Decorating ideas for apartments and small spaces

By: Amanda Ray Filed under: Interior Design

November 6, 2012

living room

Decorating an apartment or other small space can be challenging. Luckily there are many tips, tricks, and ideas to help renters maintain a stylish abode. The first step, says Michele Boggs, is being organized within the small space.

“When decorating apartments and small spaces, the best thing to do is be as organized as possible,” says Boggs, an Interior Design instructor at The Art Institute of Indianapolis and owner of MB Designs. “Decide the main functions of the space, and then decide what furniture pieces will meet those needs.”

Decorating small apartments with furniture

Furniture plays a key role when it comes to decorating an apartment, and Rebecca Katkin, Interior Design instructor at The Art Institute of California — San Francisco, says it is a good idea to start with the room’s largest pieces and work around those.

“You want to begin with the major elements to create a framework around which you can build,” she adds. “All the elements don't have to match; they can add complexity or quirkiness – but if you establish what objects are playing the leading roles, you can cast the rest of your décor around them.”

Furniture should also play double duty when decorating an apartment or small space like a boat or RV, says Jan Merle, The Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale assistant chair of the Interior Design and Industrial Design departments.

“Typically, you use multi-functional furniture in a very tight space,” he says. “It’s a critical component of design for small spaces.”

Examples of that would include coffee tables that can be used as seating, dining tables used as desks, and the most common multi-functional piece of furniture – the sofa bed. He says that furniture can also be used to physically separate and create divisions in space. That can be something as simple as a screen divider or something more involved to separate the dining and living areas – like pushing the dining table up against the back of the sofa.

Organization and apartment decorating

Furniture can, and should, also function as storage units in small spaces. Merle says that storage is critical because it is at a premium when space is an issue. It also reduces clutter.

“Physical clutter and visual clutter are the enemies of small spaces,” he says.

Ronique Gibson, contributing editor at, agrees that being organized and having enough storage are important when dealing with small spaces.

“When decorating apartments, the key to remember is to maximize storage and organization, so you have space to decorate, without having to see everything you own,” Gibson says. “Maximize hidden storage behind your closet doors, under cabinets in kitchens and bathrooms, and maximize wall space by using shelving – especially over doorways.”

Apartment Decorating Ideas

Color also plays a large role when decorating apartments and small spaces. Gibson recommends using light-colored furniture, wall décor, and bedding to make an apartment feel larger. Merle agrees that lighter colors are better than darker ones because they visually expand the space.

“In a very small space, I try to create either a monochromatic color scheme, which is one color scheme, or achromatic, which is no color,” he explains. “The point is by keeping all of the colors in a relatively narrow range, it makes the space look larger.”

He also recommends keeping furnishings neutral and implementing color into the room through artwork.

“Put the color in the artwork. It’s easily swapped out if you get bored with the color,” he says. “If you have a red sofa, you’re stuck with it until the sofa wears out.”

But implementing color onto an apartment’s walls is often prohibited by landlords. Boggs says there are alternatives to those constraints that will still make the small space stylish. She suggests using removable wall decals or artwork with pops of color, and decorating shelves and accessories. Additionally draperies and rugs add instant texture, color, and softness to the room, Boggs adds.

“Find something you love and build off it,” she suggests. “If you own a hutch or unique piece of furniture, paint the furniture for interest and color.”

Katkin points out that some landlords do allow renters to paint if, for example, they agree with the color choice and if the renter returns it to the original color when moving out. But, she says, paint is just one way to show style and that lighting can make a big difference in any size space.

“Even a plain white box can be made stylish through the right lighting and furniture,” she says. “In my house, which is a rental, we have stopped using the overhead lights in the dining room and added a beautiful wall-mounted hanging fixture. Side lighting is so much more pleasant.”

Merle says to use lighting to create dramatic differences in the ambiance or atmosphere of the space.

“Without lighting, you have no color,” he says. “It is critical. The type and amount and color of the light actually impacts how you perceive the space. It can play a dramatic role.”

The important thing is to look at the benefits of decorating an apartment or other small space. Katkin points out that small spaces are intimate and encourage conversation.

“And when you have less space to fill – and heat – you can afford to get a few really nice pieces,” she adds.

Gibson says that the decorating is the fun part of the process and should be done after a small space is working functionally for its occupants. Smaller spaces can be more personalized, comfortable, and easier to maintain, Gibson adds.

“Don’t think that your small space is a negative; on the contrary, it may become your sanctuary away from the world that you can call home,” Gibson says.

Author: Megan Donley

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