By Rita Wilkins
The Downsizing Designer

Designing small spaces is absolutely one of my favorite topics. Although for many of you who know me well or who have followed me for a while, you know that I have many favorite topics that are design-related because I love what I do.

But this is personal!

Many of you who know my story, I downsized from a 5,000 sf home to an 867 sf apartment in Historic Philadelphia (that’s how I became known as “The Downsizing Designer”).
Like you, I was challenged with how to make a much smaller space not just my new home, but also a beautiful, dramatic, jewel-box apartment… that:

  • I’d love to come home to.
  • I’d like to spend time in.
  • I’d love to invite family and friends to.

So, I understand and relate to the challenge of designing small spaces. For those of you who are thinking of downsizing, but you… don’t know how to make it look great or you don’t want to have it look cluttered, then this article is meant just for you!

I am excited to share my 5 top design secrets that I have collected for the last 35 years.

#1 Less Is Definitely More

The last thing you want to do is to over-furnish and over-clutter. Use a minimalist approach to design, less is more. Make the most of every square inch. Max out storage that uses multi-purpose furniture pieces. Everything has to have a “home” and everything must have multi-function. Keep your floor space clear because it makes it feel bigger and more open. Edit every single day because clutter is your enemy in a small living space.


#2 Mirrors and Lighting Will Become Your Best Friends

Because you might have fewer windows and less natural light in your smaller space, it is important to light it well and to create an illusion of a bigger, brighter, and lighter space.


When well placed, mirrors reflect natural light, letting “the outside in”.
As an example, in my apartment, I positioned a large mirror near my balcony so I can “see” the beautiful park below. It makes me feel like I am outside even though I am not. Another example, in my master bedroom I strategically placed an oversized free-standing mirror so I get to see the sunrise every morning. I am a very early riser, so this one works for me, but it may not work for everyone.

Using wall to wall mirrors can literally make your space feel super-sized. When you add great lighting and mirrors the impact is even greater. A few examples:

  • Chandelier reflecting into a wall to wall mirror.
  • Wall sconces that flank in a large free-standing mirror.
  • Wall sconces that help to illuminate while not taking up floor space might be considered as a replacement for lamps on bedside tables or end tables.

Bottom line:
Lighting and mirrors open up your space, giving it an appearance of being larger, brighter, and lighter. In the end, they contribute to your overall happiness and enjoyment of the space.


#3 Don’t Be Afraid to Go Bold in Color and in Scale

While the general rule of thumb in small spaces is to:

  • use a lighter color palette.
  • stay smaller in scale.

The opposite can also be true, depending on your personality, your design style, and your capacity for stepping out of your comfort zone.

Over the last 35 years I have designed small spaces both ways:

  • Light-colored palette giving the illusion of a much larger space.
  • Dark-colored palette giving a cozy, intimate, jewel-box look.
  • Smaller-scaled pieces suited to smaller homes and apartments.
  • Over-scaled pieces well selected to add a dramatic statement.

Bottom line:

Don’t be afraid to experiment with bold color or a few well-selected oversized pieces of artwork, accessories, or furniture.

Of course, there’s always the middle ground.

I am a real fan of this middle-ground approach.

If you are tempted to try bold, you might:

  • Experiment with one boldly colored accent wall.
  • Feature a huge piece of artwork for a dramatic touch without closing in the area too much.


#4 Must Have “Built-ins”

Having grown up in Europe, living in small spaces with a large family, I became a big fan of built-ins because they provide an opportunity to store just about anything.

If possible, the built-ins should be wall to wall and floor to ceiling.

Talk about, multi-function!

  • Books
  • Display
  • Desk and file space
  • Pull out desk return or dining surface
  • TV
  • Media/Music storage
  • Wine storage
  • Clothing storage
  • And so much more!

Over many years, I’ve designed hundreds of built-ins that not only look great and integrate into the space, but they also house everything you could possibly imagine.

While this can be a more expensive alternative, it can also solve just about every storage need you might have.

FYI: When I say “built-in” the way I design built-ins is to design them in modules so that when you move, you can take them to another home.


#5 Creative Storage Solutions

Everything must function:

  • Multipurpose furniture
  • Expandable furniture

A few of my favorite multi-functional designs:

  • A cocktail table that converts from cocktail table height to dining height to adjustable desk height, to standing desk height.

Four functions in one piece of furniture!

  • Hutch headboard with flanking storage cabinets /nightstand with under bed drawer storage. It includes book storage, display, flanking storage cabinets/nightstand.
  • Storage towers on bathroom vanities that serve as storage for: toothbrushes, hairdryers, toiletries, and medicines.
  • Storage benches/ottomans for blankets, throws, and pillows.


My mantra for small spaces:

  • Everything must have a home.
  • Keep it hidden/out of sight until you need to use it.
  • Don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone.


If you are considering downsizing or moving to a much smaller space or if you have already downsized, know that it is possible to create a small space that you will love!

You just have to be more discerning, creative, and resourceful.


I’d love to hear from you!

  • What are your takeaways from this article?
  • Comment on the comment section below.
  • Click here to request a 30-minute phone consultation with me.