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Small Spaces: What Boat Design Can Teach us about sleek efficiency

When you are big on design, but small on space, boats are a masterclass in making the most of what you have

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By House & Garden | October 12, 2023 | Design

When it comes to interior design, small spaces are the ones that tend to cause people the most issues. How do you fit everything in? How can you maximise the space? How can you make it feel bigger than it is? All of these issues are easy enough to solve but sometimes it pays to think outside the box. One place to look when it comes to making a small space efficient is boats. Boats – be they house boats or mega yachts – are masterful in their design.

Anyone who’s watched even one episode of Below Deck will know that sleek teak finishings in the guest areas hide all manner of crockery, cutlery and bottles of wine, while guest beds are stuffed with overflow decorating items. The crew areas are tiny to the point of being a joke, yet still make space for multiple adults, all their belongings and yet more items for demanding guests. It seems there’s a lot we can learn from boat design then for taking our small spaces on land and making them work better, from the bigger picture things like how to design the space itself to small details like the choice of fabrics.

When it comes to small spaces, you have to get the space right before you even think about furnishing it or adding in storage. Image via Pexels.

Firstly, big picture. Simon Rowell is Creative Director at Bannenberg Rowell Design and as such, designs yachts for a living. “Humans are humans, in large spaces and small,” he philosophises, continuing, “rooms of all sizes should be crafted and formed with a great deal of attention to proportion, intimacy and comfort. Lighting design, soft boundaries, sight lines and surface texture can work to create a sense of wellbeing at both ends of the spatial scale. A huge floorspace with low ceilings, on a large yacht for example, is my own version of hell.”

What this translates to is you have to get the space right before you even think about furnishing it or adding in storage. It is, for Simon “a perpetual quest for optimisation of flow and use of space,” and he does this by encouraging his clients and design team to run scenarios on board before finalising designs. They might practice running food from the galley to a certain dining area so they can workshop any issues that arise, and it pays to do the same at home. Consider what the use of the small room will be and walk through it in the way you would be using it, look at how the door opens, where you might need storage added and it'll all become clearer. For Simon, it's not just a one-time practice either, “we check again and again on detail after detail during the project. Optimisation of living spaces, not just storage spaces, is crucial and I think that’s a good discipline in any design field”.

The major takeaway from boat design is storage, storage, storage. It's everywhere on boats. Image via Pexels.

Rounded edges are key in small space design

Once you've determined how you'll use the space and the layout, there are further layers to consider. In a small space, you're more likely to perhaps bump into things – Simon notes that rounded corners are common in boats for that precise reason (more for when the seas are wild and the boat is less steady). Similarly, Jodie of The House Upstairs, former Chief Stewardess in the yachting industry and now an interior designer advises, “fabrics in smaller spaces take more knocks and marks as there's less space to move past them. Like boats, choose hardwearing performance fabrics such as denim or even outdoor fabrics and opt for washable removable covers for upholstery.”

In a small space, you're more likely to perhaps bump into things. Rounded corners are common in boats for that precise reason. Image via Pexels.

Of course, the most obvious thing that we can take from boats is storage, storage, storage. It's everywhere on boats, as Jodie notes “absolutely everything has a place.” At home, she advises, “use the inside of cupboard doors to attach broom and brush clips, add separators to drawers, add hooks everywhere and be as organised as possible”. For Simon, divisions in drawers are essential (they are used on boats to mitigate everything moving around with the rocking of the boat, but can work very well for organisation generally), as is spending money on joinery. “It's extravagant to have a joiner build into and utilise every space in a home or on board,” he explains, “but the upfront cost is only paid once, and the optimisation lasts as long as the joinery”.

Storage under the eaves can be used to maximise a space

For Jodie, it's all about height: “Boat design makes excellent use of the full height of its space. Under every seating area or bed will be storage and above will be lockers.” Her tips for how to translate this into a small home on land? “Kitchen ceilings are an excellent space to add a saucepan hanging rack and even pretty string bags for fruit. Add built in window seating to your sitting room instead of an armchair with cupboards underneath. Add a clothes pulleymaid over your bath, choose a divan bed with drawers. Have a storage ottoman instead of a coffee table for spare blankets and bedding and hang curtains in front of the unusable space in your attic eaves to stash things behind.”

Adding built in window seating to your sitting room instead of an armchair with cupboards underneath is a great way to maximise storage without compromising on space. Image via Pexels.

Boats may have entirely different design principles from houses but there are key factors that we can employ on land to make small spaces sing. Workshop them, get to know the space before you even start plotting your furniture and then take Simon and Jodie's design principles to heart and any small space will be a useful, cosy cocoon.