No Space Too Small is a column by Laura Fenton that celebrates the idea that you can live well in a small home. Each month, Laura will share her practical findings from years of observing how people live in tight spaces, and her own everyday experiences of living small — from the hunt for the perfect tiny desk and managing everyday clutter to how to smooth the frustrations out of cooking in a galley kitchen.
When I published my book about small-space living two years ago, one of the most common questions that came up was: “How do I make a small room look bigger?” At first I was confused by this query; in all my years of living small, I had never consciously strived to make a room look bigger. My design goals had been how to live more comfortably or to sneak more storage into a tiny space. However, as the question came up again and again, I realized what people were asking was: How do you make a small space feel more spacious? Or, even more likely: Help! I’m overwhelmed by my small space.
I’ve lived in a lot of small spaces, and looking back, I’ve subconsciously made all of them feel more roomy than they really are. In fact, when my very first solo apartment appeared in one of Time Out New York‘s small spaces issues years ago, almost everyone who saw the photo insisted that the apartment must be larger than the 200 square feet the article claimed (I assure you it wasn’t!). I ended up with a full-page photo of my tiny studio, and I can tell you the trick that made thatapartment look bigger: The photographer was standing on my fire escape shooting through the window and using a wide-angle lens!
The other factor in play was the fact that I was a 20-year-old who just didn’t own much stuff yet. My only furniture was a bed, two folding chairs, a fold-up table, a futon-style couch, and a bunch of wooden wine crates that passed as occasional tables, which brings me to my first rule of making a small room feel larger:
Declutter. Declutter. Declutter.
The fastest, easiest way to make your small space feel more spacious is to declutter. Period. Less stuff equals more space. Getting rid of the excess is key to giving you room to breathe. (Need some inspo to get started? The Home52 team has you covered with this, this, and this.) OK, now that we’ve gotten the elephant in the room (too much stuff!) out into the open, I can dive into the more nuanced tips and tricks that can help create a feeling of spaciousness, so read on.
Trick the eye with color.
Paint your ceiling the same color as your walls, suggests Shavonda Gardner, a designer blogger based in Sacramento, California. “It gives the illusion of more space because the eye doesn’t stop at a white ceiling. This is especially the case with dark colors.” Gardner also recommends painting your baseboards and trim the same color as the walls and ceiling, which she says has the same effect of expanding the space and continuing your gaze.
Make strategic use of mirrors.
It’s an old chestnut of advice, but a well-positioned mirror can make a room look larger. In my own home a mirror hung above my husband’s desk (strategically high enough not to capture the reflection of work clutter) doubles the view opposite. I once stayed in a hotel that had narrow pieces of mirror fitted into the narrow strips of wall on either side of the window — a tiny detail that seemed to expand the view and amplified the daylight. However, beware of mirrored glass furniture, which can make a room look cluttered when it reflects its surrounding furnishings (and household clutter).
Don’t fear pattern!
I confess that I have not yet dabbled in wallpaper (someday!), but I’ve seen firsthand how wall patterns can create depth in a small room. Contrary to the popular wisdom that patterns make a small space feel cramped, a gorgeous wallpaper can soften the perception of a room’s corners. Case in point: Gardner’s laundry room, which appeared in my book, expands in its jungle-inspired wallpaper by Justina Blakeney; plus, it’s just a visual delight! The key is to choose a large-scale print like Gardner did and avoid itsy-bitsy prints. A bold wallpaper is also a classic decorator move for a small powder room.
Choose your furnishings with care.
Strategic choices in furniture can go a long way toward making your tiny digs look larger, but don’t feel like you have to buy everything specifically designed with small-space living in mind. One option is to make some of your furniture disappear — literally — by opting for glass, lucite, and acrylic pieces. As a bonus, clear furniture looks great with almost any style of decor. You can also seek out low-slung furniture: By choosing pieces that sit closer to the ground, you’ll open up space above giving a lofty feeling; for example, platform beds and slipper chairs are typically a few inches shorter than their counterparts.
But what about white?
Paint it white! is often the first thing people will tell you: It’s advice that pro designers and color lovers despise, but . . . I do think a coat of white paint can work wonders in most spaces. Yes, it’s literally plain vanilla, but an all-white room often does feel airy and open. And if you follow Gardner’s advice from above, and paint a room all white — ceilings, moldings, window trim and all — you’ll erase the visual breaks that make a room feel small. In an attempt to embrace color, I painted my tiny bathroom a rich navy blue, and honestly, it made the room feel much smaller. That said, our back bedroom gets almost zero daylight; its white walls are doing nothing for the room and I bet you a mid-tone would expand the room. If you like white, this is still an easy, low-budget way to try to make a space look bigger.
Don’t tear down all the walls.
“I often hear that when you have a small space, it’s better to use one light color on the walls and take away all the unnecessary walls to favor space. I do just the opposite,” says Marianne Evennou, a Paris interior designer known for her mastery of tiny apartments. “The more walls I have, the more I can create a sense of depth by playing with the perspectives. This is reinforced by the use of different colors and materials.”
However, if you do have time (and budget) to make renovations, here are a few ways to make a small space seem bigger:
Create clean lines.
“Look to create clean lines — always,” says New York City-based architect Kenny Payero, whose work was featured in my book (and here on Home52). “Align things, equally-space things, and make a lot of different things look like one single element.” It may feel counterintuitive to take away space, but
Payero says that sometimes he has to build out to create a continuous line. “If you see lots of jogs in the walls and the ceilings, it’s because the builder tried to waste the least amount of space to cover pipes, columns, etc., but these jogs are visual clutter. I’d rather build out to align and straighten lines. Sometimes you lose a little space, but most times I can regain that space by creating a recessed niche, shelf, or hidden cabinet.”
Streamline your ceiling.
Payero agrees with Gardner that ceilings are important to our perception of space, but he favors changing the structure over the color. “If you perceive a clean ceiling then you feel the whole space,” says Payero. “I try to avoid creating soffits and keep a clean rectangular ceiling, especially if you want crown moldings. Too many corners in the walls and ceiling is visual clutter that makes the space feel smaller.”
Give rooms additional “exits.”
“I never enclose spaces,” says Evennou. “I always create openings for the eye to escape. Even a small space should give you the feeling of an inner journey with borders that allow you to move from one universe to another.” Among Evennou’s signature “escape” routes are to install interior windows (a feature I long for in my own home!) and glass interior doors. But if you can’t bring in a contractor for a literal window, a large landscape photo or painting give the eye a place to wander.
Looking for more ways to make a small room look bigger? Last month’s installment of No Space Too Small was all about making the most of small bedrooms, but there are plenty of lessons in there that could be applied to the whole house (oversized art, ditching unnecessary doors, and more!).