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Let go of that T-shirt you’ve had since middle school, the cracked mirror that you haven’t had time to replace and the lamp that works only when you kick it on the third try. When you’re trying to maximize a small space, every inch counts, from under the bed to unclaimed wall space over your head.
While moving is considered one of life’s great stressors, living in a small space doesn’t have to be. All it takes is some thoughtful planning and smart storage options.
For Julia Haney Montanez, an interior designer living alone for the first time in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, purging is the first step to making the most of what you have.
“You have to stop being a hoarder,” Ms. Montanez, 30, said this week in her studio apartment. “The secret to small-space living is trying to avoid owning too much stuff; that’s a good practice for life. You don’t have to be a minimalist, but you have to get really creative where you store your things and maybe think twice about buying something new.”
(Related: A beginner’s guide to home décor)
Once you’ve winnowed down your belongings, it’s time to consider how to use your limited space.
Ms. Montanez, a producer for the Architectural Digest show and a freelance designer, lives in a 450-square-foot studio. When she first moved in, Ms. Montanez spent hours looking at the floor plan and figuring out the ideal configuration for her furniture. By living in the space for a while before making any major purchases, Ms. Montanez said, you get an idea of how to make your home as functional as possible.
“As you live in the apartment you’ll know and understand what you need,” she said. “Do you have your freeloader friends crashing all the time? Then get a longer sofa. If not, get a smaller sofa because they take up so much space. Get to know your own space before you start throwing money at those things.”
If you have the opportunity to splurge, Ms. Montanez recommends creating a custom piece. For her it was a California Closet and a table that doubles as her office desk.
“It was the best decision,” she said of the custom closet. “Everything goes in there.”
Shoes, cleaning supplies and home office material like fabric swatches all live in her closet, neatly tucked away in designated cubbies alongside double hanging clothes racks.
“Take your dinner money for the next month and put it toward something that will fit perfectly,” she said. “It’s like Tetris, and it’s that one thing you need.”
Making a tight spot work can require bending the rules on traditional uses of space. Consider using a medicine cabinet for storing glassware or kitchen cabinets for sweater storage if cooking isn’t a priority. Every space has to serve a purpose, said Susan Winberg, an interior designer based in New York City. “It has to have more than one function,” she said.
Ms. Winberg typically takes on larger residential projects, she said, but with two children in their 20s, she began designing projects with much more limited space. Her daughter’s San Francisco railroad-style apartment, for example, had a Murphy bed alcove with no bed in it, she said. They put her bed elsewhere in the apartment and converted the alcove into a closet.
If you have limited closet space, prioritize where you store your things, Ms. Winberg advised. The Murphy bed closet is tucked away, so Ms. Winberg’s daughter uses that area to store winter clothes and boots, saving her more accessible closet for things that she uses more regularly.
If you’re working with a dresser, add another piece or shelf above the dresser for extra storage, she said.
Madeline Fraser, one of the founders of a new app called Homee, which offers personal design services and a virtual showroom, summed up a similar approach to coping with small spaces in two words: up and out.
“The use of the wall space is where you’re going to maximize your overall space,” she said.
Ms. Fraser recommended putting storage on walls with open floating shelving, an affordable option, she said, especially for renters who can easily Spackle the wall when it’s time to move out. And shelving can go beyond the living room and bedroom, too.
Open shelving in kitchens, especially in a galley or small kitchen, can make the room feel more open. “When you have cabinets, it can appear closed off like there’s a wall there,” she said. Everyone thinks, ‘Oh, I have to have cabinets,’ but you can easily do open shelving and arrange your kitchen stuff to look cool. It will feel more like a restaurant.”
To keep things looking tidy, Ms. Fraser suggested bringing symmetry to open shelves by displaying dishes, cutting boards and kitchen accessories stacked in clusters or leaning against the wall. Books and bookends offer a way to ground shelving, too, she said. And for miscellaneous items, wire baskets can help contain odds and ends that may be without a home.
At a bare minimum, get the mattress and box spring off the floor, Ms. Fraser said. Every big piece of furniture should have legs if possible, to provide storage space underneath.
“You can get an iron-rod bed frame that gives you more storage under your bed,” she said. “You can do a bed skirt and put a lot under your bed. Your mom will not be happy with you if she comes over and sees the bed on the floor.”
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