At 35sqm, this micro-apartment in 38 I Suites by Studio Wills + Architects is its smallest project yet
OCTOBER SPECIAL | Small apartment interior design series, story 2 of 3
To watch any YouTube episode of Never Too Small, a Melbourne-based collective committed to the small footprint design of apartments, is to realise the ingenuity of the human mind. But it is also how, in the right hands of a sympathetic designer, less is always so much more. Each six- to eight-minute episode clearly demonstrates that there can be, surprisingly, an indirect correlation between the size of a small apartment and the quality of life of its occupants.
Yet, one cannot help but wonder just what must have gone through William Ng’s mind when he was approached to work on this 35sqm micro-apartment in 38 I Suites in Ipoh Lane. The architect admitted that while his firm Studio Wills + Architects seeks out unusual briefs, and building or apartment types, this is by far the smallest project they’ve taken on to date.
Like a Jenga puzzle
The original floor plan divided the pocket-sized space into the quotidian bedroom and en suite, both of which were segregated by a wall from the combined living, dining and kitchen, with a small anteroom tacked on at the entrance foyer, almost like an afterthought.
The client, a graphic designer for whom Ng had previously worked with on her first apartment, insisted on plenty of storage space, so that everything could be put away when not in use, and hidden to create a clean, uncluttered look and vibe. Both the size of the apartment and a lean budget meant that he had to minimise wasted space and keep a lid on the expenses.
Ng shares, “We strove to keep as many elements of the original apartment as possible and this included the floor, walls and doors. We had to perform various material matching on-site.”
Yet, he was conscious that while he did not want to start with a clean slate, he did want the result to read as a cohesive whole, as if the apartment had been completely renovated.
His first move was to knock down part of the kitchen wall, and the wall separating the bedroom from the rest of the apartment. Next, he planned three interlocking volumes that “slid” into place like a Jenga puzzle. The innermost is a bijou bathroom nested by a surrounding block that contains the kitchen and storage units.
These first two volumes, he explains further, create a timber box that “binds all the storage requirements as one entity, while keeping all the untidiness out of sight”. In particular, the walk-in wardrobe, located just off the bathroom, provides the owner with easy access to her clothes as dressing up at the vanity area is an integral part of her daily routine.
The final third volume wraps around the timber box and is made up of the living, dining and bedroom. This is, in effect, a continuous open space that loops around the first two volumes. Ng says it helps to create a sense of spaciousness, “an illusion that is necessary for an apartment with such a small footprint”.
The odd, reflexive space at the entrance now holds a shoe cabinet and a small foyer, which is also accessible from the bathroom, so that, as Ng puts it, “the owner can put on her shoes, grab a bag and head out from the anteroom after getting ready”, without going all around the apartment back through the bathroom, bedroom and living room.
A deeper function of renewal
Aiding the cause of light and airiness, the colour and materials palette were important. Ng took pains to cleave to bright monotones and textures, which explains the timber laminates to create the impression that one is stepping in and out of a simple, yet sleek box, alongside white-washed walls and cream-hued floors. Diaphanous floor-to-ceiling curtains gently close off spaces for privacy but without impeding the sense of flowing motion of movement around the apartment.
For Ng, the design hides a deeper function of renewal. Needs and tastes change over time, he says, and so, the layout of the apartment is future-proofed in the sense that fixtures and fittings are limited to the central timber box. While most of the innermost two volumes of the timber box are swathed in customised finishes, the rest of the apartment is furnished with store-bought pieces.
“We deliberately kept the rest of the looping space pared down, so that it could become a backdrop or canvas with the possibility of different settings of furniture and layout of spaces. The owner can move spaces around and restyle as she wants. This was our response to sustainable design or sustainability.”
It is a sleight of hand that gratifies as much for its thoughtful functionality, as its meditation on just how internal living volumes can and should be manipulated. This is especially in the context of the modern developers’ predilection for squeezing maximum profit out of a business model that’s based on price per square foot.
That said, in a way, the 38 I Suites apartment is something of an anomaly in Ng’s practice. In the year or so since the project was completed, he and his five-strong studio have been working on a mix of multi-generational manses in Binjai Park and Victoria Park, alongside a pair of large apartments in Amber Park and Holland Park.
While bigger residential projects certainly present their own challenges, it’s reasonable to wonder when the next small apartment will present itself; if for no other reason than to see just what other nifty tricks Ng and his crew have up their sleeves.