Designer Paula Smail: Artful living in 600 square feet

Walk inside Paula Smail’s 600-square-foot apartment in Burbank and you’ll be greeted by bold color and texture that strangely doesn’t overwhelm.

The textile designer has lived in New York, Paris, London and Johannesburg, and here, it shows. The one-bedroom apartment is decorated with South African curios, aboriginal art from Australia, Balinese sculpture and mementos from France, all combining to give the small space a modern vibe.

PHOTOS: Paula Smail’s apartment, full of color and pattern

Her approach to decorating a small space, she says, is the same as decorating a larger space.

“Art and whimsy are the two most important ingredients in a space,” said Smail, an interior decorator and owner of the Studio City boutique Henry Road. “They make a space interesting and dynamic.”


She moved to the 1950s apartment in January after relocating her design studio from her three-bedroom house to her store. When she downsized, she learned that her design instincts did not have to change. She could still have bold color, loads of art and an abundance of personal treasures that make her happy.

“There is a degree of pragmatism in interior design,” Smail said. “It’s called comfortable living. You have to live comfortably in a space. You don’t have to forgo interesting and dynamic, and it doesn’t have to cost a fortune.”

Her tips on creating an individual, artful home in a small footprint:

Marry personal with functional: Smail displays family heirlooms so that she can use them every day. In her bedroom, she uses a china cake platter as a jewelry holder.

Be eclectic: “Matching things is the hardest way to decorate,” Smail said. “People think it is a safe way to go, but it’s more interesting to create a dynamic that represents you.” Smail mixes colorful textiles throughout her apartment: African bark cloth and suzanis blend with modern Henry Road textiles and Oriental rugs. Furniture styles and accessories include antiques, vintage flea market finds and pieces from mass-market retailers.

Incorporate humor: “I like things that are important to me, are interesting and make me smile,” Smail said. She hung a funny painting of a drunken cow in the living room and placed a ceramic butt sculpture from Greece in her bedroom for that reason. Likewise, a playful plastic toy dog that pulls apart is on her bookshelf so she can see it when she walks in the door. “A well designed home should tell a story about the people who live there,” she said.

Art, art, everywhere: “At the end of the day, your home needs to be a visual playground,” Smail said. “Whatever works in a large space, works equally well in a small space as long as it is done well.” That includes using large furniture, painting walls dark colors and hanging lots of art salon-style. When installing art, Smail likes to hang the largest piece first and go from there. The trick, she said, is not to align anything. “The minute you start lining things up, everything else needs to line up. Break the lines. It will be more fluid.”

Be bold with color: Color does not have to overwhelm the room. In the living room, she paired a bright red couch from Pampa with a red Oriental carpet, and neither dominates the space. “Any color can be a neutral,” Smail said. “It just depends how you use it and what you put it up against.”

Layer: “People waste so much time worrying about basic layers like the sofa, coffee table and chairs,” Smail said. “The accessories are the most interesting elements.” In her apartment, Smail edited rigorously so the things she loves have a place. In other words, if you love it and it has meaning, find a place for it.


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