Storage Tips

11 Small-Space Ideas I Stole From Organizing Pros

Enter, the problem-solvers who know how to make the most of every inch.

July 31, 2021
Photo by Weston Wells for The Little Book of Living Small

No Space Too Small is a brand new column by Laura Fenton that celebrates the idea that you can live well in a small home. Each month, Laura will share her practical findings from years of observing how people live in tight spaces, and her own everyday experiences of living small—from the hunt for the perfect tiny desk and managing everyday clutter to how to smooth the frustrations out of cooking in a galley kitchen.


I live in a small space by choice. My 690-square-foot apartment is not tiny, but it is relatively small for a family of three. (The median house size in America is about 1650 square feet, and the average size of new houses exceeds 2,000 square feet.) I chose to live small so we could stay in New York City and not go broke.

Throughout my more than twenty years in New York I’ve chosen location over space. As a result, I’ve lived in a series of small spaces, including an unairconditioned dorm room shared by three girls, a 6 foot by 8 foot bedroom in an apartment with no living room, and a teeny-tiny studio that was made livable by a Murphy bed. I’ve tinkered and tweaked to make each of them work for myself and my family.

Over the years, I’ve become something of a small-space wonk. As a journalist who writes about homes, I’ve spent a lot of time observing how other people live in small spaces—I even wrote a whole book about it, The Little Book of Living Small. I keep tabs on the latest space-saving innovations and trends.

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Top Comment:
“If that were my situation and I planned to continue pursuing the hobby, I would look into renting a larger apartment - having things "on site" is just so much more convenient and saves you energy/time, plus you're already paying extra anyway. You don't necessarily need a second bedroom - even a walk in closet could help! I'm also in a 1br1ba and I have a credenza under my TV where I store all my hobby supplies and exercise equipment (rolled yoga mat, weights, etc). I keep everything "messy" (paint, ink, etc) on a plastic tray so I can just bring the tray out when I'm using those things and then put it right back in the credenza. It would be great to have a space where I can leave things out but since I have to "reset" my desk for my actual job every day, this is a good interim solution! ”
— emily
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Being a home writer means I get to call up experts to ask them for advice. Among my favorites to call on are professional organizers. I am not naturally organized in an everything-labeled way, nor am I likely to ever hire a professional organizer to get me to be. But I love the way pro organizer’s minds work: They’re not just thinking about Tetris-like solutions to cram it all in (my default!)—they’re thinking holistically about the systems in homes, and how we use them. Professional organizers are problem solvers who know how to make the most of every inch, making them ideal experts for small spaces. Plus, they truly believe less is more and help other people pare back to what is essential.

Here are 11 small-space ideas I’ve stolen from organizing professionals over the years that have made my small space function better, and in turn, look nicer, too.

Let function be your guide

Organizers are always encouraging you to set up your home based on what needs to happen in a space—and relocate or eliminate the things that don’t support that task. This function-first mentality helped me decide to give my son the bigger bedroom in our apartment: My husband and I didn’t need more space to sleep, but our kid did need the extra square footage to play.

The author's kitchen Photo by Weston Wells

Pay attention to visual clutter

I’d written dozens of stories about tackling clutter before Shira Gill, an organizer in Berkeley California, whose home appeared in my book, introduced me to the idea of visual clutter. Sometimes what’s making our homes feel cluttered isn’t just too much stuff, it’s the visual effect of our stuff. You might technically have room for all the things that are displayed, but putting a few things away could be worthwhile for the aesthetic effect it has on your home. In my house, I moved the cooking utensils from a crock to a drawer and my kitchen immediately felt calmer.

Reduce the volume

Interviewing an expert for a home organization article, an organizer once told me that it’s important to reduce the volume of things in your home. Somehow that word, “volume,” really helped me. When your home starts to feel cluttered or just, well, full, start chipping away at things with the goal of reducing the noise of stuff: Gather up your pens and whittle down your collection to the best ones, go through your sock drawer and pull out all the singleton, holey or stretched out socks, streamline the items stored in your medicine cabinet. Every time I try to turn down the volume, it makes my home feel more peaceful.

