Best small apartment living tips from small space design experts

After nearly three decades of airy residency in Southern California, I’m officially a New Yorker. In March 2021, my partner and I moved from a one-bedroom Venice apartment to a cramped two-bedroom in Manhattan. With a bedroom sans closet and a kitchen without drawers, we had to quickly adjust to new constraints while prioritizing efficiency… and attempting not to break the bank.

Apparently, we’re not the only ones retreating to small spaces. Over the course of 2020, the pandemic emptied New York City of a net 70,000 residents for more airy abodes and less densely populated towns, according to location-analytics company Unacast. But by March 2021, New Yorkers had returned to the Big Apple in droves: According to Douglas Elliman’s March rental report, apartment contracts had ballooned by 89 percent from their March 2020 levels, and a recent report from CBRE shows that consumer spending in New York City has almost returned to pre-Covid levels after falling in March 2020. Across the country, too, former suburban residents are cashing out on their homes and giving the metropolitan lifestyle a try.

To ease the transition for new and returning city dwellers, we consulted interior design experts across the country about how to optimize small spaces. The interior designers we spoke to offered several tips for making the most of your space, plus recommended some of their favorite pieces of furniture and accessories for opening up a smaller apartment or room. We also consulted a trend expert at Etsy, who offered some guidance on how to make the most of every inch of your space. With just a little bit of research and some small space style tricks from the pros, you can curate a space that feels like a homey personal style haven, all within constricting parameters.

Vertical storage for small spaces: Bookshelves, hanging shelves and more

Shavonda Gardner, designer and founder of the SG Style Blog, starts out each personalized design process by encouraging her clients to look at their small apartments as an opportunity for heightened creativity and optimization, as opposed to an obstacle.

“I really try to encourage people to embrace their small spaces and realize that there’s so much that you can do with them,” Gardner said. As she sees it, small spaces can be a blessing in disguise. “It really gives you this opportunity to activate your creativity and lean into living in such an authentic and personal way because you’re not able to do the things that you would do in a larger space,” she said.

To maximize the space they have, Gardner tells clients to take full advantage of the walls. For example, you can attach floating shelves above doors to store baskets of blankets or seasonal items.

Dayna Isom Johnson, Etsy’s resident trend expert and a judge on NBC’s craft competition show “Making It,” lives by a similar rule: “Think vertically.” The designer recommends using tall bookshelves and floor-to-ceiling curtains, both of which can make ceilings appear much higher than they actually are, and mounting whatever furniture you can (even the TV console) to free up space on the floor. “You’ll give yourself additional storage, while also giving the illusion of a larger space,” she said.

The takeaway? Every crevice, corner, door and wall of your home can be used in more ways than one — you often have more “space” to work with than you realize.

Interior designer April Luca recommended this 71-inch tall corner bookcase, which can fit in inconvenient corners of the room, serves as a great home for plants and books and helps to visually elongate the ceilings. Positioned next to a desk, it can also serve as storage for office supplies if concealed in aesthetic fabric drawers or cubes.

These sheer linen curtains are offered in multiple sizes, but the 108-inch offering accentuates windows and brightens up small rooms. The extra length can help the space appear taller and more dynamic. Plus, providing the eyes with multiple levels and textures to take in can help bring a cramped room to life, according to Johnson.

Multi-functional investment pieces for small spaces: Storage ottomans, daybeds and more

When beginning to plan out your space, Gardner recommends being as intentional with your floor plan as possible. Evaluate your lifestyle: If you don’t have friends over for dinner parties or wine nights often, you don’t need to prioritize a big dining or coffee table (and you may not need one at all if you’re constantly on the go). She also advises against purchasing smaller versions of the things you used to have to fit everything in one room, which can create a “dollhouse effect.”

Ariene Bethea, a vintage reseller and the owner of Dressing Room Interiors, recommends investing in a sturdy couch; however, for one-bedrooms or studios, she said daybeds or Murphy beds are also a stylish alternative. She likes disguising daybeds as a dining nook: You can pair it with a bench and a tulip table, then flip it down when hosting guests for the weekend.

Bethea is a huge proponent of multi-functionality. One of her favorite furniture hacks is using a storage ottoman in lieu of a coffee table to provide additional seating and simultaneous storage for blankets and magazines. The key, however, is to reframe the ottoman in your mind as a piece of art or a “statement” piece — it’s worth the investment if it’s something you love and provides color and character in the space. “Top it with a tray for fresh flowers and your TV remote for a finished look,” she suggested.

Luca similarly believes every piece should be versatile, which is why she is a fan of fold-up or secretary desks. She also recommends investing in either a flip-up table or a pedestal table that can be tucked away in the corner of the room. “Pedestal tables provide flexible seating numbers, and that is absolutely key in New York,” she said.

This eccentric storage ottoman, recommended by Bethea, is proof that you don’t have to sacrifice style, personality or décor in a small space. Trendy patterns warm up the space, while the hidden storage option allows for a less cluttered closet, plus provides a convenient place to store books, games, blankets or home workout equipment.

This trundle, also recommended by Bethea, can serve as a bed, couch and dining space all in one. Though it’s relatively pricey, the experts we spoke to said you may want to invest in high-quality, central pieces for comfort and durability. This daybed, which pulls out on wheels for easy access when you’re ready to hit the hay, is something you can keep for future apartments, too.

