6 Big Ideas for Small Spaces

6 Big Ideas for Small Spaces


When you live in cramped quarters – even if it’s a trendy apartment in a great neighborhood – sometimes it can feel like the walls are closing in.

But a few low-cost decorating upgrades can lift any small space from dreary to fab.

Lighting, light walls and finding ways to incorporate contrast can go a long way toward making your small home feel bigger.

“It’s really helpful to understand that your sense of the space, whether it’s large or small, is completely a feeling and based on how your eye moves around the room,” says Maxwell Ryan, founder of Apartment Therapy and author of the best-selling “Big Book of Cool, Small Spaces,” (Potter Style, 2010).

Whether it’s a small home or apartment, Ryan understands the constraints of small spaces. He lived in a 250-square-foot, two-room apartment in New York City for more than a decade.

“I discovered the limitations of the small space unlocked all sorts of creativity,” he says. “I was surprised how long I could live there comfortably. My rent was very little and it allowed me to do a lot with my life, which I started to equate with living comfortably in a small space.”

Big Idea 1: A bright room feels bigger than a dark room

Ryan says most people under-light their rooms. The best results come from having three points of indirect light.

Rather than a single overhead bulb or light fixture, he recommends three lamps positioned in a triangle. For example, place two lamps on either side of the sofa and a floor lamp opposite. The eye always goes where the light is, so lamps should be positioned near the corners of the room, with illumination at or below eye level.

“Track lights can be super powerful in a small space,” he says. The track is fixed on the ceiling, but the lights are directed toward the wall. “So the light reflects off the wall into your space,” Ryan says.

Track lighting works well in the kitchen, especially under cabinets, because it doesn’t take up much room and helps illuminate the counter. Avoid fluorescent lights because they cast a cold color. Ryan recommends halogen, LED and incandescent bulbs.

Look around at the use of lights in your favorite restaurant for inspiration, Ryan says. You may be surprised at the number and variety of different lighting fixtures you see in a well-designed restaurant dining area.

Ryan is a big fan of LED lamps, “because they are hard to break, will last five or 10 times longer and they have the warm, pleasing light.”

Big Idea 2: Create contrast using color

To create expansiveness, the walls and ceiling should be white – not a flat white, but one with some shade of color – with dark floors.

“Our eye likes contrast,” Ryan says. “It can be helpful to vary the tone of your rooms. Once you get more sophisticated, you can do a darker color in the hallway as you pass out of that into a room you paint a brighter color.”

In a bedroom, Ryan suggests painting one wall behind the bed.

Big Idea 3: Create visual surprise with unexpected elements

Contrast isn’t just about color. Think size, material and objects. Interspersing a few large elements in the room – an oversized mirror or piece of art that greets someone arriving, a big bed in a small room – can create visual surprise and provide a feeling of spaciousness.

Big Idea 4: Use mirrors to create an expansive feel

Mirrors behind a sofa, in kitchen cabinets and on closet doors add depth to a room.

“Mirrors are a tremendous light booster. They make a room feel lighter and brighter,” he says. “Putting them in the dining room behind where people sit allows the eye to travel twice as far and gives it that sense of expansiveness.”

Big Idea 5: Throw out stuff

To avoid clutter, do a good clean and purge every year. Put a light in closets so you can see inside and easily clean them. Consider smaller furniture – a sofa or chair without arms or a nice futon with pillows that also can serve as a spare bed.

Big Idea 6: Leave some spaces empty

“If this is all about having your eye move through a space, you want to give it space to breathe,” Ryan says. “Everyone has stuff they have to live with, but plan for empty space. Have areas of busyness with areas of emptiness. Don’t put bookcases in every room. Make one big bookshelf and put them all there.”

Organize books or kitchen gadgets and pans on one wall and leave the others with minimal decoration.

Ryan also says to remember why you chose the space in the first place. If you live in a big city where rent is expensive but location counts, be mindful of the tradeoffs and find ways to feel homey and content.

He knows friends who moved outside the city for larger homes, but found they missed the restaurants and nightlife.

“If you love your neighborhood, you can always afford to live in a smaller space,” he says. “The street and neighborhood becomes part of that space. Your friends and connections to people are the most important things.”

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