In this designer's home, high style doesn't require huge spaces

In a country where bigger is touted as better, choosing to live in a small home can feel like swimming against the tide. But Marietta Ries has no compunction about her decision to live little.

When she and her partner, Pete Boettcher, both 54, decided to ditch urban life, they found an 1,800-square-foot duplex in Ellicott City’s historic Oella neighborhood. Ries fell for the home’s features, including its petite proportions.
“I loved the charming architectural elements, the brick and stone, the wood floors, the little niches,” she says.
The 19th-century building is thought to have been the home of a supervisor at one of Oella’s mills. Though you enter through a modern addition with an open-plan kitchen and dining room (as well as a little powder room), the home exudes historic charm — almost every room features a fireplace.
Ries is the sole proprietor of Marietta Ries Designs and senior interior design consultant for Alexander Blank Fabrics and Design in Timonium, so she has a good eye for how to make the tiniest space into a showpiece.
While she won’t shy away from using bold color and painted ceilings in a small space, in her own home she wanted a soothing color scheme that would also introduce light into the rooms. She chose to paint the rooms in shades of gray with white ceilings.
“I feel very strongly about flow to create a sense of continuity,” she explains. “Here, the rooms are choppy and small, so I stayed on one paint card.”
The limited space created challenges with seating and storage, so Ries chose furniture that could be flexible.
“In a small space, I’m in favor of a small sectional with storage or a cocktail ottoman for movable seating,” she says. In the living room, for example, a sectional, two large chairs and a coffee table are the grounding pieces in the room. Small ottomans and a French chair serve as transitional pieces that can be pulled up for more seating or can easily be moved into another room for more space.
Throughout the home, Ries used neutral colors on the large pieces of furniture, sticking to a spectrum of whites and grays, introducing color with pillows and through her personal collectibles. An avid collector of authentic antique majolica, Ries used two majolica oyster plates displayed in one of the home’s deep windowsills to inspire the citron shades in the living room. A modern painting over the fireplace also livens the room.
The house is built into a hill, with the master bedroom and an adjoining sitting room at ground level. The sitting room, which has a functioning fireplace, received a similar treatment to the living room, with neutral slipcovers placed over a settee paired with an enormous ottoman — perfect for snuggling by the fire and watching television. Bright pillows in a modern floral bring a spark to the space.
Ries describes the master bedroom as a room that is very important to her as a place of respite, even though you may only be in it for a short time. The room is a contrast in textures. A huge fireplace, likely part of an old kitchen, almost fills one wall, and the room is dominated by exposed stone. The layout left only one wall where it made sense to place the king-sized bed. In contrast, Ries put down a warming, wall-to-wall rug and used a headboard upholstered in paisley matelasse, soft materials that offset beautifully against the natural stone. Even with the addition of a chair and an antique writing table, a precious piece Ries wanted to incorporate, there’s ample space to move comfortably in the bedroom. The gray walls are a perfect backdrop to a collection of antique purses hung in tonal shadow boxes.
Often, people fear that living small means never entertaining, but Ries loves the contemporary vibe of the open-plan kitchen and dining room, and she comfortably hosted Thanksgiving last year. An island demarcates the functional, culinary part of the room, while a long dining table and a combination of upholstered chairs in gray linen and velvet provide an entertaining space. Ries has culled her majolica collection, but not so much that she can’t still display some in a large sideboard. Even though it is a big piece, the open ironwork makes it feel airy.
“Everyone has special pieces that create that patchwork for their past that is part of them and makes their house a home,” Ries says. “But you have to be selective about big pieces.”
When she moved, she was determined to keep a large armoire she’d had for many years. She hoped to put it in the master bedroom, but it would not fit down the stairs. She compromised, placing it in the office, where she balanced its large proportions with a slim-line desk.
The beauty of this small home isn’t simply in its design but in the lifestyle it facilitates. Ries says she and Boettcher can turn the key and walk away without worry of maintenance costs and large-scale problems typical of a larger home. “It’s a real treat to live comfortably in every room,” she adds, “without feeling like there is any wasted space.”