Don’t blame your roommates

The most surprising thing I learned from Marie Kondo is not to give the side-eye to the rest of my family’s clutter. Kondo says to confront your own stuff first. You may think it’s the kid or spouse clutter that’s driving you crazy, but writes Kondo, “The urge to point out someone else’s failure to tidy is usually a sign that you are neglecting to take care of your own space.” Plus, she points out that tidying up your own stuff gives you “the ability to tolerate a certain level of untidiness among your family members.” With my own drawers under control I tend not to mind as much if my husband’s desk is a mess.

Store things where they accumulate

Katie Tracey, the organizer behind New Jersey’s Simple Spaces taught me that there’s often a disconnect between where we store things and where we use them, which explained all the shoes flung around the entryway to my apartment. For me, the fix was to store our most frequently-worn shoes near the door in a basket, instead of imagining we’d put them in the closet each night. Take a look around your house and observe where clutter builds up: Instead of fighting it, find a way to store those items near where they naturally gather.

Make measuring easier

Master Cruz, an organizer in Valencia, California who specializes in custom closets convinced me to buy a laser distance measure and I’m so glad she did. You get exact measurements with the push of a button, which makes planning big home projects so much easier—and in a small space, every inch counts! I’ve used mine for everything from planning our kitchen renovation to assessing a closet shelf that needed new bins.

Use a litmus test for “maybe” garments

Cruz also taught me a fantastic trick for editing your closet (an ongoing process for us small-space dwellers!). When Cruz’s clients are on the fence about a garment, she’ll ask, “If you ran into your ex-boyfriend while wearing this, would you feel embarrassed or great?” This is such a great way to be more subjective about the things I am reluctant to donate.

Opt for wooden hangers

Another closet tip came from Martha Stewart, who insists on wooden hangers for all her clothes. Years ago I embraced Huggable Hangers, those slim velvet flocked hangers that help you fit even more things into my small closet. But as I’ve gotten older (and maybe wiser), I tend to agree with Martha, who reasons is that the closet gets too crammed with the slim hangers—sometimes saving space isn’t really the solution! Plus those slim hangers were always breaking and wood ones seem to last forever and look much nicer.

Use shoe drawers for anything but shoes

Organizers are always singing the praises of clear plastic shoe drawers, but it was an organizer who suggested using them for kids toys that got me thinking about all the different ways I might use these in my home. I bought enough to fill one shelf in my hall closet and those drawers are now our “utility closet” where we store picture hanging supplies, lightbulbs, spare cords, and the like.

Shira Gill's version of the "outbox" Photo by Vivian Johnson

Set up an “outbox”

Stephanie Peace, founder of The Organized Chick in Atlanta, taught me the value of creating an “outbox,” a dedicated space for items that are on their way out or not quite gone yet. Think packages you need to send back, items you borrowed that you need to return, and library books. It doesn’t need to be fancy: Mine is a humble cardboard box in the bottom of our front hall closet.

But, remember: there is no magic container

While I've mentioned a couple specific things that have helped me in my small space, Gill reminds me and her clients that you can’t buy your way to organization. You have to do the work of editing, sorting, and finding a place to store things before you buy any hooks or bins. Whenever I find myself itching to shop to solve my problems, I remember Gill’s advice and try to make things work with what I already have.

What small-space woes would you like Laura to address in her next column? Tell us in the comments below.

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Laura Fenton

Written by: Laura Fenton

Laura Fenton is the No Space Too Small columnist at Food52. The author of The Little Book of Living Small, she covers home, design, and sustainability. Laura lives in Jackson Heights, Queens in a 690-square foot apartment with her husband and son. You can follow her on Instagram @laura.alice.fenton.

