Small spaces can be incredibly tricky, and they’re something many of us struggle with – whether we live in a compact home or we have one tiny room that’s difficult to get right
It’s certainly something I’ve had to address when renovating my own house, which has a narrow galley-style kitchen and a minuscule bathroom, and it’s often why my design clients ask for help.
Fitting in everything you need without making things look cramped and cluttered can seem like an impossible feat, especially in today’s world where our homes often have to double as offices and maybe even classrooms! But with a bit of thought, some careful planning and a few clever space-saving solutions, it’s possible to transform even the smallest of rooms into a beautiful, practical and inviting space where you want to spend time. Here are my top 10 tips…
Use pale colours
Generally speaking, pale colours make spaces feel larger and airier, whereas darker colours make them appear smaller. So, it makes sense to use lighter options when decorating a compact room. Neutrals such as beige, white and grey are the obvious choices, but any pale hue can work – just make sure you bear in mind the direction the room faces and whether it gets warm or cool light. Sticking to a limited palette – perhaps one or two neutrals with a contrasting accent colour, or two-three colours from the same family – can also help, as it creates a seamless look and stops any one element from taking up too much visual space. You can then use different textures to add warmth and interest.
Of course you can break the rules entirely by opting for a dark colour to emphasise the small dimensions and form a cosy cocoon. It’s not for everyone, but it can work particularly well in studies, bathrooms and snugs.
The walls, sofa and soft furnishings in this studio apartment are all a similar shade of pale beige, creating a spacious and harmonious feel. Photo by Elisabeth Daly for Refine Design Studio; see more of this home here.
Maximise natural light
Natural light is key to making spaces feel bigger, so swap heavy curtains for sheer drapes or consider doing away with window dressings altogether. You can always add frosted film where you need extra privacy or, in bedrooms, put up inconspicuous black-out blinds to roll down at night. If you have a particularly gloomy corner or a room without any windows of its own, consider installing roof lights or ‘borrowing’ light from elsewhere with internal glazing or a glass-panelled door.
Above: two bedrooms designed to maximise natural light. The first has no window dressings other than a barely-visible blind that can be rolled down at night; the second has a crittall-style internal window to bring in light from the adjacent living room. Photos by Stadshem and Elisabeth Daly for Refine Design Studio; see full tours of these homes here and here.
Use clever tricks to give the impression of height
Low ceilings can make small spaces feel particularly uninviting and claustrophobic, but there are several ways to create the illusion of more height. One easy trick is to use the same colour to paint the walls, ceiling and any coving or skirting; another is to hang curtains with the pole or track positioned as high above the the window as you can. Running bookcases, cabinets and shelving all the way to the ceiling will also draw the eye upwards and make the room seem taller than it is, as will suspending a pendant lamp from a long cord (best over a table, kitchen counter or seating area, where you won’t walk into it). And when it comes to hanging art, position it lower down the wall, leaving more space between it and the ceiling.
The above spaces both use visual trickery to make them look taller. The dining room has a pendant light dangling from a long cord, art positioned low on the walls and curtains hanging higher than the window. The kitchen, meanwhile, has shelving running all the way up to the ceiling. Photos by Stadshem and Alen Cordic for Bjurfors; see more here and here.
Choose lightweight furniture
Being able to see the floor and wall through items of furniture instantly gives the impression of more space. So, avoid anything too chunky and look instead for pieces that have a lightweight, slender profile or that are raised off the ground on slim legs. Another clever trick is to incorporate items which are made of transparent materials such as glass and perspex, or which use lattice-like wire grids rather than solid blocks of wood or metal – something I’ve done in my living room with a glass-topped IKEA coffee table and a classic Harry Bertoia ‘Diamond’ chair.
The minimalist steel pieces from Design Of and elevated sofa and cabinet from Ferm Living are great examples of lightweight-looking furniture that suits small spaces.
Mount things on the wall
Mounting furniture on the wall allows you to add storage and functionality without taking up valuable floor space. Wall-hung shelving units are particularly useful, as they can be positioned above sofas and tables (see my pick of the best here), but you can also get floating bedside tables, sideboards, media units and cupboards. And a wall-mounted desk – perhaps even one that folds away when not in use – is a great way to incorporate a home-working area when space is tight.
