Pocket-sized apartments have a knack for making decorating feel more like an operation in strategic space-planning than a passion project. Of course, seasoned designers, especially those headquartered in high-density-living capitals like San Francisco and New York, are no strangers to small spaces. In fact, most have honed their own small-scale decorating skills while gilding their own bantam-sized living quarters. Key among their takeaways? First and foremost, equip yourself with your room’s square footage. (Thankfully, there’s a formula for that!) From there, it’s all about working a series of spatial sleight-of-hands. Read on for design pros’ best tips for turning squeezed spaces into sweeping-feeling ones, plus get the square footage formula every beginner should know!

How to Calculate the Square Footage of a Room

Knowing where you stand square footage-wise is an oft-overlooked step by DIY decorators, but you can bet it’s one that pros don’t skip. Being outfitted with your room’s dimensions can help with everything from choosing a rug size to making the call on whether to go with one side chair or two. Below is a cheat sheet for calculating your room’s square footage in a snap. 

  1. The first step in calculating square footage is to measure the dimensions of your room. This includes the length and the width.
  2. Next, drop your measurements into the following formula: Length x Width = Square Feet (i.e. if your room is 12 feet long x 10 feet wide your square footage would be 120 square feet).
  3. Yes, it’s that easy!
Bedroom with green drapes, green-tiled fireplace, and off-white bedding
Design by Regan Baker Design / Photo by Suzanna Scott Photography

How to Calculate the Square Footage of a Non-Square Room

Have a room with a bumped-out alcove or a bay window that you need to calculate the dimensions of? Don’t fret. 

  1. First, divide the space into smaller shapes. For instance, in the case of a rectangular room with a square alcove or annex, break the main room into a rectangle and the annex into a separate square.
  2. Next, measure the dimensions of each shape.
  3. Like before, plug your measurements into the following formula: Length x Width = Square Feet, but do it twice since you have two shapes this time.
  4. Take your two square footage results and add them together. That’s your square footage.

How to Make a Small Room Look Bigger than It Is

It’s our belief that you can never have too many helpful hints when it comes to small-space decorating. And while we’ll never discount the merits of swapping a full-size sofa for a loveseat, sometimes you want the kind of insider secrets designers only dispel for their nearest and dearest clients (i.e. going monochrome with the walls and drapes can make a space feel miles bigger). Whether you have a studio apartment or a lilliputian-sized living room, these designer-sourced tips will teach you how to make the most of less-than-spacious square footage.  

Modern kitchen with sleek white cabinets, round wood dining table, and futuristic dining chair
Design by Neal Beckstedt / Photo by Marili Forastieri

Go Low Profile

Sofa and chair arms can cut off a room, not unlike a wall. One way to buck the visual barricade that arms present? Do away with them altogether. Instead of the usual blocky forms, seek out sleek slipper silhouettes. For sofas, try searching makers like Ligne Roset, B&B Italia, and Roche Bobois. For chairs, the search term “slipper” is gold. Armless sofas and chairs allow the eye to visually meander, thereby making a room feel bigger. Among the unanticipated advantages of an armless sofa or chair? They can be stationed in the center of a room if desired. For instance, if one wall is already consumed by a TV cabinet, two slipper chairs can be floated in front of it. The lack of arms allows a sightline to the TV cabinet, making the arrangement look intentional rather than storage-unit-esque. 

Red dining chair with wood dining chairs with black leather seat and rattan back.
Photo by Lesley Unruh

Pull Back Your Palette 

Is white always right for small spaces? That might be the age-old adage, but more and more designers are rebelling and embracing livelier color. The trick to integrating more bottomless shades? Avoid high-contrast juxtapositions and put a monochrome palette into play when you can. For instance, envision the difference between red walls accented with white drapes versus red walls accented with red or coral drapes. Like colors can fool the eye into believing a wall is more expansive than it really is, whereas high-contrast colors tend to visually chop it into sections. If you’re hesitant to go quite so lawless with color in a small space, shades of gray, white, or taupe always make for affable backdrops. Collectors, take note: more subtle shades also invite more variance in color when it comes to decor.  

Elegant dining room with antique framed paintings, white tulip table, and Louis-style dining chairs
Design by Tom Scheerer / Photo by Francesco Lagnese

Limit Legs

Designer Eero Saarinen, of Tulip Table fame, once famously uttered the phrase “The undercarriage of chairs and tables in a typical interior makes an ugly, confusing, unrestful world. I wanted to clear up the slum of legs.” Hence, Saarinen dreamed up the Tulip Table, a sculpturally sublime creation that consists of a round top hoisted atop a gracefully tapering base. It’s no secret that designers tasked with outfitting small spaces count the Tulip Table (and its many lookalikes) among their most tried-and-true tools. Limiting the number of legs literally frees up square footage in a room and visually reigns in the clutter. Not inclined to kick your four-legged dining table to the curb just because you committed to a postage-stamp-sized space? Drape a skirt over it.

Living room with brass candelabra, gray sofa, and layered gray rugs
Design by Thom Filicia / Photo by Nick Johnson

Get Crafty With Carpet

Wall-to-wall carpet may still be considered the less refined step-sibling of area rugs, but in spaces with reduced square footage, they can be serious boons. Carpet that extends from wall to wall encourages the eye to wander from one edge of the room to another. It’s not unlike how curtains hung higher than your window make your windows appear taller than they actually are. If the idea of going wall-to-wall still causes trepidation (or you’d rather not in a rental), consider layering rugs. Layering rugs can create definitions between separate living areas while coxing the eye along. Small patterns, such as houndstooth and Greek Key patterns can create movement, too, further luring the eye.

Shop Small Square Footage Essentials >>

Lead image design by Douglas C. Wright Architects / Photo by Richard Powers


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March 15, 2022

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