How to Furnish a Small Space


With a little help, even small, narrow rooms can look bigger. See more pictures of home design.

While the size of the average family home has grown over the last few decades, there may be big changes coming. Concerns about the environment, energy and the cost of living are causing people to re-examine their need for larger and larger homes. Whether you're downsizing your space because of a shift in your family dynamic or setting up your first apartment, managing a small space can present unique challenges, but going smaller may be an important element in the future of home design.

Making the most of a small space is an exercise of mind over matter. Controlling clutter and expecting furniture and appliances to perform multiple functions takes some planning. Then there's the challenge of decorating. Going the extra step of resizing your belongings for your space and using color, texture and light to create an illusion of spaciousness can be rewarding, but the frustration factor can take its toll, too. If you have your doubts, ask anyone who's ever tried to get a large piece of furniture down a narrow hallway or around a tight corner.

With a growing focus on comfort and style without excess, more and more manufacturers are designing their products with smaller spaces in mind. Big style has never looked so small, and you don't have to be living in a dorm room or mobile home to take advantage of products and ideas that will have you looking at furniture, paint, shelves, lamps and window treatments in a new way.

Let's explore the ways color, light and scale can have a big impact on making a small space a home, and while we're at it, we'll find some interesting solutions to your small kitchen, bath and laundry room challenges.

Lighten Up a Small Space - Color and Contrast

The paint police have always said that neutrals like white and cream are the best colors for walls, while trendy design advisers may encourage you to express yourself through bold color choices. In a small space, you can act on this colorful advice, but with classic restraint. Bursts of color can add focus and interest to your rooms, but don't indulge your need for bright shades at the expense of light and proportion. The general rule is still that lighter colors expand the space, but no one ever said that you can't paint the area behind mounted book shelves, a door, windowsill, exposed closet interior, floor or hallway wall the robin's-egg blue you've always dreamed of.

If you want to make a space appear even bigger, try painting the ceiling a lighter color than the walls, and paint the entryway a few shades darker than the main room. Moving from the hall to the main living area, your guests will perceive the lighter, brighter, living space as bigger than it really is.

If you need to draw attention away from a utility area or unsightly feature, use that color blast where you'd like to divert attention by painting the trim an unexpected color. Need to raise the ceiling a few inches? If the lighter ceiling paint didn't do the trick, try adding curtains or sheers with vertical stripes. They'll pull the eye up and make low ceilings look more spacious. Stripes also make a good focal point.

Try to incorporate no more than two bold colors as accents, and repeat them somewhere in the furniture, accessories, drapes or rugs. To balance the two brights and contrast your neutral paint, add a black element. It can be a vase, area rug, pillow, or picture frame. The black object will help integrate all the colors you're using. You may be skeptical now, but just try it. In a small space, balance is important. The eye can often take in the entire area at a glance, so the impact of the overall design is concentrated.

On the next page, we'll look at resizing. Like Alice of Wonderland fame, getting smaller can be an adventure.

Resizing a Small Space - The Importance of Scale

This bed may be just a little too big for this room.
This bed may be just a little too big for this room.
LLMiller Media/iStockphoto.com

Just because you need a table and can get it through the front door, that doesn't mean it's right for the space. Put another way, if you can't walk around the furniture or it looks cluttered, either there's too much stuff or the stuff is too big.

Some things are easy fixes, like taking all the expanding leaves out of tables to make it as small as possible. Others can be more challenging, like fitting a big bed into a small bedroom. The bad news is that if it looks too big, it probably is. The good news is that you might be able to fix it.

Your bed is probably the largest piece of furniture you own. Short of getting a Murphy bed that folds into a cabinet or wall, the best way to integrate the bed into the surrounding room is to have it blend in with the walls and carpet. If you don't have room for bedside tables after the bed is in place, try putting floating shelves on the walls. You'll be saving space and giving yourself an area for a lamp and alarm clock.

Couches come in a variety of sizes, but in very small areas, a loveseat might do just as well. You can always keep a couple of folding chairs in a closet if you need them. Go for glass-topped tables; they improve the visual proportions of the space without sacrificing function.

Try for chairs with exposed, narrower legs and sofas without pleated skirts. Embrace lighter wood finishes to make tables look smaller, and use lamps with light shades and narrower profiles. Light is good, and decorating with lamps as accent pieces is a way to create multiple warm pools of light that make a small space look larger and more inviting.

Too many accessories make small spaces look cluttered, and when they're too large, they look clunky and mismatched. The best solution is to audition accessories and place them in groups of two or three items throughout your space. Leave plenty of open, uncluttered area around them.

In the next section, we'll look at why a straight line between two points may not be the best design solution.

Dealing With Angles in a Small Space

There may not be many straight lines in nature, but small living spaces are full of them. When doorways, windows, tables, desks and shelves are all close together, they can create a lot of harsh angles. Soften sharp angles and long, uninterrupted straight lines by creating curves. Fabric is great for this. You can drape fabric over a curtain rod to create a soft, curved valance around a window, or dangle a throw over the edge of a couch or chair. Another useful trick is to look for furniture with natural curves, like camel-back sofas, wing-back chairs, curved chairs, and round ottomans.

When you're trying to add curves to your décor, pillows and round or oval area rugs can help, too. Pick a shape and stick with it, repeating it in a number of areas, like wall art, floor coverings and a few accessories. While you're softening the look of your space, you'll be adding some creative design elements.

