Organizing

These 8 'Space-Savers' Actually Make Your Home Feel Smaller

Our living-small expert shares her personal experiences with popular hacks.

August 23, 2021
Photo by Rocky Luten

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.


“20 Small-Space Hacks You've Never Seen Before!” “The 50 Most Clever Small-Space Hacks of All Time!” Headlines like these get me every single time. If I see an article that promises space-saving ideas, I always fall for the bait and click through. As a long-time small-space dweller, I am forever hoping there’s some new trick or tip that’s going to help me make better use of my space (and occasionally there is!). And while I love reading about a good space-saving hack, sometimes the advice I see doesn’t quite fit right.

Just because a hack lets you fit more into your home, doesn’t mean it’s a good idea—in fact these “space savers” often result in a room that feels cramped. I know because I’ve tried several. For example, the advice to use a wall-mounted pot rack is, in fact, a good way to store more in a small kitchen, but when I hung a pot rack in my tiny Brooklyn kitchen years ago, I quickly discovered that crowded walls make a kitchen feel tiny (and that I was better off editing my kitchen tools down and stashing some skillets in the oven).

I’m sharing eight small-space hacks I’ve tried and found lacking. However, what didn’t work for me, might work for you, so take the advice you find useful, and ignore the rest! I’ll give you my reason, so you can decide for yourself.

The hack: Use the wall space for kitchen storage

My experience: Beyond the pot rack, any vertical storage in the kitchen walks a fine line between maximizing your storage and crowding your spaces. (Apologies to Julia Child, but her famous pegboard gives me claustrophobia) To make this hack work, be very selective about what you hang and where you hang it. In my own apartment, the wall-mounted knife rack and pot holder hooks are all strategically out of view of my living room, and I’ve still got a stack of skillets stashed in the oven because I’d rather shuffle them out on the rare occasion I bake than look at them hanging on the wall.

The hack: Hang hooks to maximize storage in the entryway

My experience: A row of hooks or a peg rail in the entryway is a clutter magnet. I feel like I should apologize if you tried this hack and were disappointed. For years I worked at lifestyle magazines and helped produce photographs of entryways with hooks that featured a cute backpack, one perfectly draped jacket, and a scarf. But in real life stuff is much less lovely to look at than the props stylists spent hours choosing—and therefore is better hidden behind closet or cabinet doors—and we have way more stuff than you see in those magazine photos.

The hack: Divide a room into zones with area rugs

My experience: Lots of little rugs look dinky and cluttered. The thinking behind this advice is that area rugs can create rooms within a room, but guys, I’ve tried it, and a bunch of smaller rugs just makes the room look busy and jumbled. I’ve come to believe one large area rug will always make a room look more spacious than several small ones. If you have a smaller area rug that you love, consider layering it over a larger rug that fills the room—this will soften the visual islands small rugs create.

The hack: Paint everything white

My experience: All-white everything looks flat—and that can make a room feel small. Don’t get me wrong, I love white: Elsie de Wolf’s famous quote ““I believe in plenty of optimism and white paint,” could easily have been my own (I even included it in my book!), but a full-on white out can go awry. I’ve always favored white walls and I have painted many thrift store furniture finds white, but what I have learned over the years is that you also need contrast and texture to give that white-on-white depth. In my own apartment, we opted to paint the doors a glossy black—not only for the contrast, but to disguise the 75 years of paint that was more visible when the doors were white. If you’re really committed to all white, play with texture in your textiles, use different sheens of paint for walls and trim, and layer different shades of white for some depth.

The hack: Use a rolling cart to store arts & crafts supplies

My experience: The cart is an unwieldy space hog. I’m calling this one out because someone suggested it in a comment on my first No Space Too Small column, and I too once believed this was a good idea. Upon the recommendation of organizing experts, I wrote about this “solution” in magazines, but when I went to try it out in person it was a total fail. First of all, those rolling carts? They actually take up a lot of space! The hack promoters (myself included) will say “roll it out when you need it” but from where? I personally do not have that much spare space in a closet. Worse still, I found the popular rolling cart to be a terrible way to store my family's arts and crafts supplies: There was way too much wasted space.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“I use an area rug over my wall-to-wall carpet to create a living room inside the kind of all-purpose space attached to my kitchen. But part of why it works is that the space is 30 feet long and 12 feet wide. It looks endless with nothing breaking up the length. I also recommend mounting your knives on a magnetic rack mounted to the bottom of the cabinets. You might need two so they don't fall off, but you can get cheap ones at the hardware store, and then no one sees them OR the knives. And you can still do it even if you have a tile backsplash, which is what prompted me to try it in the first place.”
— tia
Comment

Remember my earlier advice that what works for some doesn’t work for all? Arati Menon, our editorial lead here at Home52, loves her IKEA rolling cart, which she uses to store all her cleaning supplies!

