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The Best Small-Apartment Ideas, According to Professional Organizers

Photo: Disney

Tiny apartments are the running joke of New York City real estate. If you live in one, you know that every little square foot counts. So making it a functional, yet still open space does require some creativity. Don’t have a closet? Find a slim clothing rack. Have a tiny kitchen? Maximize your shelf space. And so on. To find some inspiration for creating order within the confines of a small living area, we talked to some of the people who would know best: Laura Cattano, a professional organizer in New York City who lives in a small, 335-square-foot alcove studio; Mecca James-Williams, a stylist and the proud renter of @itsapt4; interior designer Lisa Gilmore; and Emmett Shine, the creative director of Pattern Brands, which studies what type of products are attracting millennial consumers.

Cattano’s philosophy on small spaces is all about living better with less. “Anyone with a small space should start by thinking about what activities they want their space to support first and then set things up accordingly.” For her, that meant making sure she had sufficient desk space, a sitting area, and a queen-size bed, and then working around that. “I wanted everything to feel spacious and still allow me to do what I need to do. That should be the basis of any space, but especially for a small apartment where you want things to be multifunctional and have purpose.” Below, she and our three other experts share their favorite small-apartment ideas for sprucing up a cramped space, and we’ve also added some more Strategist-approved products based on the wisdom our experts provided.

Small-apartment ideas for the entryway

Cattano says that having an effective entryway is crucial to preventing oversize items from taking up precious space in your living area. “Having a couple of hooks or a coat rack is helpful for a few reasons,” she told us. “Even if you have a coat closet, most people (especially in the city), don’t have room in their closet for guest coats. And it’s great to have a spot to drop your coat and bag instead of tossing it on a chair.” She adds, “I’ve never had a client complain about the additional hooks I’ve added.”

For a slightly more upscale look, Cattano recommends this stylish solid brass option that she says looks good whether something’s hanging from it or not.

For a cheap (but expensive-looking) metallic hook, Cattano also likes this affordable option from CB2, which comes in a similar brushed-brass finish.

Keys and mail are other things that can clutter a space (and get lost) if you don’t have a place for them in your entry. For that, Cattano loves using one of these narrow floating shelves (they’re 4.25-inches deep), which she says are “simple, clean, and don’t take up floor space.” She adds that you can hang a couple of them — for example, a lower shelf for the mail and an upper for a basket with your keys. They start at $30 for a two-foot-long shelf, but come in three-foot ($50) and four-foot ($60) lengths too.

Small-apartment ideas for the living room

Unless it’s a studio, an apartment’s living room (or living area) is usually the next largest space after a bedroom. Sometimes, of course, a living room can be bigger than a bedroom — which is why it can also quickly become the dumping ground you use to make your bedroom clean. Both Cattano and James-Williams told us they’ve added additional shelving in every room in their house to create more storage space, and Cattano recommends this shelf set from West Elm. For $29, you can get a two-foot shelf, and for $10 more, you can get a three-foot one. West Elm sells brackets for the shelves separately at the same link, and in addition to the $34 corrugated wood style shown, it offers two different styles of metallic brackets for $39.

To keep shelves neat once they’re installed, both Cattano and Shine recommend using boxes, noting that stylish ones can also double as décor. Shine’s favorite storage boxes are these, from Hay, which he uses all over his apartment. “We keep these for paperwork, receipts, tax files,” he told us. “Things that aren’t pleasant, but in these boxes they feel a bit nicer.”

From $6

A truly bare-bones alternative to Hay’s boxes would be these Container Store storage bins, which Barbara Reich, the founder of Resourceful Consultants, recommended when we spoke to experts about the best storage bins for every room. Small holes along each basket’s exterior make it easy to see what’s inside, and the boxes are made with polypropylene plastic, so you can label them with a dry-erase marker (and wipe them clean again whenever you’d like). The Container Store sells the baskets in multiple sizes; the smallest goes for $6, and it also sells the lids shown separately, for $7.

When we looked into the best $100 or less home improvements, architecture student Emily Wisseman told us about how a floor mirror can create the illusion of extra space. This floor mirror, from our list of the best-reviewed full-length mirrors on Amazon, received praise for how high-quality it looks for the price.

Gilmore told us that when her clients have small apartments, they often make the mistake of buying a small area rug, which ends up looking “dwarfed” by the furniture around it. Instead, Gilmore recommends buying the largest rug your space can fit. “It grounds the room, and makes everything look more unified,” she says. Gilmore says she likes using rugs from West Elm in clients’ tiny apartments, noting that the retailer sells them at various sizes, depending on the space you’re working with.

Small-apartment ideas for the kitchen

$15

Much like the living room, a tiny kitchen can quickly become littered with things, too (not to mention that, in many small apartments, the kitchen and living room can be one and the same). To restore some order, Cattano recommends stashing some of these baskets above cabinets and the refrigerator because, according to her, people will otherwise “just throw stuff up there, and it looks terrible.” Each basket is made of steel, meaning they are easy to clean should any food or liquid within accidentally spill.

If you’ve got a small kitchen, James-Williams recommends putting your trash can under your sink to both save floor space and hide something that’s usually unsightly from view. “It condenses trash around the kitchen area,” she told us, and since there is no practical need for a hidden trash can to be aesthetically pleasing, she opted for this very basic model from Ikea, which has a top handle handle that makes grabbing it a touch more sanitary.

