Use vertical space. “You don’t want all your furniture to be happening on the ground level,” said Emily Sermons, a user experience designer and founder of Shoebox Designs. Drawing the eye upward gives a room dimension and takes advantage of otherwise unused space. Pick tall dressers, shelves, nightstands and buffets to get maximum storage.
Think outside the box. Don’t confine yourself to furniture designed specifically for small spaces. Those pieces are often too small or look as if they belong in a college dorm. Decide what function each area needs, then consider your options. “Don’t think of it as just the way the manufacturer tells you to use it. Think of it how you want to use it,” said Kyra Edwards, senior interior designer at Bungalow. For example, she likes Ikea’s Trones ($34.99 for two, ikea.com) and Hemnes ($129.99) shoe cabinets as entryway catchalls for mail, pet leashes and more. Small dressers or chests can be nightstands, and curio cabinets can make handsome bars or vanities. Rolling carts, such as Ikea’s Raskog utility cart ($39.99), which Edwards recommends, can be used to hold spices or toiletries.
Bigger can be better. A room of small furniture can feel diminutive and cramped. Select a few large pieces that can provide a lot of storage and anchor the space. Bigger, heavier items won’t weigh down a room if they’re proportional to the other pieces in the space. “Pay attention to the scale of the furniture,” said Kim Lewis, owner of Kim Lewis Designs. Heather Goerzen, design editor at Havenly, chose a larger sectional and coffee table ottoman for her living room, plus a 94.5-inch-wide sideboard with glass doors and shelves. The space is full, but each piece serves multiple functions.
Take advantage of nooks and crannies. Funky corners, built-ins, spaces above windows and doors, and areas below cabinets can all be repurposed to create display and storage spots. Lewis hangs hooks and organizers on the undersides of cabinets and shelves to create storage for mugs and stemware — and she even hangs objects from the ceiling. “You’re filling the cavity of that space and using it to capture more storage.” She once installed toe-kick drawers under a client’s base cabinets to store baking sheets and supplies. And don’t forget one of the more obvious spots: under the bed. Sermons uses the Container Store’s long under-bed box with wheels ($31.99) and its copper rattan storage bins with handles ($19.99-$29.99, containerstore.com).
Create empty space. “In a small space, I always gravitate toward furniture that hides things,” said Beatrice Copeland, professional organizer and host of “Bea Organized.” “There needs to be moments of nothing, whether that’s a sliver of an empty wall or space next to a bed or couch that’s left empty.” Fill spaces with a mixture of open and closed pieces, some with doors and some without. Tuck away objects that are best hidden, such as tools, papers and extra gadgets, and use open shelves and glass cabinets for styled vignettes.
Use vintage pieces. Many older items boast slim profiles. “A really easy way to add character and not feel like a dorm is to go look at furniture that was made earlier in the century, because it’s generally going to have a smaller footprint,” Lewis said. Retro-style appliances, which are typically more narrow, work well in small kitchens, baths and laundry rooms. Lewis installed a refrigerator and microwave from Big Chill’s Retro collection in the 110-square-foot kitchen of her Austin home. To save space without scrimping on character, she has previously used vintage suitcases for storage in her bedroom and home office rather than nightstands or shelving units.
Here are some specific pieces that design experts recommend for small spaces:
Secretary desks. With covered tops that roll up or close, these desks offer both visual interest and storage. Look for tall models with shelves and drawers inside. “The best thing is that everything you store inside is accessible but can be tucked away by rolling the top down,” said Sermons, who splits time between New York and Charleston, S.C. Use it as a workspace, or turn it into a home bar or vanity. Head to vintage and antique stores for a bargain on roll-top models, Sermons said. For a newer piece, she likes Winsome’s wood regalia home office ($229.99, amazon.com) and the Stanley dresser desk ($549, urbanoutfitters.com). Or try West Elm’s mid-century mini secretary desk ($549, westelm.com), which has a slim profile.
Wall units or modular shelving. Installing shelves is one the of the simplest ways to create more storage. Sermons has a mid-century modern wall unit in her New York apartment. Edwards is a longtime fan of Ikea’s modular Kallax shelves (from $44.99), which can be stacked and rearranged to form “zones.” But remember: Excessive shelving can create more spots for clutter. Plan what to put on the shelves, and avoid using them as drop zones for random objects. Double-check load requirements before installing.
Sideboards/buffets. These cabinet-like pieces are “probably the most accessible way for most people to bring in an antique piece that functions as storage,” Sermons said. Options in numerous styles and dimensions abound. Use one as a media center, or place a mirror on top to create a vanity. They also make excellent places to stash glassware, table linens and dishes. Goerzen has the Amalie sideboard ($1,900, havenly.com), which she likes because of its height and deep shelves.
China cabinet/hutch. The sideboard’s vertical cousin, this piece can hold kitchen and table items, or it can be used for storing books, towels or linens. Sermons recently turned a vintage cabinet into a bar station in her Charleston apartment. Check antique and thrift stores for bargains or unusual items. Anthropologie’s Fern storage cabinet ($2,498, anthropologie.com) is Goerzen’s recommendation for modern homes; she also likes McGee & Co.’s Tobin cabinet ($2,300, mcgeeandco.com) and CB2’s Canna Cane storage cabinet ($1,899, cb2.com).
Storage bench/ottoman. These come in many styles and can double as coffee tables while also hiding odds and ends such as shoes and blankets. Padded pieces can be used for extra seating, and ones on wheels are easy to move. Edwards and Goerzen both recommend CB2’s Rialto ivory storage bench ($699). Edwards also likes Ikea’s Stocksund bench ($199.99).
Decorative hooks. Hooks can be used for coats and pet leashes in an entryway, pots and pans in a kitchen, or towels in bathrooms. Edwards likes using individual hooks, such as Anthropologie’s Louisa monogram hooks ($18 each), for storage with a bit of style. Renters who are hesitant to create holes in walls should consider using over-the-door storage. Edwards suggests the metal moon phase over-the-door multi-hook from Urban Outfitters ($39).