10+ small apartment living tips from design experts

Rising interest rates and high inflation are crushing Americans’ dreams to enter the housing market: Currently, demand for mortgages remains at the lowest level since July 2000, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association’s seasonally adjusted index, and as a result, the cost of rent is skyrocketing. The median rent for zero- to two-bedroom rentals across the 50 largest metropolitan areas in the U.S. is $1,849, the highest it’s ever been since Realtor.com began tracking rents in 2019.

To ease the transition for new and returning city dwellers, we consulted interior design experts across the country about how to optimize small spaces. The interior designers we spoke to offered several tips for making the most of your space, plus recommended some of their favorite pieces of furniture and accessories for opening up a smaller apartment or room.

How to decorate a small apartment: Expert tips and tricks

Ariene Bethea, a vintage reseller and the owner of Dressing Room Interiors, said there are plenty of ways to maximize a small space and make it feel cozy. “You have to be a ruthless editor of your things,” she said. “The things you choose should either bring you joy or serve a purpose.”

One of the first things she encourages all her clients to do is to pull the furniture away from the walls. “If you have a sofa or loveseat, you initially think to push it against the wall. But you can turn it and float it and put a console behind it with a pair of lamps and rest a piece of art or a mirror on it so it leans against the wall,” she said. Bethea also loves to showcase an oversized piece of art in smaller spaces. “It makes a small space feel bigger, and it draws your eye to the area you are emphasizing,” she explained.

From skirted tables and under-the-cabinet organizers to open shelving and floor-length mirrors, our pros curated pieces that can help you transform a small space into a cozy personal haven with ample room for living.

Vertical storage for small spaces: Bookshelves, hanging shelves and more

Dayna Isom Johnson, Etsy’s resident trend expert, says one of her No. 1 rules is to think vertically. The designer recommends using tall bookshelves and floor-to-ceiling curtains — both of which can make ceilings appear much higher than they actually are — and mounting whatever furniture you can (even the TV console) to free up space on the floor. “You’ll give yourself additional storage, while also giving the illusion of a larger space,” she said.

The takeaway? Every crevice, corner, door and wall of your home can be used in more ways than one — you often have more “space” to work with than you realize.

Dahl Bookcase

Bethea said she likes to place open shelving perpendicular to a wall to keep different areas distinctly separated, such as a living room area and an eating area. “You could place kitchen stuff on one side, such as cookbooks, and living room stuff on the other,” she said. She suggested the Dahl bookcase by Room&Board, which comes in two sizes and helps to visually elongate the ceilings. Positioned next to a desk, it can also serve as storage for office supplies if concealed in aesthetic fabric drawers or cubes.

Pottery Barn Velvet Twill Blackout Curtains

These elegant curtains from Pottery Barn come in four colors and multiple sizes — the 108-inch offering is great for accentuating windows, and the extra length can help the space appear taller and more dynamic, Johnson said. Plus, providing the eyes with multiple levels and textures to take in can help bring a cramped room to life, according to Bethea.

Hudson Mirror

”Mirrors are a great way to trick your eye into thinking that the space is larger than it is,” Bethea explained. “Strategically placing a mirror on the opposite wall of a window will bounce that light around the room.” Bethea pointed out this mirror in particular as a functional piece of art — standing at 72 inches tall, it’s made of tropical hardwood and comes in either black or ivory. “When selecting a splurge decorative item, just make sure it’s something that reflects your personal style and that you’ll want to keep for a while,” she said.

West Elm Bamboo Leaning Garment Rack

Made out of natural bamboo, this garment rack from West Elm is Bethea’s pick if you need extra closet space. “You can put your more fashionable coats and hats on it so it looks more artful,” she said. The best part? There’s no hardware required.

Damla Floating TV Stand

Bethea said she’s a big proponent of floating storage cabinets since they can add storage without taking up precious floor space. This modern floating TV stand has three large drawers for maximum storage space and comes in four different colors. Since it’s mounted to the wall, there’s room underneath to fit pretty baskets for additional storage.

