Live and Work in a Small Space

Living rooms are no longer reserved just for company. Think about your everyday needs.

White Sofa with a Purple Throw Blanket.

Tiny Studio With a Sofa

Design by Jarret Yoshida

With smaller homes, few homeowners can dedicate an area solely for one function. The living room has become a place for multiple generations to gather and watch movies, listen to music, play games, do homework, conduct business and enjoy meals in front of the TV. And often these activities take place in a room no bigger than 10’ by 12’.

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When possible, architect Sarah Susanka, author of the Not So Big House series, expands the space with a small alcove for reading or other purposes and gives the areas different ceiling heights to highlight the change. She suggests incorporating one focal wall in a stronger color to make the entire area seem larger. Designer Marianne Cusato, author of The Just Right Home, likes to open a living room to other rooms or the outdoors to expand its visual reach.

Here are ways to make your small-space living room work harder and better.

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Invest in Space-Saving Furniture

To meet many needs, choose furnishings that serve multiple purposes. Whenever you can, incorporate mobile furniture on casters that swivel to face different areas and roll into other rooms.

Ottomans. These multipurpose pieces can be a place to rest feet, provide seating, and open to hide files and other belongings, says New York designer Libby Langdon, author of Libby Langdon’s Small Space Solutions.

Tables. Use nesting tables as end tables, since they can be placed around a room for casual meals. Some coffee tables have been fitted with a lift that raises to dining table height or lower to display books and decorative items.

Rolling carts can work double duty for art supplies by day and bar paraphernalia at night. Make the top a practical surface rather than something delicate.

Stack of Books on a Plant Stand.

Creative End Table

A vertical stack of books placed atop a plant stand on wheels moves to where the reader is but also functions as an end table. Designer Libby Langdon suggests changing tiles for reading and viewing pleasure.

Seating. Many couches and chairs can be seating by day and comfortable beds at night. Smaller sectional sofas work well because their configurations can vary, and many have sleeper mechanisms.

In some cases, the same chairs can function for sitting in a living room and at a dining table, so you don’t have to hunt for extra seating at different occasions. Benches work for seating and can be stacked against a wall.

Retrofit furnishings. Use pieces in other ways than how they were intended; an armoire can open and serve as a desk. Entertainment units with doors and drawers can be fitted to conceal and hang clothing, as well as TVs and sound systems.

Lighting. Avoid floor lamps that take up valuable floor space and go with track, can or wall lights, advises Chicago designer Leslie Markman-Stern. To optimize natural light, don’t use heavy, old-fashioned window treatments that visually shrink space.

Create a Livable Layout

Besides having the right furnishings, arrange them to suit your living style and traffic pattern.

  • Pick furnishings in scale, preferably sofas without big roll arms and overstuffed cushions that physically and visually take up room. Include some pieces without arms such as a slipper chair.
  • Don't automatically place a sofa against a wall, with two easy chairs flanking a coffee table. Place two small sofas opposite each other in the middle of a room, especially when there are several windows, doorways or a fireplace focal point.
  • Forget sofas and group three or four chairs camp-style around a table for intimate conversations, says Chicago designer Tom Segal of Kaufman-Segal Design. Chairs also open a space more than a skirted sofa will, says Sue Pelley, with Decorating Den Interiors.
  • Display functional items artistically to avoid storage. Katie and Ruben Gutierrez of Errez Design like to display surfboards on walls. "Consider doing so with bicycles and kayaks, too."

Redefine Where You Work

With so many homeowners wanting to stay plugged in to work from home, everyone's hunting for a place to set up an office.

What you'll need:

  • A surface that’s wide and long enough, a minimum of 4’ by 2’, at the right height of 29" to 30", and made of practical wood or Paperstone rather than cold stone.
  • Outlets for all your gadgets and Wi-Fi
  • An ergonomic chair to avoid discomfort
  • Ample storage for your work, file drawers under a desk, and shelves overhead lined with baskets or photograph-style boxes
  • A wall, if available, to house your library so it looks more focused and feels less cluttered than books scattered about, says New York designer Libby Langdo
  • Natural light without glare and artificial lighting from a desk lamp that focuses on the desk surface instead of disseminating overall glare, says San Francisco designer Claudia Juestel.

Office Space with a Floating Desk.

Small Workspace

Designer Brian Patrick Flynn finds space under the stairs to house a multipurpose workstation in this 700-square-foot Brooklyn loft.

Places to find office space. Consider taking off the door of an underutilized closet and outfit it with a desk, shelves and outlets. A double closet, which typically measures 70” wide by 24” deep, allows a workstation, file drawers, storage shelves, a computer, a small TV and a lamp, says Langdon.

Hang a curtain or set up a screen to partition off an area of a room where you can spare some square feet, or consider books atop a plant stand with rolling casters to function as a mobile room divider.

Convert a landing or hall into a workable space, but be sure there's enough width to set up furnishings and have room to pass by, ideally 4 ½' wide with a 36” by 19" desk. Use shallow 12” shallow wall-hung shelves to utilize vertical space, says Langdon.

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