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6 tips for maximizing small-space storage

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From taking inventory of your belongings to tricking out the closets

600-square-foot Philadelphia apartment
This 600-square-foot Philly apartment takes advantage of a storage bed for hidden items and a custom A-frame rack for showing off favorite garments.
Heidi’s Bridge

As millennials pack into smaller homes, the need to get creative with modest living spaces has become paramount. Even with limited square footage, there are plenty of design hacks to maximize the space you’ve got, from moveable walls and sliding power sockets to hidden beds. Clever, readymade furniture pieces are also worth investing in, as they pack in as much functionality as possible.

But as design experts will tell you, storage should be one of your biggest concerns when outfitting a small home. Curbed spoke with designers at Ollie, the micro-apartment co-living company, and Affordable Interior Design, a New York firm that’s no stranger to the tiny apartment, on how to tackle storage when you don’t have much room to spare. From taking inventory of your belongings to tricking out the closets, here are six solutions for packing away all your stuff.

Take stock of your belongings and your space

When downsizing, take stock of what you have. This step is essential in creating a storage plan for your new digs, says Jacqueline Schmidt, Ollie’s director of design: “You’ll find in the process of creating storage solutions, you may not need all the stuff you have to store.”

Before investing in furniture or tackling a design project, assess just how much of your stuff you will keep. Let go of the rest, or consolidate. Then determine how much space you will need. As Schmidt puts it, “There’s a psychology to it…What are you storing? If you need a cleaning supply cabinet, you’ll need to know the size and amount of supplies you use so everything will fit.”

Once you’ve inventoried your belongings, take a look at your space. “Determine what functions you’ll actually need to do in each room,” says Betsy Helmuth, owner of Affordable Interior Design.

She recommends making a list of how you’d like each room to function, whether that’s a living room meant to host four people, or a bedroom that fits a dresser and a queen bed. “Then you need to do a reality check on how many functions you’re asking each room to do.”

In a small space, it’s hard to ask your living room to serve as a hang-out space, home office, and crafting studio. Before planning for storage, be realistic about those limitations.

An architect embeds a Murphy bed into the plywood bookshelf.
Photo by Heidi’s Bridge

Different items need different storage

The next step is figuring out the best way to store everything. “Pick out the items you’re dealing with every day, versus stuff you won’t touch for six months,” Helmuth says. Reserve convenient and easy-access spaces in your apartment for storing items you use daily. Off-season clothing and holiday decor, on the other hand, can be relegated to less conspicuous of your home.

Schmidt also recommends separating hard items from soft items when considering storage solutions. Flexible canvas bins are ideal for storing soft goods like towels and socks, while hardier items, unsurprisingly, require stronger solutions. Cleaning supplies and tools, for example, can be packed into a plastic bin and hidden away in a closet.

Make the most of existing closet space

If your home comes with closets, be prepared to utilize them to the fullest. Schmidt recommends installing a “second tier” hanging rod inside the closet for items like pants or shorter sweaters. (As a perk, it’s a quick and cheap DIY install you can learn to do online.)

If your closet has high ceilings, take out the existing rod and move it further up to maximize space below, “a $25 project that’s really easy to do,” Schmidt says.

For the bottom of your closet, Helmuth recommends an expandable shoe rack: “They can grow in length to fill the entire bottom of your closet, no matter how wide it is.”

Utilize your bed

You don’t have to hide your bed on the ceiling, but you should be smart about maximizing storage where you sleep. If you’re purchasing a bed, consider one with built-in storage, like this platform bed from Wayfair with three drawers on each side.

Helmuth also recommends hydraulic lift beds, whose height can be adjusted to house large items underneath. And don’t underestimate under-bed storage space, which can accommodate both hard and soft storage containers.

kitchen stove with kettle
An extra open shelf in this Brooklyn kitchen creates space to display prized wares.
Photo by Heidi’s Bridge

Be realistic about furniture needs

There’s no shortage of smart, space-saving furniture on the market to help maximize your space. But before you splurge, “think about your lifestyle,” says Schmidt. Be realistic about how you use the space and what furniture will fit those uses. “If you’re a person who doesn’t entertain, do you need a table that opens up, with extra chairs?”

And just because a piece of furniture can be manipulated for many different uses doesn’t mean you should invest in it. Helmuth believes that furniture shouldn’t serve more than two functions. If it does, it won’t do any of those functions particularly well. Stick with tried-and-true combinations like a kitchen table that doubles as a desk, or an ottoman with storage space inside.

Invest in shelving—and some of your decor

Shelving is your best friend in a small home, and it’s something that can be installed on the cheap or as an investment. In either case, “Get your shelving as high as possible,” Helmuth says. She notes that shelving options like CB2’s stairway bookcase can reach up to eight feet high.

And while open shelving serves as a nice juxtaposition to closed-off storage, it should be reserved for your most prized possessions. “If you’ve got beautiful objects, you should showcase them,” Schmidt says.

Stylish plates can go on open Ikea shelving, for example, while cereal boxes can be tucked inside cabinets. This philosophy also works for freeing up other spaces: Rolling up swoon-worthy towels and placing them in a wicker bin allows you to use the extra space in the linen closet for other needs. Unique hooks hung around the apartment can also open up closet space. “It’s about thinking about the beauty of the stuff you have,” Schmidt says.