Small homes come with a special set of decorating dilemmas. We asked interior design and home organizing pros to share their go-to strategies for relieving big headaches in cramped quarters.

By Caroline McKenzie
March 28, 2018
double doors to bathroom

Small spaces don't get the credit they deserve. They're cozy, stylish, convenient, and low maintenance for most homeowners. However, their potential is often overlooked because of the common problems tight quarters can pose. We'll help you make the most of your home's small spaces, whether it's a bedroom, closet, or bathroom. See what our experts have to say about the most common small-space issues, and why they really aren't a problem after all! 

Problem 1: My children share a bedroom. How can I create a cohesive room they'll both enjoy?


Twin beds to the rescue! "A pair of twin beds is a classic for a reason," says Megan Pflug, an interior designer and fine artist based in Brooklyn, who prefers the timeless duo over often-clunky bunk beds. "Place one on each side of a large nightstand with a pair of matching lamps, and then let the kids have fun with bedding and artwork."

Yes, it's OK for those pillowcases to not perfectly match. When it comes to a color palette, interior designer Andrew Howard of Jacksonville, Florida, is quick to remind how far we've come. "Nowadays, color is much more gender-neutral—don't feel like you have to stick to 'traditional' shades. Blue can work just as well for girls as it does boys." (An apple green and sky blue combo is one of his favorites for a co-ed space.)

Finally, keep in mind that most kids are ultimately more concerned with real estate than they are aesthetics. Ensuring each child has his or her own zone, no matter the size of the room, is the key to happy roommates. 

Problem 2: How can we help our cramped hallway live larger?

blue nightstand end of hallway

"The important point with hallways is to bring on the personality so they feel less staid and wasted," Howard says. A few favorites for doing just that: mirrors (they reflect light in dark pass-throughs), runners (they elongate the area), and floor-to-ceiling gallery walls (which are great spots for displaying family photos you might skip in a more formal room).

Wallpaper is another hallway favorite. "Color and pattern can give halls energy, and also work as a unifying element between the adjoining rooms," says Amanda Louise Campbell, an interior designer based in Greenville, South Carolina. If you can eke out the room, placing a chest or chair against one wall will also do wonders as a spot to rest books and bags or put on shoes. 

Problem 3: I want plenty of seating but don't want my small living room to feel cluttered. What are the best furniture options?

Living room

"Don't shy away from a generously proportioned sofa just because you have a small living room," Pflug says. "It will seat as many people as several chairs and help to anchor a space." Choose a sofa with a bench or three-seat cushion; people often avoid sitting in the middle of a double-cushion design.

Also avoid large roll-arm styles. "You lose room for bottoms in favor of elbows," says Max Alcabés, owner of the Savvy Home Store, a retailer that specializes in small homes. After the sofa, look to poufs or ottomans that can either nest under a coffee table or serve as the coffee table themselves.

Finally, steal this trick from Campbell: Make sure your dining room chairs are comfortable enough to pass the "football game" test. "Dining chairs are logical additional seating," she says. "If they're comfortable enough to get a friend through a football game, you're golden."

Problem 4: How do I maximize storage in the bath?

bathroom shelves and hooks

Go vertical in a bath, says professional organizer Barbara Reich of Resourceful Consultants, who recommends lining walls with open shelving. (Flanking either side of a medicine cabinet is a particularly eye-pleasing look.) Try shelves that are 4 to 6 inches deep. "Multiple 12-inch-deep shelves can overpower a small room," Pflug says.

Meanwhile, shallow shelves outfitted with a few baskets can accommodate most bath items and minimize clutter. Save cabinets for unsightly necessities, such as hair dryers or contact solution. With their transparent footprint, glass shelves are handy for holding toothbrushes and other necessities above pedestal sinks lacking in counter space; they can also capture storage above a toilet without weighing a room down.

Problem 5: There's barely room for a bedside table. What's the best fix?

Bedside table

Designers and home organizers agree, wall-mounted sconces are a must in a small bedroom. "A lamp is the largest item you'll have on a bedside table," Alcabés says. "Once you clear that, you have heaps more space." He finds plug-in versions work just as well as the hard-wired variety—as long as you spring for one with a swivel arm. With the light out of the way, pull up a garden stool, which has a smaller footprint than a standard nightstand. (Many also have cutout detailing that you can thread phone chargers and other cords through for a seamless look.)

If you're still pressed for square footage, try the ingenious, affordable built-in Howard recommends. "In a narrow room, create a 6×6-inch niche between the studs, like those you find in a shower," Howard says. "It gives you a place to put your phone or a glass of water, and is something most handymen can complete in an afternoon."

Problem 6: We don't have a playroom. How can we make space for toys and children without making our main living areas feel juvenile?

storage bins with name tags and containers

Good news: Kid-friendly and stylish don't have to be mutually exclusive. "In the world of fabrics and finishes, there are now so many options that are durable and chic," Howard says. You can find fashion-forward designs that are fade-resistant and spillproof.

