Small Space Decorating Tips from New Yorkers

No one knows how to live in cramped quarters like New York City denizens. Crib some of their best space-saving ideas for your own small space.

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December 27, 2019

Photo By: Brown Harris Stevens - New York City, a member of Luxury Portfolio International

Photo By: Brown Harris Stevens - New York City, a member of Luxury Portfolio International

Photo By: Jessie Webster




Photo By: Joe Human

Photo By: Jarret Yoshida

Photo By: Dylan Chandler

Photo By: Dylan Chandler

Photo By: Regan Wood

Photo By: Stephanie Diani

Photo By: Genevieve Garruppo

Photo By: Genevieve Garruppo

Hang It on the Wall

Walls are a New Yorker's secret extra-space weapon. While many of us live in older buildings with plaster walls that make it challenging to hang things (think crumbling bits of plaster flying at you as you drill), it's worth it to figure out how to hang things correctly. We've learned to compensate for a lack of square footage by hanging items such as this wall desk. You can tuck a chair or stool under a piece like this and only give up a few feet of square footage.

Get Ideas: Hacks to Hang Anything On Your Wall

Use Your Height

Homes in the suburbs come with lots of kitchen perks like pantries and vast islands for storage. City kitchens, not so much. If your own home doesn't have space coming out of its ears, take this tip from city dwellers and build up. Your cabinets can go straight up to your ceiling to take advantage of often overlooked space. This city kitchen included open shelving at the top of the cabinets, which is perfect for cookbooks or seldom-used appliances.

Tour the Home: Classic NYC Walk-Up

From: Brown Harris Stevens - NYC and Luxury Portfolio International®

Leave No Space to Waste

This lucky city dweller has a bedroom flooded with natural light from their oversized windows. A trick to getting more light is building the windows out at an angle like this one. But that space created by that angle shouldn't be wasted. A custom cushion has been made to fit into the sill. Add in a couple of pillows and you've got a world-class reading nook, or the perfect spot to sit and slip on your shoes in the morning.

Tour the Home: Classic NYC Walk-Up

From: Brown Harris Stevens - NYC and Luxury Portfolio International®

Unintended Spaces

One of the main tenets of city dwelling is that there really are no rules. We tend to use spaces more flexibly out of necessity. Notice the room that this dining table occupies is not a room at all. It's really more of a hallway. If you don't have a formal dining room but you'd like one, follow our footsteps: Downsize your idea of how much square footage you truly need. Look for areas of your home that weren't initially intended to serve as a dining space and imagine them as a New Yorker would.

Tour the Home: Loft Living: Small Space, Big Style

Big Pieces Can Work in a Small Space

New Yorkers know that the key to making a small space feel bigger seems a little bit counterintuitive. Small pieces aren't the answer, but a large statement piece like this lamp can be. Of course, we know that this trick comes with the caveat that all of our "tricks" are to be used in moderation. A space with too many big pieces feels crowded. But, if you strike the right balance, those larger-than-life accents can trick your eye in just the right way.

Tour the Home: Small New York City Bachelor Pad Lives Large

No Need to Hide Utility Items

When space is tight and there's no basement or garage to store your sports equipment, make utility items part of your daily life. There are so many storage solutions, such as this artfully designed wall shelf, that can make the mundane a little more beautiful. Hang your bike in your living room or bedroom like a real New Yorker.

Get Ideas: 15 Smart Wall Storage Ideas

Picture Frame Molding Art

In the city, apartments are often advertised as "pre-war," which means they were built before World War II and often include design elements of the era. Picture frame moldings were popular then and still endure today. They were originally used to hang pictures from (remember those plaster walls?) but they can also be used as a design element all on their own. In this apartment, simple but bold painted shapes are contained by the boundary of the molding. The result is an easy mural and loads of artistic interest even with little other art.

Tour the Home: Small New York City Bachelor Pad Lives Large

Sneak in Shelves Behind the Couch

Designers are always telling us not to push our furniture up against walls, and you know, they're right. A room always looks better that way. But if you're short of space, following that design rule could waste valuable square footage. The designers of this apartment used a clever idea to have their design cake and eat it too. Their couch isn't touching the walls, but they've used that behind-the-couch space for a wall full of shelving. Even if you're not terribly short on space, this trick can fill a large expanse of wall behind a sofa that might otherwise need a lot of art.