Multi-functional investment pieces for small spaces: Storage ottomans, daybeds and more

When beginning to plan out your space, experts recommended being as intentional with your floor plan as possible. Evaluate your lifestyle: If you don’t have friends over for dinner parties or wine nights often, you don’t need to prioritize a big dining or coffee table (and you may not need one at all if you’re constantly on the go).

Regardless of how you use your space, Bethea recommended investing in a sturdy couch. “The sofa is your workhorse. Splurge on this piece because it is your center,” she said. “If you eat on the sofa, the fabric should be crypton and easy to clean. Any spills will roll right off.” She suggested investing in a sleeper sofa that can double as a bed for guests.

One of Bethea’s favorite furniture hacks is using a storage ottoman in lieu of a coffee table to provide additional seating and simultaneous storage for blankets and magazines. The key, she said, is to reframe the ottoman in your mind as a piece of art or a “statement” piece — “it’s worth the investment if it’s something you love and provides color and character in the space,” she noted. “Top it with a tray for fresh flowers and your TV remote for a finished look.”

Ballard Designs Skirted Side Table

This skirted table from Ballard Designs has a thick glass topper and can be easily dismantled and stowed away when not in use. “These have really come back in style,” said Bethea, who loves the fact that you can store baskets under them. She also suggested attaching a skirt around a bathroom pedestal sink to store toiletries.

Interior Define Ella Sleeper Sofa

This elegant classic-meets-modern sofa, which doubles as a sleeper sofa, comes in over 100 colors and a myriad of textures, including plush velvet and linen weave. Though it’s relatively pricey, our experts said the investment in durability and comfort for a central piece is worth it.

CB2 Peekaboo Acrylic Nesting Table Set

Our experts agreed that nesting tables are a must for any small space, and the ones they like most are made of lucite. “They don’t take up any visual space and they are super light,” said Bethea. These nesting tables from CB2, come in a set of three.

Ikea Wall-Mounted Drop-Leaf Table

At just 35 inches long and 19 inches wide, this drop-leaf table from Ikea takes up minimal space and can double as a workspace or dining table. It’s resistant to scratches and food stains, according to the brand, and you can use it as a shelf to hold small things like your keys and plants when it’s not folded out.

The Inside Skirted Storage Ottoman

This storage ottoman is proof that you don’t have to sacrifice style or personality in a small space. It comes in more than 100 trendy patterns to warm up your space, and the hidden storage option provides a convenient place to store books, games, blankets or home workout equipment.

Target Braniff Pedestal Table

This round table works well in multifunction rooms and flexible dining arrangements. Use it as part of a dining nook in the corner of the room for two people, or pull it out into the center of the room for up to four or five seated guests. Adorned with a vase, fresh flowers and a candle, this table can appear both decorative and functional. It comes in all white or with a brass pedestal.

Storage for small spaces: Bar carts, shoe racks and more

According to Johnson, conjuring up new space isn’t as difficult as it seems.“Aesthetics and functionality need to get married,” she said, noting that screen partitions are great for dividing rooms or disguising additional storage. And while Bethea can get on board with open storage when done properly, she said that random items everywhere often end up cluttering small spaces. “Hidden storage is key,” she noted. “It doesn’t distract the eyes.”

Hiding items in bins and baskets can help promote cohesiveness in a room, as opposed to displaying the odd knickknacks you’ve collected over time. When it comes to storing shoes, Bethea similarly recommended hidden, behind-the-door shoe racks. But if you insist on displaying shoes outside the closet, she recommended displaying only your absolute favorites and storing the rest elsewhere.

Bethea also suggested using under-the-bed organizers to store clutter or clothes. She recommended selecting a product that can be zipped up or covered to protect your items against critters and bugs.

