10 Smart Tips for Small-Space Furniture, According to Someone Who (Literally) Wrote the Book On It

updated May 14, 2021
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Clear coffee table in a living room with a leather sofa
Credit: Weston Wells

I have lived in small-ish spaces all of my adult life (thanks, New York City!), and I literally wrote a book about small-space living (“The Little Book of Living Small,” if you’re curious). So I know a thing or two about shopping for furniture for an apartment that lacks square footage. I’m also a serial furniture swapper, buying and selling things on Craigslist until I find pieces that are just right for my home. To that end, I’ve had unusually broad experience with furniture trial and error. Here are a few tips and tricks I’ve picked up along the way.

1. Measure twice, shop once.

The rules that apply to carpentry also apply to shopping for a small space: Measure everything twice before committing to buy. Don’t just measure the space where you’re putting an item either. Measure the doors, hallways, and stairs the item will need to pass through before reaching its final destination. I once came home to find a neighbor with his sofa jammed into our stairwell — and it took an electric saw to get it out!

2. Pay attention to legs.

An advantage of pedestal tables is that their more streamlined shape provides less visual clutter in a small space. Similarly, a sofa with visible legs or a chest of drawers that’s raised up on short legs often will seem lighter than something that’s solid all the way to its base. If you end up with too many furniture legs in a room though, things can start to look really busy fast, so it’s best to aim for a mix of silhouettes.

Credit: Laura Fenton

3. Circles trump squares.

Round tables take up less floor space than their rectangular counterparts while offering just as much usable surface. The choice of a pedestal design over one with multiple legs means that you can squeeze in extra friends when needed (soon!). In a tight living room, a round or oval coffee table will leave you a little more room to walk around, too.

4. Consider the loveseat.

Most people wouldn’t have thought I could fit a sofa into my tiny studio 15 years ago, but when I downsized to a loveseat, it was possible. Not only will the smaller sofa fit better in your diminutive digs, but it may even become a piece that you can use later if you graduate to more space. For example, a loveseat could later become accessory seating paired with a full-size sofa. 

5. Smaller isn’t always better.

Much of the time, the smaller version of an item is the way to go but not always. For example, I opted for a bigger couch so that I could use it as a guest bed when we have friends visiting from out of town. I can’t wait until that happens again soon!

Credit: Weston Wells

6. Think light and bright.

A coat of white paint isn’t just a fix for walls: It’s also a great way to lighten up furniture. White and other very light colors reflect light and create a feeling of openness, making them great choices for small spaces. If you’ve got white walls and white furniture, it’ll double the effect; your furnishings will blend in with their surroundings.

7. Look for stackable pieces.

Shop for stools or dining chairs that stack and nesting tables that take up the floor space of a single seat (or table) when not in use. I particularly love the Artek classic bentwood stool (which has been endlessly copied), because it can be a side table or a stool.

8. Make your bed do double duty.

I like to advocate for a bed that makes the best use of the space it takes up. In my own home, I have a bed frame with built-in drawers (see above), which stores all our folded clothes and precludes the need for a chest of drawers. Alternatively, a wall bed (a Murphy bed) can be a godsend for small spaces. Back in the day, I invested in a wall bed for a 225-square-foot studio, and I can promise you, Murphy beds are just as comfortable as regular beds.

9. Scout out low-to-the-ground furniture.

When I recently shuffled around my furniture, I was surprised by how much a lower coffee table impacted the feeling in the room. By choosing low-slung pieces, you’ll create a more open, lofty feeling in your space. Platform beds and slipper chairs are pieces that are typically a few inches shorter than their counterparts. 

Credit: Weston Wells

10. Try glass and lucite pieces.

Choose glass, lucite, and acrylic furniture pieces: They’re almost invisible. However, beware of mirrored glass. While a well-positioned mirror makes a room look larger, a mirrored piece of furniture can make a room look cluttered when it reflects its surroundings.