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A Small, Cozy Home with Loads of Built-In Charm

When space is short, it pays to put every nook, cranny, and corner to work. For proof, look inside this 1946 Cape

Maximizing a Cape Cod

Photo by Tria Giovan

Anything worth owning is worth a place of honor, be it a painting, novel, clutch of vases, or pair of shoes. Yet in most homes, possessions tend to gather on desks, counters, and closet floors, waiting forever for a spot of their own.

Which helps explain why the home of Ellis and Seth Lesser—shared with four school-age girls, one schnoodle, and all their stuff—seems like a series of mini miracles.

"Games go in one cabinet," says Ellis, consulting a mental map of the built-ins framing a loveseat in her kitchen's eating area. "Plastic cups and plates for the kids go in a cabinet at one end of the island, where they can reach them. Pots and pans are in cabinets with pullouts. "Even the space over the loveseat has been colonized, with open shelves devoted to collectibles and the kids' artwork. "It makes me crazy," Ellis adds, "not to have places to put things."

Shown: The Cape's classic facade was one reason the owners wanted to stay.

A Special Place in a Small Space

Photo by Tria Giovan

The kids can forget dumping their schoolwork on the kitchen table, where it can mingle with coffee cups and yesterday's news. Assignments, permission slips, it all goes into shallow bins hung on the back of a cabinet door. As for the recycling bin for paper, it's banished to a different room—and another cabinet. "When you have a lot of children, you can't have clutter everywhere," Ellis says, politely overlooking that where clutter and children are concerned, her rule may actually be an exception.

Or call it a model. Everywhere you look in the couple's well-proportioned 1946 Cape Cod-style house are storage ideas worth stealing, from drawers tucked under a built-in entry bench to a home-office cabinet that hides a charging station. Even the desk's customary nest of wires has its own place, no surprise, where nobody can see it.

Shown: Cabinets bridged by a soffit and open shelves create an alcove for the kitchen loveseat, so traffic flows around it. The tall unit on the right stows board games.

Kitchen Space Fit for the Family

Photo by Tria Giovan

Situated on a tree-lined street in Chappaqua, New York, the modest two-bedroom house the Lessers bought in 1996 could have been a way station en route to ever-larger digs. But rather than decamp with the arrival of more kids, the couple decided to stay, adding here and there while maximizing what they had. "Each project was a function of having another child or a specific need," says their architect and interior designer, Carol J.W. Kurth, who regards walls and niches the way developers look at vacant lots.

Shown: The island is capped by a cabinet with clear plastic fronts so that the kids can safely set their own places at the table.

Kitchen Cabinets; Chandelier; Countertops;

A United Front

Photo by Tria Giovan

To unite old and new portions of the house, Kurth used the same trim colors and profiles throughout and added other traditional details. Striving for symmetry, she designed built-ins that rise to meet the crown molding, "which makes them look more integrated with the room. Moldings do not have to match exactly, but they need to be cohesive in style," she says.

By spreading out improvements over 10 years and four children, the couple avoided the time-crunched decision making that often comes with whole-house redos, while learning to tap existing space efficiently.

Shown: Original living room built-ins that came with the house.


Photo by Tria Giovan

During the first phase, Kurth opened up the kitchen and added a seating alcove off to one side—away from foot traffic—by bridging two sets of cabinets with open shelves. She also added his-and-hers built-ins to the new master suite, framing the passageway from bed to bath.

Shown: Separate cabinets and shelves symmetrically frame the passageway to the bath in the master suite; they were modeled after the living room built-ins that came with the house


Managing the Office

Photo by Tria Giovan

More recently, Kurth ended relative chaos in the 130-square-foot home office with wall-to-wall storage solutions, including a cabinet that hides the printer and a charging station. "In this case," Kurth says, "the door and window trim were switched to stained wood. We wanted the trim to be part of the built-ins, and sometimes a change from white to a darker color can have a dramatic effect." Ellis, who likes to hunker down amid the warm furnishings, says, "Now it's my favorite room in the house.

Shown: Cherry built-ins line the home office, along with a shallow chase that keeps cords and outlets out of sight.

