Home & Décor: 9 Design Secrets for Small Space Style

By Andrea Bianchi

As a new Oak Park apartment resident, I recently set out on the obligatory excursion to view the famous Frank Lloyd Wright homes. But on my way to those huge fortresses, I noticed something else almost as essential to Oak Park’s architectural identity: hundreds and hundreds of apartments.

Living in one of these apartments (or condos) usually means living small. But a tiny unit can go from cramped to cozy this fall with a few updates to the decor.

Leverage the Layout

  • Consider every corner. When square footage is limited, making every inch attractive instantly gives the illusion of extra space. Central areas like the living room always get attention, but why not put the same effort into beautifying less-used spots, like turning the shower stall into a spa or extending personal style to the back entrance or coat closet? I recently reorganized my shoe closet with a soft rug and chandelier, and now I often leave the door open to peek in at my whole new room (a.k.a. my cat’s new boudoir).
  • Incorporate open arrangements. Knocking down walls may not be a feasible option (especially if you’re renting), but taking down window dressings and doors—to closets or cabinets—can be an easy way to attain an airy atmosphere. When I replaced my bedroom door with a tied-back curtain, I regained use of a writing desk previously blocked by the door’s path. Plus, maintaining open pathways to every piece of furniture (and selecting pieces with legs) makes walking through rooms less confining. And though tiny rooms often tempt tenants to shove the sofa or bed against the walls (as I have in the past), I’ve challenged myself to heed conventional design rules, like symmetrical lighting on either side of the bed, to achieve more balance—and, ironically, more space.
  • Value vertical dimensions. When facing a compact floor plan, drawing the eye up will emphasize the ample airspace above. To exaggerate altitude, decor should span a wall’s entire height. I “point up” to my serene ceilings and unique crown molding with tall ladders and mirrors, a wall of curtains, and a tree branching up and out. Large hanging light fixtures also highlight overhead space and unify decor from top to bottom.

Simplify the Style

  • Minimize distracting patterns. Blank expanses where the eye can rest are rare in a small unit, so solid colors (rather than overwrought upholstery or wallpaper) help create visual calm. That sense of peace can flow from room to room by coordinating all the home’s colors, especially using those abundant in nature: greens, blues, beiges, and dark browns. A bright or mismatched palette divides and shrinks a space, but deep, rich shades become both expansive and enveloping (as I learned after wrapping my bedroom in black). To feel fully enfolded in my space, I also avoid hanging art, since it diverts my eye and mind. Instead, I display artifacts, like my collections of antique bottles and frames.
  • Upgrade utilitarian objects. Modern tools are an inevitable, often unsightly part of today’s interiors. I used to cringe as I blocked my windows with ugly fans each summer. But then I realized I could replace them with retro versions in a lovely mint green. And why not select decorative replacements for other necessities: speakers, pet food bowls, the microwave, even light bulbs—in orange, vintage, or flickering varieties. If it must be on display, why not make it beautiful?
  • Disguise storage strategies. One thing not to display is clutter. But while hiding supplies in baskets can help as an organizational strategy, leaving storage bins visible (or artfully arranging open shelves) can still register as an untidy distraction to the eye. I keep work out of my sightline (and off my mind) by tucking office supplies into a fold-top desk. My papers hide in chalkboard-green filing cabinets that double as a TV stand. Other decorative items can also serve as storage: I stack Tupperware inside a large pot and collect keys in a sculptural urn as I enter my home.

Enjoy the Environment

  • Appreciate every area. When quarters seem especially cramped, switching routines and spending time in a rarely used corner can quite literally change perspective on a room’s size. I survey my living room from different angles as I vary the chair where I read, and I rotate spots at my dining room table. But if areas still go unused, assessing functionality—perhaps adding a reading lamp by a neglected chair—might lead to an entirely new hangout spot.
  • Host hallway giveaways. While offering the potential to hang out with neighbors, leaving free items in the hall also prevents the accumulation of clutter (without the guilt of throwing things out). If something no longer seems useful or beautiful, removing it will bring a new lightness to the room. I regularly reevaluate details—taking out a clock or repositioning a pillow—to keep my environment fresh.

And finally: Explore expansive surroundings. The airy outdoors often reminds me that this entire neighborhood is a vast extension of my tiny home. I always end up with renewed appreciation for my apartment’s coziness after I’ve ventured out, whether to enjoy the fall foliage in Mills Park or to take another walk by the Frank Lloyd Wright homes.

Andrea Bianchi is a legal secretary who spends her free time reading, visiting flea markets, and redecorating her apartment. She lives in downtown Oak Park.