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Big Design for the Small Space

No matter where the modern bohemian settles—whether it's the West or East Village, Williamsburg, Harlem, or the Lower East Side—space (or the lack of it) is likely to be a prime concern. Though the nomadic Dawn Powell eventually landed in rather spacious digs, she was surely familiar with the meager flats she describes in her novels—just the sort of pad

Suzuki Beane's family moved into a few decades later. Even the lucky occupants of the rent-stabilized one-bedrooms at 26 Grove Street have to squeeze the accumulation of a lifetime into 500 square feet. With this compression in mind, I set off in search of items that would fit comfortably into—and perhaps even brighten—the lives of urban apartment dwellers, wherever they may be.

Given our focus on Greenwich Village, I started there and fanned out, dismayed at first to find stores that looked promising just months ago had either been overrun with hideous tchotchkes or gone out of business. But the store at 801 Greenwich Street that bears Steven Sclaroff's name and features, according to its calling card, "furniture, lighting, art, accessories, things you don't already have," more than makes up for the losses. Sclaroff, who went public last November with what had been a private showroom business, has assembled the sort of eclectic mix of antique and modern, American and European pieces that has always characterized the Village. Everything here has a kind of offhand elegance, and much of it could fit just as easily into Powell's milieu as Suzuki's—or ours. Among the classics: slim, black, slat-backed, and rush-bottomed Italian side chairs—an anonymous pair for $500 or a pedigreed Gio Ponti version (complete with scuff marks) for $750. Even for a dedicated gym fetishist, the magnificently scarred and sweat-stained '30s leather pummel horse ($850) at the store's entrance might be impractically large, but a woven-leather-and-steel stool with an equally rich patina ($450) delivers a similar charge on a smaller scale.

illustration: Jessica Abel

If these prices fall out of your range, it's a short walk to Bodum (413-415 West 14th Street), the only U.S. outlet for the Danish company best known for its coffeemakers. Java still rules at this cheery, spacious store and café, but Bodum also features a full line of inexpensive, well-designed housewares. When you can no longer face that chipped china and shelf of mismatched glasses, here's the place to stock up. A set of six capacious Kvadrant tumblers, with their softly rounded shape, is $15; six beer glasses are $17. Six hefty Corona glass dinner plates are on sale for $30; the porcelain equivalent, also Shaker simple, is six for $42. This Spartan style blends nicely with the store's tightly woven wicker pillows. The extra-large square ones ($49.95) would provide chic, comfortable support for dinner at a low coffee table this summer and durable extra seating year-round. Somewhat smaller squares ($29.95) and woven "logs" ($29.95) could accessorize your mattress on the floor or your towel at the beach.

Still in the neighborhood, swing by the reliable and ever-expanding Mxyplyzyk (123 and 125 Greenwich Avenue), where they have handsome four-legged knockoffs of Alvar Aalto's famous three-legged wooden stacking stool for $25, $30, and $35, the last in kitchen-counter height. (The original 1933 design, still in production in Finland, is at the MOMA Design Store's Soho outpost at 81 Spring Street in natural birch with either a black or white laminate top for $165.)

Mxyplyzyk also carries a few examples of Isamu Noguchi's modernist touchstone, the Akari paper lamp, which easily outshine the store's gaggle of copies. First introduced in the early '50s, these witty, humble designs—Noguchi called them "elegant people's art"—combine traditional Japanese lantern-making with the sculptor's effortless finesse. Because the early models cost less than $10, I can imagine one illuminating a corner of Suzuki Beane's pad, and, though the prices have gone way up, they remain timelessly hip more than half a century later. The MOMA Design Store has a wider assortment of table and floor models, each with a white collapsible shade made of handmade washi paper wrapped around delicate bamboo ribbing, most supported on spindly metal legs, and ranging in price from $85 to $725. But the best selection of these artful creations is at the store of the Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum (temporarily located at 36-01 43rd Avenue in Sunnyside, Queens) and through its Web site, www.noguchi.org, which features more than 100 table, floor, and ceiling styles.

To pursue this pared-down Asian aesthetic, check out Soho's excellent Global Table (107-109 Sullivan Street or www.globaltable.com), which has a range of sturdy, country-style bamboo chairs and stools from China that would blend into virtually any contemporary decor. The low stools, ideal for stacking magazines or books, range from $18 to $30; the taller ones, at $40, would make fine end tables or sofa-side support for dinner in front of the TV, especially if paired with one of Global's classy wooden serving trays. A nesting trio of beautifully grained and feather-light Kiri wood trays is a bargain at $15, $20, and $25 each. But perhaps you'd prefer to dispense with the sofa altogether, and take to the floor with stools, trays, and those Bodum wicker pillows or this store's sea-grass cushions: two large woven mats whipstitched around a flat, fabric-covered square of foam for $32.

Getting down to floor level is always a little more appealing if you've got a nice rug to do it on. For that, head back to the Village and investigate Galileo (37 Seventh Avenue, at 13th Street), where they have an attractive selection of hand-hooked wool area rugs in especially sophisticated colors and patterns that recall everything from Bloomsbury's homey avant-garde to American Arts and Crafts. One geometric design of accordion-folded cards is $337 for the four-by-six-foot size, and $725 for the six-by-nine. A fanciful wave pattern of stylized curlicues in blues, greens, and magentas, comes in a two-by-four-foot size for $125. Other designs and sizes are rolled up in one of the store's neat overhead shelving units, and many more can be special-ordered. Like Mxyplyzyk and Global Table, Galileo also has a savvy selection of housewares and some of the cleverest decorative pillows in town, embroidered and collaged with chickens, cats, roosters, frogs, and fish ($32 and $45) but far too artful to be merely cute.

John Derian, at 6 East 2nd Street, just off the Bowery, understands this fusion of art and craft. The store's trademark—vibrantly colored vintage botanical etchings printed on plates, cups, vases, note cards, and paperweights—is echoed in all the stock. Give that mattress on the floor a realm-of-the-senses makeover with one of Derian's quilted coverlets of silky soft cotton voile block-printed in India in highly original patterns. The palm tree design, the flip side of which is a riot of fronds and leaves, comes in tones of green, red, yellow, or (while they last) blue, and would make the starkest room feel luxurious. At $176 for a 57-inch-square throw and $264 for a single-size spread, these are serious indulgences, but now you can ditch that plaid blanket your brother gave you.

But no weekend shopping excursion is complete without a trip to the 26th Street flea market, the first stop for anyone, bohemian or bourgeois, looking for an unpredictable bargain. Given time and lots of patience, you could easily furnish any pad or palace from these scruffy lots, and there are plenty of regular dealers you can count on. One of the most reliable is Bert Ouellette (860-355-4396), who sets up in the main pay lot on Sixth Avenue, and always has enough Knoll office furniture to fill a conference room, including, sometimes, the table. Eero Saarinen's classic scoop chair, upholstered in various nubby fabrics, is here at $60 a pop ($80 with arms), along with the occasional tulip table ($600) and other MOMA-collection icons.

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