How to make a small room feel bigger

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Melissa Rayworth

As the weather gets colder and we come indoors, it’s easy to wish your indoor space had some of the open, airy feeling of the outdoors.

It is possible to make a room feel larger than it really is: Choosing the right colors and finishes and arranging furniture properly can create the illusion of space.

Here, three experts on designing small living spaces share their strategies for making rooms feel larger and more open, without the expense of construction or major redecorating.

Mirrors work wonders

That classic advice is really true: Strategically placed mirrors will make a room feel larger.

“They let your eye travel beyond the room,” explains Maxwell Ryan, founder of ApartmentTherapy.com. In small dining rooms, Ryan suggests, place a large, horizontal mirror along one wall, so that while entertaining, you’ll see the reflection of guests at your table and flickering candles.

But mirrors aren’t the only reflective option: New York-based designer Young Huh uses reflective, glossy paint finishes on ceilings to make her clients’ rooms feel taller and more open.

Go big

Surprising as it sounds, Huh recommends adding one oversize piece of furniture to a small room. Playing with scale by adding something large amid more modest-size furniture, she said, tricks the brain into perceiving that the room must be fairly large if it can hold something oversize.

Ryan said this works with art as well: Consider adding a large painting or other big piece of art to a room.

“It seems counterintuitive,” he said, “but our eye likes contrast. We like variation.”

Long, dramatic curtains can trick your eye in the same way.

“Hanging curtain rods all the way at the ceiling, using large art and big mirrors, and vertical stripes with paint are great ways to make your eye go up visually,” said Kyle Schuneman, co-author of The First Apartment Book: Cool Design for Small Spaces (Potter). This has the effect of “lifting the ceiling and making it feel more spacious than it actually is.”

Huh agrees: “Where you have small or low ceilings, definitely have curtains go all the way up to the ceiling.”

Go with the flow

“Decluttering and cleaning up is always essential,” Ryan said, but you don’t have to pare down your furniture. Instead, try rearranging it to let energy flow more easily.

“A room has good energy and good flow if you can vacuum it without moving any furniture, including at the corners,” Ryan said. “If you can’t get behind stuff, that’s a sign that the space is gonna feel a little crowded.”

Experiment with small changes in furniture placement and see whether the room feels different.

“If your bed is pushed up against the wall on two sides,” Ryan said, it may make the room feel tighter. Try moving the bed out so you can step out either side, he said. Ironically, losing a bit of actual space could make the room feel roomier.

Create areas of interest

“If you have just a studio or an open space, defining the areas makes it feel like there is more space,” Schuneman said, “because your eye is seeing multiple ideas.”

Try using several small rugs to define different areas for sleeping, dining and relaxing.

Or use different wall treatments, he said, like reclaimed wood or wallpaper, to further differentiate these areas.

And in a studio apartment, “try creating a nook for your bed,” Schuneman said, “making it feel like a room within a room.”

Dark or light?

This subject is open to debate. Huh has made clients’ rooms feel bigger with dark and bold colors.

“Dark colors recede,” she said, so if you paint a small room a rich chocolate brown or peacock blue, “you don’t notice how small the room is.”

But Ryan thinks light walls contrasted with a darker rug or dark-stained wood floor are also a strong choice. “Darkness contracts,” he said, while “lightness expands.”

Whether you choose light or dark colors, “consider painting the ceiling the same color as the walls,” Huh said. “It’s like that fashion tip: wearing the same color all over” makes you look taller.

Brighten up

“Your eye will only go where there’s light. It won’t go where there are shadows,” said Ryan. “So lighting is the most important thing.” It’s also easy to remedy, and “doesn’t require moving anything.”

The goal is to eliminate shadows. “Make sure you have at least three points of light in every room,” Ryan said, preferably from floor and table lamps “so the light is down where you’re living.”

The light from ceiling fixtures doesn’t count. “It’s very far away,” he said, “and makes you look bad.”

But there is one exception to that rule: “Really good track lighting...if it’s directed, pointed at your walls or cabinets.”          — AP