New Yorkers’ housing problems are not like other people’s housing problems. We don’t get to complain about a bathroom with only one sink, we’re just glad our bathroom has a sink. And where most people grumble about their dinky two-car garages, we know that our apartments are smaller than most Americans’ one-car garages. To add to that, New York apartments aren’t getting any bigger, as evidenced by the city’s new micro-housing initiative—the first multi-unit building being planned for Manhattan will have apartments that range in size from 250 to 370 square feet. Of course, even without these cruise-ship-cabin-like pads, many New Yorkers already live in itsy-bitsy, teeny-tiny apartments, which begs the question: How to make the most of a tiny space? Our experts dish on easy tips to incorporate into DIY decorating.
Delineate living areas
According to interior design experts, such as Jeanie Engelbach of the home decor and organization service Apartment Jeanie (photojeanie.com/apartmentjeanie), one of the most common mistakes is pushing all the furniture against the wall in an attempt make the room seem larger. “It’s a terrible floor plan,” she says. “When you walk into my apartment there are divisions of sections—you can see the dining room, the living room, the office.” She explains that by partitioning off areas, “you’re not making the room smaller, you’re creating pods, which gives the illusion that it’s a much larger space.”
Add breathing room
Maxwell Ryan of Apartment Therapy (apartmenttherapy.com) concurs that appropriately sized furniture and separation are key elements in making a diminutive apartment work. “Small spaces that fit everything in and feel like a boat are the ones traditionally celebrated,” he says. “But a successful small space is one with breathing room. People just generally overestimate how much space they have, and they try to fit everything in.”
Clutter is another of Engelbach’s main pet peeves, and she recommends that her clients switch to e-billing and create a landing strip just inside the main entrance. “When I walk in the front door, I put everything away,” she says. “I have a recycling bin right next to the front door, so the junk mail is gone right away. I keep my wallet, a pair of sunglasses and keys in a little tray right there.”
ABP (Always be pruning)
“You have to be vigilant about getting rid of stuff when you live in a small place,” Engelbach says. “I clean out my closets twice a year, and when I’m switching seasons, I try everything on, and if it doesn’t fit, it goes.” Well, maybe not everything. “Last year there were a couple really cute skirts that just didn’t fit anymore, so they went on the purgatory rod in my other closet,” she admits. But when winter rolled around and they still didn’t fit, off they went.
You know those big sliding doors covering your closet that only let you see half of what’s in there at a time? Ryan advises that you get rid of them. “Instead, hang nice white or off-white canvas curtains on a good curtain rod,” he says. “Install a light inside the closet, and then you’ll be able to access 100 percent of the closet really easily.” The curtains also help aesthetically. “Adding more textile to a room makes it cozier and quieter. And when you turn on the light at night, the closet glows and looks like a window.”
Many New York apartments have high ceilings, and Engelbach says that “people miss opportunities when they don’t go vertical.” She keeps her out-of-season shoes in see-through boxes stacked to the ceiling of her closet. “Those clear shoe boxes from Container Store are good for everything from accessories to receipts and they just stack straight up.”
“There should be three points of light in every room, not counting ceiling lights,” says Ryan. “Your eyes go to where the light is, so the more light, the more expansive the room feels.” Even if you splurge on the spendy lamps, three of them are certainly cheaper than finding a bigger apartment. Ryan also advises the strategic use of mirrors. “They’re great—they make walls disappear and they reflect light,” he says.
Most people who move into tiny places immediately paint the whole thing white, thinking it will make the place look bigger. “I agree that you should use light colors, says Ryan, “but not a photographer’s white—that’s an absence of color and it’s very cold.” Instead he advises off white for the walls, a “ceiling white” on the ceiling and dark colors for the floors. “Dark-stained wood or carpet brings contrast to the bright walls and make them seem brighter and taller.”
“It’s counter-intuitive,” says Ryan, “but if you go with small things in small spaces, the whole place feels smaller.” Consequently he advises DIY decorators not to shy away from larger pieces, such as art or chandeliers. “Maybe you can’t fit a big sofa, but you can probably fit a large painting or rug. The eye wants a bit of contrast.”
For further inspiration, the Museum of the City of New York has an exhibit running through Sept. 15, 2013 entitled “Making Room: New Models for Housing New Yorkers.” It includes the winning designs from the city’s recently launched pilot competition for micro apartments.