How to make a small living room work extra, extra hard

The right picks and smart styling make all the difference

Published August 3, 2022 5:45PM (EDT)

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

This story first appeared on Food52, an online community that gives you everything you need for a happier kitchen and home – that means tested recipes, a shop full of beautiful products, a cooking hotline, and everything in between!

No Space Too Small is a 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 to how to manage everyday clutter.

I've lived in eight different apartments since I arrived in New York City more than 20 years ago, and they've all been variations of small, tiny, miniscule, or petite. In one studio, my bedroom, living room, dining space, and kitchen were all crammed into less than 200 square feet. Through it all, I've learned how to make small living spaces serve multiple functions — without feeling cramped.

In my current home, our living room serves as our living area, a home office, and a dining room (plus, an occasional playroom and home workout zone). The key to making it all work lies in both the layout and the choice of furnishings. Here are my best tips to make a small living room work extra hard:

Create zones

When a room serves many purposes, it helps to have distinct zones within your living space. Create groupings within the room to define, say an office area from the rest of the main living area. There are many ways to define a space within a space, but an area rug is a classic decorator trick. Using a small area rug in the "living room" part of our space helps to separate it from the "office" and the "dining room."

Think about flow

Yes, "flow" sounds a little woo-woo, but what I mean is: It's important to think about how people will move through the space. Is there enough room for someone to comfortably extend their chair out of the dining table? To walk between the couch and the hallway? The negative space is just as important as the placement of the furnishings. If you're confident sketching, drawing out a rough floor plan can help you plot out your room.

Lean into mobile furnishings

Furniture in a multi-use space gets moved around a lot. For example, our coffee table pushes aside for home workouts and our chairs shuffle around when we host. The best mobile furnishings are sturdy yet relatively lightweight. In a long-ago studio apartment, I had to move my coffee table each night to pull down the Murphy bed, so I mounted the table on little casters to make it even more mobile. Home52 content lead Arati Menon wrote about her quest for the perfect coffee table earlier this year, and the one she settled on is relatively small and lightweight, so it's easy to move.

The case for a small couch

In a small home, a loveseat or settee is often a better choice than a full-size sofa. The smaller sofa will fit better in your diminutive digs, but it will also be a piece that you can use later if you graduate to more space. Likewise, I had to hunt for a side chair that was small enough to sit in the narrow path between the entryway and the "office" because so many upholstered side chairs are large.

And the argument for a bigger one

When I moved out of my studio and finally had enough room, I invested in a real, full-size sofa. One of my requirements was that the couch could comfortably sleep a tall adult — since we don't have a guest room, our couch would need to do double-duty as a sleeping spot. If a couch is likely to be pushed into a corner, an L-shape design may make better use of your space than a sofa and a chair.

Include flexible seating

If you don't have room for even the smallest arm chair, consider stacking stools or floor cushions for when you host. My friend Vanessa lived for years in a teeny-tiny one bedroom, and when she hosted our book club, half of us would sit on the floor cushions for a super cozy hang. My pal Alison Mazurek, who blogs at 600 Sq Ft and a Baby is a fan of the uber-slim Pocket folding chairs from Resource Furniture, which can easily be stashed in a closet.

Think clearly

Make some of your furnishings visually disappear by choosing see-through furnishings. Glass, lucite, and acrylic pieces open up the look of a cramped space; I especially like waterfall-style lucite coffee tables and consoles for their simplicity. 

Bonus: Clear furniture looks great with almost any style of decor.

Gather 'round

There are many dining table options for a small space, including special tables that fold away when not in use, and those that expand with the addition of a leaf. However, I believe the most versatile solution is a simple, round pedestal table. Tellingly, six out of the 12 homes featured in my book about small spaces had some variation on a tulip-style table. Round tables take up less floor space than their rectangular counterparts while offering just as much seating, and a pedestal design beats one with multiple legs because you can squeeze in extra diners.

Seek out comfortable dining chairs

If you're going to make your dining table do double-duty as a sometimes-home office, you need a seriously comfortable dining chair. I ended up selling our beloved caned bentwood chairs because they just weren't comfortable to sit in for a long time. The more solid spindle-back solid wood chairs we replaced them with are almost comfortable enough for a full day of WFH. Plus, if your dining chairs are more comfy, they'll be better suited to becoming sitting chairs when you entertain in your small space.

Take advantage of corners

We turned an unused corner into an office with the help of a vintage corner desk, but we could have just as easily used a corner as a dining nook with benches against the wall, or as a library corner. I'm a big fan of furniture designed specifically to fit into corners, to take the best advantage of this space.

Zoom out for the big picture

If things just don't feel right no matter what you do, try taking photos of your space. Sometimes seeing a room in 2D can help you spot what's not working. One trick I've learned from designers is to strive for symmetry. In a photo it'll be more clear if a table needs to shift a few inches or if your mismatched side tables are making the room feel lopsided.

By Laura Fenton

MORE FROM Laura Fenton

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Decor Food52 Furniture Home How-to Interior Design Living Room