This One Design Decision Made My Tiny Room Feel Twice As Big
Plus, my favorite low-profile picks for sofas, rugs, coffee tables, and more.
Published Jun 9, 2018 5:30 AM
Last fall, I experienced the joy and challenge of moving into my first NYC apartment. Located in Manhattan’s Chinatown neighborhood, a slice of the island known for its delightfully distinct culture and environment, my apartment is a recently renovated, affordable, one-bedroom unicorn. While the six flights of stairs to the door initially gave me pause, as soon I stepped through the threshold, it was love at first sight.
Now when I say ‘one-bedroom,’ one must understand that in NYC this phrase is used quite loosely. Due to some bewildering decisions on the part of the architect, my apartment floor plan looks like a long rectangle that’s been in a fender-bender (see the illustration above for the resulting abundance of oddly angled walls). Taking a tour, you’ll find a pocket-door bathroom and hybrid entry-dining area to your left, flowing into an unusually wide kitchen, capped by a modest bedroom at your far right.
A few days before move-in, my building superintendent let me into my newly vacant abode to inspect the new buttercream paint job (believe me, I fought for “Chantilly Lace”). Taking in each completely empty room left me with a few thorny realizations. The most daunting of these was recognizing I’d somehow overlooked the complete absence of a “living-room” space. Where was I to relax and/or entertain guests out of breath from climbing to my ‘penthouse’ locale? What type of furniture would maximize the utility of my limited square footage?
Given I’m a visual creature, solutions often present themselves in the form of imagery. Solving my living-space conundrum was no exception. In the days after that initial inspection, I looked for answers from the decorator’s oracle: Pinterest. After a few hours of putting my scrolling muscles to the test, the answer appeared with the click of an image:
This magical group of pixels depicts the ‘pied à terre’ apartment of Anki Linde and Pierre Saalburg, the husband and wife duo behind the innovative European architecture firm, LSL Architects.
Intent on crafting every inch of the space, Linde and Saalburg completely refurbished this Parisian apartment-turned-showroom, down to the custom furniture. While hiring LSL to refurbish my space would have been a teeny bit over budget, I knew that breaking down this inspiration from essence to practical guidelines could solve my Chinatown predicament.
Months later, having made it to the other side of furniture-search-purgatory, I want to share the single tip I found most essential:
build a single visual plane of low furniture to make your small space feel more expansive and harmonious.
Let me explain.
When one’s square footage is modest, too much variety in furniture height can produce a perception of clutter, causing visual space to shrink even further. Given that my sofa and bed were to share the same room, I modeled the scale of my selections on the dual daybeds of the Linde-Saalburg pied à terre.
These daybeds sit at a single seat height, with the coffee table surface floating a few inches below, so as not to obfuscate any sight-lines. By replicating this consistently low stature (in seat height, table height, and bed height), I laid a stabilizing foundation to build upon.
As I soon came to learn, it can be demanding to find furniture at a diminutive height, as most brands build their pieces around a more traditional ‘standard’ height. Regardless, I’m here to tell you that taking the time to shift your roomscape down in elevation will pay off in a high-impact way. Don’t know where to get started? Check out my low-center-of-gravity selects below:
Lower your sofa
: Given that your sofa will likely be the largest piece of furniture in your space, it’s vital that you select one that establishes a low profile.
The key measurements to pay attention to? Seat height and back height. By choosing a sofa with lower-than-average dimensions in these areas, your eye will perceive your space as taller than it actually is. In order to give your space the impression of a single cohesive horizontal plane, make sure that the seat height you select is within 2-4 inches of any other seat heights in the room (or bed height if you’re in my position!).
Capilano Sofa, Article, $1,999
: Want that pied à terre vibe in your own space? Take a cue from those tres chic daybeds and select a low piece with tapered metal legs and streamlined cushions. I’m all for this soothing sea glass-grey as a way of bringing a subtle touch of the unexpected to your daily color palette.
Piazza Sofa, CB2, $1,399
: Ensconced in a sunny nook of Domino HQ, you’ll find this ultra-comfy sofa draped with at least one Domino staffer at all times. Seriously, it’s hard to leave it without napping. The spacious seat depth here (43”) is the key to maximum relaxing, and erasing the arms adds visual space to any room, making it feel more open and inviting.
Maxwell Sofa, Restoration Hardware, $1,995+
: For a low-slung piece with a bit more structure, try the highly-customizable Maxwell. At first glance, it has the air of a more traditional sofa, but the low arms and minimal wood-block feet make for a streamlined profile that’s understatedly fresh.
