I never understood what a small space was until I moved to Manhattan. When my boyfriend and I were looking for our first apartment together, 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 in Manhattan's East Village, 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. If I'd been in charge of decorating, we would have had a sofa and coffee table—and that's it. Luckily Jeremiah Brent had other plans. Brent serves as a celebrity designer for Decorist, an online interior design service that provides personalized help to make over any room. After a moment of mild heart failure when the TLC star agreed to design my new home with West Elm (which happened to make up 90% of the products on my Pinterest board), we got down to the nitty-gritty: Finalizing the layout, choosing paint swatches, and decorating.
What I didn't realize at the time was that the design project wasn't just a chance to create my dream "grown-up" home; it was an opportunity to test out every small space decorating hack we've discussed on MyDomaine to find out which ones work. Spoiler alert: I never expected the results. Take a peek inside my newly redecorated NYC living room to find out how we made it look and feel 10 times bigger.
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."
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?
Forget Gallery Walls—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," he 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 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. A few lessons I learned from Cesar: 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 dusty when you drill.
Layer Accessories (It Won't Look Cluttered)
One of the most common misconceptions 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," he recommends.
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," he 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."
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 have 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," she 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."
Don't Take it So Seriously
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.