Rolling Underbed Cart

The space under your bed is a perfect place to store extra clothes, winter jackets, shoes or bags. And because this cart is on wheels, it keeps the base elevated and away from dust. The wheels also make it easy to move whenever you need to access your belongings.

Swasey Bar Cabinet

This mid-century modern cabinet is small enough to fit on a misshapen wall or in the corner of a room. With its multiple shelves, glassware racks and six-bottle wine rack, you can hide a plethora of barware, dishes or any items you don’t want displayed elsewhere.

Vacuum Storage Bags

These GONGSHI vacuum storage bags, which come in multiple sizes, are great for seasonal items you don’t need regular access to. In the summertime, you can stack your heavy winter coats in a bag, remove the air and safely stuff the pieces under your bed to be retrieved at a later date.

ZOBER Hanging Shoe Rack

This shoe organizer with 24 pockets is a great way to create more space in an already-cramped closet. If you have a tiny bathroom, you can also use it to hold extra toiletries or hair tools.

Kitchen storage for small spaces: Pot racks, kitchen carts and more

Having a kitchen with minimal storage space might not be ideal, but Johnson said you can dream up more space on the walls — she recommended adding hooks to the backsplash for mugs and cookware, or displaying knives on a magnetic board.

Bethea suggested limiting yourself to just three or four pots and pans. “Think about how much you are really cooking,” she said. She advised using the cabinet door to hold pot lids and to store seasonings. As an additional storage hack, our experts also suggested floating shelves on the wall or across a window to display flatware and dry pantry items in uniform mason jars.

G-TING Multi-Rung Pot Racks

This pot rack, which can be installed two ways, comes with eight hooks, and you can also use it for kitchen tools (like your salad tongs) or oven mitts. This version is relatively durable: The brand lists the rack’s weight capacity at 35 pounds.

Hanging Spice Rack

This mesh spice rack can be hung on the wall or you can rest it on your countertop (if there’s space). In addition to spices, you can use it to store tea packets, jam jars, cooking oils or vitamins. Be sure to hang the metal rack out of range of your oven so you won’t have to clean it daily.

CAXXA Rolling Kitchen Cart

Wayfair offers many different types of kitchen carts, but the Drew is great for even the smallest space. A microwave can sit on the top shelf, and the lower shelves are spacious enough for other small appliances, like an air fryer or toaster, according to the retailer. It’s light enough to maneuver and can easily be rolled out to the center of the kitchen for meal prep.

Universal Pot Lid

This transparent pot lid is designed to fit 10-, 11- and 12-inch pots. According to the brand, it’s dishwasher-safe and can withstand temperatures up to 428 degrees Fahrenheit. It also comes in a smaller size for pots that are 6, 7 and 8 inches.

Kitchen Pot Lid Storage

If you’d rather hang on to your beloved pot and pan lids, Bethea recommended this over-the-door organizer. It can hold up to six covers or lids, and you can hide it behind a cabinet or pantry door or mount it on the wall for additional space.

Floating Shelf

This durable floating shelf adds more storage to a tight kitchen space — it can also be used to display your cookware or favorite cookbooks. When you eventually move again, pack it up and use it in a different room — the driftwood material is versatile enough to work in virtually any environment.

Finishing touches for small spaces

All of the experts we spoke with said that mirrors are a must for small spaces. The interior designers we spoke to also agreed that a good way to make the most of a small apartment is to fill it with items you absolutely love, whether that’s temporary printable art or as many plants as your heart desires. Bethea said removable wallpaper is great for small apartment rentals — “it’s a great solution for adding your personal style without damaging the wall and losing your deposit, so it’s very renter-friendly,” she noted.

No matter what size your apartment, there’s always a way to make it functional and look great, too. Bethea suggested purchasing things that are aesthetically pleasing if lack of storage means they need to be out in the open. “Get a better-looking vacuum that doesn’t look so utilitarian that you can hang on the back of a door,” she said.

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