Secrets to Arranging Furniture in a Small Space

dollhouse furniture
To get a good sense of the scale of furniture you can have, play around with dollhouse furniture pieces.

If you have a tiny living space and wonder how you'll ever make all your belongings fit and still look nice, you have a couple of unique challenges to address. You're not alone in having to create a little design wizardry to camouflage your home's shortcomings. Most indoor spaces present one challenge or another. Making huge rooms look friendly, small rooms look bigger and long rooms look less linear is what keeps interior designers in business. They use tried-and-true tricks to fool the eye and make the best use of a room's natural assets.

If this sounds a little like picking the best clothes to suit your body style, it is. When it comes to arranging furniture, you can disguise, flaunt and flatter small spaces with a couple of savvy furniture placement choices the way an artfully tied scarf can emphasize your face and draw attention away from those extra few pounds you gained over the holidays.


When you're trying to cram an overstuffed sectional into a small living room, it's hard to appreciate the advantages of a small house or apartment, but small can be beautiful. It can be greener, more efficient and more economical, too. Let's take a look at a few secrets the pros use to give tiny spaces big style. If you think of your studio apartment or loft as a compromise choice with limited potential, think again. A change in perspective may have you embracing the little house look and turning your back on your long term plan to buy a McMansion in the burbs when the economy improves.



Small Spaces Can Mean Big Things

Small living rooms usually have big jobs to do. They're often the first room a visitor sees, which makes them traffic central for moving through the space to other areas of your home. They have to be comfortable spots for entertaining and relaxing, too. As if that weren't enough, the living area may have to do double duty as the main television viewing area and as an auxiliary sleeping space for visiting friends and family.

Before we start moving the furniture around, let's look at the room itself. Almost any living room will have something going for it. Either it has a nice view from the windows, a high ceiling, a fireplace, an appealing flooring style or even a quirky and interesting shape. It's easy to focus on everything that isn't ideal in a small room instead of playing up the positive elements like those listed above that you can make central to your design efforts.


As for the rest of the room, think of it as the bare bones of your design, and create as clean a palette as you can. Small rooms look smaller when groaning under the weight of lots of dark or vivid colors. To create the best backdrop for your furniture, blend neutral colors and textures for use on the walls and flooring. Make sure the drapes are neutral, too. If you love bright colors, indulge yourself with the accessories. When it comes to the basics, neutrals rule in small spaces.

Light is another element that can be of enormous help in enhancing the look and feel of your small living space. Don't cover up your light sources. Shaded, shadowy rooms look smaller than they are. They can also look cave-like and cramped. Use sheers instead of heavy drapes on your windows, and let the light in as much as possible. A great cheat here is to use mirrors to reflect natural illumination into the room's corners and down hallways. Even though mirrors can get expensive, you can use multiple small mirrors in wall groupings instead of investing in one large, expensive mirror. Light makes a natural focal point, too, so pay attention to the location of windows, skylights and electrical outlets. They'll be important when we start arranging the furnishings in the next section.


Small Living Room Furniture Arrangements

Whether you're downsizing from a larger house or making your first ever home in a small loft, it's important to realize that all living room furniture isn't compatible with all living rooms. Just because it's an upholstered chair doesn't mean that it will work in your space. Small rooms look best when outfitted with furnishings that are scaled down, either in their overall dimensions or in their spare, trim styling. This might require some compromise, especially if you're planning on using the furnishings you originally selected for a much larger home.

Let's take a look at some common furnishings and see what works best in a small living room:


