How to Make a Small Space Look Bigger
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How to Make a Small Space Look Bigger

Bigger isn’t necessarily better.  Many people are choosing to live in smaller spaces for a variety of reasons:  economy, downsizing, first apartments, etc. Whatever the reason, there’s one overall essential to making the most out of a small space, and that’s tricking the eye to make it seem larger. This can be easily accomplished with a few simple guidelines; start from the “ground” up.

Don’t go crazy with rugs.  If you’re dealing with hardwoods, you’ll naturally want a few rugs to keep your feet warm during winter months, but too many rugs (or overlapping rugs) will make the space look messy and bottom-heavy.   If your space is carpeted, skip the area rugs altogether.  Not only they do eat up visual space, but they seldom work well, rug-on-carpet--leaving unsightly ripples and dangerous edges to trip on.

Create more floor space.  Okay, so you can’t change the dimensions of your space to actually conjure up more square footage, but you can give the impression of more space by showing a little leg--as in the legs on your furniture.  Your eye will view the room as larger if there is additional floor space you’re able to see.  Play that up by choosing nightstands, tables, even sofas with legs if you can, as opposed to solid pieces all the way to the floor.  Even glass-topped tables that allow the floor to be seen through their transparency will give the illusion of more space around your furniture, and make the furnishings appear more appropriately scaled to the size of the room.

Vertical lines:   one of the first rules one learns about fashion is that horizontal stripes make you look fat.  Conversely, then, the opposite is true for vertical lines. Consider painting your walls in vertical stripes. Not circus-tent stripes, but something way more subtle, like two slightly different shades of the same color, in alternating verticle stripes of 5" or 6" in width (ideally, a number that divides equally into the width in inches of the wall in question)--if you want to keep the look very  subtle, go for neutral taupe shades. The look will be almost subconscious, playing up the height of the room. This is really easy to do, too--just get plenty of painters’ tape, and hang it straight!  Alternately, wallpaper--in either a stripe or a subtle striped pattern;  emphasis here on “subtle,” because we’re going for an illusion of roominess, and a too-busy wall can really jump forward and close things off.  Also, while you may fall in love with a beautiful wallpaper border and be tempted to run it along close to the ceiling--give some thought as to how it might make your ceiling appear shorter and your room more closed-in.

Experiment with scale.  From the plethora of home improvement programs that have appeared on television in the past few years, everyone knows that real estate agents use smaller-scale furniture to “stage” their properties, making modest bungalows look amazingly roomy.  Why not bring that strategy into your place?  Someone on Craigslist is looking  for your “extra” or “too-big” pieces of furniture right now. Unless you’re an unusually large person, make do with a smaller dining table; consider a love seat instead of a sofa; and/or downsize from a king to a queen-size bed, or a queen to a standard “full-size”--but only if you can do so without sacrificing comfort in your sleeping arrangements.  It’s especially important in a small bedroom, with the bed covering so much of the floor space, to consider night-tables on legs, to show some floor.

Hang ‘em high.  Another way to play up the height of the room is through your choice of window treatments. Make sure to get long, long curtains that you can hang very high, near the ceiling, which flow uninterruptedly all the way to the floor, showcasing the entire vertical expanse of wall space. Hem them at the bottom so that they clear the floor, for a clean look. While it is a style being shown these days to have drapes or sheers bunched up and lying on the floor in a romantic “pooled” look, this will take away floor space in a small room and make the room feel cluttered.   Plus, if your space is small, they may get stepped on more than you’d like.  Leave that style for the McMansions.

“It’s all done with mirrors.”  Double the visual space in a small room with an oversized mirror on one wall to reflect back most of the room, such as over a fireplace mantel, or mirrored doors for bedroom closets.

Reduce the overall amount of “accent décor”:  blank walls seem unwelcoming, but despite the fact that the colors or shapes in a painting can do much to tie a room’s theme or color scheme together, resist  the urge to hang a picture or painting in every available space--again on the principle of “too-busy” walls seeming to spring forward and box the place in.  Keep the scale of wall hangings appropriate to the overall size of the wall; a modest room cannot accommodate museum-sized display art.  Accent pillows:  limit, two per room.  And watch the tchotchkes:  whether you have a collection of kitschy knick-knacks, a beloved reminder of your great aunt, a pretty antique figurine, or a few great pieces that pop with just the right accent color for your room, scale down. A small cabinet (on legs!) with glass doors, or a very small corner curio (they’re surprisingly available and affordable) can be a way to continue to display the most meaningful of your treasures--and  in greater safely and less dusting--while leaving most  of your table-surfaces simple and uncluttered. Choose only one or two to leave out--the ones that really help make the statement you want to make in the room.  Too much  "theming" can give your room a pre-packaged "novelty" look, rather than the individuality you're seeking to express.

And speaking of clutter:   nothing cuts down the size of a room faster than clothes or shoes left on the floor; magazines (even artistically fanned out--your living room is not a dentist’s waiting room) and books on the tables; a purse or backpack dropped to the floor as soon as you get in the door. If books, magazines, and newspapers are a big part of your life (as is so often true), then keep a large, shallow box under your bed, and when preparing for company, pull it out like a drawer, scoop them up and tuck them away to be enjoyed later. Try to create a designated space for items like backpacks and handbags to belong--even on hooks inside your closet, or a small wall shelf with hanging hooks in your bedroom. (Even on the back of a bedroom doorknob, if it works.)  Extra benefit: once you make a habit of parking them there regularly, you won’t have to waste time running around looking for them.

Hopefully these tips and tricks can help you open up your small space and stop having to turn sideways to get from the dining room to the living room.

Photo courtesy of, by permission.

©KatieK, April 11, 2010

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Comments (5)

I'm always 'adding' things and my Sicilian keeps calling them 'junks'....and he's right. Less is more. Less junks is more space. Thanks for reminding me to get rid of some stuff today.

If you're getting rid of any of that Lenox collection, ship it my way.

Very helpful article! My living room is smaller now than where I used to live but I still have the furniture. This gives me a good excuse to replace some of it. ;)

A lot of common sense in your interesting article. Thank you.

Thanks for your comments; and Pat--now, THAT is seeing the glass half full!