Interior designer Betsy Burnham doesn’t buy many bookcases these days. She’s more likely to create built-in bookshelves for the homes she designs.
Ditto for custom-made desks, built-in beds, window seats and more.
“I find so many of my clients are really interested in built-ins,” says Burnham, who is based in Los Angeles. “Anywhere there is a niche, we’re considering the space as an opportunity to build in.”
The popularity of custom, built-in pieces may be partly a backlash against the cookie-cutter conformity of furniture at many major retailers. But for some homeowners, choosing a built-in piece is just practical: Small spare rooms or awkward spaces can take on new life when a built-in is added.
Custom-designed items may seem too costly to be practical. But if you make the right choices, says designer Brian Flynn, founder of decordemon.com, “built-ins don’t have to be expensive.”
“Everybody hears ‘custom’ and they freak out,” Flynn says, but it’s possible to create something beautiful using lower-priced materials. And the cost of a built-in piece may be offset by what it adds to your home.
SMALL AREA, BIG IMPACT
“Built-ins are great for opening up possibilities in small spaces,” says Atlanta-based interior designer Mallory Mathison. Depending on your needs and interests, she says, a small corner of your kitchen can become anything from a wine closet to a children’s “art closet” to a built-in coffee station. For those who love to cook, a custom-designed pantry might be worth the cost.
For others, a custom-built bedroom closet might improve the way each day begins.
Burnham gave a small guest room the feel of “a little ship’s cabin” by adding a built-in bed with storage underneath.
A small home office can feel more professional with built-in shelving and cabinets.
And for teens or children, a built-in desk with strategically placed shelves can create a fun and efficient homework space.
HOW TO SAVE
“If people want to go the extra mile and go with walnut or high-end exotic wood, you can,” Flynn says. But a custom interior for a walk-in closet can be done beautifully and affordably with stain-grade plywood trimmed with MDF (medium-density fibreboard), “which is like particleboard, but it’s perfectly smooth and looks great painted.”
A smaller closet in a guest room or office can take on the feel of a built-in, Flynn says. Just remove the doors and use the Container Store’s Elfa system to customize the space. “You only need a drill,” he says, and the cost is kept down “because you do it yourself.”
Another trick: Flynn suggests buying several Ikea “Billy” bookcases, which run about US$50 each. Then have a carpenter add MDF trim to the front to “make them look like they’re an inch and a half thick.” Three “Billys” with trim will take up about 2.6 metres, he says, which may be enough to fill an entire wall. “Line them up along the wall,” he says, “and it gives it a nice chunky look.”
Built-in cabinetry doesn’t have to be stately and made of richly stained wood, Mathison says. A huge range of colours and styles, from ornate to sleek and simple, can work well.
Burnham agrees: “Built-ins don’t have to be boring. You can have fun with painting them, what kind of wood you use, what kind of veneer you use,” she says. “And it’s a great opportunity to use lots of fun hardware.”
For open shelving pieces, Mathison suggests choosing colours and styles based on what you’ll be displaying. The built-in should belong to the room.
If shelves will be used for display, rather than being fully stacked with books, paint the interior an accent colour so pieces will pop, Flynn says. Mathison likes playing with texture in that spot: antique mirrors, hardwood flooring, grasscloth and textured wallpaper all can “bring a graphic punch and bring in colour” to the interior of a built-in bookcase.
OPEN AND CLOSED
Built-ins can show off your most precious items, but they’re often prized for hiding clutter.
Custom shelves and cabinets flanking a fireplace offer prime space for displaying treasures, plus room for stashing things like toys or craft projects that are used in a family room.
In kids’ rooms, you may want a mix of open shelf space for display and closed space for stashing the inevitable mess.
For open storage, says Flynn, “it makes sense to spend money on decorative baskets.” Simple canvas boxes or woven wood baskets can be gorgeous, he says, “or if you want something industrial, go with metal.”
A window seat in a child’s room can offer seating plus hidden storage. Another option for kids’ rooms, says Mathison: Adding a built-in trundle bed under a window seat means there’s always room when friends visit.