Unlocking the Illusion of Space: Designing Small Spaces to Feel Larger

Stacey Lapuk, ASID

We all encounter spaces that present design challenges. It could be a compact entryway, a modest living area, a city pied-à-terre, or an accessory dwelling unit (ADU) to be used as a bed and breakfast. Regardless of the scenario, there are several design concepts that can enhance the perception of space and comfort.


Natural Light and Nature is Key:

Using plants, natural materials and windows will make you feel at home. We’re most comfortable outside, and bringing the outside in with the shapes, colors and textures we see outdoors makes us happy. As we experience outside, duplicating patterns and shapes, using light and shadow filtered through sheer drapery, air flow with an open window, the sound of water with a table fountain or birds chirping on your sill relaxes us. 

Strategic Furniture Selection:

When it comes to furniture selection, lean toward fewer, larger pieces to optimize your space. Many small pieces will feel like clutter and overly busy.

Choose a generously sized rug that can encompass all your furniture, as it will enhance the room’s coherence. Your mind registers a singular element (the large rug) rather than many disparate ones (such as separate rugs, tables, sofas, and chairs).

Consider furniture that is visually lightweight, like transparent acrylic chairs or pieces with slender legs. These choices allow more floor space to be visible, contributing to the illusion of a larger area.

Raise the Ceiling:

Small spaces can feel less confining if the ceiling appears higher. Make sure the texture of the ceiling is smooth, and painted a light color. Use tall bookshelves both for storage, and to draw the eye upward. Mount window drapery as high as possible on the walls and allow the fabric to flow all the way to the floor, creating another vertical line to help push the ceiling up. Installing artwork in a vertical pattern and using tall floor lamps help as well.

Use Mirrors Strategically:

Mirrors can be a powerful tool in expanding your space when placed thoughtfully. Place them across from windows to bounce natural light around the room, instantly brightening and enlarging the space. Mirrored furniture can also create a sense of depth and openness. Consider mirrored closet doors or a large mirror as a focal point on one wall, though always be mindful of what they reflect as you move around the room. In some instances, they can effectively double your room’s sense of size.

Opt for Glass and Transparency:

Incorporate glass wherever possible to maintain a sense of transparency. Glass coffee tables, dining tables, or even shower enclosures in tiny bathrooms can make the space feel less cramped. The ability to see through these surfaces tricks the eye into believing there’s more room to explore.

Strategic Lighting:

Well-placed lighting can open up a room by eliminating dark corners and creating a sense of depth. Use a combination of ambient, task, and accent lighting to layer your illumination. Wall sconces, pendant lights, or floor lamps can draw attention to different areas of the room and make it feel more spacious.

Furniture Placement Matters:

Pay attention to how you arrange your furniture. Pulling furniture away from the walls and creating conversational groupings can make a room feel cozier without sacrificing the sense of space. Installing heavier pieces on the short walls of a rectangular space will help visually square up the room, feeling more comfortable.

Color and Texture:

Color, sheen and texture choices play significant roles in spatial perception. Cool colors tend to recede, creating a sense of depth, while warm colors have the opposite effect, appearing to advance. This general rule, however, can be influenced by neighboring colors and the saturation of the hues. For instance, a light yellow can feel spacious, while a deep blue can envelop a room. Dark flooring can visually lower the plane with the feeling of it dropping away, creating the illusion that furniture pieces float above it.

A darker gloss finish on a smooth ceiling will pop it up. Light reflecting off of smoothed surfaces will likewise reflect cleanly, fostering a sense of openness. The pigments in the paints sing from a smooth surface so you can experience the subtleties of the colors. These are lost on textured surfaces, which can diffuse the light imparting a warmer, cozier feeling, but also a feeling of smallness and clutter.

Continuing the colors and textures you see out your windows into your room with your wall colors, fabrics and furniture will help create a seamless merging of the outdoors with the interior space, expanding your environment to include the outdoors. Mirror the textures and shapes seen in your view in your fabric patterns or artwork. Any mitigation of the distinction between indoors and out will feel more spacious.

When your larger upholstery pieces and your area rug matches your walls, you will visually expand the size of your room. On one level, your eye doesn’t see each individual piece, it experiences one color, one element which feels large and open.


Paintings and wallpapers add significantly to the feeling of a room. A large landscape that imparts a depth of field will feel as if the room continues right through the wall. Vertical trees draw your eye up providing a sense of height and space. Horizontal stripes on the short walls of a rectangular space will push the long walls away, squaring up the room.

Consider the use of larger paintings that are not too busy. If you have a number of smaller pieces you want to display, group them in similar frames to form a larger whole.

If you have a plate rail, wall molding usually about 12” – 18” from the ceiling, installing an interesting wallpaper between the plate rail and the ceiling with vertical or natural elements will open up the room and impart a feeling of being outside. It creates interest, as your eye travels up and around the room.

Transitional Spaces:

If you have an open-plan layout, use area rugs to define different zones within the space. This not only adds visual interest but also creates a sense of separation between various functional areas.

The key to designing small spaces to feel larger lies in the careful consideration of every design element. From color choices to furniture selection and the strategic use of mirrors and lighting, there are a myriad of techniques at your disposal. By embracing these principles and letting your creativity flow, you can turn even the most tiny of spaces into a comfortable and visually expansive haven. Small spaces may have limitations, but with the right design approach, they can also offer a unique and charming living experience.

Stacey Lapuk, ASID

Stacey Lapuk, ASID is celebrating her 30th year with her firm. Named “One of America’s Ten Designers To Watch” by Design Times Magazine, one of the “Top 100 Interior Designer in North America” by Blink Art Resources, and the winner of multiple national design awards.  Her goal is simple: To co-create with her clients the home of their dreams with responsive and comprehensive solutions, and timeless, beautiful results. 

Her full service firm attracts clients desiring the finest workmanship, materials and custom design. Facets of work include partnering with architects on new construction, remodels, kitchen design and bath design, color consultation, custom furniture, flooring, area carpets, wall and window treatments, lighting design, art procurement and antique acquisition.  Service areas include but are not limited to Marin County, San Francisco, Napa, Sonoma, Ross, Kentfield, Belvedere, Tiburon, San Rafael, and Pacific Heights.