The hack: Use mirrors to give the illusion of more space

My experience: A well-positioned mirror can indeed make a room look larger, but a mirror can also make a room feel cluttered—it all depends on what it reflects. The key here is to pick the right spot for your mirror: The very best place to hang a mirror is opposite a window so it reflects the light and view. But you must also be mindful about what you place in front of the mirror. We have a huge mirror I scored for $20 on Craigslist that opens up our windowless entryway, but when I let our mail, packages, books, and other daily detritus pile up,the mirror doubles the visual effect of the clutter. Also, be wary of mirrored pieces of furniture, which can make a room look cluttered.

The hack: Hang shelves above your toilet for storage

My experience: Something will inevitably end up in the toilet if you place objects on a shelf above it. When I queried my Instagram community about small-space hacks that had failed, my friend Julia brought this one up. Mounting a few shelves on the wall space above your toilet seems like an efficient use of space, but when I did this in a long-ago studio, a make-up brush ended up going down the toilet without me even noticing it, which resulted in a plumbing bill I would have rather avoided. If you must use this space for storage, consider a cabinet with a door and try to get in the habit of closing the toilet lid every time you use it.

The hack: Buy specialty hangers to store more in your closet

My experience: An overstuffed closet can’t be solved with new hangers. I touched on this briefly in my first column when I mentioned that I’ve given up on the slim-velvet-flocked style of hanger in favor of sturdy wooden ones, but I’ve also ditched almost every other specialty hanger too, like those pant hangers that claim to hold five pairs of pants in the space of one. In my closets, these hangers just seem to make clothes harder to access. Paring back my wardrobe is the best solution I’ve found to a closet that feels too full—and it doesn’t cost a thing!

Have you tried a popular small-space hack only to find it made your space feel smaller? Or is there a hack that worked like a charm? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

Grab your copy

It's here: Our game-changing guide to everyone's favorite room in the house. Your Do-Anything Kitchen gathers the smartest ideas and savviest tricks—from our community, test kitchen, and cooks we love—to help transform your space into its best self.

Grab your copy

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Nlc5175
    Nlc5175
  • ustabahippie
    ustabahippie
  • catlady
    catlady
  • wissie1313
    wissie1313
  • M
    M
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.

21 Comments

Nlc5175 August 28, 2021
THANK YOU! For this article. I am also a sucker for the small space advice, and I’ve found it’s rare to find some that actually works. The goal shouldn’t be simply to find more space to store more—I want ways to make the small space feel larger. Higher ceilings, fewer pieces of normal sized furniture, minimal tchotchkes and mostly monochromatic color with some well chosen complementary colored items go a long way toward living larger I find. I think you could summarize your whole article by saying that in small spaces clutter is to be avoided. P.S.: you missed my number one piece of bad advice—open shelving, especially in kitchens. IMHO, that strategy turns your dishes into Knick-knacks, which you definitely don’t need any more of in a small space.
 
ustabahippie August 27, 2021
Paring down the closet contents is the best idea here. Wish I could make it happen!
 
catlady August 27, 2021
Those skinny wire hangers - terrible for your clothes. Have fewer things and take care of them. Don't fall for fast fashion or bad solutions.
 
wissie1313 August 25, 2021
I live in a small (just under 600 sq.ft.) apartment in senior housing. I use a metal cart for my shopping, hang it on the inside of my hall closet door and take it down when I need to take my laundry to the room down the hall. I have a laundry bag hanging on the inside of my bedroom door which holds my dirty laundry. You are so right about these hacks. They mostly don't help!
 
M August 24, 2021
That "cart" reference seems to be me, but "stylish wheeled counter with cupboards/drawers" is an entirely different thing than a cart you have to store out of sight. It is a piece of furniture you DON'T have to find a space to hide bc it has drawers and cupboards. It becomes the side table, bar, counter, dining table, desk extension, or slid between the wall and couch for a hidden shelf, depending on size.

And speaking from experience, oven storage is all well and good until you need to re-home your pans while you cook, or that "helpful" friend decides to preheat your oven for whatever reason and never had to check the oven for storage before.
 
/anne... August 30, 2021
There's a famous knitting writer who stores yarn in her oven, in her sofa cushions, and just about anywhere else she can fit it! At least some pans are oven-proof!

BTW - she lives in a tiny apartment in NY, and doesn't cook :-)
 
M August 30, 2021
Cushions is a clever idea.

Eesh.. I hope she just unplugs it then! All it takes is one date or guest to want to preheat the oven..
 
witloof August 24, 2021
The best thing I did to maximize my space was to join my neighborhood buy nothing group and whittle down my possessions.
 
