5 Designer Secrets to Make a Small Apartment Live Large
Designer Grant K. Gibson gave his 1906 San Francisco condo a modern update, maximizing every bit of its 855 square feet with a streamlined design strategy.
Grant K. Gibson had two challenges when it came to remodeling the historical Edwardian condo he shares with his partner, Marc. “I wanted to hit refresh and make the place feel a bit more current and modern, but every design decision I made also had to be filtered through a small-space test,” he says. “When square footage is precious, you pull out every trick you have to help the rooms feel more spacious.”
His first move was painting the entire place, including the millwork and trim, the same shade of white—Super White from Benjamin Moore. “I loved all the moldings but I wanted them to disappear into the rooms rather than outline them, which can make spaces feel smaller.” Then he created a unified color palette for furnishings, textiles, and light fixtures: black, navy, and slate gray. He also anchored each small room with a large statement piece, such as a king-size upholstered bed in the bedroom—a strategy he uses in diminutive spaces to make them live larger. Grant used this technique to anchor the small living room with an 8-foot sofa and matched its heft with two cocktail tables. In small spaces, he prefers a pair of tables (rather than one large piece) for flexibility and interest.
1. Streamline Your Space
While Grant’s refresh visually expanded the home, it also honored the original architecture. He incorporated plenty of traditional details like Shaker-style cabinetry, white subway tile, black hexagon tile floors, and antique brass hardware. The repetition of these elements created a certain effortless flow. To make the kitchen appear taller, Grant extended white cabinets to the ceiling. The lack of knobs reduces visual clutter, and shelves provide display space where a window prevents another cabinet. "Design should always take lifestyle into consideration," Grant says. “If you’re in a small space, you must streamline everything for the sake of continuity and visual calm.”
2. Take Advantage of Visible Storage
In a kitchen without a typical pantry, Grant stores food in the wall cabinets and keeps the pretty items—his dishes—on a shelving unit across from the sink. "There was a moment when I considered opening the kitchen into the living room by removing a wall." Grant says, "but I'm noticing more of a return to traditional layouts. I think people are realizing they don't always want to be able to see the dirty dishes in the sink from their sofa." Grant's kitchen design is as practical as it is attractive: like the Louis XVI-style leather chairs, the glass-top table is easy to clean.
3. Create (Faux) Open Spaces
Wherever possible, Grant tricks the eye into thinking tight spaces are more open. In the living room, a large ocean photograph (snapped with his iPhone) and mirrors on the interior door provide a sense of depth, almost like windows. Just like in the kitchen, this small space gives the illusion of being larger than it actually is.
4. Pick an Accent Color
Part of Grant's design strategy is to give the eye something to focus on in each room. "When everything is the same color, the eye has nowhere to land," Grant says. "Black accents grab the eye." To keep the small bath feeling as open as possible, Grant tucked the vanity into an existing nook, and traded a claw-foot tub for a walk-in shower with a steel-frame fixed panel instead of a typical glass door.
5. Choose Meaningful Decor
In addition to decorating specifically for small spaces, Grant also encourages his clients to decorate with items that remind them of special trips. “Maybe it’s artwork or an interesting textile to make a throw pillow,” he says. His advice: Look for things that have quality and a story. “The key is to buy something that touches you.” In the bedroom, a black pocket door Grant doesn't use makes a dresser-top display of art, cologne bottles, and travel mementos stand out.
Learn more about Grant's style tips with his book, The Curated Home: A Fresh Take on Tradition, a room-by-room guide to decorating with meaningful items.