Small Space Decorating: Making the Most of Compact Rooms

Lead image showing Sofa.com Bluebell two-seater sofa

Space is something most of us admit to wanting more of, with the desire for greater room often cited as a reason for moving house. Back in early April, The Guardian newspaper published an article which explored the fact that, since the 1980s, houses have been shrinking: apparently, the sitting rooms in new build properties are nearly a third smaller than in the equivalent homes built in the 1970s.

So, how to deal with these small rooms if extending your property isn’t an option? Whilst it is true that larger spaces do offer greater flexibility in terms of both the placement of furniture and the overall design concept, through careful planning and a well-thought out scheme, small rooms can be made to feel more spacious without having to remodel them structurally. Some retailers have cottoned onto the fact that space-starved shoppers are seeking out smaller-scale pieces, and online shopping has made it easy to search for compact designs which have small footprints in a room.

In this feature I wanted to show some ideas of how space can be maximised in a smaller room. I thought a good way of doing this would be to take one particular room of the house and cover my approach to making the best use the available space: I have chosen to focus on sitting rooms – the suggestions I make can also be applied to any other smaller area in a home.

1. Colour Clever

Colour can be an incredibly powerful tool when it comes to altering our perception of space and, therefore, in small rooms it is especially important to spend time choosing the right shade. In compact areas with a good amount of natural daylight, you could keep things light and bright to trick the eye into believing a space is bigger than it actually is: white is an obvious choice as it naturally reflects light and provides a good backdrop for artwork and any colours you may wish to introduce. Painting the ceiling white will further help to keep the room as light as possible and create the illusion of loftier proportions than may actually be the case.

Another option is to select a watery blue or green: found at the cool end of the spectrum, they are known as receding colours which have the ability to increase our perception of space.  However, if you have a north-facing sitting room, be aware that, as north light is already cool and has a blueish cast, you may be better opting for a warmer shade.

I asked the team at paint company, Mylands, for their recommendations and they suggested, ‘a colour with a warm yellow or red undertone, such as Temple Bar (a warm easy-living neutral, shown top), Rose Theatre (a greyish warm white with a pink undertone, shown middle), or Flanders Grey (shown bottom).

Temple Bar, Rose Theatre & Flanders Grey paint swatches from Mylands

Whichever colour you choose, by painting the walls, skirting and architrave in one single shade, you will create a seamless effect that can make rooms with low ceilings appear higher, and the space feel more generous.

Whilst the colours suggested in this section will make a space feel larger, in compact rooms with limited natural light, some designers and colour experts, such as Joa Studholme of Farrow & Ball, would suggest embracing the gloom by selecting a deep colour that will create a cosy, cocooning feel: if you are tempted to move over to the dark side, then use mirrors to bounce any available light around, and artwork and soft furnishings to introduce colour and contrast.

2. Streamline Sofas

The sofa probably has the largest footprint of any piece of furniture in a sitting room and therefore has the potential to completely overwhelm a small space. Consider picking one with a fixed back and narrow arms to create an elegant and streamlined look. If you still want a squishy piece of furniture to collapse into, a love seat may be the thing for you – there are some gorgeous options that have desirably narrow arms and legs.

Sofas suitable for small spaces by Loaf and Rowen & Wren

From left: Brew sofa in Dove Grey wool, £1,125, Loaf. Moray accent sofa, £822, Rowen & Wren

If your entrance-ways are restricted, there are a number of companies who can arrive at your home with the various components of the sofa, ready to be assembled in-situ. Try sofa.com who have a ‘Breakdownable’ range for easy access, or Delcor who have an excellent range of furniture which can also be constructed on-site.

Sofas suitable for small spaces by Perch & Parrow, Rose & Grey, and Heal's

Clockwise from top-left: Paul two-seater sofa in Peace Pipe, £770, Perch & Parrow. Broughton Snuggler in Light Grey velvet, £1,050, Rose & Grey. Balmoral 2 seater sofa, from £2,779, Heal’s

3. Secondary Seating

Once you have the sofa sorted, you’ll be able to gauge how much space remains for additional seating – opt for slim-line pieces, such as mid-century modern armchairs which have sleek wooden frames and upholstered seating. Slipper chairs don’t have arms and usually sit lower to the ground, making them fantastic space-savers. Upholstered stools are also great as they can be tucked away and brought out when needed: placing a pair of them opposite the sofa can provide a pleasing sense of symmetry in the room, although you could of course arrange them more casually if this is the look you’re going for.

