How to Start Decorating a Small Home, from Small/Cool Contest Winners

published Jul 12, 2023
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Small Cool winner 2021
Credit: Lucía Gogenola

Designing, furnishing, and decorating a small space is hard. And just getting started might be the hardest part of all. Ahem: Raise your hand if you’ve also had an existential crisis over a big furniture purchase, or experienced total decision fatigue over choosing which room will best serve you in which ways.

So we turned to literal small-space design champions, our three most recent Small/Cool Contest winners, to help you take the plunge: Emily Sermons (@shoebox.designs), winner of the 2022 contest; 2021’s Lucía Gogenola (@proyectopasillodeco); and 2020’s Michelle Spetner (@cocoonlandscape). Prepare yourself, because you’re going to want to begin decorating ASAP. 

Emily Sermons' winning home.

Decide to put in the time to make it feel like you (no matter how long you plan to live there). 

“[W]e were planning to move to another country, and then the pandemic came along to change everything. At that moment, when we were cooped up, unable to travel or move, I decided that no matter how long we were going to be there, I didn’t want to continue living in transit and I was going to make that space feel like home with what I had at my fingertips. Color and paint were my saviors from quarantine. I was able to express myself and get out all those ideas I had in mind and hadn’t had time to execute, and the house began to feel like ours.” —Gogenola 

Begin with the room you use the most.

“Making changes to your home may seem overwhelming at first, [so] it’s best to start one thing at a time. Choose to start with the space you spend the most time in. Then, almost like a chain reaction, when you have the courage to start with one space (painting, moving furniture, adding plants and objects), the result is so satisfying that you have no choice but to keep trying with the other spaces.” —Gogenola

Thoughtfully consider what you bring into your space.

“Ultimately, constraints breed creativity, and I really love the challenge of making every corner of my space both beautiful and functional. I try to be intentional about only bringing things I either really love or really need into my home. Plus, small spaces have an undeniable ‘cozy’ quality that I can’t get enough of!” —Sermons

Spetner's winning home.

Store those things thoughtfully, too. 

“Living in a small space taught us how to be very intentional about how we use space and store belongings. There was some [major] organization and constant reassessment of items to live comfortably in our Small/Cool apartment. It felt really satisfying to create such a well-oiled place to live … putting time into organization is key; that way, you can tuck away items you don’t want to see all the time and have room to display items that bring you joy!” —Spetner

Embrace your space for what it is.

“Living in a small space helps you to optimize resources, be more creative, choose carefully what things you want to surround yourself with, and keep what is important. [People] often think that, to be happier, we need something we don’t have: a house with a garden, a dressing room, a laundry room, a kitchen with more space. But happiness is not in having more, but in giving value and meaning to what surrounds us, no matter how many square meters it has. Trying to connect with nature even in the middle of the city was my biggest challenge. In our apartment, we try to clear the windows, make the most of natural light, so that they are the frame of the view and frame the sunsets. [I] surround myself with plants. Enjoying those little things. Of course, I won’t stop dreaming about my little garden, but not before appreciating and being grateful for where I am today, which is a lot.” —Gogenola 

Go big. Actually!

“A piece of small-space advice that I believe wholeheartedly: Don’t be afraid of big furniture in a small space! It can feel counterintuitive to invest in big, bulky, beautiful pieces of furniture when you live in a small space. People who live in small homes tend to try to buy small pieces. But I believe that small spaces really risk looking sparse (and smaller!) if they aren’t filled up with anything. Take advantage of any vertical and horizontal space you have and fill it with substantial pieces that you love. Bonus points if they have extra storage.” —Sermons

Gogenola's winning home.

Consider the moments.

“Design in vignettes, in small moments with personal objects. Don’t let an entire design or aesthetic limit you from putting yourself into a space. Over time, over lived experience, those vignettes will become part of an expression of who you are that will resound through your space as a whole — each a part of you. Design is all about zooming in and out again.” —Spetner

Know that if you put in effort and care, it will show.

“In Argentina there are no big decoration stores and often the resources to do DIY are quite limited, so I never expected that our apartment could be at the height of something international. So I realize that with hard work, creativity, patience, love, and PAINT it is also possible to make something unique (no matter where you live or where you are from)! Color is always the best idea!” —Gogenola