LIVING LARGE IN SMALL SPACES: Interior Design Strategies for Smaller Homes

Tiny living is having its day, with more people than ever taking on the challenge of living small or at least paring back to focus on the essentials.  By now most of us are at least somewhat familiar with Marie Kondo’s recommendations for getting rid of items that no longer “spark joy.”   Even thrift stores are feeling the effects of her books and Netflix series with donations trending up from previous years.

For many, living small is a conscious choice, but for others it is a necessity based on affordability.  Regardless of the motivation, living in a small space requires both creativity and flexibility.  While the challenges are real, even the most cramped spaces can be comfortable, functional and yes, aesthetically pleasing, with careful planning.

Plan Ahead for How You Want to Live

Consider the function of each space before selecting furnishings or decorative items to fill it.  It’s much easier to find pieces that are best suited to the space after you have defined what you plan to do in that space. This advance knowledge may also help you select options suited to multiple functions.

This Ikea kitchen illustrates how a table can provide valuable workspace when not being use for dining.

For example, a coffee table with storage capacity will take up less space than two separate pieces.  However, if you know you’ll need to be moving things around from time to time, a couple of smaller tables would offer the desired flexibility. Also be conscious of pieces that serve a single function, but take up significant space.  A traditional dining table often occupies valuable real estate, but is used sparingly.  Selecting a dining table that serves double duty as a desk or creating a breakfast bar for meals incorporates like functions together while freeing up space for other uses.

Don’t Let the Door Hit You in the. . .

Standard swing doors can be space hogs.  Sliding, barn or pocket doors are great options to provide unobstructed open space between rooms or for covering a closet or wardrobe. Barn doors are easiest to introduce as a later addition since the hardware and track are external. Sliding doors take up the least amount of space, disappearing entirely into the wall in the case of pocket doors.

You Can Still Go Big When Living Small

Extending cabinets to the ceiling, like this Ikea Kitchen example, can help increase the perceived scale of a space. The glass doors and lighting brighten up the space.

Filling a tiny space with a bunch of small pieces just ends up feeling cluttered.  Consider a statement piece, which can ultimately help cut down on the number of items in your space.  Using larger furnishings probably seems counterintuitive, but a carefully chosen bigger piece can help increase the perceived scale in a room. One possible example would be bookcases or cabinets that extend all the way to the ceiling.  This not only provides added storage, but also makes the room feel higher and larger.

The same rule holds true for area rugs.  An undersized rug will only add to the miniature feel of your space.  A larger area rug will create the illusion of a bigger space.

Adding Transparency and Light

Using glass doors and partitions will open up views, extend the reach of natural daylight and connect adjacent spaces.  And rather than a traditional, solid wood coffee table, consider a glass or acrylic top option to open up your space with a contemporary, sophisticated flair. Mirrors are another readily available option to make any space feel light, airy and larger.

Hanging it Up with Functional Décor

To minimize clutter while making a small space work hard for you, considering using wall and ceiling space.  Wall-mounted sconces or ceiling-mounted pendant lighting keep your spaces bright and soften the effect of overhead or recessed lighting.

This storage solution from Pottery Barn illustrates how backs of doors can be used effectively.

Walls and ceilings can also be used for added storage space that doubles as décor. This could be a wall-mounted bike rack or guitar hook where these functional elements serve as a statement piece for your walls when not being used.  Likewise, hanging kitchen utensils or pans in the kitchen provides visual appeal while keeping them easily accessible without cluttering countertops.  Even plants, which add life to residences of every size, can be hung on wall or ceiling hooks to conserve valuable floor space.

The backs of doors provide another opportunity for organizing items with numerous options for over-the-door hooks, baskets and racks. Baskets for storage and décor can also be hung on walls or tucked under side tables. Floating bookshelves are another solution for providing needed storage without taking up more floor space.  Just keep in mind that suspended shelves, and any items on them, become décor so organize accordingly.

Exploring Your Options When it Comes to Color 

This 650 SF Manhattan apartment featured in Architectural Digest illustrates careful use of color to create a bright and open space with visual interest through bold pops of color like the statement couch.

When it comes to color, the rule is that there is no rule!  Just as personal tastes and preferences vary, there are multiple approaches to effectively applying color to help small spaces live bigger.  Calming, even-toned rooms can lend a feeling of spaciousness, while subtle patterns and textures will add dimension. Another trick to make a room feel bigger and brighter is to use an all-white palette which allows light to bounce and reflect around the room.  However, bold colors can also make a small space appear larger while adding visual interest and dramatic flair. These saturated tones can help to add depth to your small space whether used throughout or as an accent.

Summing it Up

Small spaces can be challenging, but with a bit of extra thought you can still live big.  A bonus of living small is that it forces you to give up the clutter and embrace only the things that bring you joy.  Marie Kondo would be proud.

Kristin Novak, IIDA, LEED Green Associate enjoys the extra challenges of making small spaces work harder for our clients, including studio and one-bedroom units that require creative strategies to foster market appeal.

Jodi Kreider, LEED AP – Blog Editor

Another Innovative Small Space Concept We Love

Inspired by the Japanese method of organization known as 5S  the Australian architect Nicholas Gurney created a contemporary project of custom joinery, sliding partitions and moveable furniture to make the most of the limited space of this 258 square foot apartment. The dining table fits perfectly above and around the oven unit, freeing up floor space while complementing the clean line aesthetic of the kitchen.