If you can see one room from another, make sure that the wall colors are similar. This will help avoid a boxy look and make the space appear larger and more cohesive.

If you have a spot that looks boxy no matter what you do, try plant camouflage. Plants can really enhance a small space. You can find a plant for most light situations, and they can soften any angle, act as a screen in front of wall blemishes or utility areas, and they'll clean your indoor air.

Follow us to the next page where we'll talk about one of the biggest drawbacks when living in a small space: lack of storage.

Solving a Small Space Storage Problem

One of the biggest inherent disadvantages of small living spaces is the lack of storage. You can either curse your luck, or embrace the concept of less being more. If you're not the type of person who needs to hire a team of experts to get organized, being spatially challenged may be just the impetus you need to get your act together.

From the time we're born, we start accumulating stuff. Some of it is necessary for a little while and then loses its usefulness, and some of it is around to stay, like your high school yearbook picture. Understanding what you need and what you don't might mean the difference between enjoying a small space and being miserable in one.

Get organized by taking stock of all of your stuff. Think of it as an inventory. Mark items that you need and distinguish them from those that you just want because they make you feel good. Make a third category for items that you don't need and a fourth for trash. With this system, you should be able to reduce your burden of belongings, but you have to be ruthless. Go from room to room and start reorganizing stuff under the new system. After a few hours, you should have boxes with necessities; items that you want to keep, but can be stored; stuff to donate and a pile of trash that you can discard.

To make the most of the space you have, break your storage into distinct areas: concealed, such as closets and cabinets, and open, such as bookshelves, counters and tables. Be creative. You may not want to go to the extreme of using your oven to store your winter sweaters, but barring that, storage is a precious commodity, so make as much of it as possible, and guard it well [source: Scott].

Now comes the hard part: maintaining the new order of things. If you think of your small space as a self-sustaining environment in which you have what you really need, then for every new thing you bring in, something else will have to go. This is a little extreme, but it's a good concept to keep in mind if you don't want clutter creeping back in.

In the next section, we'll investigate some solutions for specific rooms in your small living space.

Special Rooms, Special Challenges for Small Spaces

Not all rooms are created equal, and this is doubly true of small spaces. Even though small spaces typically need less furniture and your decorating dollar goes farther and makes a more dramatic impact, some rooms can still present unique challenges.

  • Kitchen - Free up precious cabinet real estate by displaying attractive items like bowls, crystal and vases instead of keeping them out of sight. Use multi-tasking appliances, like convection microwaves and blenders that morph into mixers and food processors. Hang pot lids on racks mounted on cabinet doors and hang the pots themselves on decorative display racks.
  • Living room - Lighten up dark rooms with light paint colors, multiple light fixtures and sheers instead of curtains. Stack trunks as a design element and for additional storage, and decorate with glass, light wood finishes and mirrors to lighten and open up the space. Instead of grouping a couch with a loveseat, try a couch and two tall chairs instead, or a loveseat and two chairs separated by a storage ottoman instead of a table. If you need extra space for overnight guests, you can buy chairs and loveseats that convert into sleepers.
  • Bathroom - Use over-the-door and decorative hooks to hang items like robes and towels that you use frequently. Use shower caddy-type shelving for necessary items, and over-the-commode shelf units. Install a mirror with storage behind it, and employ wire shelving to maximize the space under the sink.
  • Laundry area - Invest in a stacking washer and dryer and put wire shelving up to hold folded and hanging items. Employ a roll-away hamper that you can move from room to room and knock down to store.

In the next section, we'll talk about ways to make a small space cozy and welcoming.

Cozy Up a Small Space

Your space, large or small, is still home, and part of making it your own is adding personality. Small apartments where the occupants are limited in what they can do to decorate, or have no desire to spend much money on a space they'll be occupying for a limited time are a decorating challenge. Let's take a look at some ways to make a small and possibly temporary spot a good place to come home to:

  • Add incandescent light. Incandescent light is warm light and will help reduce the glare and impersonal look of white walls. Take it a step further and add a stained glass shade. It will offer up some color and interest, especially if the walls are bare.
  • Make a cover up. If you have some ugly spots you can't do much with, try a room divider. Do-it-yourself, wooden room partitions can be decorated with paper, inexpensive fabric or painted canvas. It's an inexpensive and useful solution to covering up an unsightly radiator or exposed pipes, and it's a conversation piece, too.
  • Add some pillows, a few throws and an area rug. It may sound girly, but there's nothing like fabric to make an apartment feel cozy. To help create a casual and friendly atmosphere, try introducing a plaid throw, or a rug with a small printed design that will read solid from a distance.
  • Introduce a few plants. Plants don't have to be a hassle to keep, especially these days. You can buy pots that make watering easier, and even add lights that will help plants grow in any room. Plants are alive, and that can make a big difference in a small, impersonal space. They add texture and dimension to your environment, contribute color and clean the air. Dollar for dollar, they're one of the best decorating choices you can make.
  • Check your retailer's recommendations. A number of furniture and appliance chains, like Pottery Barn, are carrying goods designed especially for decorating and living in small spaces. They'll help you find ways to resize, multi-task, and maximize your storage.

In the next section, you'll find lots more information on decorating and dealing with small living spaces.

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