5 Tips for Defining Your Space in a Studio Apartment

Even in the tiniest of apartments, you can still create functional zones that feel like separate rooms. Three designers and studio dwellers share their best ideas.

By: Karin Beuerlein

If you’re looking for ideas to make your studio apartment more livable, just ask Betsy Helmuth, owner of Affordable Interior Design in Manhattan’s West Village. Helmuth doesn’t just design beautiful studio apartments — she’s lived in several, including a 50-square-foot apartment in a Paris attic and a 150-square-foot converted broom closet in Times Square.

Dividing the space into functional areas is key to making the apartment feel more complete and homey, Helmuth says, although she’s quick to point out that the best dividers are often psychological rather than physical. “Physical dividers can sometimes feel artificial and inhibit flow,” she says. “Why not embrace your studio space and live in one room gracefully?”

Here are our top five tips for creating separate functional zones in a single room:

Be Bold With Rugs

This is my favorite way to create multiple zones in one space,” Helmuth says. “Rugs are a kind of visual map of what’s what.” She recommends a large rug for the living area that runs underneath every piece of seating you incorporate, and also a rug that runs perpendicular to the foot of your bed, creating some separation and a U-shaped walkway.

This is an area where you shouldn’t be minimalist. “The bigger your rug, the bigger the space will look,” she says.

Use Complementary Color Palettes

“Generally, my formula is to use three colors in the living area, with one color predominating,” Helmuth says. Then, for the bedroom, she might use one of the main area’s accent colors as the primary color so that it feels separate but connected.

Changing out wall colors in select spots can be helpful to define zones. “I’m not always a fan of accent walls — I think they can be cheesy — but in a studio they can offer a visual cue that you want something to feel different,” Helmuth says. For example, you might use an energizing color in the living area but a complementary tranquil tone behind the bed to signal a switch in feel and function.

Move Furniture to the Middle

Interior designer Betsy Helmuth recommends oversized rugs and sectional sofas for creating an enclosed zone.

Photo by: John Ha, courtesy of Affordable Interior Design

John Ha, courtesy of Affordable Interior Design

Interior designer Betsy Helmuth recommends oversized rugs and sectional sofas for creating an enclosed zone.

Lining up furniture along the walls can feel like the right thing to do to save space, but being a little bolder and breaking up the room often pays dividends. Turn furniture in different directions and experiment to find what works.

A sofa, especially a sectional that encloses an area on one side, is often a very effective way to make a clean division of space in your apartment. It also serves another important function: distracting from the bed. “The bed is usually one of the biggest items in the room,” Helmuth says, “so create a faux wall with a sofa. Arrange it so that when you’re seated on the sofa, you’re facing away from the bedroom and looking at a different focal point.”

You don’t necessarily have to get an undersized sofa just because your apartment is small. The main thing to consider is whether it restricts flow. “I always do the chicken test,” Helmuth says — which means you put your thumbs in your armpits, flap your arms and walk through the apartment. If you don’t hit anything, your furniture is the right size.

An arc floor lamp is an especially useful item to define a functional area.

Photo by: John Ha, courtesy of Affordable Interior Design

John Ha, courtesy of Affordable Interior Design

An arc floor lamp is an especially useful item to define a functional area.

Another item that can work design wonders is an arc-shaped floor lamp. It encloses an area and defines its reach, creates the illusion of pendant or chandelier lighting, and takes advantage of empty vertical space.

Reappropriate Your Closet

Removing a set of closet doors gave Nicole Alvarez a few extra feet for the head of her bed, saving floor space in her studio.

Photo by: Nicole Alvarez

Nicole Alvarez

Removing a set of closet doors gave Nicole Alvarez a few extra feet for the head of her bed, saving floor space in her studio.

Yeah, closet storage is precious in a studio apartment. But if yours is too shallow to hang clothing in properly, or if you have better storage solutions elsewhere, it might serve you well as a bed nook. Remove the doors and push the head of your bed inside, and suddenly you’re in a (slightly) separate bedroom. Nicole Alvarez, architectural designer and author of the blog Intentionally Small, did this when she was designing her 306-square-foot apartment in Raleigh, North Carolina. “It made the perfect nook for my bed and grounded my apartment while clearing some extra floor space,” Alvarez says. “I learned years later that the closet originally was a Murphy bed in the ‘50s, so my instincts were spot on!” The airy twig-and-yarn sculpture hanging over her bed served as a stylish small-space alternative to a headboard.

Use See-Through Objects as Dividers

Jacqueline Clair’s New York studio uses an open bookcase as a faux wall for her living area — and a birdcage functions the same way for her office.

Photo by: Jacqueline Clair

Jacqueline Clair

Jacqueline Clair’s New York studio uses an open bookcase as a faux wall for her living area — and a birdcage functions the same way for her office.

When York Avenue lifestyle blogger and photographer Jackie Clair needed to carve out a living space and an office from her studio apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, she found success with an open bookshelf from IKEA and another more unusual choice: a delicate birdcage that sits atop her desk. “That was a lucky thrift-store find and just happened to work perfectly as the ‘something tall’ that spot needed,” she says. Both the bookcase and the birdcage offer definition, but they also allow light to pass through, which can be critical in a one-room apartment with few windows. 

You can also use a sheer curtain to separate your living area from your bedroom, but Helmuth offers a caution about that approach. “You need something that anchors strongly to the ceiling,” she says. “You’re likely to step on the curtain occasionally, and that will make it fall. Most urban apartment ceilings are concrete, and not only is that difficult to attach to, but in some places it’s actually illegal because it can compromise the integrity of the ceiling.” 

Instead, she says, consider embracing the architectural reality of one-room living and enjoy the space as a single seamless unit. “We have to get past ‘studio shame,’” Helmuth says. “There are real benefits to studio living — you can be really minimal, furnish the place beautifully and enjoy everything you need in close proximity.”

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