Cattano recommends installing a roll-out drawer like this to tame any unruly stacks of pots and pans overtaking a small kitchen’s precious cabinet space. “Clients call it life-changing,” she says, adding that they appreciate never again having to crawl around on the floor to find an old pan. “Just be sure to measure the space between the cabinet hinges and the back of the cabinet to ensure a good fit,” she adds. James-Williams also likes roll-out shelves, noting she installed a similar one to make accessing her undersink trash can even easier.

If James-Williams were doing it all over again, though, she told us she would purchase this rolling unit from Home Depot, which includes three trash bins (with lids) as well as a steel rack. The unit comes preassembled, and installs with only four screws, so while you’ll need to be somewhat comfortable with a screwdriver (or need to call a friend who is), there’s no need to hire an installation guru.

Cattano also likes these clear caddies for the kitchen, which she says stick to the wall quickly with no installation required. While she recommends them for the insides of kitchen cabinets, “so people don’t have too many packets of tea and spices lying around,” we think they would also be good for additional shelving space in the bathroom (or shower).

Small-apartment ideas for the bathroom

As our own Rio Viera-Newton has said, creating smart storage solutions in the bathroom is an art form. Cattano swears by these acrylic risers for creating more room in the medicine cabinet. “You can stack them on top of each other to give yourself more shelf space,” she told us, adding that the four-by-two and six-by-three sizes fits in almost all cabinets (they also come in eight-by-four and ten-by-five sizes).

Should you need even more medicine-cabinet space, Cattano says you can always affix a second one to your wall. “I often add additional cabinets in bathrooms, usually over the toilet for extra toiletries, or to separate roommates so they don’t need to share storage space,” she told us. If this sounds like the solution for you, she recommends Ikea’s Godmorgon cabinet, which comes with four tempered (i.e., stronger) glass shelves, and can be mounted to open from the left or the right. She adds that “the high gloss means it’ll blend into the wall better than a mirrored cabinet.”

Shine told us that a hack he’s found for smaller bathrooms is to have a few toiletry bags on hand. “People typically only use these for travel, but you can put together lotions, makeup, dental stuff in different bags and have them stored on a shelf nearby so when you do need to dip into your backups or secondary items, they are right there and easy to get to.” When we asked experts for the best Dopp kits, menswear writer Tim Melideo praised this one for its “premium look” at an affordable price, and the fact that its unique diagonal zipper allows it to open up much wider than other Dopp kits (which, if you’re using it primarily for storage, means you can likely shove even more in).

Lighting ideas for small apartments

Lighting is so important in any space, especially a small space,” Cattano says. “It helps set a mood, and who couldn’t use more light in their homes?” But, according to her, “a lot of apartments don’t come with overhead lighting, so I’ll always add some.” (Cattano told us that she moved into a place with 9 light sources and now has 16. ) An overhead paper lantern — which also made our list of under-$100 home improvements — will save floor and table space without breaking the bank.

If the smaller size of your apartment means you have less natural light coming in, lamps that artificially mimic the sun can help to simulate daybreak or nightfall — even in bedrooms that face brick walls. That’s why Shine likes Casper’s newish Glow Light. According to him, it emits soft light that both extinguishes and brightens slowly, which can help ease you to sleep at night or wake up in the morning. The Glow Light also has a corresponding app that features a timer, so you can set it to turn on at the same time (or before) your alarm goes off every morning. “It’s great to wake up to,” he told us, “to get melatonin going as you open your eyes for the first time.”

Small-apartment ideas for the bedroom

While many of us hate storing things under our beds (“For many, it’s like putting things in the basement,” Cattano says) sometimes in small apartments you just don’t have a choice. “If it must happen” Cattano says, “can we make it beautiful?” She recommends these rolling underbed storage drawers from Wayfair’s children’s line, which she says will work for anyone who wants to turn their underbed area into additional, efficient storage space.

If your bed frame has legs in the middle as well at the four corners, James-Williams suggests these underbed storage bins from Ikea that come in two parts. “I have four under my bed,” she told us, “and I use them for my sweaters, out-of-season clothes, and workout clothes.”

$75

If your bedroom closet isn’t the biggest — or if you don’t have one at all — James-Williams recommends getting a bookshelf that can function as additional clothing and shoe storage. When we trawled Amazon to find the best-reviewed bookcases under $50, this sleek étagère-style bookcase made the list, with one reviewer noting how it can be used “for proper storage as well as décor.”

In the same vein, a wall ladder can also do double duty as décor and storage, and might be just the ticket for anyone familiar with the concept of the bedroom “clothes chair,” where outfits lay in an increasingly tall heap as the week gets busier and busier. This one is a favorite of writer Laura Perciasepe, who says it’s like having a whole extra closet.

If you’re moving into a brand-new cozy space, and are able to splurge, Cattano loves this storage bed from Nest, which she notes will help the things you’re storing stay dust-free, as the mattress acts as a sealant over them. “I do not believe in storing things under the bed because people don’t clean under the bed,” she says. Cattano says this bed is particularly great for people who live in climates that require constantly changing wardrobes, or for kids, so parents have a place to stow and easily retrieve their toys.

Closet ideas for small apartments

Cattano says that too many small-apartment owners underutilize the inside of their closet doors. “Adhesive hooks are game changers,” she told us. “Use them in closets for belts (the small utensil ones), or get larger ones for handbags, tote bags, hats, scarves, umbrellas, and necklaces.” She swears by 3M’s collection of adhesive hooks, which come in all manner of sizes.

“Felt hangers are not the be-all and end-all,” Cattano explains, noting that despite their space-saving thinness, many users complain that they make clothes harder to get on and off. Instead, she suggests using some equally slim tubular metal hangers, a style that she says has been in her closet for the past 20 years.