Photo: The Cool Republic


Realistic rules for small spaces

Photo: The Cool Republic

No room to swing a hamster, let alone a cat? Lucy Dunn on what works and doesn’t work

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By Lucy Dunn on

Five things I have always wanted in my house but have never been able to own:

1. A corner sofa
2. A sideboard
3. A bath in the middle of the room
4. A kitchen island
5. A chaise lounge (I’ve always had a yearning for a beaten-up antique one in dusty red velvet. Don’t know why)

The main reason for not owning any of these things is lack of space – I don’t have (or have ever had) the physical room for any of these things. Show me a corner sofa that fits a small sitting room with the added complication of alcoves (most don’t); find me a spare wall where I can put a sideboard or chaise (at the moment all mine are taken up with more essential sofas and chairs). And don’t get me started on kitchen islands – they’re lovely; they’d make me a better cook I’m sure, but my kitchen is a squinny galley kitchen that can just about accommodate one person cooking (and only if they’re breathing in).

By all accounts I’m not alone – space seems to be an ever-dwindling commodity in the UK. Last week plans for new studio flats in London was met with much criticism-slash-bemusement when it was found they were going to measure in at just 16 square metres – smaller than a Travelodge room, prompting a local councillor to liken them to “rabbit hutches”.

It’s part of a wider trend – with older children living at home for longer due to rental prices/not being able to get on the property ladder, even the more established home owners are having to “budge up”. And, if you can afford to buy something, you’ll get less bang for an (ever-increasing) buck; in February a survey found that the average size of a new-build three-bedroom home is now 10sqm smaller than in 2003 and just yesterday London mayor put weight behind a plan for “naked homes”, budget shell houses to help fight the home ownership crisis.

So, if homes are getting smaller, how do we make the most of them so they don’t feel too cramped? And are retailers responding with more realistic-sized furniture designed to fit our decreasing rooms? The answer, of course, is yes (I’ve done an edit of what I consider are good buys below). But before you start giving your credit card a workout, it’s worth knowing what to invest in and what not. I’ve compiled a list of do’s and don’ts below, all garnered from my own experience over the years:


As with everything, things that look too good to be true normally are. With multi-tasking furniture don’t get seduced into things with too many “functions” – beds-that-turn-into-kitchens-that-turn-into-desks will not ever be the lifesaver they promise to be, as most likely they’ll fail on at least one of the functions. Speaking from experience, go for sturdy, slimline furniture that doubles up: ottomans with roomy-not-perfunctory storage, beds with pull-out under bed trundles, (or any kind of in-built storage like this ingenious bookcase/cupboard one, tables you can raise to turn into dining tables, coffee tables that have hidden storage AND that turn into desks. If you don’t have floor space for a coffee table, that’s fine. I’ve made do with a nest of side tables for many years and have never missed having one.

Last week plans for new studio flats was met with much criticism-slash-bemusement when it was reported that they were going to be smaller than Travelodge rooms, prompting a local councillor to liken them to “rabbit hutches”

Be wary of the size of some pieces – sofa beds, by their nature, can be bulky, try Made, DFS (they’ve pulled their design socks up recently) and Argos for space-saving styles. Look out for one arm sofas that will fit more snugly into corners – try Nabru. Also, don’t forget to take all measurements into account – for example, with extending leaf dining tables check it actually fits your room when it’s fully extended (someone I know didn’t do this recently and was lumbered).


I’ve lost count of the number of homes magazines I’ve read over the years that tell you, that if you live in a small space, you just have to be tidy and “live minimally”. It’s just not real-life. I’m not saying you have to be messy, but one of the few joys in life is having “stuff”; who has the time to put things back every time they use something? The answer is, what I call, “lazy storage” – aka deep drawers, knee-height baskets and boxes with lids – so whenever you do feel the urge to clear a space you can chuck all your clutter into them with a sweep of an arm (and then put away properly in their correct places when you have more time later).


People will tell you that the way to make a small space appear larger is to paint walls white (preferably a light-reflecting, gloss white). But I do wonder whether you’re actually fighting a losing a battle (white in a north-facing room can feel a bit chilly), and whether you should just paint a small room in whatever colour you damn well like. You are never going to make it appear like a ballroom, whatever colour you paint it in. Basically, I am firmly of the do-what-makes-you-happy camp. One trick that does work brilliantly however is a big mirror strategically placed opposite a window – it may be the oldest trick in the book but it can help make a tiny room feel less claustrophobic.  


While Ikea is a rich hunting ground for brilliant space-saving furniture and cavernous storage, I know from experience that the catalogue is made up of specially-built sets, many of which aren’t that representative of a normal UK sitting room’s proportions. Not many people can have a corner sofa positioned in the middle of a sitting room, or have a wardrobe fitted into the wall behind your bed’s headboard. Having said that, I do love a browse around the sets in store, and providing you keep your own home proportions in mind the ideas section of their website is rich with thought-starters.


In this day and age there are certain pieces of furniture, like desks and dining tables, that are not quite so essential as they once were. Where do you actually spend most time working on your laptop – on the sofa/in bed or at a desk? Do actually you need a dining table when most of the week you eat food on your laps and when a folding table, one that neatly tucks behind a sofa when you’re not using it, is a better option as it will give you a bit more space for something else? This is where folding chairs, stools and tables that can be stowed away come in. Lightweight garden furniture is good especially if there’s a sale on. Classic drop-leaf tables are also a good buy as they will tuck behind a sofa without being too much of a pain, or can be turned into a console table and stowed in your hall (if you have a one.)


Wall-hung tables, cabinets and bedside cabinets will help to stop a small room from feeling claustrophobic as they free up floor space. And you can take this idea a step further by treating your wall as “surplus floor”. Consider a modular shelving system like the classic String range – it doesn’t eat up into a room and will hold more than, say, a bulkier chest of drawers, plus you can buy components (more shelves/cupboards) and add to your wall when your budget allows.

This same rule applies to wardrobes – open rail clothing systems will hold considerably more than an actual wardrobe (if you don’t mind seeing your clothes on display). On that subject, scaffold and pipe shelving is furiously trendy right now, but comes with a price tag, so look out for bargains on Etsy. And finally, think about high shelves (at dado rail height), that run the entire length of a wall, as well as the redundant space above a bed, loo or bath. With all small rooms it’s about taking advantage of anywhere where there's unused space.

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