Luca likes this round table, which works well in multi-function rooms and flexible dining arrangements. Use it as part of a dining nook in the corner of the room for two people, or pull it out into the center of the room for up to four or five seated guests. Adorned with a vase, fresh flowers and a candle, this shiny white table can appear both decorative and functional.

Storage for small spaces: Bar carts, shoe racks and more

With just a small wardrobe and a miniature coat closet for two people, storage quickly became a sticking point in trying to organize my new apartment. But, according to Johnson, conjuring up new space isn’t as difficult as it seems.

“Aesthetics and functionality need to get married,” said Johnson, noting that screen partitions are great for dividing rooms or disguising additional storage. I heeded her “disguise” advice and purchased a bar cabinet that masquerades as a coffee cart — the booze is hidden below (along with some miscellaneous, eye-sore items), while antique mugs and a Chemex are displayed on top.

While Bethea can get on board with open storage when done properly, she said that random items everywhere often end up cluttering small spaces. “Hidden storage is key,” she noted. “It doesn’t distract the eyes.” Hiding items in bins and baskets can help promote cohesiveness in a room, as opposed to displaying the odd knick-knacks you’ve collected over time. When it comes to storing shoes, Bethea similarly recommends hidden, behind-the-door shoe racks. But, if you insist on displaying shoes outside of the closet, she recommends only displaying your absolute favorites, then storing the rest elsewhere.

Luca, a former New York resident, also loves using under-the-bed organizers to store clutter or clothes. She recommends selecting a product that can be zipped up or covered, just in case critters or bugs are present in pre-war buildings.

This mid-century modern cabinet is small enough to fit on a misshapen wall or in the corner of a room. With its multiple shelves, glassware racks and six-bottle wine rack, you can hide a plethora of barware, dishes or any items you don’t want displayed elsewhere.

These GONGSHI vacuum storage bags, which come in multiple sizes, are great for seasonal items you don’t need regular access to. In the summertime, you can stack your heavy winter coats in a bag, remove the air and safely stuff the pieces under your bed to be retrieved at a later date.

These organizers with adjustable dividers are another great option for additional “drawer space” or storing seasonal items, workout attire or extra bedding. The product also comes with a clear top to protect your belongings from dust and, as Luca warned, unwanted pests.

This shoe organizer with 24 pockets is a great way to create more space in an already-cramped closet. If you have a tiny bathroom, you can also throw extra toiletries or hair tools in the pockets.

Kitchen storage for small spaces: Pot racks, kitchen carts and more

Having a kitchen with minimal storage space might not be ideal, but Johnson said you can dream up more space on the walls — she recommends adding hooks to the backsplash for mugs and cookware, or displaying knives on a magnetic board.

Luca also loves the idea of hanging pot racks and spice racks, but warns they could get greasy if they’re situated too close to the oven. A rolling kitchen cart is also a great substitute for drawers, although she prefers a closed storage option to give off a cleaner, minimalist look. As for those piles of stray lids, Luca recommends universal pot lids as a functional fix — just make sure they fit with the vibe of the rest of the kitchen, or store them out of sight.

As an additional storage hack, Gardner suggests floating shelves on the wall or across a window — she likes to use these to display her flatware and dry pantry items in uniform mason jars. But her favorite kitchen essential is her pegboard, as inspired by Julia Child. “They’re super inexpensive, and you can paint them the same color as the walls,” she said. “It gives you so much opportunity to hook things like your textiles and aprons.”

This pot rack, which can be installed two ways, comes with eight hooks, and you can also use it for kitchen tools (like your salad tongs) or your oven mitts. This version is relatively durable: The brand lists the rack’s weight capacity at 35 pounds.

This mesh spice rack can be hung on the wall or you can rest it on your countertop (if there’s space). In addition to spices, you can use it to store tea packets, jam jars, cooking oils or vitamins. Be sure to hang the metal rack out of range of your oven, so you won’t have to clean it daily.

This kitchen cart, approved by Luca, is great for kitchens lacking in storage space. In my drawer-less kitchen, it added two deep drawers and two additional shelves for kitchen storage. My partner and I store our utensils, Crock Pot, blender and other large appliances here. Plus, it can easily be rolled out to the center of the kitchen (or anywhere there’s space) for additional meal prep room.

This transparent pot lid is designed to fit 10-inch, 11-inch and 12-inch pots. According to the brand, it’s dishwasher-safe and can withstand temperatures up to 428 degrees Fahrenheit. It also comes in a smaller size for pots that are 6 inches, 7 inches and 8 inches.

If you’d rather hang on to your beloved pot and pan lids, Bethea recommended this over-the-door organizer. It can hold up to six covers or lids, and you can hide it behind a cabinet or pantry door, or mount it on the wall for additional space.

This durable floating shelf adds more storage to a tight kitchen space. It can also be used to display your cookware or favorite cookbooks. When you eventually move again, pack it up and use it in a different room — the driftwood material is versatile enough to work in virtually any environment.

Finishing touches for small spaces

All of the experts we spoke with said that mirrors are a must for small spaces. “Mirrors are a great way to trick your eye into thinking that the space is larger than it is,” Bethea explained. “Strategically placing a mirror on the opposite wall of a window will bounce that light around the room.”

The interior designers we spoke to also agreed that a good way to make the most of a small apartment is to fill it with items you absolutely love, whether that’s temporary printable art or as many plants as your heart desires.

Though this large mirror with a silver gilt finish is certainly decadent, Bethea sees it as a functional piece of art. When selecting a splurge decorative item, just make sure it’s something that reflects your personal style, and that you’ll want to keep for a while.

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