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A Smaller Home Becomes a Functional Dream for a Local Interior Designer

A Valley interior designer makes her small space shine.

By Marilyn Hawkes | Photography by Kevin Brost

Landscape designer Charlie Ray elevated a multi-trunk Swan Hill olive tree to fashion a canopy of filtered light over the walkway lined with century plants, artichoke agave, Indian fig, Spanish lavender and other vegetation. “It creates the mood and sets the tone for the entry experience,” he says.
Homeowner and interior designer Beth McGehee can open the small-scale Dutch door to “see the landscaping and feel the outdoors.” An Erik Gonzales sculptural painting, “White Garden,” greets visitors at the door, while a shock of bougainvillea provides a striking contrast to the white walls.

In the exclusive Paradise Valley community of Casa Blanca, interior designer Beth McGehee’s cozy condo is surrounded by communal rose gardens and lush landscaping. Initially, Casa Blanca was built as a private estate for the Donald Kellogg family in the 1920s, then transformed into a guest ranch and later, a posh resort often frequented by the Hollywood elite. Beth’s one-bedroom condo, built in 1969, once served as the resort’s music room, where concerts and recitals were performed.

When first viewing the property, the Phoenix Home & Garden Masters of the Southwest award winner questioned whether she could live in something so small. On her second visit, she came armed with a tape measure to determine how much space she’d be giving up. Moving from a roomy 2,600-square-foot home to a 950-square-foot condo would be challenging but doable, the designer recalls.

A quiet color palette blankets the living room, which is appointed in a subdued, comfortable style. The 8-foot ceilings, painted white to keep the small space from feeling closed in, are anchored by the original beams. The French oak floor, which replaced Saltillo tile, lends a note of warmth to the room.

Through her work, Beth has helped countless clients downsize into smaller properties and watched them struggle with which treasured items to keep. When considering the move to Casa Blanca, she had to heed her own advice. “I went through and made a selection of what really mattered to me,” she says. “Then, I decided I would give the smaller footprint a try.”

During the move, Beth filled her reduced space with floor-to-ceiling boxes chock-full of items she just couldn’t part with. Then, she did a second purge. “I’ve gotten really comfortable with the idea of living small,” she says.

Beth embarked on a complete renovation of the condo, from moving walls to relocating air conditioning equipment to reimagining the landscaping. Downsizing also meant outfitting the interiors with higher quality materials. She installed upgraded windows and doors, a solid-wood, French-oak-patterned floor and waxed plaster walls that allow for light reflection. “When you only have 900 square feet to work with, it becomes more manageable,” she explains. “I was able to do some things that I probably wouldn’t have done in a larger house.”

Since the condo is so small, Beth used square footage judiciously and has included many space-saving features, starting at the entryway, where she stows her dog-walk essentials in a small drawer tucked under a ledge. In the antique brick-lined kitchen, dog bowls are hidden behind the toe kick, and high cabinets house tax returns and school yearbooks that she hasn’t looked at in the two years she has lived there.

Beth’s biggest concern was that she wouldn’t have enough closet space, but after measuring, realized the linear space was not much different than the walk-in closet she was leaving behind. In an alcove off the bedroom, which houses a small washer and dryer, tankless water heater, doggy door and wireless printer, she has a built-in dresser. “The hardest thing about living small is planning to live small,” she says.

Having a compact kitchen is not an inconvenience because she “never cooks,” but the tidy space has a slimmed-down dishwasher and multifunction oven, storage for pots and pans, dishes, glassware and silverware. She also has a roll-out stepstool and pull-out shelves lined with cleaning products. “It’s pretty efficient,” she remarks.

1. Patio doors open to a small courtyard creating an extension of the interior space. An eye-catching antler-and-rock-crystal chandelier is equipped with tiny bulbs for softer lighting. 2. A traditional exposed shower system with an urban brass finish adorns the quartzite walls. 3. The bedroom alcove once housed an air handler and water heater that have been replaced by a rooftop air conditioning unit and tankless water heater. The space is now a closet and includes a ventless washer and dryer and additional storage. 4. The pint-sized kitchen sports a waterproof walnut countertop and a sink made from an old stone planter. The walls are lined with mortar-washed antique brick. 5. Water trickles gently from reclaimed spouts into a 17th-century stone trough from northern France, creating a tranquil setting. 6. Seating around the centuries-old reclaimed French fireplace provides an intimate gathering area. 

