An L.A. family shows how to downsize with imagination

Mary Jo Bowling,  –  May 3, 2005

Jennifer Cheh’s former home looked like a dream house. It was huge – about 9,000 square feet – and was located in an upscale Los Angeles neighborhood. “Needless to say, that’s a lot of house to take care of. It was a burden,” she says. “We lived there for years and never furnished all the rooms.”

Around the time Jennifer’s husband, Patrick, launched a second movie-production business, the couple decided to simplify. They sold the big house and moved with their two boys, Nicholas, 9, and Adrian, 7, into a 1,300-square-foot 1920s cottage. Although it sounds like a recipe for disaster, it proved to be a great move. “We scaled down so much, we had to prioritize and let a lot of stuff go. It was a cleansing experience,” Jennifer says.

Designing for a new life

In addition to being small, the house was dark and storage-challenged. To make it work for the family, Jennifer drew on her training as an architect, something she hadn’t done since becoming a full-time mom. “At first, it was daunting,” she says. “I knew I had to make the most of every inch, and I wanted to make it feel more spacious by letting in natural light.”

She did that by opening up interior walls along the central hall and replacing the drywall (not the studs) with panels of a ribbed translucent plastic material called Lexan Thermoclear Sheet (manufactured by GE Advanced Materials, and usually available through your contractor). “Now light comes in through the bedroom windows right into the core of the house. It’s much brighter,” Jennifer says. She used a similar technique in the master suite: A translucent sliding glass door efficiently separates the bedroom and bathroom while allowing each space to borrow light from the other. French doors now open the bedroom to a new deck along the rear of the house.

The next step involved rethinking the hallway. Originally it was just a passage; now it’s also a storage/work center. “We widened the hallway to 57 inches, taking space from the kitchen,” says Jennifer. “This allowed us to install a long desktop for the family computer and bookshelves for our books and photos.”

Storage space was at a premium. Jennifer created mini storage walls in each bedroom using white kitchen cabinets from Ikea ( for store locations). To save floor space, she used upper cabinets, which are only 12 inches deep, as floor cabinets, which are usually 24 inches deep.

Patrick based his new business in the backyard garage, which the family converted to office space. Jennifer turned one of its exterior walls – facing the rear yard – into a play surface by covering a section of it with chalkboard paint for the boys to draw on. 

Smaller is better

“Having a big house, we thought we needed more and bigger things. There was no end to it,” Patrick says. “We are much happier in this house.” Jennifer concurs: “Because we don’t have to spend hours on household chores, we have much more time for the kids.”

Design: Jennifer Cheh Design Studio [email protected]

What to keep, what to leave Moving to a small house meant the Cheh family had to give away many possessions – a process Jennifer describes as refreshing. Here’s what she learned.

Give away duplicates. “We had doubles and even triples of things,” says Jennifer. “That’s the easiest decision: Keep only one.”

Make downsizing a way of life. “With the kids, we started early,” says Jennifer. “We put out an empty box and asked them to put in the toys they didn’t play with anymore.”

Work with the scale of your home. The family was looking for maximum storage, but big pieces made the rooms in the new house seem small. Jennifer opted for long, low storage items to make the most of the space.

Save items that have sentimental value. “Sometimes it’s not a question of needing, it’s a matter of wanting,” Jennifer says. “We keep the things that mean something to us.”