Interior Designers Reveal the Top 8 Small-Space Tips They Swear By

Honestly, they're genius

Updated 05/10/19

Call us crazy, but we prefer styling a small space over a large one any day. There's something incredibly thrilling about size-challenged decorating that really forces you to get creative. Yes, you'll make mistakes along the way, but when decorated well, small rooms can look seriously stylish (these tiny bathrooms are proof).

And just because there's less space to work with doesn't mean you have to compromise on taste. In fact, Australian interior stylist and Belle magazine director at large Steve Cordony urges his clients to be bolder and use larger furniture. "It often makes the space feel stronger and gutsier, rather than using lots of small pieces, which can make the space feel too sporadic and bitsy," he told MyDomaine. We couldn't agree more.

If you're looking for small living room ideas, follow these decorating tips interior designers swear by.

What sort of planning is involved?

small space living room ideas
Tessa Neustadt ; DESIGN: Katerine Carter

Since you don't have the luxury of space, you can't just throw a bunch of pretty things together and hope it'll work. Australian interior designer and The Tailored Interior author Greg Natale believes it's important to first consider all the pieces of furniture you'll need in order to create a "welcoming, livable space." Ask yourself questions like Would stools or ottomans work better in the space than armchairs? Would two side tables or stackable tables be a more size-friendly option than one coffee table? Round tables could take up less room than square ones.

When it comes to small–living room ideas, designer Tom Stringer agrees that prior planning is key when space is so limited. "The first step is to ensure that the layout will be functional for your needs," he said. "Then confirm the sizes of the pieces." For Australian interior stylist Steve Cordony, that means you need to get out the ruler and measure twice.

If you're still not sure how to assess things, answer celebrated interior designer Max Humphrey's simple question: What will the room be used for most? "While you might plan on having friends over all the time for TV night, chances are it'll be you and your family using it the most, so keep that in mind when designing it." So even if you love occasional seating, a big comfy sofa will probably be the most practical. "You can always bring in a chair or two from the dining room when you have extra people over," he suggests.

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small living room furniture arrangements
Tessa Neustadt ; DESIGN: Katerine Carter

So you have a tiny living room, but does that mean you have to compromise on the big furniture you love? Humphrey doesn't think so.

"You might not be able to fit in a room full of furniture like you see in magazine spreads, but that doesn't mean you can't fit a normal-sized sofa," he says. "I always recommend buying the absolute biggest sofa that will fit in the space because if you're anything like me, chances are that's where you'll spend most of your time lounging around. Plus, it's no fun trying to stretch out on a loveseat."

Designer Trip Haenisch concurs. "Big furniture could work if you use fewer pieces," he said. "Smaller furniture tends to be uncomfortable, and I am reluctant to sacrifice comfort."

The counterargument? Natale believes small furniture is more suited to a limited space because it allows for "more opportunities to include all the pieces you like."

Consider what's more important to you: comfort and big style, or having more variety? If you do go big, Natale recommends those with a sleek silhouette, such as a "sofa with a low, narrow shape and slender arms; chairs with narrow or no arms; and tables with glass tops and narrow or cutaway legs."

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What are your insider tricks for making a space look big?

small living room mirror ideas
Julia Robbs

Another rule we're told to follow when it comes to small-space living room ideas is to stick to neutral, natural hues. Designer Jeff Andrews believes the complete opposite to be true.

"Go dark and go big," he told MyDomaine. "I love dark, glossy walls in a small room to create a sense of drama and intimacy." If dark isn't your vibe, then stick to Trip's advice: "Use furniture that appears light or disappears, such as a glass or acrylic piece."

And when in doubt, revert to mirrors. "My living space at home is not huge, so I decided to mirror panel one entire wall, which is 13 feet high, and it doubled the size of the space to the eye," said Cordony. If you can't panel the whole wall, hang large mirrors on the walls, ideally opposite a window or door to reflect the light.

A few other tricks of the eye: Try raising the legs on a sofa to "visually open up" the room, and use multifunctional furniture to save space. "Make an ottoman work double time by placing a tray on it and [turning it into] a coffee table when you don't need it as a seat," says Natale.

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Should a small space be minimalistic or layered?

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Sarah Sherman Samuel

Whether your room is large or small, all of our experts (except one) were unified in their answer to this question: Layered wins every time. Why? This thoughtful mix of furniture and décor in varying styles and finishes adds depth and coziness to any space, not to mention seriously ramping up the style factor.

"If you fill a room with things you love you can't go wrong," says Humphrey. "Minimal rooms are boring, and the only rule in design is don't be boring." Natale is a champion of the layered look too and believes it's "essential no matter what style of space you are working with."

But Haenisch disagrees. "I always prefer a minimal approach," he says. "Restraint is everything in chic design."