Beth embarked on a complete renovation of the condo, from moving walls to relocating air conditioning equipment to reimagining the landscaping. Downsizing also meant outfitting the interiors with higher quality materials. She installed upgraded windows and doors, a solid-wood, French-oak-patterned floor and waxed plaster walls that allow for light reflection. “When you only have 900 square feet to work with, it becomes more manageable,” she explains. “I was able to do some things that I probably wouldn’t have done in a larger house.”

Since the condo is so small, Beth used square footage judiciously and has included many space-saving features, starting at the entryway, where she stows her dog-walk essentials in a small drawer tucked under a ledge. In the antique brick-lined kitchen, dog bowls are hidden behind the toe kick, and high cabinets house tax returns and school yearbooks that she hasn’t looked at in the two years she has lived there.

Beth’s biggest concern was that she wouldn’t have enough closet space, but after measuring, realized the linear space was not much different than the walk-in closet she was leaving behind. In an alcove off the bedroom, which houses a small washer and dryer, tankless water heater, doggy door and wireless printer, she has a built-in dresser. “The hardest thing about living small is planning to live small,” she says.

1. A small hallway was eliminated to make the bathroom larger, giving the homeowner more vanity, dressing and storage space. 2. Mirrored closet doors give the desert-hued room a larger feel. The original notched ceiling from 1969 remains intact. 3. The dog’s bowls are tucked in behind the toe kick and have a removable pan underneath for cleaning. 4. A flagstone and pea gravel path leads to an outdoor dining area, where a propane tank that fuels the barbecue and fireplace is hidden behind custom-made wooden cabinets.

Having a compact kitchen is not an inconvenience because she “never cooks,” but the tidy space has a slimmed-down dishwasher and multifunction oven, storage for pots and pans, dishes, glassware and silverware. She also has a roll-out stepstool and pull-out shelves lined with cleaning products. “It’s pretty efficient,” she remarks.

When first analyzing the site, landscape designer Charlie Ray looked for opportunities to expand the homeowner’s outdoor living experience, which eventually involved relocating walls and creating functional areas for dining, lounging and gathering with friends. “We packed a lot of design amenities into a small space,” he says. “Beth can open up the doors and windows and it becomes an extension of her interior.”

Ray wanted the exterior to reflect the “old Arizona vibe” of Casa Blanca and brought in low-maintenance cacti and succulents, as well as a trio of specimen trees to create a shade canopy that would provide dappled light. Beth was skeptical that three trees would fit in the small space, but now embraces the extra layer of privacy they afford. “Somehow, they make that small space feel larger,” she says.

Other exterior design elements include centuries-old Belgian fire brick cut into small pieces to make a herringbone pattern for the foot paths; a fountain fashioned from an old European stone drinking trough festooned with reclaimed spouts; and a centuries-old French brick fireplace. “Everything feels very collected and it all goes together,” he says.

Beth agrees. “I love the landscaping and how it feels and relates to the interior and how it makes the interior expand.” She enjoys opening the patio door and listening to the gurgling water from the fountain. “It’s very restful.”

Because she has access to unlimited materials as an interior designer, Beth has a unique perspective when it comes to renovation and furnishing her own home. “It’s hard to narrow down a personal choice because there are so many options,” she says. For the interior and the exterior, she employed neutral tones and subtle patterns with soft layers, adding to the home’s peaceful feeling.

In the end, small spaces should feel relaxing and as open and spacious as possible, the happy homeowner says. “You have to use every bit of space wisely.”

Interior designer: Beth McGehee, SB Design. Landscape designer: Charlie Ray, The Green Room Landscape Architecture.

For more information, see Sources.

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