House Beautiful: July/Aug 2014
550 Square Feet: It may be tiny but it’s grand in spirit, packed with exuberant pattern and colorful personality.
Written by Barbara King | Photography by Amy Neunsinger
Barbara King: What an about-face you have made, going from a 3,500-square-foot house to a 550-square-foot apartment. Why the drastic change?
Peter Dunham: I had a midlife crisis and a breakup with my partner. I was feeling quite vulnerable, and I needed to move somewhere that was emotionally manageable for me, where I could get my life sorted out again. I happened to see an ad online for a West Hollywood courtyard apartment near my office, and I thought, There is no way, at my age and with the amount of junk I have, that I can move into a space that small. But something about it called to me. I walked into this little compound of eight Tudor-style units built around a garden of palms and fruit trees, and everything about it felt safe and comforting. I thought, You know, I can make this wee place work.
What told you it would work?
It had tons of light, a view of the city, a place for a dining area, room for a table in the kitchen, a great TV wall right across from the sofa wall. The bedroom was tiny, but if I closed off one door so I could get a great bed wall. Suddenly I felt like a kid in a candy store. I could have everything exactly the way I wanted it. Unless you're really rich, you don't get to do exactly what you want in an enormous house.
So there's actually a lot to be said for going small.
Maybe we're a bit like dogs. They love the coziness and security of their crates, their little doghouses. The minute you go big, your anxiety level goes up. There are constant maintenance issues, gardeners to oversee, pool guys. Once when I was in Jaipur, India, I got a call from the security company saying my house's alarm had gone off. OK, now what? Living here gives me a sense of ease — it's like a hotel suite. I can lock the door, turn around, and leave for several weeks without any worries whatsoever. I've been able to spend the better part of the last two years traveling and recharging my eclectic, eccentric designer vibe.
I think of it as a multicultural vibe. Your apartment is like the United Nations of interiors.
That's a good way of putting it. A lot of what I do is very wrapped up in different cultures. I grew up in France, spent summers in Spain, and was educated in England. I'm a gypsy, and I guess my home looks a bit like a gypsy tent. I have a roving eye — I like a mix of Indian, African, Islamic, Chinese, Danish, French, Italian, and American. Even the diluted pink of the walls in the living room has this Indian or Mediterranean quality. It creates a nice aura that makes everyone feel good.
And look good, too.
More important, it makes me look good. When you're newly single, you have to do what it takes — pink walls, candlelight, a dark bedroom. Those touches mask a lot of one's sins in a little space.
It all adds up to loads of charm and personality.
You feel the effect more strongly in a small space. Everything is so concentrated and on view. My apartment reflects my passions and my past in a very real way.
Was it hard to let go of stuff?
At this point in my life, it feels really good to edit down to the essentials. I have six plates, six bowls, six cups, and only my favorite artworks. There's no superfluity, because there's only so much stuff you can put in. Being in a small apartment has forced me to be much more ordered — I have to keep it very tidy, everything in its right place.
Is there anything you miss?
The only possessions I miss are all my books. Most of them are in storage or in my office, although I've managed to cram as many as possible onto that high shelf in the living room — a useful thing to have when there's no room for bookcases — and onto every available surface. And I would love to have a guest room, but friends have slept on the Danish sofa and said it's perfectly comfortable. I bought it for the apartment at the Rose Bowl flea market because that clean, simple style works so well in small spaces.
What else works well in a small space?
One trick that is counterintuitive is to put as many large-scale pieces of furniture in the rooms as you can, to create a feeling of luxury. I have the big sofa and the big Danish credenza in the living room, along with a big TV and a big rug. A rug that almost covers the entire floor — mine leaves maybe 9 or 10 inches all the way around — makes the room feel bigger. I have a very imposing bed that gave my poky room style, a sense of scale, and the big pattern on the walls gave it a sense of depth. I feel like I'm living big in a small space.
You sound like a true convert.
I honestly believe I won the lottery in life. Some people believe they won because they own a private airplane or a yacht or whatever. I wake up every morning in my little bedroom and lie there looking out at the palms and think how incredibly lucky I am. I'm in heaven.