Get size wize

Interior designers and professional organizers share space-saving tips for every room in your home.

By Christie Matheson
June 26, 2011

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The first rule for making the most of a small room almost goes without saying: You must de-clutter. Stacks of mail, old magazines, and un-put-away clothes don’t look good in any room. In small rooms, they’re overwhelming. “People know this, but they don’t want to hear it,” says organizer and designer Kyle Freeman, founder of Cloud 9 Organize & Redesign in Boston. Her advice? “As you’re going through things, ask yourself, ‘If I were moving tomorrow, would I bother bringing this with me?’ ” If not, give it away, recycle it, or sell it. Once the excess is gone, try some of these tips (many of which could work in not just one particular room but throughout your home) for making your place feel more spacious and efficient.

Living room

Keep the tones of the room’s major elements unified. “The fewer dramatic color changes, the better,” Freeman says. So having, say, a pale blue rug, then a dark brown couch, then a pale blue wall isn’t ideal. “Subtler transitions will make a small space feel more livable.”

It’s a good idea, too, to leave some walls blank. Rather than sprinkling artwork everywhere, place smaller pieces together in an attractive, eclectic grouping – a more sophisticated look than the one-piece-per-wall thing – and let other walls remain unadorned, Freeman advises.

Also, be realistic about your seating needs. “I always ask people how often they have people over, because often it turns out they’re trying to create seating for 10 when that only happens twice a year – and their space will feel cramped the other 363 days,” Freeman says. Make sure any ottoman or occasional table can also work as extra seating, and opt for pieces in clear Lucite and acrylic “that don’t crowd a space visually,” says Joshua Shockley, cofounder of Carriage House Creative, an interior design firm in Providence.

If you need a coffee table, consider an ottoman topped with a large tray, so the ottoman can serve as a bench when you’re entertaining. Even better, Freeman says, is “an ottoman that doubles as a file storage spot or a fold-up sleeper ottoman.”

Taking that concept further, make all your living room furniture multipurpose. Kevin O’Brien, also of Carriage House Creative, suggests using small pieces that can be easily shuffled around, redistributed, and re-purposed to help a small room serve a variety of needs. “A living room with one large sofa and coffee table can be a one-trick pony, but if you have ottomans, stools, and benches, you can turn a sitting room into an impromptu dining or game room in an instant,” he explains.

It follows that you need to be thoughtful about your couch – and couch placement. Avoid couches with large scroll arms, because they just add width without adding seating, Freeman says. Also, “get a sofa as shallow as is comfortably possible.” When feasible, Freeman adds, don’t place the couch along a narrow room’s longest line, which accentuates the “alley” feel. Instead try positioning the couch to create a square space that’s cozier and more conducive to conversation.

Built-in cabinets and shelving (think cabinets low, shelves high) are great ways to get lots of extra storage space. O’Brien likes filling the entire length of one wall (just one wall) with built-ins, to reduce the need to navigate corners on protruding perimeter furniture. And Freeman recommends shelving that goes all the way to the ceiling, so you’re making the most of your vertical space.


Use the space under your bed. No, don’t just cram your junk there. If you’re buying a new bed, consider a model with under-bed drawers; otherwise, look for attractive baskets or bins that slide in and out easily. If your bed doesn’t have built-in drawers underneath, add a contemporary dust ruffle to hide under-bed storage, Freeman advises.

“Paint the ceiling a color other than white,” Shockley suggests. Serene shades like soft grays and pale blues will give the space a more open feel, he explains.

Bookcases are a source of clutter, too; try not to overload them. “There needs to be breathing room,” Freeman says. “You will enjoy your things more when your eye has a place to rest.”

If you have curtains, another trick is to hang the curtain rod higher than the window. This stretches the height of the space, Freeman explains, adding that keeping the hardware off the window molding “just looks more elegant, and if you have nice molding, shows off the molding” when the curtains are open.


Choose a counter-depth refrigerator. “This is a must for small kitchens and galley kitchens,” says O’Brien. “Nothing makes a small kitchen feel like it’s closing in on you more than a looming appliance breaking the clean, uniform plane of a bank of cabinets.”

“Is there empty space above your kitchen cabinets?” Freeman asks. If so, get cool baskets or containers (“Stick to one style so it doesn’t get too busy,” she says) and store items there that you rarely need. You can also use a storage bench (or benches) as kitchen table seating.

But think about whether you really need a table in your kitchen in the first place. A space-saving alternative Freeman recommends is creating a bar by extending a countertop and sliding a few stools underneath.


One easy fix is to replace your console table with a more functional piece, such as a dresser or shelving that uses all the vertical space.

Make the most of an entryway closet by installing a hanging shoe rack – not for shoes, but as a place to stow things like keys, sunglasses, sunscreen, coins, and mail. “The inside of closet doors should never be empty,” Freeman says.

O’Brien suggests hanging artwork with interactive appeal. “Maps, blueprints, or a collection of small photographs that draw your eye and invite you to look closer can make a small foyer, tight hallway, or even a powder room the most memorable space in your home.”

If your home has dark wood trim, consider painting it white or a light color, which Freeman says can brighten a space and make it feel less choppy. “You’re allowed to do it!” she adds.


Raise the shades, open the shutters, pull back the curtains – whatever you have to do to let in as much natural light as possible. “So many people keep their shades drawn just because,” Freeman says.

If you’re tight on linen-closet space (or completely lacking it), Freeman suggests adding shelving above the toilet and stacking pretty folded or rolled towels neatly on one of the shelves, making them a design element in the room.

Finally, remember that the de-cluttering rule applies in the bathroom, too. Clear out your old toiletries. If you don’t use them, or they’re expired, or the bottles are empty, get rid of them.

Christie Matheson is a regular contributor to the Globe Magazine. Send comments to