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Condo boom fueling demand for space-efficient furniture, experts say

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TORONTO - The pint-sized units inside the glass condo towers popping up all over urban centres aren't the only things getting smaller.

"Every major furniture retailer now has a line that is apartment or condo sized," says Elaine Cecconi, co-owner of interior design consultant firm Cecconi Simone.

"There's so much product out there for small-space inhabitants that it's become more of the mainstream, I would say, than a trend in the furniture industry."

Census figures for 2011 released in February show multi-unit dwellings — a category that includes condominiums — making up roughly half of all new housing stock, a category traditionally led by detached homes.

The numbers also indicate that Canadians are flocking to urban centres. Toronto's population jumped more than 17 per cent over the previous census period in 2006.

This condo boom, fuelled by lifestyle changes and efforts to curb urban sprawl, is in turn revolutionizing the furniture retail business. As our cities become denser and space becomes more limited, there's a growing demand for compact, space efficient and multi-use furniture, says Cecconi.

Storage units with fold-out beds inside. Adjustable tables that drop down from dining room to coffee table height. These modern, European-style furnishings are booming in popularity as designers and retailers respond to dimishing physical space.

"It's a way to multi-task within a limited square footage," says Cecconi.

"It's really imperative that furniture be the right size for these units. You don't want oversized furniture that's intended for a more conventional home in a small space unit because it overtakes the room that it sits in."

Renters like Meagan Kashty are having to purge many of their belongings to squeeze into smaller living spaces.

Kashty, 24, says she will trading a room in her parents' spacious Oakville home for a bachelor unit in downtown Toronto next month.

"I have this gorgeous kitchen table with chairs but I can't bring it with me," says Kashty.

"There's no space for it. I'm going to basically be eating off of TV trays and coffee tables."

Jim Danahy, who runs retail consulting firm CustomerLAB, says the compact furniture trend first appeared in the U.S. in the early 2000s and surfaced in Toronto around 2005.

It's most prevalent in cities with a higher concentration of "micro condos," like Toronto and Vancouver, says Danahy.

Compact furniture is also growing in popularity in Calgary, says Cecconi, thanks to the building boom that's underway there.

Winnpeg-based furniture company EQ3 says it's opening a new store in downtown Toronto by the end of August to cater to growing demand for its small, European-style furnishings.

"We are opening a new store right in the heart of the condo boom in Toronto, in Liberty Village, due to specifically these reasons," says Thom Fougere, the company's creative director.

The furniture maker and retailer launched in 2001, and its offerings are aimed directly at those living in tight spaces, says Fougere.

The company produces a lot of modular pieces, which allow consumers to shrink or expand an item to fit their home.

"The type of furniture we make is very common in Europe and even in Asia," says Fougere.

"I think it does appeal to a variety of audiences, but it especially appeals to people who dwell in smaller spaces."

But the prevalence of tiny condo units isn't the only thing driving the desire for space-efficient furniture.

Compact furniture is also increasingly popular in the suburbs, partly because people are drawn to the aesthetics and functionality of modern furniture, and partly because families outside of major city centres are also downsizing their homes.

"Townhouses are getting smaller and narrower, so the same principles apply, whether you're designing a 650-square foot one-bedroom den in a tower downtown or a 1,200-square foot townhouse," says Cecconi.

"You have to be really adept at utilising space in an efficient and functional way."

That means despite predictions by some experts that the condo craze is a bubble headed for a burst, the demand for space-efficient furniture is well positioned to endure.

"The move toward smaller, less overstuffed furniture and more modern designs is here to stay," said Danahy.

"As the overall population moves from the large, 5,000-square foot McMansion in the suburbs, even if it's to a decent-sized three bedroom condo or home, the need for more compact furniture is still going to be there."

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