The key to minimalism is to find your style, stick to it, and then edit. Christine Gachot says, "My home is edited with a capital E. I live in a constant state of chaos with my schedule, so I need to be organized and to live minimally (shoe collection aside). This is about small spaces. Be thoughtful and precise. Each person should recognize her individual lifestyle needs and commit to a simple vision that suits it."

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What color paint do you suggest?

small living room paint ideas
Courtesy of Gachot Studios

When it comes to wall color, each of our experts recommended a neutral palette with white walls and ceilings to visually brighten a room and make it appear larger. If the bleached-out look isn't your flavor, Natale suggests adding pops of color through soft furnishings, accessories, and artwork.

If you're keen to ditch white completely, go gray instead—Pinterest says it's the new black. Designer Tom Stringer loves Benjamin Moore HC 173 Edgecomb Gray as a "great neutral with undertones that work with most spaces," and Andrews says that Sherwin-Williams Summit Gray (SW-7669) is a "deep gray that's not intimidating, but inviting."

If you want to mix it up, make like Cordony and "opt for a wallpaper to layer the space with texture."

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How do you prevent a cluttered look?

small living room organization
Sarah Sherman Samuel

Ensuring that everything in your small living room works together comes down to "careful and constant editing." Natale says you need to "step back at every stage of your design and assess its effect, particularly in terms of balance and contrast."

Some questions to ask yourself: Is there too much of something or not enough of another? Is a particular color or shape dominating the space–or conversely, does the room look bland—without enough highlights or drama? He adds, "This process of editing is essential to ensure a cohesive, sophisticated space where every piece, every finish has a purpose and relates to the next."

But if you live by the motto that "more is more," an edited space won't appeal. Stringer says "clutter is good as long as it is organized," so group like items together (think baskets for magazines).

Gachot wholeheartedly concurs with this sentiment. "Clutter can, of course, be chic," she said. "Organize them into vignettes, and be a good curator in your choices of display. Group them together across themes. Some simple juxtaposition, in the proper position, can incite curiosity."

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What other tips can you share?

small living room ideas on a budget
Katie Martinez

Decorating a small space can be daunting at first, but with some careful consideration, prior planning, and simple design tricks, you'll soon have an enviable home worthy of a magazine spread.

"Include a few key pieces that make the space livable, but reduce their scale," presses Natale. "You will get the proportion right and can even enjoy the design process."

Oh, and don't rule out wallpaper. It can have a "striking effect in a small room" and "visually enhance the space."

If you're still feeling hesitant, Andrews wants you to ditch the fear. "Don't be afraid to try something and take a risk with styling," he said. "Go for the unexpected, take a look, and then edit. Also, be careful with color; keep it subdued and subtle in a small room. Pops of color may make the room feel choppy."

But more importantly, "make sure your furniture fits through the front door, in the elevator, and up the stairs," says Gachot. "If it can't turn the corner in your walk-up, then it's probably not going to fit in your studio. I learned this one the hard way—twice. Purchase pieces that will grow with you one day into a larger home, or your next pied-à-terre." Noted.

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What's your number one tip for styling a small living room?

Nicole Franzen

Feeling overwhelmed by all this advice? We totally get it, which is why we asked all of our experts to break it down into one succinct rule they swear by.

Greg Natale: "Don't reduce the number of pieces you use; just reduce the scale of the pieces."

Christine Gachot: "Proportion. Whatever happens to be your personal style, make sure you scale it to the space. Not simply in plan, but in every dimension. Whether you love Louis XVI or midcentury modern (my preferred seat at the table), it's critical that you make sure it all physically fits. Less may, in fact, be more."

Tom Stringer: "Scale (size) of the furniture is key along with related neutral colors to give the room a more spacious feel. Pieces need to relate to each other in a specific way (similar arm heights, similar back heights, etc.)."

Trip Haenisch: "Use a neutral palette, including white walls and light flooring, to create a more open and airy feeling. Too much contrast in interior architecture and furnishings tend to tighten things up."

Jeff Andrews: "Everything should be beautiful but also functional. Don't over-furnish."

Steve Cordony: "Be bold. Sometimes people think that space limitations mean should play it safe and keep everything small and empty. Using bold, dark colors on the walls, or large-scale hero pieces of furniture, like a sofa, with lots of accessories and accent pieces, actually makes the space feel more open and interesting."

Max Humphrey: "Don't treat it like a small living room. Life is too short for loveseats. There's nothing sexy about a settee. If you can fit a normal-size sofa in your room, go for it. Skip the matching end tables, and throw a sconce or two above the sofa instead. Buying miniature furniture for tiny rooms can be a bummer because chances are at some point you’ll move to a new house or apartment, and you don't want to be stuck with furniture that was size-specific to the space you had before."

This story was originally published on May 4, 2016, and has since been updated.

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