Editor’s note: Last updated on October 31, 2021
“It’s a small apartment.
I’ve barely enough room to lay my hat and a few friends.” – Dorothy Parker
Any home might have a tiny room as part of the whole, but oftentimes, a tiny room is the home.
Stop thinking small is a bad thing. This will shift your mindset away from believing you have to fix it. Embrace your space as is. While it’s true that clever editing and space saver ideas rule, it’s also true that in a small space, you can get away with wonderfully outrageous style statements, that tried in a larger area, would be overwhelming.
It’s an inside job: Wall color is a powerful tool.
Who knew? Surprisingly, medium or darker wall colors add to a feeling of comfortable enveloping warmth, rather than make the room seem smaller.
Dark colors seem to recede and while light colors appear to advance.
Case in point: You probably haven’t noticed the ceiling color of some commercial spaces. You don’t notice it because it’s been painted some blacker shade of dark and it has apparently disappeared. Neat trick.
Push Me Pull You: Try using one shade of paint color on the north and south walls and a slightly deeper shade of the same color on the east and west walls.
You can make a room look longer (dark shades recede) or more square (light shades advance)with no demolition.
What’s your favorite color? A monochromatic color scheme is the most effective in expanding your horizons within the envelope. The mind’s eye stops to register every change, particularly with color. Ergo, in a small space especially, minimizing the number of visual contrasts will be space enhancing.
For this reason, paint the doors and trims the same color as the walls but in a satin finish. For a little more definition, start with painting the walls slightly darker than the trim and the ceiling a shade or more lighter.
Shiny pretty things. While it’s true that a gloss finish highlights any surface imperfections, you might experiment with lacquer or a semi-gloss paint for the ceilings, anyway. The shine seems to blur the perception of room boundaries, which can make a room seem larger than it actually is. You may have noticed a recurring theme by now.
Dark colors with glossy finishes are great because the sheen takes the edge off what might be otherwise murky.
Be bold and use the same color for the drapery and upholstery too.The key to making a one-color scheme look great is to vary the shade of color to get lights, mediums and darks. Add a variety of textures such as a reflective and/or shiny surfaces contrasted with course textured fabrics.
Best case scenario. We all want to use what we already have if possible, instead of tossing everything out and starting over. But when/where you have a choice, try to confine yourself to two colors and the rest neutrals or natural materials.
A lot of different colors can read as too busy no matter what size room you have.
White Wonder: Don’t assume that if you paint a teeny room white it will magically appear larger. It won’t, though the room will appear brighter. In terms of seeming to enlarge an area, consider white paint only if you really like white.
Oh, Stop Pouting. To be fair, color preferences are emotional and subjective. If you’re convinced that white paint is the only way to go regardless, there is a way to make white work wonders in a small space. Paint the floors white too, The white shell effect on all six surfaces makes the edges where the walls meet much less noticeable. So yeah, in this case, the room could conceivably look a bit bigger.
Actually, this shell effect works with any color.
I don’t like white, much. Weird but true: white paint in an inherently dark room somehow looks like an unnatural act.
Shades of colors used to work with the existing conditions of light are your best bet. In other words, in a dark room, bright Sunlight Yellow won’t serve you as well as Mellow Old Gold.
Acting as if. Yes, the perceived shortcomings of your little room can be annoying, but don’t forget to play up any good features that might exist such as a fireplace, great views, or even beautiful molding.
If you find that your low ceilings qualify as “unfortunate architecture”, then wallpaper can do wonders. You can bring a low ceiling to new heights visually by using vertically striped wallpaper. Also, the larger pieces of furniture should be low slung and lean. Think twice about a high backed wing chair. There are times when a few pieces of large scale furniture and nothing else is very effective, but that’s a discussion for another day.
A Pattern Language. A patterned paper can disguise irregularities in old walls too. Hopeless little attic rooms with the ceilings sloping on all sides can be transformed by using a small patterned paper on all walls, including the ceiling. The odd wall angles become un-noticeable. Not for everyone, but using the same patterned fabric on the upholstered furniture, window coverings, bedclothes (if applicable) and walls can look spectacular.
Hit the ground running. Make your furniture work hard. No slackers allowed.
- A sofa can be your bed too.
- Your bed can be a divan stacked three deep in pillows.
- The dining table is also your desk.
- The coffee table is also your dining table, if you add a few floor cushions.
Multi-tasking is your mantra for small space living.
Case in point: A divine divan. A double size bed (54”wide) on a simple platform (Use one with drawers underneath for extra storage) placed long ways against the wall works best, but why quibble over the extra 6″ a queen size bed offers. Use three rows of big pillows along the back. Start with three 28” squares (for example) for the back layer, then a layer of 24” squares and finally a 22” layer. I’m using these measures to give you a place to start. Any combination of sizes will work as long as they are big and cushy.
Disappearing Act: Minimize what you might call “visual blockage”. Use furniture with legs and metal-framed tables with glass tops. “See through” is good.
Lucite, plexiglass and real glass are the best “there is no there, there” solutions.
An open bookcase used to divide an area is great because it offers little visual impediment. Furniture, such as a sofa can be used as a divider also. You might separate a TV area from a dining room, office or reading corner in this way.
Instead of backing the bed all the way to the wall, you can create a dressing room in a bedroom. Use the headboard as the divider between the sleeping and dressing areas.
