Small spaces, be they a bijou city central apartment, a quaint country cottage or indeed the spare box room, are a test! Designing them in such a way that maximises their potential is one of interior designs biggest challenges but with the right design tools, you can totally smash it. As the spaces we live in get smaller (in the UK new builds are an astonishingly 2 square meters smaller than they were in the 1930s) more of us are having to get smart about designing small. You’re going to find me coming over all matronly but you have to get your house in order, and it’s going to involve some painful de-cluttering followed by some clever little design ideas, that don’t have to cost the bomb. As they say, the best things come in little packages!
First up you have to be realistic about the amount of stuff you have. When I was judging the TV show The Great Interior Design Challenge, one common mistake I saw up and down the land, was people having more stuff than they could fit into their homes. Bookcases groaning under paperbacks, wardrobes full to bursting and furniture often too big for the space. You need to be ruthless, and emptying the room to decorate it is a great time to get really focused and take stuff to the charity shop, offer it up on freecycle or try and get some money for it on sites like eBay that can go towards your renovation.
When I’m doing my room plan, I prioritise planning in plenty of effective storage in a small space. This is so when you bring back in your edited belongings there is somewhere for them to be put away. Nothing kills off a small space quicker than mess and clutter and you need to aim for a streamlined look to help a small space feel bigger. If budget will allow invest in some fitted storage as this will eek out more of the available space. And remember drawers are 30% more space efficient than cupboards.
The more floor space you see in a room the bigger the room appears. So ways to achieve this is to choose furniture that sits up off the floor on legs, like the sofa or the bed for example. Mid-century modern style furniture really suits small spaces for this reason. Another way to see more floor is to choose glass furniture for dining, coffee and side tables that allow to eye to travel through them.
One way to physically trick the eye to understanding the room to look larger than it is is to choose a recessive colour palette to decorate with. Cool colours like grey, blue, lilac and green actually ‘pull away’ or recede from the eye making the space feel bigger. Pick a cool light shade and the room will feel more bright and spacious or pick a darker hue and this will give the room have more depth. I urge you not to discount the inky dark colours like graphite grey, forest green and navy. Yes, they won’t make the room feel lighter but they will add depth and drama to a room that might feel otherwise, rather underwhelming. And yes, I’m saying it has to be all four walls to get this effect. A feature wall in a small room just makes it look cluttered and disparate.
In a small room, it helps if you can paint out the details and homogenise the space. This is all towards the aim of reducing the visual clutter that can help the room feel calmer and more spacious. So paint woodwork, architraves, doors and radiators all in the same paint colour (you can colour match your eggshell and emulsion for different surfaces). If you have fitted joinery, like cupboards or floating shelves, I would paint these in the same or similar wall colour too.
If you can bounce the light around the room, it really helps to make it feel lighter and more spacious. So get a large mirror on the wall (positioned opposite a window if possible for maximum light bouncing effect). Choose glossy surfaces for tables like glass, mirror and marble and you could even paint your floor or ceiling with a gloss finish, although this has to be done meticulously to look good.
So not only have I got you to chuck out 60% of your possessions I’m now going to make you put most of it away, in cupboards. I’m a maximalist at heart, and I love a busy, eclectic and cluttered look, but that is not going to help your small space feel bigger. So instead choose, for example, one large piece of artwork for the walls, rather than a gallery wall of pictures. Curate your display shelves pleasantly, with air and space around the objects rather than cramming shelves with books and it helps if you create a colour story so it’s not one big mash up. In a small kitchen or bathroom consider fitted wall cupboards that go all the way up to the ceiling.
Following on from the previous rant, I mean point; it helps the space ‘breath’ (poncey interior design term!) if you create some space around your furniture. In a small room, it’s tempting to push everything against the walls and into the corners. But by pulling out a slender armchair away from the walls, creating negative space around it can help to make the room appear more generous.
It’s crucial that you pick furniture that is the correct proportion for the room. Too often I see massive three-piece suites choking up a small living room. Sofa’s with slender arms, open-armed armchairs and narrow depth side tables or chest of drawers all help. Or rather than have lots of small pieces of furniture, you could just go for one large modular sofa that fills the room with a footstool instead of a coffee table which doubles up as an extra seat. I always urge people to choose the biggest bed they can feasibly fit into the bedroom, but then put it with small side tables or a floating shelf each side. Wall lights and floor lights also get rid of unnecessary side tables if space is tight.
Enhancing the amount of natural light in a small room is a good idea. For this reason, I’d choose a neat tailored roman blind at the window in favour of curtains, and mount the blind outside the recess so that when it is drawn it doesn’t block out any of the daylight. If you paint your window sills and frames in white gloss it does help enhance the light bouncing into the room too. A small room, especially if it’s combined with small windows will need some help in the electrical department too, so don’t just rely on one central pendant. Consider lamps, wall lights, strip lighting in shelves and strategically placed recessed ceiling spots will all help highlight those dark corners.
Featured image at top of post: Walls painted in Ammonite and Blue Ground by Farrow and Ball.
Words by Sophie Robinson, images sourced by Luisa Ferdenzi-Rouse.
Welcome to my blog where I share my passion for interior design and everything I know from 20 years in the business.
I’m a self confessed colour lover, pattern clasher and cushion hugger.