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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

West Elm Linear Lacquer Shelves
From $24
From $24

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.”

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


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.

[Editor’s Note: These white baskets from Yamazaki Home are sold out everywhere, but these slightly taller Tosca baskets, also from Yamazaki Home, will serve a similar function.]

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.