7 Mistakes You’re Making When Designing Your Small Space — and How to Fix Them

updated Jan 22, 2021
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Living somewhere that’s short on square footage can be a serious test of your design skills, often requiring you to find that sweet spot between stylish and practical. Knowing which patterns look good together is not always enough when decorating your space in the smartest way possible, and sometimes a few smart decorating moves can mean the difference between a home that feels livable and functional and one that is chaotic. 

If the idea of making the most of your small apartment, tiny house, or starter home overwhelms you, I’m here to help. I tapped a few design experts to help you figure out the layouts, furniture hacks, and design swaps you need to make in order to have your small space feel — and function — like home sweet home. Read on for the mistakes you might be making right now and the tips that will help you get your small space back on track.

Credit: Allprace

You place your furniture against the walls

Your first instinct when laying out a small-scale living room (or any bite-sized space, really) may be to push all your furniture to the walls to create space in the middle of the room. While this move makes sense logically, according to the pros, this strategy actually can have the opposite effect. 

“Pushing all the furniture against the walls to try to maximize a space is a common mistake that actually makes the room feel smaller,” explains Shanty Wijaya, co-founder and creative director of ALLPRACE Homes. “By doing that, you eliminate the much-needed depth and dimension that furniture can bring. Give a little air and space between the wall and furnishings to help create the illusion of a bigger room.”

You don’t customize your storage

Let’s just call it as it is: Anything with the phrase “custom” involved is bound to be a bit more expensive. If you’re a small space dweller though, consider that money well spent when it comes to organizing solutions. Store-bought organizers are amazing, but they can only go so far when you truly have to max out every square inch of your small space. The solution? Truly customized storage solutions when — and where — you can afford them. 

“Creating storage solutions for the actual home you live in will go a long way in fulfilling your needs and designating a place for everything,” says Regan Baker, designer and owner of Regan Baker Design. “For example, it will be so easy to remember where items go in your kitchen with help from a decked-out appliance garage with designated cutting board compartments up top and drawers for cereals and snacks below.” The silver lining here? Built-ins can certainly be hacked out of big box solutions, and often, it takes months of living in a space to see how you truly use it, which gives you some time to save up for something bespoke.

You don’t shop for dual-purpose items

When you call a small space your home, it’s not uncommon to need pieces that do double — or even triple — duty. If you have a couch or a coffee table that only does the job it’s intended for, chances are you’re probably missing out on some effective storage and space-saving solutions. 

“Multifunctional pieces are essential when designing for, or living in, a small space,” says John Kim and Tai Moy, co-owners and designers at Kimoy Studios. “Instead of a dedicated coffee table, consider using a couple of ottomans with a tray on top that can double as extra seating during impromptu gatherings with friends.”

Barry Bordelon and Jordan Slocum, the interior design duo also known as the Brownstone Boys, agree. “Find furniture that can do double duty and style it in your apartment in a way that makes the most of your space. A desk can quickly convert to a dining table with help from a pull-out bench beneath it.”

You aren’t mixing lighting styles

Every designer knows that lighting has the ability to make or break a space, no matter what a room’s size is. However, lighting’s even more important when designing a small space. Too much light, and your room can be overpowered; Too little, and it’s like you’re living in a dark cave. The solution? Layer it up, say Kim and Moy. 

“Over-lighting a small space can be a big mistake,” the duo explains. “Rather than creating layers of light that define areas, we see generic torch lamps or a center ceiling fixture that creates bland, overpowering light. Instead, incorporate different types of light in a small space, like a reading lamp in the corner, sconces around an art piece, or directional pendants that create pools of light over tables or surfaces to create depth, interest, and give a snug space the illusion of size.” 

Designer Lita Lee of Crave Interiors agrees, adding that one small accessory can also make all the difference in your home’s light, and it’s a shiny one. “As a rule of thumb, smaller rooms tend to have less light,” says Lee. “Make the most of whatever they do have to offer by layering mirrors into your space to reflect both the natural and artificial light.” 

You cram in too much decor

When it comes to furnishing your small space, less is truly more. Keep in mind that you may not be able to fit all the “hallmarks” of a certain room into your space, and that’s alright. There’s no rule that says every living room needs two couches, an armchair, a side table, and a coffee table. 

“When working with a small space, I often see clients trying to use too much furniture,” says Lee. “If you’d normally go for both a sofa and a loveseat, try swapping one out for two chairs instead. That small tweak can help clear pathways and visually lighten up the space.” 

You try to visually divide the space 

Though it makes sense to visually divvy up open floor plans in larger homes, doing so in a smaller space can actually cause your home to feel more compact and less functional. “Whatever you do, don’t break up the space and try your best to keep everything at eye level open and uncluttered,” suggests Wijaya. “Making any small space look bigger is all about tricking your eye and creating the illusion of a bigger room.”

Wijaya suggests choosing low-slung furniture to enhance the vertical roominess in the space, as well as eliminating any tall, bulky pieces of furniture. Another tip? Blanket the space in monochromatic hues. Whether light or dark, using similar shades throughout a room will unify the space and make it seem more visually expansive.

You don’t consider the walls

Every inch counts in a small space, even the ones that are on the wall. In order to truly utilize your home to its full potential, don’t overlook all the possibilities that going vertical can hold. 

“In our clients’ homes, we like to take storage up the ceiling as much as possible with shelving and custom cabinets,” says Baker. “The best way to keep a small space organized is to dedicate as many places as possible to putting your stuff away.” 

For the Brownstone Boys, it all comes down to marrying form with function and creating storage opportunities that also add architectural interest to small spaces. “We love building niches into walls,” they say. “In the bathroom next to the vanity, in the hallway to display items and books, in the bedroom over the headboard — anywhere that things can be tucked away and possibly eliminate clutter or the need for additional pieces of furniture.”