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 335-square-foot alcove studio; Mecca James-Williams, a stylist and the proud renter of @itsapt4; interior designer Lisa Gilmore; Jamie Hord, the founder of organizing company Horderly; Jessica Shaw, the director of interior design at The Turett Collaborative; 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, our five experts’ favorite small-apartment ideas for sprucing up a cramped space, along with some Strategist-approved products based on their wisdom.
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.
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. The two-foot shelf is $35, or get a three-foot one for $10 more. At the same link, you’ll also find different brackets for the shelves, starting at $28.
If you have only a little bit of floorspace to spare, this Sapien-style bookcase will make the most out of it. “It’s a great very-small-footprint bookshelf that stacks everything vertically in these little sections,” says Shaw. She owns it herself and has used it for “umpteen clients” because it works in “all environments — everything from a very luxe looking office space to a living room to a kid’s room.” It’s only about 16 inches wide, but it has nine shelves, all of which rotate, so you can swing them out to create a more dynamic look — or configure it in whatever way fits your space.
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 $7, and it also sells the lids shown separately, for $8.
When it comes to space-saving furniture, Shaw says “nesting inside of nesting is great.” This may look like your average coffee table, but it’s hiding three stools underneath, and the top can be raised to work or eat from the couch. And inside is even more storage — for magazines, remotes, and whatever else you want to keep out of sight.
The same nesting concept works for a side table situation as well. You can save on footprint space by tucking the tables under one another when you don’t need them, but when the occasion calls for it, you can spread them out and add additional tabletop surfaces wherever you need them.
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 baskets above cabinets and the refrigerator because, according to her, people will otherwise “just throw stuff up there, and it looks terrible.” She specifically likes the Yamazaki Home Tower White baskets which are steel, meaning they are easy to clean should any food or liquid within accidentally spill, but those are sold out everywhere. These slightly taller Tosca baskets, also from Yamazaki Home, will serve a similar function.
If you have a pantry (or a nearby closet doing a million jobs), this over-the-door rack will help you maximize that space even more. “It can be completely customized to fit your needs, whether it’s a shoe rack and hat rack combo in your closet, or a spice and oils rack in your kitchen or pantry,” says Hord. This one comes with two medium and two large baskets, making it perfect for a variety of pantry goods. It fits a standard seven-foot door a