Decorating and organizing a small room, apartment or house can be a challenge. It’s hard enough to balance practicality and style in a larger place, but in a space with a small footprint, comfort can quickly turn into clutter and chaos. With a few clever tricks and creativity, however, you can create plenty of storage in even the smallest of homes. Here are some suggestions from designers and organizers to help you make the most of every inch.
Use vertical space. “You don’t want all of your furniture going downstairs,” said Emily Sermons, user experience designer and founder of Shoebox Designs. Pulling the eye up gives dimension to the room and takes advantage of otherwise unused space. Choose tall chests of drawers, shelves, bedside tables and sideboards for maximum storage.
Get off the beaten track. Don’t limit yourself to furniture designed specifically for small spaces. These rooms are often too small or look like they belong in a college dorm. Decide what function each area needs, then consider your options. “Don’t think it’s just how the manufacturer tells you to use it.
Think of it how you want to use it,” said Kyra Edwards, senior interior designer at Bungalow. For example, she likes Ikea’s Trones ($34.99 for two, ikea.com) and Hemnes Shoe Cabinets ($129.99) as entryway totes for mail, pet leashes and more. Small dressers or chests can be bedside tables, and curio cabinets can make beautiful bars or vanities. Rolling carts, such as Ikea’s Raskog Utility Cart ($39.99), recommended by Edwards, can be used to hold spices or toiletries.
Bigger can be better. A room of small furniture can seem tiny and cramped. Select a few large pieces that can provide lots of storage and anchor the space. Larger and heavier objects will not weigh down a room if they are proportional to other rooms in the space. “Pay attention to the scale of the furniture,” said Kim Lewis, owner of Kim Lewis Designs.
Heather Goerzen, editor at Havenly, chose a larger sectional ottoman and coffee table for her living room, along with a 94½-inch-wide sideboard with glass doors and shelves. The space is full, but each room fulfills several functions.
Enjoy the nooks and crannies. Funky corners, built-ins, spaces above windows and doors, and areas under cabinets can all be repurposed to create display and storage spaces. Lewis hangs hooks and organizers under cabinets and shelves to create storage space for mugs and stemware — and she even hangs items from the ceiling. “You fill the cavity with that space and use it to capture more storage.”
She once installed toe kick drawers under a client’s lower cabinets to store baking sheets and supplies. And don’t forget one of the most obvious places: under the bed. Sermons uses the Container Store’s Long Underbed Box with Wheels ($31.99) and Copper Rattan Storage Bins with Handles ($19.99-$29.99, containerstore.com).
Create an empty space. “In a small space, I’m always drawn to furniture that hides things,” said Beatrice Copeland, professional organizer and host of Well organised. “There must be moments of nothing, whether it’s an empty piece of wall or a space next to a bed or sofa that remains empty.”
Fill spaces with a mix of open and closed rooms, some with doors and some without. Store the best-hidden items, such as tools, papers, and extra gadgets, and use open shelving and display cases for stylish vignettes.
Use vintage pieces. Many older items feature thin profiles. “A really easy way to add character and not feel like a dorm room is to go and see furniture that was made at the turn of the century, as it will usually have a smaller footprint,” Lewis said. Retro-style appliances, which are typically narrower, work well in small kitchens, bathrooms, and laundry rooms.
Lewis installed a Big Chill Retro Collection refrigerator and microwave in the 110-square-foot kitchen of his home in Austin, Texas. To save space without skimping on character, she’s once used vintage suitcases for storage in her bedroom and home office rather than bedside tables or shelves.
Here are some specific pieces that design experts recommend for small spaces:
Secretary’s offices. With covered tops that roll up or close, these desks offer both visual interest and storage space. Look for tall models with shelves and drawers inside. “The best thing is that whatever you store inside is accessible but can be stowed away by rolling the top down,” said Sermons, who splits her time between New York City and Charleston, SC. workbench or turn it into a home bar or vanity.
Wall units or modular shelves. Installing shelving is one of the easiest ways to create more storage. Sermons has a mid-century modern wall unit in his New York apartment. Edwards has been a longtime fan of Ikea’s Kallax modular shelves (from $44.99), which can be stacked and rearranged to form “zones.”
But remember that excessive shelving can create more places for clutter. Plan what to put on the shelves and avoid using them as drop zones for random items. Check load requirements before installation.
Buffets/buffets. These cabinet-like pieces are “probably the most accessible way for most people to bring in an antique piece that serves as storage,” Sermons said. Options in many styles and sizes abound. Use one as a media center or place a mirror on it to create a vanity. They also make great places to store glassware, table linens and dishes.
Dresser/hutch. A vertical cousin to the sideboard, this piece can hold kitchen and tableware, or it can be used to store books, towels or linens. Sermons recently transformed a vintage cabinet into a bar station in his Charleston apartment. Check antique and thrift stores for bargains or unusual items. Anthropologie’s Fern Storage Cabinet ($2,498, anthropology.com) is Goerzen’s recommendation for modern homes; she also likes the Tobin Cabinet from McGee & Co. ($2,300, mcgeeandco.com) and CB2 Canna Cane Storage Cabinet ($1,899, cb2.com).
Bench/storage ottoman. These come in many styles and can double as coffee tables while hiding items such as shoes and blankets. Upholstered pieces can be used for additional seating, and those on wheels are easy to move. Both Edwards and Goerzen recommend CB2’s Rialto Ivory Storage Bench ($699). Edwards also likes the Stocksund Bench from Ikea ($199.99).