Oswald tufted slipper chair, £499, West Elm
Oswald tufted slipper chair, £499, West Elm

Nelson wicker chair, £395, Graham & Green
Nelson wicker chair, £395, Graham & Green

Readers of The Thread will have seen in last week’s edition that we featured Arlo & Jacob’s clever Betsey Bed-in-a-Box, which provides another seating option and can niftily transform a sitting room into a bedroom. You could also consider an upholstered ottoman stool which opens up to reveal hidden storage space: The Dining Chair Company will upholster their storage stools in a fabric of your choice and can add decorative detailing, should you wish.

4. Delicate Designs

Nesting tables could be just the thing if you’re really short on floor space: glass tops, spindly legs and ones which stack together neatly are fantastic options. Tables made from tempered glass (try The Odd Chair Company) or acrylic (Habitat) can also be a wise choice in areas with limited space. Storage trunks can double up as coffee tables: they will obviously occupy a little more floor space but provide room to stow away anything from blankets to board games (Sweetpea & Willow have a couple of good options).

Gatsby nesting side tables, £239, Atkin & Thyme
Gatsby nesting side tables, £239, Atkin & Thyme

5. A Room within a Room

Embrace the DIY spirit (or find a carpenter to help you!): to maximise the potential of nooks and crannies: consider how space can seamlessly be incorporated in alcoves, cupboards and under the eaves. How about creating a hidden home office within a cupboard should you need to use your sitting-room for working? Whilst helping to prevent the rest of the room feeling cluttered, this clever idea enables you to hide away files and paperwork to restore calm. Painting the inside of the cupboard in a different colour to the walls of the room creates a zoning effect and makes a feature of this miniature office: you could even use a vibrant shade that reflects an accent colour used elsewhere in the room. I think that I would consider creating a sliding shelf that could easily be pulled out to create a desk to sit comfortably at. Matching sets of files and storage boxes complete the look nicely: a filing box would be a neat and compact substitute for a space-gobbling filing cabinet.

Home office within a cupboard
Room painted in All White No.2005, £60 for 2.5L of Dead Flat; cupboard in Light Blue No.22; £60 for 2.5L of Estate Eggshell; both Farrow & Ball

Filing box with 8 hanging files, £28.95, The Holding Company
Filing box with 8 hanging files, £28.95, The Holding Company

6. The Magic of Mirrors

Any interior designer will tell you that, when tackling a small space, they will most likely use mirrors. Mirrors are the illusionists of the interiors world, tricking the eye into believing that a room extends well beyond its physical space: they bounce light around and, when positioned carefully, can create fabulous reflections. As well as using one large mirror (and remember, the larger the mirror, the more space it will appear to create), you could consider grouping a number of smaller mirrors together to create a striking design feature.

Aria full length mirror, £250, Cox & Cox
Aria full length mirror, £250, Cox & Cox

Edna wall hung mirror, from £155, Mann Made London at notonthehighstreet.com
Edna wall hung mirror, from £155, Mann Made London at notonthehighstreet.com

Think about the effect you wish to create: placing a mirror adjacent to a window will enable the maximum amount of light to be thrown around as it streams in; hanging it opposite a window will bring in both natural light and the reflections of greenery from outdoors.  A floor-length mirror on either side of sofa could create a pleasing sense of symmetry; using a long mirrored panel in the alcoves on either side of a fireplace could reflect light into the recesses of the room. There are many specialist makers of mirrored panels, which can be distressed to create subtle reflections ( in some cases taking on the appearance of abstract art as the reflections become softened and fragmented). For bespoke panels try Rupert Bevan and The Antique Mirror Company.

7. Fake a Window

This relates to the points I’ve made above but, as window mirrors are so brilliant, they deserve their own section. As the name suggests, these mirrors are designed to mimic the appearance of a window: arched or straight sided, contemporary, industrial, classical or minimalist, there are so many to choose from. Fabulous in most sizes of room, window mirrors really come into their own in small spaces: in addition to bouncing light around, by creating the illusion of an extra window, they can make a room appear considerably more open.

