Sunday, March 27, 2011

cafe cushions (and rearranging furniture)

Allen and I live in a small house. It's plenty of house for us and a dog and some ambitious projects (how much space is devoted to cutting mats and sewing machines?), and it used to accommodate a roommate, too. But the square-footage - just under 1,000 sf - while not apartment-small, is still fairly modest.

When we first looked at the house, it felt downright claustrophobic. The ceilings are only eight feet tall, and the owners painted the walls dark brown below the chair rail, and off-white above it - it was like a short woman wearing a tea-length dress. They had the living room packed with overstuffed leather furniture, and I often recall our old kitchen backsplash with a shudder. I'm pretty smug about how much bigger the house feels now than it did then; I felt like we've done as much as one could with the space.

But each of the rooms in our house is proportionally small, and each one sometimes feels a little overstuffed - I'd gladly forfeit our guest room for a little more space everywhere else. I wish we had a "small" house like this one - which is bigger than ours, but seems to have about the same number of rooms - just bigger-scaled. Here, for example, is the living room:

Our dining room is the worst of the perpetrators. We have a bar and a couple of pieces of storage furniture in there, and it all worked, but just barely. Backing your chair up from dinner, you'd bump into the bar or nearly break the glass china cabinet. And there was no way to refill people's plates without making everyone scoot all the way in.

We'd tried a couple of different configurations, but always figured that the best way was with the table and chairs at the middle of the room, the storage furniture on two sides, opposite each other.

On our way home from a trip last weekend, I was leafing through my favorite magazine, and it dawned on me that it just needs to be a cafe booth - we needed to push the table into a corner, retrieve some benches from the attic, and make it a cozy little nook instead of a traditional table-and-chairs setup. Duh.

It is so stupid that we didn't do this years ago. It makes the room feel huge, minimizes the chance of backing into furniture, and it's amazingly cozy and cute. It's an all-upside situation. So this is a public service announcement. If it hasn't occurred to you to try an alternative to the traditional dining room setup, try it now - particularly if you live in a small house or apartment.

It needs a rug or something, though, doesn't it?

To up the ante on the cozy neighborhood cafe feel, and to mask some benches that I don't totally love, I made some super-easy, gray velvet cushions. They're stuffed with down, so they're comfortable, squashy, and casual-looking. I love how down makes a cushion look and feel.

Start with 1" thick foam (available here, or at many brick-and-mortar fabric stores), and cut a rectangle with the exact same dimensions as the top of your bench. To save money, you can glue two pieces of foam to each other using rubber cement:

Now take an inexpensive down comforter (I used a twin, from Ikea, and it was the perfect size for two 50" x 18" benches), lay it on the floor, and draw two rectangles on it, next to each other, each rectangle 2" longer (in both directions) than your foam triangle. I cut an 18" x 50" foam rectangle, so I drew 20" x 52" rectangles on the comforter. Position the rectangles so that two of their short sides are at the edge of the comforter.

Use a sewing machine to straight-stitch along all the lines you just drew. The line between the rectangles is where it will fold in half; the other lines will be the cut edges. Cut around the double rectangle, leaving a half-inch seam allowance, and leaving the two rectangles connected.

Now fold the comforter in half at your center line, and straight-stitch around the two cut edges, so that you make a long, narrow envelope with the opening at a short side - the finished edge of the comforter.

Flip it inside out, fluff it up, stuff your foam into it, and stitch in three or four spots to close the envelope. Now you have a soft-as-a-cloud cushion!

To make the cushion cover, use the same dimensions that you used for the down envelope - 20" x 52" in my case. Luckily, the dimensions fall within most fabric widths, so you'll only need about a yard and a half of fabric.

Draw two rectangles the same size as the envelope onto the fabric, and cut them out, leaving 1/2" to 1" seam allowances. Install an invisible zipper (follow the instructions here) on one of the short sides. Now, with the right sides of the fabric against each other, just sew along the other three sides. Flip it right-side-out, and insert your cushion!

I had friends over for coffee and breakfast this morning, and the new configuration was a big hit. Hanging a big tablecloth over the table pulled everything together more, and made it feel even more like a cozy little nook at a neighborhood cafe.


  1. What a clever idea! (And I love your room way more than any of the ones in that fancy house you linked to.) I'm trying to figure out how I could do this in my house...

  2. We are thinking of doing a similar thing in our apt. Yours looks great!

  3. Thank you, thank you, thank you! I live in a small old single wide apartment and I am always looking for ways to save space! I got some scrap wood the other day and I think I will build a bench! It would work great for my boys to sit on!

  4. What a good way to reuse an old comforter! I'm totally going to use this idea in my kids playroom, so they have a nice soft area for reading. Thank you!

  5. Thanks, all of you! Sarah, I appreciate that sentiment!

    CB - I checked out your great post, and it reminds me of a point I meant to bring up. I usually make furniture plans in a drafting program (I use Revit) before I move a lot of furniture around. In this case, it was easy enough to just slide the table into the corner, but I recently had grand ideas for reconfiguring our bedroom, and drawing it first in plan saved us a lot of trouble and frustration. I have a saved file with a complete floorplan of our house, as well as little boxes drawn that correspond to most of our furniture. We even open it up when we're having a lot of people over for dinner - it helps plan how to get the most efficient seating out of a space.

    If you don't have Revit or a 2D drafting program like AutoCad, you can download Google SketchUp for free. However, the program's not really designed for this kind of thing, so old-fashioned pen and paper might be the best method.

    Thanks again!

  6. That quarter-scale dog of yours really helps make the room feel larger as well.

  7. Excuse me, Tim. Huey is 3/8" = 1' thank you very much. Although he'd just had a bath, so I guess he may have shrunk a little.