High Contrast: A Design Trick That Makes Small Spaces Seem Larger

published May 1, 2017
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This is the conventional wisdom: for a small space, light colors. Dark colors can make a space feel heavy and oppressive, and they tend to soak up light, which is usually at a premium in a smaller space. But one of our house tour homeowners, who lived in a very small space indeed, alerted me to a neat trick. Dark colors can actually make a small space seem larger—it just all depends on how you use them.

The key is, instead of painting the entire space in a dark color, to just paint one wall (or a single element like a bookcase), as seen in the image above from Royal Roulotte. Dark colors read as receding from the viewer, so the accent wall visually enlarges the space (and sets up a nice contrast that can make the rest of the space seem brighter by comparison). Let’s check out a few examples.

(Image credit: Nancy Mitchell)
(Image credit: Nancy Mitchell)

Natasha Habermann, the designer who first introduced me to this idea, put it to work in her 350-square-foot Manhattan apartment. The wall of shelves surrounding the TV (you can see it on the far right in the top photo) is painted a deep blue, which adds depth to her tiny living room.

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

In this space by Standard Studio, a black accent wall adds a whole new dimension to a dining room.

(Image credit: Historiska Hem)

Here’s the same idea in a small bedroom from Historiska Hem, via Elle Decoration. I like how the black shelves coordinate with the wall, enhancing the impression of depth.

(Image credit: Architectural Digest)

From Architectural Digest, here’s proof that this can work not just with muted darks like black and navy, but also with bright red.

(Image credit: Nancy Mitchell)
(Image credit: Nancy Mitchell)

Tanika and Brian’s New York apartment is notable for its clever use of color, but especially notable, in this case, is the black-painted bookcase in the living room, which adds depth and interest to a little corner of the living room.

(Image credit: Desire to Inspire)

This photo, from Desire to Inspire, perfectly illustrates how effective this scheme can be. In this not particularly large living room, the black wall appears to recede from the viewer, giving the room a feeling of depth and spaciousness it might not otherwise have. It’s a lovely way to bring in contrast while making the most of your small space.