Make the Most of Small Spaces

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Make the Most of Small Spaces

By Marilyn Pribus –

We’ve all heard great things come in small packages, but when it comes to rooms, small can be, well, small. Still, there are a number of canny ways to make a limited area seem, if not spacious, at least larger.

The most effective tactic is to open up the space. Literally. Consider removing or reducing walls to create a flowing space. Of course, it’s essential to know where bearing walls are—the walls that actually support the ceiling and rafters—but even a bearing wall can be partially opened. Doors can be removed and doorways widened, possibly all the way to the ceiling.

If structural changes aren’t possible or you are renting, there are still strategies. Some are contradictory, so select the ones that “speak” to you.

Streamline Furnishings
Clutter is the enemy of spaciousness, so be sure furniture, shelves, and tables are tidy.  In fact, rather than a bookcase here and an étagère there, think about devoting an entire wall to storage. A customized installation might reach all the way to the ceiling and include the “up-and-over” space around doors and windows.

Storage walls can be designed to include a media center, perhaps a drop-down desk or table, and enclosed shelves to reduce visual clutter. Open shelves, which seem to expand space by implying there’s plenty of room just to display things, are a plus as well.

Small-scale furniture can also help. Use a loveseat rather than a full sofa, for example. Antique shops can be excellent sources of smaller furniture since average rooms were less large in the past than they are today. Low furniture and furniture with legs rather than big boxy pieces also give the illusion of more space.

For bedrooms, that old Murphy bed installation your great-grandparents used to heave out from behind shellacked closet doors to serve as a very basic sleeping platform is a thing of the past. These days, well-balanced, easy-to-lower units hold comfortable mattresses and, when folded up, often show a decorative wall panel or painting. An alternative is to design a raised platform bed with lots of easily pulled-out storage underneath.

In fact, select furniture with storage capabilities for any small room. Ottomans can provide both extra seating and a place to stash things. Rather than a simple surface on legs, use an interesting trunk for a coffee table or a small chest of drawers at a bedside. Another strategy is “nested” furniture such as end tables that can be pulled out when needed, but otherwise tucked away.

On the other hand, light-colored or even transparent items, such as a glass coffee table, won’t seem to take up as much room as a solid piece.

Brighten Your Corners
Since bright areas seem more open, introduce as much light as possible. If there isn’t a lot of natural light, consider track lighting on a dimmer switch. Whatever the room—a living room, dining area, or bedroom—rather than relying on floor or table lamps, employ ceiling-hung pendant lamps or swing-arm wall fixtures that visually open up space.

Mirrors are probably the oldest trick of all for visually increasing space and actually doubling light. Mirrors near natural light sources increase brightness during the day. Careful placement of lamps and light fixtures near mirrors also magnify brightness after the sun goes down.

Install mirrors just like paneling on an entire wall or above a large piece of furniture, but be careful about what they might reflect. Another interesting scheme is to create a “gallery” display of mirrors in varied sizes, shapes, and frames.

Light colored walls increase brightness and choosing a single color for the walls and ceiling makes spaces visually larger by eliminating boundary lines. Avoid a completely monochrome look by punctuating the space with a dramatic and colorful piece of art, pillows or cushions.

Conversely, rather than pastels, a very dark wall—even black—can seem to disappear, creating an impression of more space. Like white, black comes in many shades. Cooler black tones seem to disappear more than warmer shades. In addition, semi-gloss paint is more “there” than satin. Invest in sample paint colors and finishes and test in an area large enough to truly see what it will look like. With dark walls, be sure to use light-toned furnishings.

Another scheme is to install dramatic attention-getting wallpaper or a mural on one wall, distracting the eye from cramped quarters. Today’s wallpapers are often surprisingly easy to apply and some are even removable. (See next month’s upcoming article on what’s new in wall coverings.)

Accessories
Non-furniture furnishings can also make rooms seem larger. With window treatments, for example, hang curtains or drapes all the way down from the ceiling. While fabrics similar in color to the walls are always a good choice, those with a vertical design such as climbing vines or vertical stripes draw the gaze upward to seemingly expand space.

If you don’t have wall-to-wall carpeting, choose a single area rug that almost, but not quite, fills the room. Several smaller rugs will make the area seem visually chopped up, while a rug large enough to be under all the furniture gives a finished and unified look.

Whatever the size of your rooms, there are ways to make them appear larger than they are but allow you to enjoy their coziness at the same time.


Marilyn Pribus and her husband live near Charlottesville. Their relatively small dwelling has no wall between the living and dining areas and the kitchen is separated by only a counter. This openness seems to enlarge the home’s interior.

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