Twilight Sleeper Sofa, DWR, $2,295
: A little futuristic, a lot practical, the Twilight Sofa hits our space-saving requirements (clean lines, low to the ground) while incorporating the added benefit of being easily transformed into a queen bed (or two twin beds). This sleeper functionality was high on my own list of priorities and while the sofa I eventually selected has been discontinued, the Twilight was my runner up by just a hair.
Ground the space (with a solid rug)
: placing an area rug is the simplest way to define a space and assemble your furniture into a cohesive collection. While I have nothing against patterned rugs, the busyness of these styles can make a space with multiple pieces of furniture feel even more crowded and hectic.
Conversely, a solid rug forms a zone of serene stability. Sizing here is key, so make sure to select a size that all your furniture can be grounded on (8’x10’ or 9’x12’ should work for most spaces). Here are my favorite solid rugs you can buy now:
Delbarton Jute Rug, One Kings Lane, $415 (8’x10’):
For a sense of natural serenity, try a jute rug. Softer than its natural neighbor, sisal, woven jute is a classic choice for a grounding neutral texture.
Lucent Rug – Olive, West Elm, $699 (8’x10’):
For my own rug, I went with a very similar solid olive piece. Handloomed from 100 percent viscose (a silk alternative), this piece will have a serene lustre and soft touch. I’m not a doctor, but I’m convinced that coming home to this shade of green has actually improved my stress levels.
Whipstich Rug, Anthropologie, $1,498 (8’x10’):
To capture a similarly lovely sheen in a warmer palette, try this blush number. The fact this color leans towards the neutral side of the spectrum means it’ll complement whites and creams in an effortless way.
Posh Anthracite Rug, CB2, $699 (8’x10’)
: What about a restful space with a bit more drama you say? Going back-to-black is an editor-approved move for 2018. Just add some texture to the moodiness (like the shine of this rayon piece, or, a shaggy pile) to break it up visually.
Stretch your surfaces:
In order to elongate your room, try a narrow, rectangular (or oval) shaped coffee table. To make for comfortable usage while seated, the height of your table should be no lower than 4” below the seat height of your sofa, and no taller.
Mura Coffee Table, Urban Outfitters, $199
: A light birch-veneered surface and simple base keeps this affordable piece light and airy, while the rounded ends of the top ensure good energy flow in a small space.
Bridget Coffee Table, One Kings Lane, $305
: Modeled after a Japanese antique, the understated proportions of this table follow our “long and low” precept while adding rich texture through its rough-hewn mango-wood finish.
Jensen Coffee Table, Organic Modernism, $695
: Rendered in gorgeous and versatile walnut, the boxy frame of this piece nods to a vintage American industrial vibe while remaining streamlined enough for an elegant modern space. Don’t overlook the crisp lacquered drawers on each end, making it easy to tuck away remotes and chargers.
Adam Coffee Table, CB2, $429
: Need a more delicate energy in your space? Pick this table for its elongated curves and slender brass legs—features that make it an excellent counterpart for mid-century modern-leaning spaces.
Fill in (but keep it low)
: Depending on your space, you may want to sprinkle in a side table or nightstand for added surface area. When bringing these into your room, focus on simple, non-bulky shapes that are within 2-4” of the seat height you’ve established for the room. While all this measuring may sound tricky, it pays off in the long run by forming an impression of proportionate, deliberate, calm.
Verde Glass Side Table, CB2, $99.99
: Want the simplest shortcut to visual lightness? Get transparent. A tempered glass or lucite side table will let light pass through, making your space appear more open. It’s also an ideal backdrop for colorful books or florals.
FROSTA Stool, IKEA, $14.99
: Another route to an airy abode is via reducing an object to the most simple elements possible. The historic example of this route is Alvar Aalto’s ultra functional “Stool 60.” For a budget alternative that can play side table, plant stand, or even guest seating, try IKEA’s stackable FROSTA
Maisie Side Table, West Elm, $160
: No matter what you’ve heard, marble and brass have an elemental allure that will outlast current trendiness. You can have both in this petite number from West Elm. The blocky brass base forms a notion of stability that is contrasted by the twig-like center and slight marble top.
Small Porto Side Table, Jamie Young, $165
: Who says sculptural moments have to be monumental? For a chiseled look in petite proportions, try this hexagonal accent. The crackled ceramic surface would pair well with reclaimed wood and polished metallic textures alike. For something less neutral, try this piece in the alternate, punchy teal colorway.
Trying to find a different type of piece? Like the idea but not the style? Have a question I didn’t answer? Let me know in the comments below. (You can easily sign up for a Disqus account using your current Google or Facebook accounts.)
See more living room ideas: