Design challenges come in many shapes and sizes. It may be hard to believe but too large a space can pose as much difficulty to plan and design for as not enough. That said, today’s post is about small space challenges. Many of my clients live in small homes in urban neighborhoods and struggle with questions of how to furnish their rooms to meet their needs, and make their small space feel bigger. Although the room size won’t change without moving some walls, there are a few things I like to do to help visually expand the space, and make it function better.

Here are a few key tips and guidelines…

1. Keep contrast low.

The more you keep the large pieces in a room harmonious with the wall colour, the more it will draw the eye outward and visually expand the space. A monochromatic colour scheme where the upholstery, drapery, and wall colour are all in the same colour family will flow well giving a sense of spaciousness. That doesn’t mean is has to be boring. Lots of drama can be created by changing up the textures and finishes without resorting to high contrast colours.

2. Unify the vertical surfaces

When you break up the walls with contrasting trim, it begins to feel “choppy”. Paint the trim a similar colour to the walls for better flow and your space will feel larger. Keeping the trim close to the wall colour – maybe a touch lighter for a traditional feel, or darker (for historical consistency) will go a long way to making it read as one plane thus making the elevation visually expand. This will help guide you if you have wainscotting, for example or a chair rail. By unifying with one colour, it will feel more spacious.Many homes feature trim and wall colour the same with just step up in the sheen level for a crisp updated look. Tips on selecting sheen level

3. Use mirror

Use mirror whenever you can to bounce light around and add interest. This will create the illusion of depth. I’ve got to write a blog post about using mirror – when and how to, but for now, consider what you are mirroring when placing a reflective surface in a room. here is a great example where we mirrored a wall and provided a view of the ocean from every seating place in the room. It expanded the space and gave everyone a million dollar view – a real win! See more of this project.

Living room with sectional and ocean view

4. Use light colours – but not necessarily!

Use of light colours is a bit oversold for small spaces if you ask me. If you prefer light colours, then that is a perfectly good solution but there is a commonly held myth that all small rooms should be painted a light colour. Without getting into a lot about colour theory, physics, and light reflective value here (another topic for upcoming blog posts – stay tuned), it isn’t a big no-no in my books depending on the light and exposure (eg. north, south, east, or west) to pick a stronger hue.  A dark and moody room can give the feeling of the walls receding if the you pick a hue in the right tone (degree of brightness or saturation). You just need to pay closer attention to the rules above regarding contrast and the treatment of the vertical surfaces. Those are especially important with darker hues.

5. Mount your tv on the wall

Eliminate the need for a dedicated furniture piece to sit the tv on and open up your space.

6. Choose the right scale

Believe it or not, a small room will look larger if you choose appropriately sized furniture pieces. That means pick larger pieces but fewer of them. Having a room filled with too many smaller pieces only highlights the fact that your room is small. Edit furniture down to the key pieces you really need. Pick your main pieces – like a sofa or sectional and let it dominate the room while keeping the other pieces more restrained. If you are looking for a sofa or sectional, by the way, you can read my guide to picking upholstered furniture.

7. Make pieces serve double-duty

A roomy coffee table/ottoman can double as a storage piece, one large piece of seating like a sectional can serve the job of a sofa and side chairs. A small ottoman too can serve as a side table, a perch to sit, and a place to store toys or whatnot. A dining banquette can be designed with storage in the seat for less often used table linens, toys, or whatever! Think about how each piece can be used in the space before clicking on an online purchase.

8. Pick the right size of area rug

Okay, this is a biggie! I’ve said it before, the best way to make a room look small is to put a teeny area rug in it. Go big or go home, as they say, is the advice here. Pick the largest rug you can find that still allows a 12 – 18″ perimeter of hardwood around the room. If that gets too costly, find the largest size that will fit under the legs of the key pieces of furniture in your seating group. This will instantly make your room look larger… great tips on designing your room around an area rug.

9. Use built-in storage

Built-ins are a game changer for small spaces. Large rooms can accommodate beautiful stand-alone pieces of furniture but in a small room you need to be tactical. Here are a couple of children’s rooms we designed that show how built-ins can unify the space and keep clutter to a minimum. I always tell my clients, design a room they love and they will work harder to keep it clean.

bedroom with white uilt-in storage

Look how we eliminated the need for a night table in this very small girl’s room by adding a pull-out surface for use at night.

Pull-out shelf in bedroom built-in

See more of this project.

10. Use sconces

Table lamps can take up valuable space when you have minimal surfaces to work with. By installing sconces on the wall, you can do away with these bulky items and streamline your space. End tables surfaces, consoles, night tables all become available for styling or for practical things when you eliminate the table lamps.

Here’s a great example of an entryway setting where there is no need for side tables to place lamps on.

Purchase these lovely sconces, the mirror, the gorgeous grasscloth wallpaper , and the settee.

pretty wallaper behind linen bench with framed mirror

In all, I advise clients to embrace the coziness that first drew them to love their home when they purchased it. A small intimate space can be compelling in a way a large vacuous space can never be. Embrace what you have!

Do you have space challenges to share? I’d love to write a blog post addressing your challenges. Please comment with your ideas and design challenges.

*** My standard disclaimer: Please note, some of these items may be offered through affiliate links which means I could get a small commission if you order. That will never influence what I find lovely and want to share with you. I always offer suggestions I would buy for my home or recommend to a client. Also, rest assured it won’t affect the price you would otherwise pay.