When the clutter starts closing in and the family room is beginning to feel crowded and claustrophobic, you can't be blamed for thinking that the solution is more floor space. But floor space isn't the only -- or even the most important -- measure of a good room. Making the most of vertical space can make small rooms and small homes look larger and living in them much better.
If floor space is at a premium, it's time to rethink the role of walls as mere boundaries and room enclosures. Lined with floor-to-ceiling shelves, a wall can be a library; lined with cabinets, it's an entertainment center or a place for liquor or china. Add a counter and you've got a buffet or a desk for a home office.
Exploiting the walls is a highly efficient way to get enormous quantities of storage without gobbling up precious floor space. Built in or brought in, vertical storage units are the living room and family room equivalents of multipurpose appliances: ovens that combine conventional, convection and microwave modes; food processors that chop, slice, dice and shred.
Custom-made built-ins will give you a better fit -- for the room, the things you want to store and the functions you want to perform. You can specify open or closed compartments for the television and stereo equipment; drawers for CDs, cassettes and tapes; shelves for books; racks for magazines; and surfaces for a personal computer and printer.
A skilled carpenter or cabinetmaker can also match custom-made built-ins to your home's architectural style and existing woodwork, and you can choose painted or stained finishes compatible with trim, wood floors and wood furniture.
Naturally, custom-made storage units are often costlier than ready-mades from the furniture store because of the skill, materials and time required to fabricate them. The upside is that you get genuine built-ins that look as if they came with the house. If you have to choose between expensive woods and expensive labor, go for the labor. A skilled cabinetmaker can make even pine or veneered plywood look good.
A good compromise between built-ins and bought units is to use ready-made kitchen cabinets. Manufacturers have taken great strides in recent years toward giving kitchen cabinets a furniture-quality look. That's because so many open-plan kitchens are visible from adjacent family rooms or great rooms.
Because stock kitchen cabinets come in an almost endless variety of sizes -- not to mention styles and finishes -- you can combine components to fit almost any space you have. You can also order units with drawers or doors, pull-out shelves, bins or baskets, and counter tops for desk or buffet surfaces.
An in-store designer at the cabinet dealership, armed with your wall dimensions and storage needs, can work up a design for you. The units can be delivered within a matter of weeks, if they're not in stock, and installed in a day or two.
It's easier still and more affordable to simply buy wall units and entertainment centers from a furniture store. If you haven't been furniture shopping lately, you'll be surprised at how commonplace these multipurpose pieces have become. Almost all the major American furniture manufacturers -- Baker, Thomasville, Henredon, Ethan Allen and others -- are offering them in traditional, contemporary and country styles.
In some cases you can order the kinds of storage components that suit you best -- compartments for televisions and stereo equipment, drop-down desk surfaces for a PC, cubbyholes for mail, racks for magazines, shelves for books, drawers for files and solid or glass doors. Even in standardized units, sizes vary, so you can get a wall unit that fits a particular wall.
Manufacturers of ready-to-assemble units have also expanded their inventories of storage furniture. Sauder Woodworking's Coventry Collection, for example, includes open and closed "library" components that can be combined with a stereo/TV entertainment unit.
The units come in a washed-pine finish with bun feet. A library unit with shelves, one with shelves and doors, and an entertainment cabinet will run about $560.
The Monarch line from Sauder (call  523-3987 for the nearest distributor) includes a handsome and ingenious computer cabinet. When closed, it resembles a tall, narrow china cabinet. When open, it amounts to an office in a box, providing four work surfaces, adjustable shelves for books, tapes and disks, a built-in bulletin board, hanging files, and a handy light fixture above the printer.
Multipurpose storage furniture can help you rein in clutter by providing a home for it and reduce the number of individual pieces of furniture you think you need. If crowding is a problem, it may well make more sense to buy -- or build -- one piece of furniture that fulfills a variety of needs than a variety of pieces that meet only one need each.
Pub Date: 12/29/96