Cramped for Space – Decorating for Small Spaces

Extend the smallest of rooms with creative decorating

Stratton Storage Bed with Baskets - Pottery Barn
Stratton Storage Bed with Baskets - Pottery Barn

Cramped for Space – Decorating for Small Spaces

Creating the illusion of space can be a very effective strategy when decorating for small spaces.  Furniture size and placement, color choice, good use of storage, adequate lighting play a key role in making a small room seem bigger. When used properly these design elements will warm up even the coolest of rooms while giving small spaces a more spacious feel.

Use larger Scale Furniture

One of the biggest misconceptions of decorating for a small space is smaller scaled furniture should be used to give the illusion that the room is larger. Christopher Lowell, author of numerous decorating books including Christopher Lowell’s You Can Do It! Small Spaces: Decorating to Make Every Inch Count.  Small Spaces and host of Discovery’s The Christopher Lowell Show says that using smaller furniture will actually, “amplify the fact that the room is tiny.”

Instead, choose normal sized pieces and, if in doubt says Christopher, “Go bigger.” Placing an oversized coffee table and one or two large club chairs into a cozy seating arrangement will visually anchor an area.

Follow the designs of elegant hotel lobbies by clustering just a few large pieces together rather than scattering several smaller items. Sarah Barnard of Sarah Barnard Design in Los Angeles uses a regular-sized club chair angled outward from the corner of this tiny living room.

Color Choices can Define a Space

If you’ve been shying away from color in your modest-sized room for fear it would draw the walls inward, you’ll be happy to know that when used properly, some colors can actually define, heighten or lengthen a space.

Janet Davidsen of Details in Design, Inc., a Wheaton, Ill. design firm, says the use of rich wall color can add warmth to any room and only becomes dark when lighting is limited.
“It’s not that you can’t use dark color in small spaces, but you have to take the characteristics of the space into consideration,” agrees Yvette Piaggio, owner of Piaggio’s Loft and a featured guest on HGTV’S design show “Curb Appeal” white walls will amplify the fact that the space is small while painting the walls and the ceiling a richer color will bring the eyes to the color instead of to the corners in the room. However, stick with richer hues, says Lowell, since primary colors make the walls feel as though they are coming towards you.
Barnard uses bright and saturated hues in small spaces. Barnard adds that if you must have a single patch of color, consider doing so on the ceiling rather than on just one accent wall.
Not certain what color to use? Monica Pedersen, host of HGTV’s “Designed to Sell,” suggests viewing sample cards at your local paint store.

“Paint stores spend a ton of money and research finding out what types of colors work with different homes, so ask,” she explains This is especially important if you are trying to locate unique colors, such as those used in older homes that will reflect an historical period.
For those afraid of color, try a monochromatic scheme. Choose the darkest and lightest shade of one color on a paint strip and then decorate using hues that fall between the two.
Pictured above left: Sarah Barnard Design.

Maximize Storage Space and De-Clutter

Anyone who has ever lived in a small space can attest to the fact that storage is the number one necessity and yet the most difficult thing to find.  If you are running out of room and need to increase storage space, clear the clutter.  Lowell says to begin by asking yourself if everything that is displayed in your home accurately tells the story of your life as it is today. If not, let it go. Purging never-used items from your belongings will instantly create more space.

“Don’t put anything in that room that doesn’t do anything else. A glass coffee table will not serve you in a small space but one with drawers on both sides and shelves underneath will,” he adds.  For instance, shelving can doubles as a display area and hold additional storage boxes that are both attractive and functional.

Even in the most luxurious of bathrooms can be short on storage. To open up the space, hang shelving around the perimeter of the bathroom close to the ceiling but with enough clearing to display one unified basket theme. Fill these baskets with fresh white towels for a clean spa look.

A pedestal sink will cut down on the amount of floor space used while also offering additional storage space.  Piaggio recommends hanging a nice tailored skirt around the pedestal sink; the area underneath can then be used to hide stackable shelves or to store bathroom necessities that you’d rather not have out on display, such as toiletries or extra toilet paper.

 Sconces placed high on the wall carry the eye upward, lengthening the height of the small space. “The rule of thumb in a small space is you should always work a little harder to get to the things that you hardly use”  says Lowell.

Draw the eye upward

One method for creating more visual space in the room is drawing the eye upward. This can be accomplished by hanging shelving about a foot and a half from the ceiling and filling the shelves with items.  Yet unlike cluttering up space with assorted knick-knacks, use this as an opportunity to either display or store your items in a decorative manner, with the use of coordinating baskets, accents and accessories.

Hanging blinds high on the wall will create this same effect; simply place the curtain rod close to the ceiling and use long flowing curtains to lengthen the room’s height.
If you need more width, attach your rod several inches away from the perimeter of your window and pull the blinds toward the window so they hide the excess wall space.

Additional Tips and Techniques

  • Mirrors are always a hit in a small space. Used opposite a window, it will bring in outside elements while attracting extra lighting, which can make the room feel larger than it really is.  Pedersen says while many believe white makes a space seem larger, in reality light does.
  • Use lighting such as sconces that attach to the wall and don’t use up precious floor space.
  • Use tall thin floor lamps rather than using bulky table lamps.
  • Fabric choices can help or hurt your cause for extending the visual lines of a room, too. Solids and textures work well, while the wrong pattern can instantly date a room or make it feel too crowded and busy. “Texture on texture will make (the room) seem far bigger,” says Lowell.
  • Keep flooring consistent throughout the home. Hardwood is the top choice of flooring today and can even be used in the master bedroom. Area rugs can then be used to delineate conversation areas.  “One floor treatment throughout the entire space, even the bedroom, will visually stretch the size of all of those small rooms and make the rooms seem connected,” says Lowell.

◊Originally published in  December 2007, edited & re-published in November 2016.