said, ‘This looks like a great reading room for your grandchildren!’” Plans now include shelving, bright paint, and a reading chair. “Being over-the-top adds fun. You wouldn’t want to go that bold in big living spaces. It’s just a little pop we found.”

Small-space remodels can help people live in their spaces better. “We can make the house more liveable and up-to-date with modern American life,” she adds. 


1. Make a big statement in a small space: use bright color, bold prints, or luxe fabrics.
2. Small spots are great for specific uses; don’t make it everything to everyone.
3. Call Shelter for a consultation on your space: 612-870-4081, shelterarchitecture.com.