10 Tiny House Decorating Tips, According to a Person who Wrote a Book on Small Spaces (and Lives in One!)

updated Apr 8, 2020
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Living in a small space doesn’t mean sacrificing style. You just have to get creative and be able to express yourself with an economy of furnishings. While I’m not exactly a maximalist, I definitely like stuff—and struggle to pare down because, well, you never know when you might need that sculptural vase or extra throw blanket. But over the past few years, whenever I’ve needed inspiration on how to do more with less, I’ve looked to my friend and fellow writer Laura Fenton.

She’s been living small—690-square feet to be exact—for years (with a four-and-a-half-year-old no less!) and just released a book yesterday, “The Little Book of Living Small“, which feels like an anthology of all things small—and is full of some serious tiny house eye candy. 

Visiting homes, shooting photos, and interviewing homeowners for her book gave Laura an even deeper understanding of what it means to live small today. “I learned new strategies for sharing a space, clever mini-remodeling tips that make a huge difference, and a few mantras about living with less than have me even more committed to the small life,” she says.

I got a sneak peek of the many gems you’ll find in her book. You’ll also see a familiar name in the foreword: Fenton tapped our founder and CEO, Maxwell Ryan, to share some of his own thoughts—who better than the inventor of the Small/Cool contest himself? Even if you aren’t limited by your square footage, you can still use these strategies for a less clutter, more stylish space.

1. Try a Dutch Door Inside

Dutch doors are super cute, but they’re not all just for looks—they can actually be a small-space power move, especially if you have young children. Homeowners Polly Hall and Andrew Barkan, whose Santa Monica home is featured above, wanted an exterior Dutch door when they renovated. But they also asked their architect to add one to their kids’ bedroom. “That way, she could use the lower half like a baby gate to keep the kids inside, but still have them in sight—genius!” says Fenton. 

2. Beds with Drawers are Your Secret Weapon

Fenton’s family has been milking their under-bed space for storage for decades, and you should take advantage of it, too. “My mom had [a bed with drawers] when she moved to New York City in the 1970s, which then came to my first apartment in 1999,” says Fenton. “Today my husband and I have a bed with six drawers built into the frame, which allows us to store all our folded clothing right in our tiny bedroom—without the help of a chest of drawers.”

Storage beds are also great for kid’s rooms, since they’re an easy, floor-level space for children to access and put away their own toys. If you are lucky enough to have a guest room, it might be worth putting a bed with drawers in the mix there as well, so you can store linens there.

3. Always Make Your Bed(s)

Turns out, your parents had a point all those years—while you’re reevaluating your bed setup, Fenton recommends always making your bed. “In a small space, unmade beds are automatically going to make your whole home feel like a mess,” says Fenton. “Blogs and websites are always telling people to do this, but if you need further convincing, a National Sleep Foundation poll found that survey participants who reported regularly making their bed were also more likely to say that they got a good night’s sleep most nights than those who do not.” 

4. Upgrade Your Medicine Cabinet

Because medicine cabinets are often built into walls, you might think they’re a difficult and time-consuming feature to tweak. But a bulky medicine cabinet can visually crowd your bathroom, so Fenton suggests something that is the same width and much taller. Not only will this elongate your space, but it’ll require minimal reframing and drywall repair. 

Similarly, if you only have a mirror above your bathroom sink, consider an inexpensive wall-mount medicine cabinet instead. This way, you’ll be able to use this spot for storage, as well. If you are in a rental and don’t want to invest in a piece at all, you could also try adding a simple shelf underneath your mirror for smaller toiletries. 

5. Streamline the Look of Your Bathroom

Decanted toiletries may seem fussy, but trust me, the simple, matching containers will instantly elevate the look of your bathroom—hello, spa-like feeling!” says Fenton. “If you don’t want to decant, just peel labels off for a simpler look.” Pro tip: You can get the extra-sticky ones off with Goo Gone, or in a pinch, peanut butter.

6. Go Bold in the Smallest Spaces

“I love how designer Shavonda Gardner wallpapered her laundry room (including the ceiling!) in the brightest, boldest wallpaper she could find,” says Fenton. “What would normally be a workaday corner of her home is now a little jewel box. You could do the same in a small bathroom or even the inside of a closet.”

This is a great way to make more mundane tasks feel fun, and it’s also easier on the wallet than papering or painting a larger space like a living room. 

7. White It Out

There’s a wonderful quote from decorator Elsie de Wolfe that Fenton has always loved: “I believe in plenty of optimism and white paint.” You probably already know that white is a great choice for walls to brighten a space up and the perfect backdrop for colorful art. But you can take it a step further and work the wonders of white on your furniture and accessories, too. 

“White reflects light and gives a sense of openness—making it a great choice for small spaces,” says Fenton. “If you’ve got white walls, white- and ivory-hued furnishings will blend in with their surroundings and make the space look more expansive.” 

8. Store and Decorate All at Once

It always pays for storage solutions to do double duty—but that’s even more the case in a tiny home. That said, just plain being pretty is a perfectly suitable second function for storage pieces. Homeowner Danielle O’Shea used a jewelry hanger to turn her necklaces into a decorative moment in the small bedroom of her 400-square-foot home. “In my own apartment, book ledges from IKEA turn kids books into wall art,” says Fenton. “But only use this tactic once per room to avoid a cluttered look.”

9. Ignore Others’ Expectations

Your friends and family aren’t always going to be 100 percent behind your decision to live small, and that’s okay. If it’s important to you to downsize, it can be done no matter what people think. “When my husband and I made an offer on a one-bedroom apartment that we planned to convert to a small two bedroom, my parents pushed us to stretch to buy a ‘real’ two bedroom,” says Fenton. “With today’s economic uncertainty, I am especially glad we chose to live small and kept our payments low.”

Fenton says to remind those who think you need more of this data from the National Association of Home Builders: Back in 1951, the average size of a new home was 874 square feet. In 2015, at the peak of new building sizes, that number was 2,740! Even if some families were larger then, that’s still a staggering difference in home size.

10. Choose Space Over Stuff

This is something professional organizer Shira Gill tells her clients, and it really stuck with Fenton. “When I am having a hard time getting rid of something—say when I feel bad about retiring my son’s latest art project or finally donating our stroller (even though it still would have been useful on trips), I remind myself that I want more space more than I want the stuff,” says Fenton.