Another family-approved material: leather. "It looks better with a little age," Pflug says. "A leather sofa or armchair is actually perfect for rough-and-tumble kids." For all-important storage (hello, thousands of Legos!), stockpile an abundance of one pretty basket style. "No matter what clutter and chaos is lurking in them, the uniformity will be pleasing to the eye," Pflug says.

Problem 7: I don't have a spare room. How can I carve out space for guests?

living room with wicker chairs and daybed

First things first, sleeper sofas have come a long way. "Today you can find them with wooden bases (as opposed to that pesky old bar), memory foam mattresses, and even gel toppers," Alcabés says. "Pair one with a trunk or storage ottoman where you can stash towels and bed linens and suddenly you have a 'guest room' that looks a lot like a living room."

Another guest multitasker: the daybed. "I love a daybed because it's as at home in a bedroom as an office, playroom, or family room," Pflug says. If you can fit another piece, Campbell recommends including a small desk with a mirror in any space used for overnight stays. "A dedicated surface for tasks like checking email or doing makeup is invaluable for company," she says. Consider it as good as a mint on the pillow.

Problem 8: My kitchen has little counter space. What's the best way to add more?

built-in kitchen cabinetry

Reconfiguring built-in cabinetry gets expensive fast. A more budget-friendly way to increase prep space is to add a vintage hutch or cabinet. "Look around the kitchen," Campbell says. "Chances are you can find a spot to squeeze in a small freestanding piece."

She often tucks an antique cupboard into an underused breakfast nook and then tops it with slate or butcher block. "It becomes a charming surface for rolling dough or chopping veggies, and its cabinets can double as a makeshift pantry," she says. Other kitchen space-savers: ceiling-mounted pot racks, rest-over-the-sink cutting boards, and hooks or pocket organizers attached to the backs of cabinet doors.

Problem 9: How do I make room for a home office?

built-in office nook

"It's time we rethink the idea of a home office," says Howard, who in the age of laptops and wireless connections discourages his clients from having one, no matter the square footage of their home. If you do require a dedicated space, put existing pieces to work doing double duty. "For years, my dining room went largely unused, until it finally occurred to me it was a big open surface begging for a lamp and work spread out," says Campbell of her own 1,200-square-foot home. Now the dining room is her day-to-day office and, when special occasions roll around, it takes a mere 15 minutes to clear it for company.

Problem 10: My closet is tiny. How can I compensate?

closet organization

"Don't neglect your closet doors," says Reich, who finds clients are continuously surprised by just how much they can stash on a door outfitted with rows of hooks and rods. "Purses, shoes, jewelry, even winter coats can find a perfect storage spot there."

For clothing, Pflug has one simple edict: "Switch to Huggable Hangers!" After Pflug incorporated these flat, velvet-covered hangers into her own mini Brooklyn brownstone closet, it instantly felt "1,000 times bigger." If nothing else, try to stick with just one hanger style—or two if the clothing dictates a switch—for a visually calming look.

Comments (11)

May 6, 2020
Small homes need storage. Most furniture I have can store stuff. In my opinion the bedside table idea is a bad idea. You need a space that you can store stuff. A slim nightstand with drawers or a shelf or two to hold storage baskets.
May 6, 2020
Small homes need storage. Most furniture I have can store stuff. In my opinion the bedside table idea is a bad idea. You need a space that you can store stuff. A slim nightstand with drawers or a shelf or two to hold storage baskets.
October 22, 2018
Problem 6. Where can I get the black and white toy baskets? Great idea.
October 21, 2018
For problem 2 where you walk in to our foyer with a powder room straight ahead, the living room to the right, a long closet to the left with two sliding doors. I took part of the space to the left in the closet and created a space with a padded board on the back, a small table with a drawer and two shelves below for a place to leave keys, bags etc. I then hung a mirror above the table, it looks great and works beautifully.
October 21, 2018
These are great for appearance but in terms of practicality, no so much.
October 21, 2018
I agree with buddydoris! You are talking about a 1200 square-foot place which I had to leave because I became disabled. I am now in a senior apartment complex with 650 ft.² your ideas are great for homes, but what can be done in our case with virtually no extra space? I am trying to adjust to the smaller space, without having to get rid of things that I love. Can you help us? Thanks
October 21, 2018
I love your ideas, but I live in a small senior apartment building where I can not nail things to walls or paint the walls. I would like for you to address the problems in rentals where we are limited to what changes we can make!!!
October 21, 2018
I have one very small linen closet for 4 bedroom three bath home do you have any suggestions for creating sheets sets and towels mini storage?
October 21, 2018
In problem 2, the door to the right cannot open with the table in the way. I have the same set-up (closet door on the right)and cannot put anything in that space for that very reason. This isn't practical.
June 26, 2018
Also a bathroom towel rod would work beautifully
June 16, 2018
I love the bar to hang shoes, etc on the back of the yellow door. Where can I find this? This would work great in my girls' rooms.