15 of the Most Unexpected, Clever, and Practical Small Space Living Ideas We Saw This Year

published Nov 22, 2022
We independently select these products—if you buy from one of our links, we may earn a commission. All prices were accurate at the time of publishing.
Post Image
Credit: Erin Derby

Some of my favorite tours on Apartment Therapy are the itty-bitty, how-did-they-do-that, super-low-on-square-footage spaces that manage to evoke a sense of cohesion and coziness, despite their size. It’s endlessly fascinating to see how people make the most of their homes, with intentional paint colors, inventive ways of separating rooms, clever storage solutions, and custom additions. If you’re grappling with a small space and need some fresh inspiration, or if you’re just delighted by small space hacks like I am, enjoy the best small space ideas below.

1. Bold Black Walls Throughout

Imani Keal’s D.C. studio is a master class in how not to let a small space interfere with bold design choices. She’s pretty much done it all in this space: wallpapered the dining room, installed floating shelves in the kitchen, added trim to a doorway for some character, but possibly her boldest, and most effective, update was to paint a majority of the apartment black. “I think people who live in small spaces should try to make their apartments look/feel interesting rather than larger,” she says, and while this choice “could have gone terribly wrong, I think it paid off.” The effect of a dark, moody color on the walls in a small space is incredibly cozy, cohesive, and makes it clear that no amount of space will hinder a fun design moment. “Oh, I’m also a big fan of painting the ceiling,” she adds, “mostly because I’m a terrible painter and I think it looks cool.”

2. A Closet Turned “Cloffice”

Thanks to the quarantine of 2020, lots of people found themselves needing a dedicated office space in already small homes — Missela and Angga were no different in their Ontario, Canada home. “Our bedroom is the only room that has a door that separates itself from the other part of the apartment,” they wrote. “We knew that it had to be in the bedroom so that he has a quiet space to focus during work. Between our bed and our dresser, there is not much space so we had to put the desk in the closet. This forced us to declutter our closets and organize the space to fit a home office. Here we also use containers and bins to keep it organized, which is crucial for maximizing a small space.”

3. A Bookshelf Accessible from Two Sides

You’ve likely seen an IKEA KALLAX unit separate a small space before (lots of people use them to differentiate a bedroom from a living room in a studio), but Scott Kangas took this idea to a whole new level in his Chicago condo. “When the developer was rehabbing the space,” he explains, “I asked him if he could build my existing IKEA bookcase right into the wall between my kitchen and bedroom, I drew him a diagram on a napkin and he agreed. It’s accessible from both sides and is deep enough for a double row of books, much needed by me. It’s also great for displaying my antique clock that I bought myself for my 21st birthday along with some of my matte white ceramic collection.” Since the bookcase is accessible from two different rooms, it acts as a focal point for both spaces, and since it’s set into the wall, it takes up very little space.

Credit: Tessa Cooper

4. Large Furniture for Small Spaces

When Colby Kern downsized into his Springfield, Missouri, apartment, he knew that he’d be up for the task of making the space feel like home with limited square footage. “It may seem backwards,” he advises, “but don’t fill a small space with small furniture. Of course there’s a balance to be met, but large scale furniture can actually make a tiny footprint feel visually larger. Don’t limit yourself to only looking at apartment-sized furniture and always always always confirm your dimensions!” In choosing a sofa, coffee table, and other pieces that are regular-sized, the small living room ends up feeling cozier and bigger than it is, because there’s enough to properly fill it.

5. Striped Wallpaper to Elongate Walls

Walking into Johnny Coleman’s 600-square-foot Chicago apartment, you might think you’ve stepped back into a more refined era, but that’s all thanks to his keen vintage eye and attention to detail. One of the most clever details, though, is the striped wallpaper in every room, which elongates the walls and gives the illusion of height. “My last apartment before this one had 14-foot ceilings, which I miss dearly,” he laments, but “in this apartment, I use striped wallpaper to stretch the perception of how high my current ceilings are. I am very pleased with the effect! If you try this be sure to use thinner stripes, no wider than 1.5 inches each at most.”

Credit: Erin Derby

6. Outside-the-Box Storage Solutions

A family of five wouldn’t fit in a 600-square-foot NYC apartment without some very thoughtful storage and solutions, but Heather and Michael (plus their three daughters) were up for the challenge. Heather’s best piece of advice? “Utilize the walls and go up when it comes to storage (think hanging wall baskets, shelves, stackable storage crates, etc.), hang a large mirror to make a small space feel bigger, and tidy up often! Also, bring in multipurpose items where you can — we use a big stack of books as a side table in the living room, use the small wicker bench as a footrest and an extra seat, etc.”

7. Rugs to Define Areas

Not quite a studio, not yet a one bedroom, the layout of this “studio alcove” apartment on Manhattan’s Roosevelt Island didn’t have clearly defined zones until renter, Sarah Jackson, moved in. “Without clearly defined spaces,” she says, “it can seem to be an overwhelming task of how to make the spaces defined and naturally flow into one another. One of the solutions I used to combat this problem was my squared-off rug lines. The implicit lines that rugs can create on the floor are a great way to define where an area ends and another begins. It is only luck, though, that checkered rugs are trending right now and are able to add that extra bit of softness to what otherwise could be a hard line.”

