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Big Ideas for Small Spaces

Local designers offer ideas for decorating small rooms.

Storage is important in small spaces. Vintage boxes and crates corral clutter and add character. For example, this vintage white box is small and attractive, but the lid provides concealed storage inside.

Storage is important in small spaces. Vintage boxes and crates corral clutter and add character. For example, this vintage white box is small and attractive, but the lid provides concealed storage inside. Photo courtesy of Courtney Thomas

“[On] one project I put in a Murphy bed that folded up and there was a desk that could then be put down from the underside of the bed.”

— Jean Freeman, a professor of interior design at Marymount University in Arlington.

Whether one is sprucing up a small powder room or decorating a studio apartment, space limitations often pose a design challenge. However, local designers say that no matter how a small space’s square footage or how awkward the layout, there are plenty of decorative cures for small spaces.

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Small-scale furnishings help keep things in proportion. For example, this narrow green bookcase is great for small spaces, says Courtney Thomas of the Picket Fence in Burke.

Jean Freeman, a professor of interior design at Marymount University in Arlington, recommends multiuse furniture. “[On] one project I put in a Murphy bed that folded up and there was a desk that could then be put down from the underside of the bed. It was fantastic,” she said. “Work and eat on it during the day, clear the table and sleep on it at night. Make sure to find one with some automation or an easy to lift and pull down mechanism.”

Designer Debbie Wiener, of Designing Solutions in Silver Spring, Md., also recommends furniture that does double duty. “One sofa bed equals a concealed bed for sleeping and sofa for sitting and entertaining,” she said. “A console table with lower stools equals two places for sitting or putting up your feet plus a dining and work surface.”

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Storage is important in small spaces. Vintage boxes and crates corral clutter and add character. For example, this vintage white box is small and attractive, but the lid provides concealed storage inside.

Wiener also suggests maximizing the use of wall space. “There’s only one floor, but there are four walls, so don’t just decorate the walls, furnish them,” she said. “Tall book cases, floating wall shelves, wall-mounted cabinets, desks and tables that fold up against the wall are all functional pieces that give great storage and work space without taking up any valuable floor space.”

Freeman even recommends furniture that hangs. “There are even chairs that hang on hooks and are out of the way,” she said.

LARGE FURNITURE can overwhelm a small space, says Courtney Thomas of The Picket Fence in Burke. “Using small-scale furnishings helps keep things in proportion,” she said. “A narrow bookcase is great for small spaces. Its narrow footprint makes it practical for many areas while also providing a place to display favorite books and decor.”

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An oversized storage coffee table such as this one can also be ideal in a very small space, says Ann O’Shields. “It will allow enough surface space to use for food and drinks for entertaining, it's roomy enough inside with drawers and lift up storage that you can keep endless amounts of items stored inside.”

Small tables and chairs with folding legs are another good option. “They are handy for when you have company or are entertaining and need some extra furnishings, but won’t take up a lot of valuable storage space,” said Thomas.

Thomas also said mirrors are a great way to make a small space seem larger. “They help reflect light and bring depth to a space,” she said. “Even a small mirror in a narrow hallway or tiny room can make a big difference.”

Storage ottomans can serve a dual purpose in small spaces. “They can be used as a coffee table but can also serve as extra storage for games, magazines, throw blankets and more,” said Ann O'Shields, of The Nest Egg in Fairfax.

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Slip-covered ottomans — also called "poufs" — are great seating options for small spaces.

When entertaining in a small room, seating can pose a challenge. “We always recommend our slip-covered ottomans, also called ‘poufs,’ as a great option for small spaces,” said O'Shields. “They are large enough and sturdy enough to be sat on for extra seating and they are also great for ottomans. Choosing a fun fabric is a great way to add some color to your space and they can always be tucked under a console table or into a corner when not in use.”

WHEN DESIGNING a small kitchen, Arlington, resident Allie Mann, project designer at Case Design/Remodeling said, “Keep floor coverings such as hardwood the same from the kitchen into the adjacent rooms. If you use floor tiles, use larger format tiles to minimize the amount of grout needed.

When it comes to appliances, Mann suggests mini-models. “Use space saver appliances such as microwaves and built-in organizers for knives and spices,” she said. “Additionally, a microwave can be installed in the island or below a cabinet to free counter space.”

When it comes to color in small spaces, Sharon Kleinman of Transitions by Sharon Kleinman suggests using bold and dramatic hues, but not patterns. “Use lush fabrics with lots of texture to create interest,” she said. “For example, in a small powder room, I might use an antique mirror on one wall and then wallpaper in a rich color on the other walls.” She added that it’s best to pick wallpaper with a small to medium pattern.

“Float the countertop in a unique marble with a built up edge such as a double ogee,” Kleinman, of Potomac, continued. “Place a marble vessel sink on top and mount a faucet on the wall. Hang a petite crystal chandelier and you have a dressy, elegant power room that can hold its own against larger, grander ones.”

Wiener adds, “It’s not the [wall] color, it’s the clutter. Many small space dwellers think that white or other light-colored walls is the only way to keep their small home looking spacious. Not true. A small space can take any strong color and still look larger than life. It’s the little things, like piles of books, tabletops without an inch of empty space, crowded corners and floors that make any space look small.”

In fact, one of the biggest complaints about small spaces, say experts, is a lack of storage. “In a small space, storage is key,” said Thomas. “Use vintage boxes and crates to corral clutter and add some character to the space,” she said, pointing to a vintage white box. “It’s small and pretty enough to be left out, but the lid provides concealed storage inside.”

Wiener says that under-decorating is the new luxury. “An open corner or shelf gives a sense of space far more than clutter.”

In fact, she advises taking an inventory of your belongings and donating items that you no longer use. “Store it, donate it, loan it out and keep in mind that a small home with space to spare makes your life simpler, your home organized, and ultimately, this makes you happier in your home.”