Arcade metal mirror, £108, Maisons du Monde
Arcade metal mirror, £108, Maisons du Monde

Asher iron mirror, £285, Graham & Green
Asher iron mirror, £285, Graham & Green

Rectangular window mirror, £180, Cox & Cox
Rectangular window mirror, £180, Cox & Cox

8. Diminutive Desks

If you need a place to work in a smaller sitting room, and a hidden office isn’t possible, then keep desks as compact as reasonably possible. For the ultimate space-saving desk, try one which leans against the wall and has handy shelf-space above it; a stool can be tucked away under the desk to further streamline things. If the layout of your space allows it, you could also consider a small corner-desk, such as the one shown from Maisons du Monde, which has neat, slender legs and some useful storage space within it: note how the area in the image is lit by a wall-mounted light which removes the need for a space-eating desk-lamp. The glass-topped desk from Neptune would also be a great option – its clear surface and mirrored legs help to create the illusion of space in the way that solid, blocky shapes wouldn’t.

Artic vintage white corner desk, £149.50, Maisons du Monde
Artic vintage white corner desk, £149.50, Maisons du Monde

Hambledon desk ladder in raw oak, £275, Garden Trading
Hambledon desk ladder in raw oak, £275, Garden Trading

9. Illuminating Ideas

Wall lights can be a good option as they free up the table-top space that lamps would otherwise occupy: place one on the wall above each side of the sofa to provide light to read by. If your preference is for pendant lighting, choose a smaller design so that the light won’t dominate the space. There are also some beautiful types of glass lighting, such as small globes with delicate detailing, which would be ideal for smaller rooms.

10. Decorative Details

Whilst having a small space doesn’t mean that you can’t use lots of bold pattern, when it comes to increasing the feeling of space, I would caution against using too many attention-grabbing pieces. However, I’m certainly not suggesting that smaller spaces should be bland: add interest by incorporating some gorgeous textures such as wool, knitted accessories and sheepskin; find accessories with detailing like delicate embroidery, fringing or pleats; introduce some fabulous pieces of artwork to complete the look and just add in small, unexpected shots of colour and pattern.

Selection of textured cushions for small spaces

Clockwise from top-left: Ellis embroidered cushion, £25, Perch & Parrow. Marcona pillow (seen top of image), £68, Anthropologie. Sofa fabric and cushions made from a selection of fabrics at KorlaTibetan sheepskin cushion, £60, The White Company

11. Simple Window Dressings

Rather than highly decorative curtains, keep things simple by focusing on using a small-scale print or a delicately textured fabric, such as a relaxed tumbled linen. If you want to create the illusion of height in a room, you can employ a number of techniques: you could opt for vertically-striped linen to draw the eye upwards; a trick to visually lengthen the window is to position the curtain pole in a higher position than usual, and ensure that the curtains reach the floor; tying the curtains tightly will also help to maximise the feeling of light and space. Where floorspace is at a premium, consider installing shutters or blinds, rather than curtains, as they can be more space-efficient – if there is a lack of wall-space around the window, then it would be advisable to have them fitted inside the recess.

Washed fine linen in Storm Cloud, £26 per metre, Tinsmiths
Washed fine linen in Storm Cloud, £26 per metre, Tinsmiths

Alon Natural, £27.50 per metre, Tinsmiths
Alon Natural, £27.50 per metre, Tinsmiths

Washed linen in Gainsborough Grey, £26 per metre, Tinsmiths
Washed linen in Gainsborough Grey, £26 per metre, Tinsmiths

12. Shelve It

Don’t feel the need to remove all your precious belongings and the pieces that will give your room personality; instead, use the constraints imposed by a smaller living space to really focus on choosing the items that you really love and want to have on display.

Selection of shelving for small spaces

Clockwise from top-left: Slimline metal shelves in brass, £30 each, Cox & Cox. Link shelving in Ash, £320, Grattify. Terrace Tower, £499, West Elm. Carter console table, £399, Atkin & Thyme

I’ve selected a couple of narrow wall-mounted shelves which will provide you with surfaces on which you can show some of your favourite pieces – crucially, this type of shelving won’t take up vital floor space. If you have the room for a standing unit or a console table, opt for designs that look delicate and understated and which possess a minimal footprint. If possible, utilise space in alcoves by adding free-standing or built-in shelving.

Small can be beautiful, cosy and intimate. I’ve enjoyed thinking about how to best maximise the feeling of space in a smaller sitting room and have been inspired by the breadth of well-designed products that would perfectly suit such a petite space. We’d love to hear about the clever ways you have managed to maximise the use of a small space, so leave a comment below if you want to share.

With thanks to Sofa.com for kindly allowing us to use their photograph, featuring their Bluebell sofa, as the lead image.

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