  • Chairs - Padded chairs with wide arms and lots of stuffing can look like hibernating grizzly bears in a small room. They give the impression of shapeless, swollen bulk. Lose the padding, overstuffed cushions, and huge prints or plaids. Opt for chairs with tall, narrow legs, straight backs and much less padding. Armless accent chairs work well, too.
  • Couches - It's always nice to find a place to stretch out and take a quick nap, but some small living rooms may be too shallow for a full-sized couch or sofa. A long sofa can be restrictive even if there is enough space. There may be only one practical spot for it, limiting your options. In an apartment building or condo, it may also be hard to maneuver a long couch around corners and down long hallways. Another alternative is to use one or two loveseats instead of a couch. Loveseats are more flexible because they can be placed across from one another, side-by-side, at 90-degree angles or even back to back.
  • Tables - Wooden tables add a lot of style and function to a room, but in a small space they can look large and clunky. To keep the space looking light and open, consider buying light wood, glass-topped or metal tables instead. You can also lose the table entirely and invest in an ottoman. Ottomans can function as tables with the addition of decorative wooden or glass trays. They can also be used as hidden storage for extra bedding. Oh, and you can rest your feet on them, too.
  • Lamps - Lamps add illumination, but table lamps in particular can make a small room look cluttered. Instead of using a table lamp, try one or two floor lamps. They have a thinner profile and look long, drawing the eye upward, always a good idea in close quarters. If you do want to display a table lamp, keep the other accessory elements nearby to a minimum.

Tips for Arranging Furniture in a Small Space

living room
Walls can be wasted space; don't be afraid to use them!

Now that you have an idea of what you want to bring to your small living space, let's discuss some common layouts.

  • Don't think square. One big complaint about small rooms is that they look like shoeboxes. Once you install a couch, chair and table, the angle of the walls and furnishings will shout boring to all comers before you've had a chance to say hello. One way to design out of the box is to construct a triangle in the space instead of placing furniture along the walls. Create a low area directly opposite the entrance with a hassock, bench or low table as one leg of the triangle. It will focus attention on the furniture arrangement at the heart of the room instead of the shape (and size) of the room itself.
  • Use corners to advantage. Corners are among the most underutilized and misunderstood areas in small rooms. They make excellent workstation and storage areas because they're out of the way, and in most rooms, they're wasted space. With the addition of a corner storage unit, computer station or decorative shelf, you can use every inch of the space and still keep things looking attractive and organized.
  • Go with the flow. Even though your living area is small, you'll still have to carve out enough room for people to move to, through and around the space. If you create a bottleneck into a dining area or around a recliner, the space will be less convenient to use and could even cause someone to take a tumble. Before you start moving the furniture around, make a drawing of the entrances and exits. Anticipate the way traffic will flow, and make sure to leave a generous pathway (28 inches or more) through the space.
  • Corral the clutter. In a large room, collections of items like candles and photo frames make the space look cozy and pulled together. The same collections in a small space can make it look jumbled and messy. With small spaces, scale is important, but so is a trim, streamlined look. If you like accent pieces, go for one spectacular focus piece, like a blown glass plate on a coffee table, over a grouping or collection.
  • Make conversational groupings. You can group furnishings to create appealing conversation areas in a small room as you would in a large one -- with a couple of exceptions. Light is your friend here and works well to anchor a grouping of two chairs, or a chair and a table. Avoid creating groups with room dividers, sofa tables and brightly colored area rugs that will segment and truncate the space. A light fixture, a tall vase on a table, pedestal planters and artwork on the walls will do the job while keeping the space open and airy.

After some trial and error, you'll begin to see the potential in your small space and may come to think of it as charming instead of cramped. It's an adjustment, but some people relish the challenge. Small can be beautiful, and living in a small space will certainly encourage you to keep the closets organized, and that's always a good thing.


Lots More Information

Related Articles


  • Allen, Phyllis Sloan. Miriam F. Stimpson and Lynn M. Jones. "Beginnings of Interior Environments." Prentice Hall. 2000
  • Better Homes and Gardens. "New Decorating Book." Meredith Books. 2007.
  • Kiviat, Barbara. "Reinventing the McMansion." 9/28/09. (1/14/11).,9171,1924506,00.html
  • Linsley, Leslie. "First Home." Nantucket Press. 1998.
  • Lowe's. "Ten Ways to Make a Small Room Look Larger." Undated. (1/14/11).
  • "Furniture Arrangement Ideas for Small Living Rooms." Undated. (1/14/11).
  • Stoddard Alexandra. "The Decoration of Houses." HarperCollins Publishers. 1997.