Our favorite designers at Napa Valley Modern Staging agreed to share their top visual tricks for making even small spaces look as light, bright and airy — and as large — as possible. They use these 10 strategies religiously, whether they’re staging small living rooms, bedrooms, kitchens or even outdoor spaces:
1. Think proportion and scale
Proportion and scale are everything in making rooms appear as roomy as possible, so pick the right furniture.
When you find the right size furnishings for a small room, choose the pieces with legs, glass tops on bases for tables or glass pieces constructed with thin metal strip pieces and open and floating shelving for their see-through effect.
Solid pieces that do double-duty as storage — from baskets on shelving to case pieces like trunk-style side tables that offer storage — are also useful additions.
A room full of nothing but legs looks bigger but can start to feel a little too close to standing in a “flamingo pond.” So, add small pieces of solid furniture or plants in attractive pots to anchor the space.
2. Edit the initial design
Following Coco Chanel’s rule to dress and accessorize, then take one thing away is just as applicable to staging as to fashion. In fact, deciding what to omit is often more critical than choosing what to use.
For example, can you remove the bulky coffee table and use end tables and movable tables to set drinks or reading material on? Can table lamps be eliminated in favor of wall mounted fixtures?
If so, you might also be able to get rid of the bulky bedside tables and substitute floating shelves beneath the reading lights. Thinking about what you can edit out very early in the design process is crucial.
3. Use the same or very similar light colors for wall paint and upholstery
The color of your small room doesn’t have to be white. In fact, most buyers prefer light grays, tans and nature’s other most neutral shades. Just make sure you’re using the lightest shade you can in small rooms by viewing large paint swatches during daylight hours in the room to be painted.
If you can’t reupholster a piece of furniture to match the wall color, consider draping a large throw in the wall color over the back of the piece sitting against the wall.
The largest piece, usually the sofa, is the one to reupholster or slipcover if the current upholstery’s color contrasts too much with the new wall color and the sofa has to stay. But a large credenza would also profit from a coat of paint in the new wall color if it sits against the wall.
The goal is to keep the eye moving, so the space seems larger.
4. Draw the eye around and beyond the room
You want to add a bit of personality and drama to your rooms to keep them from looking like a hotel. So highlighting large paintings, uncluttered windows and other architectural details to supplement your main focal point keeps the eye moving and visually expands the space.
If you can draw the buyer’s eye outside, by showcasing a beautiful view or using the room just beyond it as an additional focal point, that will also make a room appear larger.
5. Make contrast work for you
The temptation in a small room is to go straight monochromatic, which may look larger but feels dull and, often, cold. That’s not an inviting space, which is your ultimate goal.
Instead, include a black piece, whether it’s an occasional table or iron fireplace set, and pops of a livelier accent color (in pillows, books on the glass coffee table, etc.).
These accents stop the eye briefly, before allowing it to move on to the next feature you want to highlight. And, adding contrast creates layers throughout the space, which the mind translates into both “bigger” and more interesting.
6. Use mirrors to add space, light and drama
Large-scale floor mirrors leaned against the wall have become something of a design cliche, but that doesn’t mean they don’t work to visually add space.
Large-scale wall mirrors or judicious stretches of mirror (for example, as a backsplash between kitchen counters and upper level cabinets) magnify space and light and create a very dramatic effect when thoughtfully used to bounce light more evenly around the room.
7. Keep window treatments spare
Bare windows or sheers let in more light and allow you to draw the eye outside when the view is an asset. If the room feels unfinished with bare windows, soft sheers drawn to the side can add the perfect finishing touch without cutting down light.
Pulled shut, they let in light while blocking less than ideal views. For complete privacy, draperies that can be pulled shut over the sheers or a decorative window shade behind the sheers may be the right solution to window dressing.
8. Augment natural lighting with other light sources
You will, of course, employ and amplify natural light to the greatest extent possible. Sometimes, there’s still not enough light — day or night. Then artificial light is your best space-enhancing tool.
Use multiple light sources to create well-lit rooms that look larger, especially during the day.
Utilize fewer of them in the evening to create that warm, homey glow buyers love. Dimmer switches, recessed lights, floor and table lamps, hanging light and wall sconces give you the lighting options you need to make small rooms appear larger.
And mirrors in the room amplify artificial light just as well as natural light. So, use every lighting trick in the book in small dark rooms.
9. Use open shelving throughout the house
Open and floating shelving without closed-in sides gives you storage space without creating a visual barrier that shrinks the room.
As noted previously, a floating shelf can substitute for a side table. A set of open shelves suspended over an island can add much-needed display and storage space while keeping the eye moving through to the room beyond.
In a small kitchen, use an open movable cart or table instead of a built-in island. If you’re replacing countertops, you can extend the countertop of a peninsula to create more workspace by floating a foot or so of the solid surface material beyond the base cabinets. The eye slides right past if the color of both floor and countertop are light.
10. Use large area rugs
The tendency in small rooms is to use smaller area rugs to anchor the seating group. But small rooms don’t require that kind of anchor, which actually shrinks the space visually.
Conversely, a large area rug that comes close to the walls highlights the maximum floor space rather than dividing it into multiple, small pieces. A generous rug also creates an upscale feel; and a light, natural fiber rug can mitigate the “black hole” effect of dark floors in a light-colored room and make it feel larger.
Keeping these 10 principles in mind when you stage your next small space guarantees you’ll create a room with an appearance and personality that far exceed its measurements. And your buyers will think, “I could see myself living here. This is so me!”
Nicole Solari is owner and managing broker of The Solari Group in Solano and Napa Counties in Northern California. Nicole runs one of the highest producing brokerages in all of Northern California.