|Ben Small is a handsome man. He is well dressed, casual with a touch of elegance. His eyes are so blue its a pleasure to look directly at him when speaking with him. He has a presence, displaying a quiet confidence, comfortable with himself and comfortable in his home.
There is a strong resemblance between Small and his home. Both are graceful, elegant, comfortable, and improved with age.
None of this happened by accident. The result came after years of pursuing a life-long passion for living with beauty. The talent used by interior designer Ben Small is self-taught. There are other great self-taught designers in the world: Small points out famous designer Billy Baldwin.
Small has spent his 32-year design career at Bittners where he is executive vice president. He lives in a 2500-square-foot, high-rise apartment building in the Highlands dating back to the late 1920s. Small says it's perfect for him. He loves the location, the building, and the extra amenities management provides, like washing his car regularly without having to leave his home. This is just a sampling of the lifestyle Small likes to live and offer to his clients. I basically want to make the home comfortable and useable, as maintenance-free as possible. We are all too busy, says Small.
Most important to Small is that the homes he designs reflect the client, not himself. Don't buy anything that doesn't really please you, he says. In order to do that you have to know what you like and don't like. But, Small says, there are a lot of people who don't know, so he leads them step by step.
He has a person analyze an item asking them what they like or don't like about it. As an example, Small explains why he loves his dining room table: It's tailored, yet has a little frill to it. I love the color of the wood. Its classic.
Small also uses the adjective classic when describing himself as a designer. Very classic, use of color, with a mixture of styles, he said. This is also a perfect description of his home. Some of the classic styles Small has incorporated throughout his apartment are Regency, English, Italian, and French. His mixture of accessories include porcelain and crystal, ivory and jade along with his collection of 1920s Stubin mixed throughout. The mixing of all these styles makes for a more complex and interesting room. Yet Small has maintained a sense of comfort. I have a lot of people tell me with all these antiques, it's still comfortable.
Small has subtle ways to reflect comfort. One way is his use of color. The living room walls are French brushed to add texture and have five layers of different colors to achieve depth and richness. Complementing the walls, Small likes to add a hint of the same color of the walls to the ceiling. The room and ceilings flow better, he says. Its the details that make his rooms feel warm and comfortable.
Other detailing Small added to his living room are the moldings he designed and had made. The pilasters topped with capitals, which were also his creation, were added to appear as if they were holding up the beam that runs across the room. Now Small feels the room is architecturally interesting with more definition.
When it comes to arranging furniture in a room Small says, I try to have a flexible arrangement so it can have more than one purpose. For instance, he once held a wedding party with 90 people by making the living room into a large standing room. Several pieces of furniture were backed up closer to the wall and a chair taken out to accommodate the large group.
Seasonal arrangements are another thing Small loves: In the summer you focus on the outside and in the winter you focus on the fireplace. To achieve the different focus, move the furniture accordingly and start by not over-furnishing a room. Make sure every piece counts.
When it came to designing his dining room, Small wanted the attention to be on his guests. So he bought a round table. I love a round table. Everybody looks at each other. Thoughts of his dinner guests also were the reason for painting the walls, ceiling, and woodwork the same high-gloss blue highlighted with polyurethane that he says has a beautiful reflection in candlelight.
Reflection of flickering candles was the reason for the mirrored screens that flank the Louis XVI marble top credenza. Although one side of the room is windows, Small covered them with three-inch wooden shutters so not to draw attention like draperies would have done. There's nothing to take your eye away from the table.
Small is not a trend-setter nor a trend-follower. Your really good designers don't follow the trends, says Small. You may incorporate a trend with a classic design to help keep it to the moment. Small has done this in his living room by using a contemporary geometric fabric on the reproduction Biedermeier chairs (bought at Lazarus 12 years ago) surrounding the game table. This adds a pop of interest to the room, standing out among the more classic fabrics.
Small delivers another piece of advice paramount to designing a beautiful home. Buy one really good piece of furniture a year. It doesn't have to be an antique. It could be a really good reproduction. Especially upholstered furniture, because of the detailing. Look how the cushions are cut right. Your money does buy what you pay for. Its the same as buying a cheap dress from Target rather than a beautiful dress from She. You'll love to appreciate it more because you spent more money for it.
For all of Small's self-taught knowledge on good design, there is an element of God-given talent. For some, like Small, it comes so easily, while others were blessed in different ways. As Small explains it, I couldn't balance a checkbook if I had to, and I don't know anything about the stock market.
But one thing Small knows and uses is his gift of good design.