5 Small-Room Rules to Break

Forget what you've been taught! Top designers throw small-room decorating rules out the window and share how to maximize your space.
By: Susan Kleinman
Small Living Room with Green Walls

Small Living Room with Green Walls

Photo by Nick Olsen.

Rule to Break: Paint Small Spaces White

When decorator Nick Olsen moved into his 525-square-foot studio in New York City, the walls were painted white, in keeping with small-space convention. "But the place just looked gray and dingy," says Olsen. And so, rather than just slapping on a newer, brighter coat of white, he painted the apartment's main room Oregano Green (Benjamin Moore 2147-10), in an oil-based metal enamel, to resemble lacquer.

"Although the apartment is small," says Olsen, "it's actually rather grand with 12-foot ceilings, huge windows and a high-relief fireplace. So I felt it would be a shame to tone it down with a pale color or white." For even more impact, he painted the doors glossy black and the trim white, and added a deep teal velvet sofa. Olsen didn't shy away from bright color in the 35- (yes, 35!) square-foot kitchen either, wallpapering the fridge in a bright spring pattern and painting the walls and the ceiling Sea Mist Green (Benjamin Moore #2041-50). "To make color work in a really tiny room like this kitchen," Olsen suggests, "paint the walls and ceilings the same color so you're eye doesn't stop at the ceiling line."

Small Dressing Room with Bold Patterns

Small Dressing Room with Bold Patterns

Photo by John Casado.

Rule to Break: Stay Away From Lots of Patterns

Solids, tone-on-tone textures and small prints can make a room feel larger by making it seem calmer. Sometimes, however, calm can be, well, boring. But there's no chance of dozing off in this dressing room designed by April Sheldon. With its bright red chinoiserie wallpaper and zebra-patterned rug, the space is vibrant and lively. And rather than make the nine-and-a-half by 10-and-a-half foot space feel even smaller, says Sheldon, the patterns actually enlarge the space.

"I think big bold prints on the walls and lots of pattern in a small space really distract you from the size of the area," says the San Francisco-based designer. "The room takes on the feeling of a walk-in art piece."

Of course, not every mix of patterns will work well in a small space. The key, says Sheldon, is to make sure that the scale of the pattern varies. "If the scale of the wallpaper and the rug had been the same, it would have been overwhelming." But because the wallpaper's pattern is much smaller, the room looks - and feels - comfortable, rather than cramped.

Roll-Top Desk with Antique Display

Roll-Top Desk with Antique Display

Photo by Sarah Tanskley Clark.

Rule to Break: Keep Knick-Knacks to a Minimum

Small, spare space; sleek, empty surfaces. It's a great look for a trendy hotel room, says New York-based designer Alan Tanksley, but at home, even the smallest space benefits mightily from the addition of favorite objects and collections.

Although the main living space in Tanksley's own studio apartment is just 400 square feet, it provides several of what the designer calls "visual destinations" - arrangements of interesting objects carefully placed on shelves and tabletops to attract the eye. Among his favorite arrangements is a collection of white objects from several centuries and many countries, grouped together on an antique roll-top desk. "Although they're made of different materials," he says, "the objects harmonize because they are a single color."

Which is not to say that colorful objects can't work well in a small space, too; it's just a matter of editing. "Always remember that you need a place for the eye to rest," says Tanksley. "It's better to group a large number of like objects together than to scatter them on every tabletop throughout the room."

Small Room with Large Seating

Small Room with Large Seating

Rule to Break: Very Small Rooms Demand Very Small Furniture

While small furniture leaves more room for walking around in a small space, miniscule couches and chairs are rarely comfortable. So rather than place two pokey little loveseats in this 7x12-foot sitting room, designer Amie Weitzman built large seating banquettes into the blue-tweed-upholstered walls.

"This room is part of a guest suite," explains Weitzman, "So comfort was really the top priority." The sofas are deep enough to sink into and large enough to flop onto, "and building them right into the wall," Weitzman says, "buys you a few extra inches of floor space."

Even if you are using freestanding pieces in a small room, you can go with substantial furniture. "The one thing to make sure of," says Weiztman, "is that if you need to, you can walk around the furniture comfortably."

Small Dining Room with Lots of Art

Small Dining Room with Lots of Art

Rule to Break: Hang Lots of Mirrors to Visually Expand a Space

True, mirrors reflect light, which can make a little space look brighter. And yes, mirrors will reflect the depth of the space to the opposite wall, making the room appear larger. But do you really want to look at a reflection of a blank wall - or stare at the same painting in duplicate?

"Sometimes," says New York-based designer Roderick N. Shade, "a room is so small that even if you mirrored every surface and every piece of furniture, you would just have a small mirrored room."

So, instead of turning your small space into a hall of mirrors, why not just accept its petite dimensions - and then line the walls with art and objects that you really love, as Elizabeth Blitzer did in the dining area of her 625-square-foot New York condo. "There really is nothing wrong with a small room," says Roderick Shade. "So sometimes it's best not to try and make it feel bigger. Just make it the best small room possible."

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