When my boyfriend and I were looking for our first apartment together in Manhattan, we quickly learned how to translate realtor-speak. "Cozy" is code for tiny, "prewar" means unrenovated, and "converted" implies that the owners installed a fake wall to charge for an extra room. So when we came across a bright 350-square-foot one-bedroom on a tree-lined street, we thought we'd struck gold—until it came time to decorate.
The options, I thought, were limited. The living room is a short, boxed-in space connected to an open-plan kitchen. Luckily, celebrity designer Jeremiah Brent and Decorist, an online interior design service that provides personalized help to make over any room, had other plans.
Meet the Expert
Jeremiah Brent is an interior designer, and has been featured in TLC's "Nate & Jeremiah By Design," and "Say I Do," on Netflix.
Take a peek inside my newly redecorated NYC living room to find out ways Brent and Decorist made it look and feel 10 times bigger, as well as additional tips for 19 different ways to style your small space.
Add Mirrors to Fake a Larger Room
Adding mirrors to create the illusion of a larger room isn't a new decorating trick, but after introducing these two large West Elm mirrors to our living room, I can vouch that it was, without a doubt, the most transformative. "Not only does this create the illusion of a larger space, but it also reflects light to brighten up the room even more," Brent explains. Given our living room has only one small window, this simple decorating trick made it feel brighter and more open without needing to renovate.
If you're considering adding leaning mirrors to your room, know that styling counts. "A mirror maximizes a room's space and light, but it also doubles whatever is in the room," he points out. "You always want the mirror to reflect a clean, beautiful space, so keep it minimal. A large statement mirror is already a focal point of a room, so focus on decorating a different area to avoid unnecessary clutter."
Try a Drapery Wall
When Brent floated the idea of a "drapery wall," I was dubious. I'd never heard of the design trick before, but he assured me that installing floor-to-ceiling drapes to cover a plain wall would make the room feel less boxed-in. "Drapery is a cost-effective and dramatic way to add instant architecture to any room," Brent explains. "It allows you to experiment with different textures and expands a smaller space while keeping it interesting." If I'd decorated the room myself, I would've thought a gallery wall was our only option, but Brent's idea makes it feel bigger, minus the clutter of multiple frames.
Given I was a complete newbie when it came to drapery walls, West Elm's Design Crew managed the process, a service they offer to take the pain (and possible error) out of installation projects. "When people try to do a project on their own, they typically use the wrong tools, drills, or screws, which can damage the wires inside of the wall, the wall itself, or the product they are hanging on the wall," says Michael Carr, manager of in-home services at West Elm. In one hour, Cesar, our installer, had fixed the drapery rod, drilled the plug-in sconces into the wall, and hung the drapes—a project that would've taken me half a day.
If you're considering tackling the project yourself, Carr recommends paying particular attention to the drapery rod step. "There are several things that go into hanging a rod, such as using the correct anchors and tools, but more importantly for aesthetics, it can be a challenge to make sure they hang a perfect 1/4 inch above the floor," he says.
Position the drapery rod as high as possible, loop the drapes over the end of the rod so it's not visible, and fix an envelope to the wall with painter's tape to catch stray dust when you drill.
Layer Accessories (It Won't Look Cluttered)
A common misconception is that having fewer items in a room will make it appear minimal and large. It turns out that the opposite is true: Every time Brent layered a new accessory like a tray, coffee table books, or table lamps, it created vignettes, or "moments," as Brent calls them, which made the living room feel bigger. "My trick is always to pick a place for the eye to land. What's the first moment you want to highlight? Work backward from there."
If your home lacks personality and doesn't quite feel "done," he says that's okay—it's not a race. "My first piece of advice would be to take the pressure off. A great rule of thumb when purchasing items and layering your space is if it's not absolutely beautiful or absolutely functional, get rid of it." That way, when you do come across a flea market find or artwork that speaks to you, you can continue to layer. "Leave enough space to continue to evolve into your home," Brent recommends.
Reassess Your Canvas
Every New York City apartment has its quirks, and ours was faux wood laminate cabinets that cast a nauseous orange tinge and instantly dated the apartment. Had I done this decorating project solo, I probably would've dismissed this paint job as too hard, but the Decorist team pressed me to get permission from my landlord, which I'm so glad for. Now, looking back, I realize no amount of decorating can make up for a bad "canvas," so it's a crucial step.
"It is so important!" says Brent. "There is power in continuity! Sometimes all it takes is a fresh coat of paint on your cabinets and you feel like the entire space has been transformed. It clears up the space as well as your mindset when thinking about your décor."
Paintzen, an online service that connects people with skilled, insured, and background-checked painters, gave the cabinets two fresh coats of crisp white paint, which instantly made the room look brighter. Spokesperson Rebecca Hochreiter says it's one of the most effective ways to make a dated kitchen look luxe. "Simply repainting can give a space a new personality," she says.
If you're thinking about tackling the project yourself, pay attention to the prep process. "Make sure to first sand it, then prime it, then paint it," Hochreiter tells us. If you don't properly prep the surface, the paint may not bond to the surface. "You'll get a quality paint job if you use quality paint, so if you save on the services, splurge a little on the paint."
For this project, Brent and Paintzen agreed on Benjamin Moore's matte finish paint in Decorator's White. "Matte finishes are great in their ability to hide any imperfections on the surface and are easy to touch up and clean when needed," explains Brent. "I like a matte white, as it tends to feel soft and sophisticated while subtle."
