The #1 Small-Space Hack New Yorkers Swear By

Updated 11/14/18

Small-space decorating can be a challenge—few people know this better than Manhattanites. In one of the world's most densely populated cities, real estate prices are sky-high, and square footage comes at a premium. In fact, ask any New Yorker how much they pay in rent every month, and chances are the number will be higher than the mortgage rate on a two-bedroom house in most cities. So if anyone knows how to make the most of a space, it's New York–based interior designers and architects, who make it their life's mission to maximize the look and feel of Manhattan dwellings, no matter how small.

New York small-apartment décor is a science all of its own, requiring expert-level Tetris skills, clever storage solutions, and multipurpose layouts. To shed some light on the best small apartment ideas, we tapped real NYC-based interior designers, architects, and chief creative officers to share their best tricks with us. Embrace these New York City–approved hacks, and take your small-apartment décor to the next level.

Build Storage Up

Small-Apartment Décor
Julia Robbs

"When you can't build out, build up," says James Tabb, designer at Laurel & Wolf. Having designed plenty of small New York spaces, he is no stranger to the need for storage. This basic principle of any metropolitan city can be easily translated into the interior design of a micro living space. "A clever trick that I love incorporating into small spaces is adding a floating shelf very close to the ceiling, which runs the perimeter of the room. By accessorizing with books, accessories, or other collectibles, it creates an effect similar to crown molding."

CB2 Stairway Wall Mounted Bookcase $349

Use Large-Scale Pieces

Small-Apartment Decorating Ideas
Julia Robbs

While it may be intuitive to fill a small space with small pieces of furniture, Sheena Murphy of Brooklyn-based design firm Sheep + Stone says it's the worst thing you can do to a tiny apartment. "Use large-scale furniture and artwork," she says. "Smaller pieces can actually make rooms feel smaller." While you need to think of function above all in a small space, try to edit down your furniture needs to a few larger pieces, as opposed to a bunch of smaller ones.

One easy trick you can employ is to have a little breathing room between your furniture pieces and walls, as this visually opens up your space.

Knoll Barcelona Couch $9772

Keep It Light and Airy

Small New York Apartment Décor
Courtesy of ASH NYC

"Keep things light and airy," Murphy says. While some designers believe in painting small rooms dark, New Yorkers tend to swing the other way. "Paint everything white," says Will Cooper, partner and chief creative officer at ASH NYC. "Rooms always feel bigger when there is one continuous color. White is perfect for small spaces because it reflects light and keeps any space feeling open and airy." Having designed and staged countless New York dwellings for prominent clients and realtors, Cooper is the perfect person to advise on making a small space look top-notch.

Mount full-length drapes on either side of a window to create the illusion of a wider wall.

B&B Italia Vintage Italian Alanda Coffee Table by Paolo Piva $2947

Mount Full-Length Drapery

Apartment Decorating Ideas
Courtesy of Sheep + Stone

"Mount full-length drapes on either side of a window to create the illusion of a wider wall," Murphy says. Having worked in many Brooklyn and Manhattan apartments, hanging curtains high and wide is the designer's signature move. When space (and outside views) is limited, the last thing you want to do is to block the incoming natural light, or somehow reduce your window's real estate.

Pottery Barn Emery Linen/Cotton Pole-Pocket Drape $119 $89

Pick Double-Duty Pieces

Small-Apartment Decorating
Courtesy of Amuneal

One of the biggest mistakes I see in small spaces is failing to make use of wall space for lighting.

Murphy beds tend to get a bad rep, but when they look as good as Amuneal's custom feature wall, it makes one reconsider. Part storage, bedside table, and bed, the whole brass-and-walnut unit can be made to fit the dimensions of any wall.

But Murphy beds aren't the only multipurpose furniture pieces out there. "When space is scarce, a gateleg or drop-leaf table is a perfect item to incorporate in your home," Tabb says. "If you frequently entertain, but your kitchen or dining room is small, either of these tables can provide an efficient solution for seating guests."

Kimberly Winthrop, a designer at Laurel & Wolf, agrees: "With a little bit of research, you can easily find a host of products that can do double duty in your home. An ottoman, for example, can have hidden storage and be a place to put up your feet. By adding a tray, it can also serve as a coffee table, providing an extra surface to place a drink when hosting friends."

Casper Sleep Mattress $1195

Use Wall-Mounted Lighting

New York Apartment Décor
Courtesy of Sheep + Stone

"Wall-mounted lighting is a perfect example of how to utilize your walls," Tabb says. It not only adds an interesting design feature to your space, but it also serves a necessary, functional purpose." Megan Opel, a designer at Laurel & Wolf, is also a fan of the wall sconce: "One of the biggest mistakes I see in small spaces is failing to make use of wall space for lighting," she says. "For example, when space in a living area is tight, prioritize a bigger, cushier sofa ditching table and floor lamps in favor of wall-mounted, plug-in, or hardwired sconces."

Workstead Wall Sconce $775

Leave a little Breathing Room

Apartment Decorating NYC
Courtesy of ASH NYC

"When you have a small apartment, it can be tempting to place furniture in corners to save space," Tabb says. However, this actually ends up making your space look and feel much smaller. One easy trick you can employ is to have a little breathing room between your furniture pieces and walls, as this visually opens up your space."

Cooper agrees: "Oftentimes people cram so much into tiny apartments, and it makes the space feel even smaller than it already is," he warns. "Edit down to your necessities, and call it a day." Floating furniture in the middle of the room is a great way to fake loads of space, and it forces you to edit your clutter down to a minimum.

"In a small space, giving your eye a little breathing room can help make your home look and feel bigger," Winthrop says. "Opt for sofas and credenzas with visible legs. The little bit of negative space will keep your small apartment from feeling like it's filled from wall to wall with furniture."

Serena & Lily Scallop Embroidered Sheet Set $128

Use Rugs Carefully

Small Apartment Living Room Décor Ideas
Julia Robbs

"Just because your space is small doesn't mean it should lack the basic elements of a well-outfitted room," says Laurel Startzel, designer at Laurel & Wolf. "Area rugs are a great way to define spaces and you can buy them in just about any size under the sun. If your living room ties into your kitchen, which ties into your dining room, use various area rugs to help define those spaces and give the illusion that there's more square footage than there actually is."

While Startzel praises the use of rugs to define open spaces, Cooper prefers forgoing them altogether: "Avoid oversize rugs or rugs at all," he says. "I love rugs, don't get me wrong, but in small spaces, they can sometimes feel too defining and claustrophobic to me. I think tight spaces flow nicely sans rugs."

West Elm Hand-Loomed Shine Rug $199

Want more tips to organize your small space? We learned some hacks from the world's smallest hotel rooms.

This story was originally published on January 26, 2017, and has since been updated.

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