Drapery rods are available that attach to the ceiling so a “wall of fabric” can be hung behind the headboard to complete the illusion of a separate room. Fabric walls and screens too, can create an entry area out of thin air. They can hide a variety of “problems” such as boxed goods that must be saved,or equipment that has no where else to go.
Play Your Cards Right. Round or oval coffee tables are good. No corners means no bruising as you pass by in a tight space. A round dining table with comfortable chairs is a hub around which you can read, write, play cards…and of course, dine.
Seeing Is Believing: Mirrors are magical when it comes to making a room seem larger. The trick is to hang them in places that reflect something of interest in the room. Use a mirror opposite or beside a window with a great view, for example.
The benefit of hanging a mirror to reflect a window is that the natural light coming though the window will be doubled. Speaking of extra light, having “shiny pops” and extra sparkle from metal or crystal accessories are brilliant in more ways than one. They will enhance the notion that your small space is actually a private jewel box of wonder.
There are two schools of thought on furniture size for a small room:
The standard caveat for furniture size is that it always be proportional to the size of the room. This is particularly relevant if you need to have more furniture for the sake of multi-tasking in one room.
- The standard depth of a sofa is 32”-36”. Sofas can be found at only 28”deep and can be very comfortable.
- Standard sofa length is about 84” but there are other options.
- There is also a sofa size known as “apartment length” at 72”.
- Love seats are only 60” wide and can seat two very well.
- Round or oval side and coffee tables serve best in small space.
OR…have very few pieces but of a larger more dramatic scale. You can even pare down to ONE VERY LARGE ITEM with a couple of supporting players in the form of a small table or chair as needed.
A big bed in a small room is dramatic and somehow makes the room seem bigger. Another possibility is a sofa that’s nearly wall to wall with a VERY BIG PICTURE over it.
Conversely, tiny rugs in tiny rooms look very sad.
Getting right sized. Area rugs can help define areas within a room. Rugs of different patterns are fine as long as the colors coordinate. Using the same size rugs, side by side will delineate different areas such as a living area from a dining area. This works well as long as the two areas are of equal proportions. Otherwise, different size rugs will be more interesting
I have a love/hate relationship with wall-to-wall carpeting because it isn’t all that interesting. However, it’s wonderful for living on, i.e., playing with the kids and/or pets. Your bare feet will be happy when you first rise from your bed every morning, etc.
In terms of practical design application, carpeting grounds and unifies a room visually because of its broad expanse and will lend the illusion of greater room proportions . A good hedge position is to have an area rug cut and finished from a roll of broadloom carpeting that is large enough to leave a 6” perimeter of flooring around the room. Added value: you can take it with you if you move.
The real key to living gracefully in a small home is ingenuity in creating storage space.
Put drawers in and under everything possible. Use pocket doors. Build storage to fit alcoves, nooks and crannies. The end walls of long narrow rooms are often a good possibility too.
If you are desperate enough, you may finally get around to weeding out all the old junk and un-wearable clothing.
Commit blasphemy. Closet space is sacred space to most of us, but consider whether you can gain valuable real estate by knocking out one or two of them. Can you figure out some other avenues for storage?
Reconstructive surgery. If you tear up at the prospect of killing a closet and the closet in question is at least thirty-six inches deep, you are in luck.
- The back twelve inches can be fitted with adjustable shelves, (think shoes or maybe seasonal storage) while the front twenty-four inches can be dedicated to hanging clothes.
- Extra credit for using two clothing bars at different levels. The closet will hold double the number of your shorter items like shirts, jackets, skirts, and pants hung over the hanger cross rod.
Be counter-intuitive. Standard counter height is about thirty-six inches. Can you manage with a lower counter height? The lower the counter, the greater the illusion of a bigger space. In the same spirit, floor to ceiling cabinets are room-size killers because the ceiling surface is reduced.
Work those walls too. Install shelves in corner spaces and hang up as much as is reasonable, like the pots and pans or bedside lighting.
Shine a light. While saving space and paring down is essential, don’t opt for recessed lighting (or any ceiling mounted lighting for that matter) and think this will be all you need. For starters, overhead lighting of this type can be too much of a commercial look for homes.
More importantly, no one looks good under it.
The best use for recessed lighting is as wall washers (good for lighting art) or for low level ambient lighting to erase dark corners. Standing floor lamps and wall mounted fixtures not only won’t take up much space but also earn their keep by going a very long way towards showing your home in the best light, literally.
Use pairs where you can. Symmetry and balance helps small spaces look unified and less chaotic (and distracting) than having one-off pieces of everything, everywhere.
There is no such thing as random accident chic. Whether your home is space deprived or spacious, thought must be given to all aspects of building the home design that’s perfect for you.
Every gesture you make should be considered. You’re better off with a few well-considered larger pieces of furniture rather than several iffy small ones. Edit as much as possible and find containers of some sort for the small indispensables.
When in doubt, rotate your favorite things in and out of the room a few times a year. When they rotate back in, it’s as lovely as seeing old friends who have been away on extended journeys.
Good Housekeeping 101. Be meticulous, not only in your choices, but (it must be said) with your housekeeping too.
Clutter is never a good look.
I love your comments and do feel free to share!
These articles are written as guides with general advice to help you, help yourself find the best design solutions for your home.
Thank you for the opportunity to help where I can.