Wall-mounted lighting can also be handy in smaller rooms, taking the place of floor or table lamps where there isn’t enough space for a bulky base. What’s more, many wall lamps have articulated arms and moveable heads, meaning you can direct the light wherever you need it.
Above: a small bedroom with a wall-hung nightstand and lamp (photo by Christian Olsson of Clear Cut Factory; see more of this apartment here), and Menu’s compact ‘Rail’ desk / shelf.
Choose multifunctional pieces
When space is tight every item of furniture needs to earn its keep, so choose versatile pieces that fulfil more than one function. Some of my favourites are Noo.ma’s ‘Feo’ pouf, which has a removable cushion and can double as a side table or stool, and Hübsch’s sleek oak bench, which has storage beneath a lift-up seat along with room for a plant or vase. There are also numerous coffee and side tables that incorporate storage, including Woud’s ‘Sentrum’ and ‘Arc’ designs and Menu’s ‘Turning’ table.
Above: Hübsch’s bench / plant stand and Woud’s ‘Arc’ coffee table, both of which have hidden storage.
Opt for modular systems
Modular furniture is a great investment as it can be tailored to whatever space you have; what’s more, you can easily adapt or extend it if your needs change or if you move to a larger home in the future. The iconic ‘String’ shelving system is particularly versatile and can incorporate cabinets, desks, magazine racks, rails and more; IKEA, meanwhile, has several affordable options, including the ‘BESTÅ’ and ‘IVAR’ series. There are also plenty of modular sofas on the market nowadays, and you’ll find a round-up here.
The incredibly versatile ‘String’ and more compact ‘String Pocket’ systems can be configured in lots of different ways and customised with an array of add-ons.
Give things room to breath
All rooms need to incorporate elements of negative space and this is particularly true of smaller ones, which can quickly start to look busy and cramped. So, fight the urge to fill every last square centimetre with furniture and leave space for the pieces you do have to breathe. The same applies to shelf arrangements and other displays, too. Positioning things in clusters and leaving some of the surface area clear will let your chosen objects sing, as well as creating the impression of more space by revealing bits of the wall behind.
It’s also worth resisting the temptation to push every item of furniture back against the walls. You might assume it will make the room look bigger, but generally the opposite is true – and it can appear very cold and off-putting. Bringing things in, even by just a few cm, will have a huge impact and feel much more inviting.
You can read more tips on planning a room layout and styling beautiful shelves here and here.
The furniture in the above Swedish living room has been pulled in towards the centre, making the walls look like they’re further back than they are. The shelf display, meanwhile, has pockets of empty space that show the wall behind. Photos by Alvhem and Kristofer Johnsson for Riksbyggen; see full tours of these homes here and here.
Use sliding doors
It’s worth keeping an eye out for cupboards, cabinets, sideboards and media units with sliding fronts, as you won’t need to leave space for doors or drawers to open and will therefore have a lot more flexibility when it comes to layout. Depending on your budget and the scope for architectural changes, you could even consider replacing the doors between rooms with pocket ones that slide back into the wall.
The ‘Hifive’ storage unit by Norwegian brand Northern is ideal for small spaces as the doors slide upwards rather than swinging open. There’s also a smaller wall-mounted version.
Add a mirror
Finally, a strategically placed mirror can instantly create the illusion of more space and light. It’s one of the oldest and simplest tricks in the book, but it really does work! Just think carefully about where you position it and bear in mind the reflection – a beautiful artwork or a leafy window is going to look much better in the glass than your electricity meter or a view into the loo!
Here, a large mirror has been positioned directly opposite a window, bouncing natural light into the room and making it seem larger than it is. Photo by Christian Olsson of Clear Cut Factory; see more of this apartment here.
I’ll have some advice on what to do with large, open-plan rooms – which can be just as difficult to deal with – in a future post, but in the meantime I’d love to hear how you’ve made the most of any small spaces in your own home. If you have any tips to add then please do leave a comment below!
Top image via Alvhem; all other photography as credited above
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