When it comes to small space living, there’s a lot of misinformation out there. To be fair, it mostly comes from a place of good intentions — you can take solace in the fact that nobody’s trying to sabotage your pint-sized home makeover. But what works for a cozy dorm room may not shine in 400-square-foot NYC apartment, just like what flatters a refurbished basement unit may not be the thing for a rustic Los Angeles bungalow. Small spaces, while they share in common their diminutive size, are often otherwise very different.
But then, there are the things that are, almost universally, just plain bad ideas. Sometimes it’s a look that has (for good reason) fallen out of style, or a strategy supposedly meant to maximize the space in a room that, in actuality, ends up being confusing, distracting, or just plain hard to keep clean. Sure, most home decor mistakes are fixable, but why make them in the first place if you can avoid it? That’s why we polled four interior design experts on the small space mishaps they see most often, plus how to avoid them.
Lots Of Tiny Furniture
“Sometimes I go into people’s spaces and they never planned the space out properly, but rather ended up with three different types of storage pieces (a medium height think bookshelf, a three drawer dresser and an amoire), a bed and two mismatched nightstands no rug and no art,” says Tali Roth of Tali Roth Designs in New York. “That kind of chaos in a small space is unnecessary. Try and pick a wall and line it entirely in storage. Ensure you have art on the walls (there is always space for art) and make sure the bedding is cozy and the rug encourages a sense of calm.”
How To Avoid It: It’s all about editing. Are you still hanging onto dinky pieces of micro-furniture from your college dorm or adolescent bedroom? Chuck them in favor of investing in a few weightier pieces that can help define a space. These don’t have to be pricey: try flea markets, estate sales, and even IKEA. But the idea is to set up anchors and build around them, rather than throwing a bunch of small items together.
“While paint is unarguably one of the best small space hacks, it’s not necessarily a cure-all. Certain architecture and home styles are not conducive to a complete ‘white out,’ and in doing so, can compromise the character of a home drastically,” explains Katie Hodges of Katie Hodges Design in Los Angeles. “Instead, consider your dark nooks as an opportunity for a cozy seating area that honors your home’s original charm.”
“When you paint all the walls of a small space white and keep the furniture too light you tend to look like you are living in a IKEA-designed prison cell (a little dramatic but you get the gist),” agrees Roth.
How To Avoid It: Kick white and its equally boring cousins beige, ivory, and sand to the curb in favor of rich shades that will add dimension. Also, while much maligned, the accent wall is alive and well as an interior design strategy, and can add interest to a smaller space without fear of overwhelming it. (Accent wall detractors, don’t @ me.)
We get it: When you’re short on space, it feels scary to try to pull of any kind of look. But keeping your place too visually quiet creates a feeling of impermanence and listlessness that can actually emphasize its small size. Plus, it’s just not very much fun.
How To Avoid It: “A powder room is a great spot to take a risk, even for the risk-averse. By adding a patterned wallpaper, this elevates a room by adding a large dose of personality in a spot that is closed off from other rooms,” says Kate Marker of Kate Marker Interiors in Chicago. “A unique vanity, ornate mirror, and/or unusual plumbing fixtures are all additional ways to make a small room have a big impact.”
Not Utilizing All Spaces
If you live in New York City, land of inexplicably closet-less apartments, there’s a good chance you have nowhere to hang your coat, much less keep your extra sheets and towels. But in other places, you might have one too many closets — or some other weird design feature you have no clue what to do with. But allowing these areas to go underused seems silly when space is at a premium.
How To Avoid It: “Challenge your design imagination by transforming a mundane must-have to a beautiful architectural element! A drab linen closet doesn’t have to be drywall and an interior door; instead design for a built-in armoire look with cabinet doors, pretty hardware, even mesh for pattern and texture. All the function of linen storage plus the look of built-in beauty!” shares Marker.
“People often believe that small rooms need small rugs. But the size of the rug visually defines the size of the area. So a large living room rug will give the illusion of spaciousness. Buying several small carpets will look like a collection of bath mats in the room,” shares Betsy Helmuth of Affordable Interior Design, which has locations around the country as well as in London.
How To Avoid It: Are you sensing a theme here? The one thing all decorators seem to agree upon is that just because a space is small doesn’t mean it can only be filled with small things — in fact, it shouldn’t be. And it’s true, if we learned anything from The Big Lebowski, it’s that there’s nothing like a rug to, ahem, really tie the room together.
Not Utilizing Mirrors
“Many times in a small space, people overlook the power of mirrors. Mirrors add perspective to a room by making spaces look wider and deeper,” says Helmuth. “Additionally, they can reflect the light coming in from the windows and the lamps which helps to brighten cave-like rooms. So skip the art and go for an oversized mirror above the sofa or at the end of a hallway instead!”
How To Avoid It: Maybe you thought the whole mirror thing was a myth, but guess what? It’s not. In fact, Homepolish interior designer Emma Beryl recently explained everything you need to know about making this trick work for you. And, as Helmuth notes, there are plenty of interesting embellished mirrors on the market right now that are just as good as an artwork to hang on the wall. Plus, all the better for taking selfies with.
“In order to keep things minimal, many of my clients don’t want to use decorative drapes in a small space. However, drapes help to draw the eye up, taking the focus off the small amount of square footage and making any space feel grander,” says Helmuth.
How To Avoid It: Drapes! How fabulous. And also: how intimidating! Drapes can be tricky because they have to fit the window properly, and also, if the window in question doesn’t already have a rod attached, you’ll have to install one. It is, as they say, a whole thing. If you’re up for it, we recommend consulting this Homepolish guide to all things windows, heading to IKEA (which, in our experience, has a surprisingly fun and extensive selection of fabrics and patterns), and maybe even hiring a TaskRabbit to help with install.
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Read more: refinery29.com