Having lived in small spaces all of my life, I feel that I’ve learned a few things about how to live in them well. Some may seem counterintuitive such as “put big things into small spaces,” but often what works is not obvious. Many people like to compare outfitting a small space to outfitting a boat, with a small space set aside for everything and all the surfaces covered, but this is first generation thinking and small homes on land are not boats. Homes need more breathing room and carefully fitting everything in creates a suffocating environment. Second generation space planning uses a number of tools to push and exaggerate the small space, making it feel much bigger emotionally than it is physically in square feet. In the end of the day whether your space FEELS small or big is what it’s all about.
1. 20% Emptiness = Happiness
One-hundred percent perfectly full is a loss, not a victory. Every room, every shelf and every cabinet should have a little breathing room to allow your eye to rest and make it easy to put something away without struggle. Traditional Japanese architects are said to plan their buildings around where the shadows fall and not where the light does. Being this conscious of shadows and the empty spaces and planning for them is a game changer. Leaving 20 percent empty and waiting will achieve this.
2. Lighten Walls, Darken Floors
The lighter you paint your walls, the more luminous your room will be, as well as the farther away they will seem. While doing the same to the floor might also make the room feel bigger, I find that dark-stained floors feel cozier underfoot and create contrast at the bottom edge of the walls that makes them seem brighter and taller to boot. A dark floor is earthlike and has a way of falling away underneath you as you enter a room, and if you paint your ceiling extra bright white it will magically suspend itself upward and open up like the sky over your head.
3. Put Big Into Small
If you get too frugal with a space and scale everything down to fit in, you will get a very small feeling resonating through. Inserting one or two large pieces into a small space is surprising and creates a “change moment” that we find refreshing and allows us to consider a small room as being larger than it really is. Large artwork, rugs, lighting and even beds balanced against appropriately-sized pieces will create an energetic contrast and a sense of luxury.
4. Three Points of Light
Light is your most powerful tool when manipulating space and getting it to expand. Our sense of space comes from where our eye can travel and it is drawn to light and avoids darkness. While paint colors and reflectivity are important, starting with adequate light is essential. Most homes, I have found, are underlit, so I have a simple guide: make sure you have three light sources in every room and don’t include simple light fixtures in the ceiling’s middle, as these shed a very poor light. Light should glow at the level you are living. Table lamps, floor lamps and ceiling fixtures that direct their light down to the walls or the floor are best. When things feel small, add more light!
5. Mirrors Multiply Light
It’s the oldest trick in the book, but mirrors DO multiply the ambient light in a room and allow your eye to extend beyond the walls they hang on, creating a much greater sense of space. Again, the feeling of how much room you have is directly related to how far your eye can travel and mirrors definitely help. Add them to dining rooms, hallways, bathrooms and living rooms. Keep them out of the bedroom, as they are stimulating and don’t support a deep rest.
6. Doors Eat Up Space
Most homes have too many doors. Really. Doors take up a lot of floor space in order to open and close properly, making floor planning challenging, and they are often quite unnecessary between interior rooms. Bi-fold doors and sliding doors on closets can get stuck and shut down 50 percent of a closet. In space-challenged situations, I often start by scouting the doors to see which ones I can remove right away. This allows for more movement and more room for furniture. With closets, my classic solution is to remove the doors and replace them tightly with heavy white canvas curtains. This allows 100 percent accessibility and also allows light within the closet to make the curtain glow as if it were a window and not a dark hole.