Credit: Netra Nei

8. Wheels on Furniture for Added Space

Classified as a “micro studio,” this 520-square-foot apartment in Seattle, Washington is packed to the gills with storage, including a chest for a coffee table that easily wheels out of the way if need be. “My coffee table was a vintage wood mailing trunk that you can still see part of the address on one side,” says Hannah Herman. “It seems so simple, but not only did adding wheels raise it to the right height to make it much more ergonomically comfortable, but it also makes using my tiny, weird-shaped living room SO much easier.”

Credit: Erin Derby

9. Seating with Hidden Storage

All the items you bring into a small space need to have a dedicated purpose (or two!), and in Bailey Heldmar’s Upper West Side studio, this is certainly the case. “I ended up spending more than I would have liked on the couch,” she admits, but “I needed such a specific size, and supply-chain issues meant that most furniture was taking months to ship. I stumbled upon this one on Pottery Barn Teen that was the exact dimensions I needed and was ready to ship. Plus, the seats have storage! The extra storage space definitely made it worth it even though it’s not exactly the style I would have chosen.”

Credit: Carina Romano

10. Airy Room Dividers for Separate Spaces

Before moving to this 190-square-foot studio in Philadelphia’s University City neighborhood, Crystal Wyatt actually owned a house for more than 18 years — but she knew she needed a change (and certainly a challenge). And while she’s certainly made clever use of the space, her proudest DIY is installing room dividers to add just a bit of separation between the living and kitchen areas. “Since the space was essentially a box,” she says, “I wanted to create separation between the kitchen and living area without closing off the space. I also didn’t want to look directly at my refrigerator when laying in the bed. I searched high and low and found the perfect room dividers on Etsy. They are lightweight and see through. Hanging them was easy because I didn’t need a ladder. I just stood on a step stool and screwed the hooks into the ceiling.”

Credit: Erin Derby

11. A Projector and Pull-Down Screen to Free Up Wall Space

Let’s face it — TVs are usually just big black boxes that take up otherwise useful decor space. Maitri Mody, in her NYC studio decided to forgo a TV in favor of a colorful gallery wall, but she’s got a trick up her sleeve: she installed a pull-down screen and a projector on the ceiling. “This way,” she says, “you can keep it rolled up when it’s not in use and you don’t have to sacrifice movie nights.”

Credit: Redzuan Idris

12. A Lofted Bed with Wardrobe Space Below

After waiting five years for a government-subsidized flat in Punggol East, Singapore, Redzuan Idris already had ideas for this simple space before moving in. One of the smartest space-saving tricks, though, was to loft the bed in order to create more storage. “I made my flat open concept,” Redzuan says, “and there isn’t any bedroom, only a wardrobe with a bed on top to make it obvious that this side of the room is for sleep/wardrobe area. I intend to make a partition but for now I’m happy with this layout.”

Credit: Erin Derby

13. Multi-Purpose Furniture

If you watch any small space or studio tour on Apartment Therapy, you’re likely to find that most renters or owners of these spaces never settle for furniture that’s only used for one purpose. In tight quarters, every piece has to pull its own weight, which can be seen here in Courtney Geist’s small NYC studio. “I tried to make every piece of furniture I was purchasing new have two or more purposes,” she says. “For example, my ottoman is also my accessories storage. My kitchen island houses three small appliances. My desk doubles as a WFH desk and an area large enough to cut and sew fabric. If a piece I wanted to buy brand new did not fit that description, I would look for a better alternative.”

Credit: Erin Derby

14. An Old-School Murphy Bed for the Win

“I feel very strongly that a bed is for sleeping and very little else,” asserts Irene, who lucked into this “too-good-too-be true” apartment in Brooklyn, New York. “The Murphy bed was the perfect solution for me. When I tell people I have a Murphy bed (and that I actually put it up nearly every morning) people are definitely a bit shocked. The uniqueness of it is fun, but mostly I love how it opens up my space during the day and ensures that I don’t feel like I’m living in my bedroom.”

Credit: Erin Derby

15. Paint and Glass Storage to Divide Spaces

The plight of a studio apartment is of course that everything is in one room, so studio dwellers come up with some pretty smart ways to demarcate room from room. And while you may have seen a KALLAX unit used as a wall, the next level up is a metal and glass shelving unit, like the one Gaby and Chris used in their 450-square-foot NYC studio. They also used different paint colors to indicate different rooms, “the desk/office space is sectioned off with a wall strip of paint that continues onto the ceiling, creating this nook-like feel. I have always had a love/hate relationship with headboards and honestly didn’t want to purchase one, so I created a similar effect using Benjamin Moore’s ‘Polo Blue’ to paint the bottom section of the wall.”