7 Comments

kidnonna September 21, 2021
For about 5 years we have lived in a "5th Wheel" and believe me I have learned to live with getting rid of things I no longer need or have use for....or clothes I have not worn in years (but thanfully still fit me LOL) and it was easy for me I may add. I am not a "clutter lover" in any way. But, I must say, I miss my washer and dryer more every day. Going to the laundramatt is not fun in any way for sure. Once you declutter a place (and it was so easy for me) you will never want to have it any other way! Easy to clean a place that has no clutter!!!!
 
jams40 August 25, 2021
How do I make an office space in a small studio apartment ?
 
judy August 2, 2021
Responding to storage of hobby supplies in a one bedroom apartment below. I suggest using the suggested shoe storage boxes as described in the article. Find a wall or half space and put them there. I lived in a small apartment and had a home business, needing to store my supplies for that business--and the were tons. I used the equivalent of shoe storage boxes (box type storage containers that were sold on QVC many years ago). I had a back wall in my closet that I really wasn't using. I put a wooden shelf on the floor over the carpet to stabilize the boxes. Then put shelf supporting hooks in the wall all the way up the back wall a couple of inches taller than the boxes, so I could readily pull them out and access the contents. ON these I put unfinished wooden planks cut to fit the space. Then filled my boxes and placed them on the "quasi" shelf wall I had built. See if there is a wall (or two small, tall spaces) in your apartment that is relatively free of anything and try that. Of course you could buy a book shelf or some such storage shelf and put it in, but I was able to customize mine to fit the space I had. I currently live in a 406sf studio apartment. I downsized from 1 bedroom to save money. I was told I should get rid of several pieces of my furniture, as there would not be enough room. I was unwilling to do so, as they are lovely old antiques. I figured out a way to arrange them to create a two-room space, and then arranged the rest of the furniture around. I now feel like, and tell people that I have a 7 room apartment: living room, study, TV room, kitchen, hall, bedroom and bathroom. With a walk-in closet (two features of this studio is a small kitchenette built into one wall and a long closet with shelves on one end that for me is the biggest closet I have had in years!). But simply by figuring out how to optimize the use of the furniture, I was able to give the feel of all that space without it. And two of us live here! The wall shelf idea was from my Dad really. In our house we had books, lots of books. He was always building shelves for more books. Maybe it means pulling the sofa out away from the wall a bit, and putting the shelves there, on that wall behind the sofa. We had bookshelves floor to ceiling behind our sofas in the living room when I was growing up--and we were expected to read every one of those books and give a report over the years of our childhood!! I'm not sure we got through all of them, but there were sure a lot we read.....It requires looking at the space you are in differently, re-imagining it's use. Good luck!
 
Teddee G. August 1, 2021
What are some ideas for incorporating hobby supplies in a one-bedroom apartment? I create faux floral arrangements and am now renting two storage units, the price of which would almost pay for an apartment with a second bedroom!
 
Silks August 1, 2021
I'm in the same predicament and would like to hear ideas from others.
 
M August 4, 2021
1- Try one or two stylish wheeled counter with cupboards/drawers. (Tall or shorter, depending on your needs.) It/they will store a bunch of your stuff, and act as a workspace. They can also be wheeled to any room to make for extra workspace/functionality whenever you need it -- extra counter space when making a big meal, side table near the door for keys and arrangements, turn a small desk into an L-shape, in front of a window for plants, behind the couch, etc.

2- Replace any furniture that doesn't offer storage (coffee table, stool, bed frame, etc), and with something that does.

3- A wall of bookshelves with decorative boxes to hide unsightly supplies. Nice wrapping paper/ads/etc can be wrapped around plain boxes to keep it cheap.

 
emily August 8, 2021
If that were my situation and I planned to continue pursuing the hobby, I would look into renting a larger apartment - having things "on site" is just so much more convenient and saves you energy/time, plus you're already paying extra anyway. You don't necessarily need a second bedroom - even a walk in closet could help! I'm also in a 1br1ba and I have a credenza under my TV where I store all my hobby supplies and exercise equipment (rolled yoga mat, weights, etc). I keep everything "messy" (paint, ink, etc) on a plastic tray so I can just bring the tray out when I'm using those things and then put it right back in the credenza. It would be great to have a space where I can leave things out but since I have to "reset" my desk for my actual job every day, this is a good interim solution!