The 5 Best Unconventional Layout Tips to Save Space, According to the Pros

published Jan 27, 2024
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A craftsman living area with a built-in wooden desk
Credit: Max Maloney

Creating the most efficient layout of a room is important no matter its size, but it’s particularly vital if you’re working within a small footprint. You’ll want to have the basics covered, of course, as no one wants to sleep on a sofa or take Zoom calls from a bathroom, if they can help it. But nailing the layout while also having distinct zones for each part of life? Well, that’s a tall order. And even professionals can get stuck on spatial planning. 

“Living in a studio apartment for many years taught me more about spatial efficiency than being an architect,” says David Mann, founder and principal of MR Architecture and Decor. “You learn very quickly that the place you eat dinner is the same place you watch TV, read a book, and sleep.”

Sometimes conventional wisdom fails in tight quarters, which means that you’re forced to get creative. Perhaps it doesn’t make sense to place a sofa between two full-size side tables, as one example, or maybe positioning a bed against the longest wall is just a recipe for disaster. If you’re wondering how to live in an efficient home despite its size, these pro-architect and designer-approved unconventional layout tricks can save you a ton of space. 

Credit: Kevin Foley

Take note of vertical space.

Mann lived in a studio for many years, and he learned one important layout trick: If you can’t spread your stuff out, try to take it up the walls. “As a Manhattan architect for over 40 years, I am very used to being as efficient with space as possible,” he says. This usually means that I have to be aware of vertical space.”

He says that the goal of living in tight quarters is to achieve “visual calm,” and a mix of open and closed storage is your best bet. Instead of storing items in baskets on the floor or simply using walls for artwork, consider solutions like shelving and cabinetry that can get most of your items off the floors and out of sight. You can make an impact with wall-mounted floor-to-ceiling shelving, as one option, with closed cabinetry on the bottom or throughout. “I recommend accounting for and accommodating everything that can possibly be put away behind cabinet doors,” he says. “This one trick will go a long way in efficient space planning.”

If there isn’t enough room for floor-to-ceiling shelving, you can still take advantage of vertical space, according to designer Jessica D’Itri Marés of Renovate 108. “You can add shelves closer to the ceiling of a room, above windows and doors, all the way around,” she says. “Then use baskets to store items for a more aesthetically pleasing look.” 

Define high-traffic zones.

Much like the clothes hanging in a closet, a room often has certain items and areas that are used frequently alongside others that are barely touched. For instance, your entryway might lead directly into your living room, creating a “high-traffic zone,” whether you’re alone or hosting guests. Furthermore, you may have no other option but to work with high-traffic zones, because your living room may also be your office. If this describes your home, don’t worry: The first step, says principal designer Emma Kemper of Emma Beryl Interiors, is to define these zones and clear out clutter in their paths. 

“Choose multipurpose furniture and strategically place larger items to avoid blocking key pathways,” she says. A low bookcase can act as a side table, just as a dresser could work as a nightstand. In some cases, screens can also be used to define rooms — which comes in handy if guests will be using your living space as a temporary bedroom. (Just place the screen in a corner as a design accessory when not in use.)

“To avoid sacrificing style for function in space-saving layouts, prioritize multifunctional furniture with a design aesthetic that complements your personal taste,” Kemper continues. “Invest in pieces that blend seamlessly with the overall decor and choose storage solutions that double as decorative elements.”

Credit: Erin Derby

Make the most of multi-purpose furniture.

Along those same lines, those who have lived in tight quarters for years know multi-purpose furniture is a must — especially when it comes to putting things away. “It’s a good idea to choose seating with hidden storage or convertible features, like ottomans with built-in compartments,” Kemper says. “This not only maximizes storage, but also ensures that every piece serves a dual purpose, contributing to both comfort and functionality.”

D’Itri Marés agrees and has this to add about prioritizing extra comfortable furnishings: “When it comes to upholstered furniture in small spaces, make sure the arms of the furniture are slim,” she says. “For example, the arms of a Chesterfield sofa can take up as much as two-feet total, which is a lot of space to give up in a small quarters! Similarly, choose furniture that has a smaller profile in general and has a straight back so it is easier to get around.”

Although storage benches and ottomans, extendable dining tables, nesting side tables, and sleeper sofas — the heavy-hitters in a small-space furniture haul — are all crucial, Kemper notes that you don’t want your home to feel like it’s prioritizing function over style. “Thoughtful color coordination and attention to detail ensure that your space-saving layout not only maximizes functionality, but also reflects your unique style preference,” she says. 

To design efficiently with style in mind, focus on a palette you can refer to again and again. Perhaps the storage ottomans complement the color of your sleeper sofa, or it could be that your extendable dining table is accessorized with shades that blend perfectly with those on your nesting side tables. This helps the eye move about the room freely, making it feel larger. 

Get a feel for balance.

In most cases, homes are an amalgamation of new and old furniture, which is why layouts tend to feel crowded once everything is packed in. If you’re looking around for more space and can’t seem to find it no matter what you do, then it’s probably time to sell or donate furniture that no longer serves you or the color palette you’ve homed in on. Don’t just keep something for the sake of keeping it if you’re not using it or it no longer fits in with your aesthetic. 

Once you have a pared-down collection of items that can be used in a variety of ways — and don’t act as tripping hazards — Katie Winnington, principal designer of C&E Furniture + Design, suggests taking stock of how the room looks and feels. If the room has lots of furniture on one side and not a lot on the other, or the vertical storage is opposed by a blank wall, then you likely need to make some adjustments in the name of visual balance. 

“The rule of balance should always be applied,” she says. “If you are using a sectional on one side of the space, make sure to balance with chairs on the opposite side. If your sofa is centered in the space, balance with a chair or chairs on either side of it. Symmetry is always essential.”

Credit: Max Maloney

Don’t forget to float your furniture.

Let’s say you want a “light and airy” feel in your room, and you want to make this happen as soon as possible. Easy: Just push all of your furniture against the walls, leaving plenty of openness in the middle. Is this the right answer? It is if your main concern is about dance parties but not if you want a stylish-yet-functional layout. Instead, Kemper and D’Itri Marés suggest “floating” your furniture. “This technique fosters a more intimate setting and utilizes space behind furniture for additional functions, like a small workspace or storage,” Kemper says. 

By positioning a sofa closer to the center of a room, for instance, you can place a slim, long table against its back, potentially with ottomans beneath it. Or, “you can put a desk behind a couch,” D’Itri Marés adds. “This creates an office space and a living space in the same room.” It’s also possible to put a dining table in the center of a room in order to fit a credenza against an open wall. The only instance where this might not work is in a bedroom, but even so, you could “float” a bed in a long rectangular layout, provide privacy with a screen, and place a desk on the other side or it. It all depends on what you’re working with. Bottom line? As long as you can move comfortably and live efficiently, you’ve made the most of your layout.