Author Comment
Laura F. August 24, 2021
100-percent! Buy Nothing groups are an amazing way to give the things you no longer need a useful life with someone else!
 
Susan R. August 23, 2021
Not necessarily for shelves above the toilet but how about closing the toilet lid?!
 
witloof August 24, 2021
YES! I got into the habit of closing the lid when I had a cat who liked to use it as his drinking fountain, and now an open toilet lid seems wrong to me.
 
Susan August 26, 2021
Moe off topic - I have trained myself and my husband to always close the lid before flushing after I read about all the tiny droplets that fly out with flushing. Especially since our bath towels are above it!
 
Amber August 23, 2021
Great points. I have definitely knocked things into the toilet from an over the toilet shelf, including my phone. I think towels are the only things that practically work there. Or something cute, like a picture and a plant.

I do have a peg rail by the door, but it's mostly for guests. Otherwise, I just store dog leashes and one handbag there.

My only real quibble is the hanging kitchen storage. I HATE having to shuffle stacks of pans. Currently I hang my pans on a rail behind the range. They are copper, so I think they're pretty too. In another tiny apartment, I mounted a pot rail across a window – it had a view of an airshaft, so didn't block any light – which I thought turned the ugly view into a design feature.
 
emily August 23, 2021
Oh, I agree with these! The cart recommendation has always baffled me. I use a rolling hamper for my laundry (because it's a schlep to carry big bags down to the basement) but it takes up SO much space in my closet. Due to limited space it's a combo storage/laundry/coat closet with shelves in the back, hamper and vacuum on the ground and a clothes rod mounted in front of the shelves for coats and bags. The cart is worth it for the convenience of laundry day but I wouldn't tolerate it otherwise. I also agree re: hanging storage in the kitchen, especially since small apartments usually have open kitchens that are always visible! I also get a lot of soot from traffic and poor air quality so I like having things in closed storage where I can use them without having to wash them first.
 
tia August 23, 2021
I use an area rug over my wall-to-wall carpet to create a living room inside the kind of all-purpose space attached to my kitchen. But part of why it works is that the space is 30 feet long and 12 feet wide. It looks endless with nothing breaking up the length.

I also recommend mounting your knives on a magnetic rack mounted to the bottom of the cabinets. You might need two so they don't fall off, but you can get cheap ones at the hardware store, and then no one sees them OR the knives. And you can still do it even if you have a tile backsplash, which is what prompted me to try it in the first place.
 
Author Comment
Laura F. August 23, 2021
I love your suggestions, Tia. Layered rugs are the best of both worlds: One big rug to anchor the room and an area rug to designate a zone. I'm also tempted to try your knife block hack!
 
emily August 23, 2021
I would be too afraid of the knives falling on my arms while I was working at the counter!
 
Liz S. August 23, 2021
I think one of the key points regarding any visual storage: kitchen wall and entry pegs in particular ... is "to be selective in what goes there". I have and like entry pegs. BUT, I am selective and seasonal. I do have a coat closet next to the peg area so it is easy to have only what is needed on the pegs: 1 dog leash, 1 lightable collar for dark outings, whatever coat or vest pertains to the time of year, my handbag. I have some hats that are attractive (to me :) ) and are on hooks ... and some baskets to corral gloves, secateurs, dog brushes, etc. At any rate, I am pretty intentional about what goes on the pegs so that it doesn't look cluttered and is pleasing to my eye ... I am the only human so I can be judge and jury! I am not minimalist by a long shot, but I do not like clutter at all ... anywhere and whatever the "tool" for visual storage, like all tools ... use wisely or you do end up with the author's experience of the tool not accomplishing the purpose. Overall, I think this is more about how items/hacks are used, not the items themselves.
 
Author Comment
Laura F. August 23, 2021
Yes, being selective about what's on display is key. I wish I (and my family) had your discipline not to abuse my entryway hooks, Liz!
 
Liz S. August 23, 2021
Definitely easier as a 1 human household and when the 1 human has clutter-anxiety!

A neighbor with a front door/primary entry, that opens into a room they use for eating (VERY informal dining room) ... 2 school age kids ... originally had low bookshelves along one wall with pegs above and it was kind of a mess with 4 people's stuff. Her husband then built 4 wooden "lockers" ala school lockers but wider ... 1 for each. Originally no doors, better, but again ... YIKES, so he added doors. They look nice: shelves inside for shoes, pegs around the top for jackets/back packs and a top shelf for sundry. So, a closed in, shelf and peg system ultimately :)
 
Liz S. August 23, 2021
original bookshelves for shoes...