Cabinets; Knobs and pulls; Chair; Window treatment;

A Desk that Hides Wires

Photo by Tria Giovan

It is also a favorite project of the built-ins' creator, woodworker Brian Clancy. Equipped with detailed drawings by Kurth and her codesigner Tina Schwab, and his collection of vintage and digital-age equipment, Clancy converted cherry planks into desktops, cabinets, drawers, and open shelves. He used contrasting stains to give the reddish beadboard-backed shelves a bit more depth, and chains, screws, chisels, and hand planes to distress the wood­—a preemptive measure when kids and pets are involved, Schwab explains.

Openings in the desktop allow wires to be fed into a hidden chase behind the built-ins. "I'm not a wire person," Ellis say—and, really, who is?

Shown: Cabinet doors under the desk swing open to provide access to the chase as needed.

A Place to Perch

Photo by Tria Giovan

To capitalize on a nothing niche in the new foyer, Kurth asked Clancy to build in a bench made with the same easy-care distressed cherry. A recess along the bottom ensures the bench won't store dust bunnies and lost marbles. Topped with a cushion and plush pillows, it may look like a place to sit down while removing your boots, but anyone who knows Ellis knows it's an excuse for two capacious drawers, one just for table linens.

Shown: The built-in bench in the foyer, just off the dining room, offers storage for holiday linens as well as a spot to remove boots. The cherry's distressed finish withstands scuffs.

Bench pulls;

A Home in Progress

Photo by Tria Giovan

After a partnership of 15 years, the house and its inhabitants continue to make adjustments. Kurth has been making sketches of the oldest daughter's bedroom, which is ripe for an upgrade; built-ins will no doubt play a part. "It's the kind of house that does not have clutter because it has a lot of places to put things," Kurth says. And yet, she points out, "it still feels like a Cape, with a scale that's very comfortable and inviting."

Shown: Sconces with hidden wires flank the mantel's display shelf; the overmantel's elaborate crown gives it added prominence and a furniture-like look. The entire assembly was made from stock molding profiles and an MDF panel.

Molding; Sconces;

More Clever Storage

Photo by Susan Gilmore

Capitalize on existing space by borrowing ideas from these seven smart built-ins.

Snug Sleeping Alcove

A Scandinavian-style built-in bed with captain's drawers maximizes a narrow space, enhanced by hand-painted walls and ceiling. Crown molding dresses

up the interior space while hiding the front-wall framing.

Integral Seating and Storage

Photo by Ken Gutmaker

Columns of open shelves with file-size cabinet bases flank a sofa platform with skinny drawers. The walnut-topped cabinets double as end tables; the adjacent newel post and balustrades were fitted into one side for a trim, shipshape look. The plywood sides of the open shelves got a classic paneled look with 1×3 stiles. Base and cap moldings tie the built-ins to the rest of the room.

Hardworking Window Seat

Photo by First Light/Alamy

Custom-size drawers make finding hanging files

and gift wrap a cinch.

Tip: To ensure easy access to items in the back of a deep toekick drawer, put it on wheels or furniture glides, or install full-extension hardware along the sides.

Mini Mudroom

Photo by Tria Giovan

On a formerly empty stair landing, a compact mudroom was made possible by replacing open railings with half walls and creating a recess for a boot bench. Cladding the half walls with beadboard makes them more durable than drywall and, coated with glossy paint, easier to keep clean of scuff marks.

Hideaway Desk

Photo by Alex Hayden

Tucked under a window in a hall off the kitchen, this built-in has flipper doors that slide out and swing closed.

Tip: Plumbing chases and stubby partition walls that once held pocket doors can be cased and used to help elevate and define a workspace.

Hutch-Like Focal Point

Photo by Julian Wass

At a hallway's far end, dead space was built out with airy open shelves and a cabinet with inset doors, latches, and furniture-style feet. Giving the cabinet a dark countertop and the open shelves an ogee edge and ornate brackets emphasizes the vintage-look furniture feel.

Under-the-Stairs Dresser

Photo by Alan Shortall/Cornerhouse Stock

Deep drawers tucked under treads provide storage for pet supplies and other sundries. These can be built just like an old furniture piece, with boxes that glide on wood guides and are faced with angled fronts that fool the eye.