Get Ideas: Ideas for Designing Behind the Living Room Sofa

From: Joe Human

Your Bedroom Could Be Just a Bed Room

If a queen-sized bed can fit in your NYC "bedroom" — even if no other furniture fits — you're a lucky apartment dweller. Rather than being sad about the lack of space, New Yorkers turn their bedrooms into cozy, cave-like getaways. This one has just a few inches of leeway on either side of the bed and not much more at the foot, but don't you want to curl up in there for a nap? Follow the basic tip of keeping things spare, use under-bed storage, add ambient lighting, and treat yourself to tons of comfy bedding to make your tiny bedroom as appealing as this one.

Tour the Home: Tiny Apartment Therapy

Indoor-Outdoor Living

An outdoor space might be the holy grail of NYC apartment amenities (followed very closely by an extra half bath and in-unit washer/dryers). Even the tiniest outdoor space adds square footage, not to mention a chance to bring natural elements like plants and flowers to a decidedly unnatural environment. If you have a terrace, or even just a balcony, treat it like an extra room. Outfit it with furniture that will make it an extension of your home and then let your green thumb loose with as many plants as possible.

Tour the Space: Tour a Rustic New York Patio

See-Through Furniture

It may seem a little obvious, but a great way to have your furniture take up less visual space is for it to be invisible. Ordinarily, you may not consider putting a desk in front of a wall of windows. Who wants to mar a park view? To keep the view unobstructed, a glass desk was used for this work space with a green Eames chair. Desks, coffee and dining tables, shelves, and even dining chairs can easily be found in glass, lucite or acrylic, which will all give the illusion of much more space.

Shop: 10 Chic Acrylic Furniture Buys for Every Room

Divy Up Your Spaces

Open floor plans are a novel idea in large non-urban homes, but city folk have had open floor plans for ages by default. In many apartments there are just two basic divisions of space: the living space and the sleeping space. When all the living happens in the living/dining/kitchen area it helps to divide the various functions with rugs and lighting. The blue area rug in this apartment designates the living room space while a huge chandelier deliniates the dining "room." It can be as simple as that.

Tour the Home: Contemporary New York City Apartment

Don't Avoid Patterns

Most people are a little leery about pattern mixing, especially in a small space, but not New Yorkers. This itty bitty living room features two separate patterned wallpapers for a glamorous look. The wallpapers feature a similar color palette — one golden with ornate dragons and the other brown geometric fans — which is key to pattern mixing for beginners. Designer Allison Lind also smartly used a very neutral sofa and light colored woods so as not to overwhelm the look.

Tour the Home: Big City Digs: Art Deco Pied-a-Terre in NYC

Display Your Hobbies

This brightly colored city home is full of cheerful elements. But because there's no place to hide away hobbies, they're on full display. To copy this tactic that we New Yorkers use out of necessity but manage to turn into decor, you can group items by color like this, or by type. If you're an artist, you can use boxes and baskets to store the less attractive pieces, but put prized pens and pencils on display in vintage cups or tins. If you're a knitter, build a shelf full of skeins of your favorite yarn and needles. The possibilities are endless as long as you keep it neat.

Tour the Home: Tour a New York City Apartment Drenched in Color

Round Tables for Tight Spaces

Remember that tip about see-through furniture? Well, these New Yorkers have used it here with a lucite and glass dining table and thin, industrial chairs, but they've got one more space-saving trick working in their favor: They've used a round dining table to take up less space. In the same footprint, a round or oval table will take up less space than a square or rectangular one, and potentially allow for more chairs around it. If you don't have a dining room, squeezing in a round table in your kitchen or living room might just do the trick. For even more space-savings use armless chairs, or keep extra folding chairs hung on the wall.

Tour the Home: A Brooklyn Designer's Earthy, Vintage-Inspired Abode

Don't Avoid Dark Paint

The off-black walls in this Brooklyn bedroom might not be the obvious color choice for tight quarters. Contrary to what seems like common wisdom, dark colors don't actually make a small space feel smaller. They give the illusion of more space because it's harder for your eye to make out the boundaries of the walls. A dark palette is an especially good pick for a bedroom where you might want a womb-like feeling for hours of blissful sleep.

Don't Be Afraid: Paint It Black: The Glory of Dark Interiors

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