The Decorating Mistake That Almost Ruined My Living Room

Updated 07/28/17
Janne Olander for Stadshem

When I first opened the door to my one-bedroom apartment in the East Village of Manhattan, I had one thought: How on earth am I going to fit in this space? My boyfriend and I had been searching for the perfect first apartment together, and this tenement walk-up on a quiet leafy street seemed like our dream home—except that the living room was tiny.

So when I sent a few raw photographs to Jeremiah Brent, who'd teamed up with Decorist as one of their celebrity interior designers, and asked for his advice, I wasn't sure what to expect. Are there really multiple ways to lay out a small, boxed-in space? Turns out where I saw limitations, he saw an opportunity.

"Just because you're dealing with a smaller space doesn't mean you have to sacrifice style," he says. "When designing a space, I always picture the moments you want to have in that room. Each piece you select for a space should contribute to the story or feeling you want the space to convey. You've got to take risks!"

Now, midway through our design project, Brent has mocked up two potential layouts for my living room—one with a drapery wall and nesting tables, the second with two leaning mirrors and wall sconces. Each is layered with genius small-space tips that only an interior design pro would know.

Take a peek at the two designs, and help me choose one! Which is your favorite?

The Inspiration

(clockwise from top left) courtesy of Homepolish , My Scandinavian Home , and Snowe Home

When I called Brent to discuss this project, the brief was pretty simple: I wanted a living room I could entertain in but that didn't feel claustrophobic or cluttered. The room is about eight by nine feet and has just one window, which was the first thing he noted. "I wanted the living room to be bright and welcoming, so I decided to make the window a real focal point and design around it," he says. "A lot of times in smaller spaces, especially those that are open to kitchens and even serve as a pass through, it is important to give the eye a place to land."

Another feature that quickly came up in conversation was the existing faux-wood laminate cabinets. In short, he told me that we had to paint them—ASAP. "A blank canvas allows you to take a step back and understand the potential of your home," he says, which is what we were able to do after Paintzen put the glorious last coat of white paint on the cupboard doors. "Sometimes you have to take a look at what the space has to offer, in its bare bones, and go from there—especially when you are tight on square footage."

The biggest challenge? My style is sleek and minimal, but I want a space where I can host five to 10 people with ease. I told him this cautiously, waiting to be told that a room of that size can fit one chair max. Instead, he asked how I use the space (mostly hosting Game of Thrones viewing nights and Saturday-night drinks) and took a few notes.

Here are the decorating tricks he suggested to make the small room feel 10 times bigger (seriously).

Layout One

Jeremiah Brent for Decorist


  • drapery wall
  • 2 nesting tables
  • wall-mounted arm sconce
  • barstools
  • narrow console

When I saw the first layout, I thought there must have been a mistake: How on earth does he intend to fit a sofa, two chairs, three tables, and a console in the room? It turns out that under-furnishing a small space is one of the most common rookie errors and one that I definitely would have made if I hadn't asked for his advice.

"Just because a room is tiny doesn't mean you have to scale everything down," he tells me. Originally, I'd only planned to fit a small sofa and single coffee table in the room, which I now realize would have made the space feel even smaller.

Perhaps the smartest feature of layout one is the drapery wall. "One of the largest challenges renters face is the inability to really make a space their own. Drapery is a cost-effective and dramatic way to add instant architecture to any room," he explains. "It allows you to experiment with different textures and expands a smaller space while keeping it interesting." That's right—artwork isn't the only option for adorning your walls, and this smart design trick fakes a bigger space.

Layout Two

Jeremiah Brent for Decorist


  • large leaning mirrors
  • 3 wall sconces
  • coffee table
  • large console with ottomans

One aspect of this room steals the show: two large leaning mirrors that flank the French doors leading to the bedroom. "Not only does this create the illusion of a larger space, but it also reflects light to brighten up the room even more," he explains. "Visually, the room is instantly cracked open," he says.

Layout two also has plenty of seating, making it ideal for entertaining. Two accent chairs can be moved and reconfigured to create a social area or open up the thoroughfare while ottomans are tucked away under a console.

Now that you've seen both living room layouts, tell us: Which design would you choose? We'll share the before and after photos with you, so stay tuned. 

Beckham Sofa
West Elm Beckham Sofa $999 $600
Linen Cotton Pole Pocket Curtain + Blackout Panel
West Elm Linen Cotton Pole Pocket Curtain + Blackout Panel $249 $219
Enamel Round Nesting Table
West Elm Enamel Round Nesting Table $599 $479
Metal Framed Floor Mirror
West Elm Metal Framed Floor Mirror $399 $319
west elm + Rejuventation Cylinder Sconce - Adjustable
West Elm + Rejuvenation Cylinder Sconce, Adjustable $199
Sydney Sofa
West Elm Sydney Sofa $999 $500

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