Below, take a cue from these other small spaces to discover more tips to make your small apartment or space feel larger.
Select a Statement Light
One of the most unexpected styling tricks that worked was the installation of a large, statement chandelier. "We're always trying to make a room look larger, but we should never forget that we can also elongate the room as well. Anything that draws the eye upward plays up the vertical plane of the space, giving it the illusion that a room is taller than it is," says Brent. When you enter our home, your gaze is immediately drawn upward to the ceiling, making the whole apartment feel more spacious and luxurious. Who knew?
In your own space, hang a statement light while keeping the rest of the room's décor minimal. In this photo, this room appears totally wrapped in the same patterned wallpaper, yet the chandelier draws the gaze upward, creating length.
Choose the Right-Sized Rug
Another major mistake? Choosing the wrong size rug. When Brent picked a textured cream rug from the West Elm x Bower collection, I thought it was too big. "Ironically, people tend to think that a smaller room needs a smaller rug," Brent says. "Break the rules. A larger rug in a small space is a great opportunity to make a room feel more dramatic and get more bang for your buck."
In this space, an area rug isn't afraid to take up space.
Maximize your small space by thinking vertically. In other words, utilize the space above eye level. This floor-to-ceiling bookcase takes advantage of ample vertical storage. Other areas to consider might include the wall space above your sink or stove or the space above your doorways.
Choose a Monochromatic Color Palette
If dark colors trick the eyes to recede, lighter colors do the opposite. Whites, creams, and other neutral colors feel light and airy–and give a room a more spacious feeling. Similarly, go with a monochromatic color palette to create the illusion of a bigger space.
Hang Drapes Higher and Wider
Create continuity with your drapes and window treatments by hanging them higher and wider than your window's dimensions. Visually, this allows eyes to flow from floor to ceiling, rather than stopping abruptly in the spaces where the curtains begin and end. These yellow drapes hung from where the ceiling and walls meet, creates length.
Try a Few, Oversized Art Pieces
This may sound counterintuitive, but decorating your space with fewer, yet bigger pieces of art or décor feels more streamlined than a greater number of smaller objects or works. We think that the two oversized, ombre-like pieces in this photo take up a lot of real estate without overwhelming the room.
Choose Clear Furniture
Another visual trick for creating the appearance of a larger space is to incorporate clear furniture. Materials like glass and lucite can be a small space's best friend. They offer structure to pieces like desks, coffee tables, and chairs without visually crowding a room. That way, playful patterns, and bold color combinations can take center stage.
Opt for Fewer, Yet Larger Statement Décor
Similar to our advice about displaying fewer, but larger art pieces, think about arranging furniture in a similar way. Go larger with furniture, yet be selective. In this example, an oversized couch is paired with an uncluttered coffee table and two accent chairs. A mirror, which is great for reflecting light helps open up this living room.
Seek Slim or Tapered Bases
In the same way that opting for clear furniture helps a smaller room appear larger, opting for furniture with slender or tapered legs creates a similar effect. Seating and side tables with slimmer bases allow for more negative space. Check out this example, where nesting side tables, and a coffee table (which also looks like it can function as additional seating) feel sophisticated—not clunky.
Create a Gallery Wall
Another way to make a smaller room feel larger is to forgo the décor that would otherwise take up precious space on the floor or other surfaces, and opt to utilize your walls instead. A gallery wall adds personality without hogging elbow room for more practical items. Create a collage, like this example, or opt for a more uniform look.
Pull Furniture Away from Walls
For another space-making illusion, pull your furniture several inches away from the wall. This maneuver makes walls appear further away than they actually are. And ta-da! It's also one of the most affordable ways to breathe more room into your space.
Look for Hidden (Yet Stylish) Storage
Keep things like extra pillows and throws, cords and cables, and magazines out of sight with functional yet stylish pieces that double as storage and décor. For example, look for ottomans and entryway benches with storage space. Covered woven baskets and pretty bins store odds and ends, and serve as a side table.
Look for Open Storage
Speaking of storage, you can also opt for open baskets, bins, and other containers that can also play a role in your room's décor. In this photo, the coffee table's bottom surface hosts two open baskets to neatly store household items like TV remotes and chargers. A neutral color scheme keeps the room light and bright.
Decorate With Stripes
Use stripes to your advantage and look for décor and other ways to style your space that will help elongate visual lines. This striped area rug, in parallel to exposed wood beams on the ceiling, creates length in this living room. Window treatments on both walls are styled at the same length, adding another elongated line of sight throughout the space.
Spring for Custom Built-Ins
If it's within your budget, sometimes there's nothing like the perfect fit, and by that, we mean custom built-in storage and furniture. Whether you want built-in shelving and seating, or a custom sectional to complement the dimensions of your space, customizing ensures every piece is snug and seamless.
Now that we've finished decorating our apartment, I'm often asked the same question: How does the finished room compare with what you had in mind? Honestly, if I'd have decorated the living room solo, it would look absolutely nothing like this. I would have stopped multiple times throughout the decorating process and second-guessed every decision.
Working with a designer I trust didn't just take the pressure off, but it also imbued me with decorating confidence I never would've had on my own. When I walk into our apartment now, I don't see a small space. I see my favorite reading nook, a marble coffee table that's the perfect shape for playing cards with friends, and all the items we've collected that make it feel like our own. After months of drafting, shopping, and styling, we're finally home.