Small Living Room Ideas for Big Impact

Designer Chelsea Albright shares tips on how to design for maximum space

small living room with exposed brick wall

(Above) Sweeten homeowners Emily and Dan’s small living room

Designing small spaces can be challenging, but it doesn’t have to be. There are plenty of simple small living room ideas that will help the space feel larger. Whether you are creating an open concept during a remodel or improving the flow of the living space, there are effective ways to make it appear larger.

Washington DC interior designer Chelsea Albright of Places Studio recently worked with a Sweeten contractor for a renovation in her client’s home. So, we caught up with her to talk about designing with small spaces in mind. Here, she shares some tricks of the trade.

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Two types of small-space living rooms

Living rooms are just as the name implies: spaces where we congregate and spend our lives. To make the most of them, you want to think about layout, flow, and, of course, overall design. But first, determine what type of living room layout you have. 

  • Open concept living room – This is a room that is connected to another living space
  • Confined living room – The space is contained within four walls

Open concept layout

For an open concept space, Chelsea recommends “keeping some sort of open flow to the living area.” That means if the room is connected to a kitchen or dining area, try to position the furniture so that there is movement or flow. Chelsea suggests making the space more open between the two rooms, not closing it in with furniture. 

small living room in open concept space

(Above) Small living room idea in an open-concept space by Sweeten homeowners Mitzie and Jenifer

“I usually go with a sofa, coffee table, and a single accent chair,” says Chelsea. “A single accent chair in between the two spaces allows the point of entry to feel more open to the other.” A swivel chair is a good option. It helps make the two spaces feel connected. It can easily be positioned in the direction of either the living area or dining/kitchen area.

Redefining confined spaces

For rooms with four walls, or that are more confined, Chelsea says the trick is not to put everything against the walls. “If you do, you just define the space even more,” she states. Also, a non-working fireplace is a way to create a focal wall without furniture.

Small living room ideas with storage

Storage is essential and, with limited square footage, you have to get creative. Chelsea recommends built-ins that take up the whole wall as a small living room idea. This will maximize your storage. Built-ins add interest and are functional. The bottom half of built-ins should have doors. Chelsea refers to them as “microspaces.” In them, you can set up a bar area (instead of a bar cart that takes up space) or an entertainment section.

Favorable flooring choices

Light color wood floors are recommended for areas lacking in square footage. When renovating an open concept space ask your contractor to put in wood floors that match in material and color. “Lighter, wood floors are inviting,” says Chelsea. However, dark colors absorb light and make the space appear smaller.

If you want to add an area rug, go bigger than you think. Even though your space may not be large, your rug can be. “If you go with a rug that’s too small, you will just accentuate the tininess of the room,” reminds Chelsea.

Recessed and floor lighting

Lighting plays a major role in helping a small space feel larger. Popular with designers, floor lamps up-light the room adding a warm glow and roomier feeling. “The base (of the floor lamp) should not be chunky,” says Chelsea. “Go for a flat base or a small stem that can slide under a sofa.” This is a trick to make extra room.

Some living rooms don’t have overhead lighting. When renovating, Chelsea recommends adding recessed lighting in the ceiling. But be sure to make them dimmable. “And you can also layer in a pendant to give the room even more light,” says Chelsea. This works best for confined spaces, adding a point of interest to the room.

For open concept spaces, wall sconces work well. They can define a space. Have your contractor add electrical, if needed, to place the lights in the right spot. Chelsea finds them useful in creating specific seating areas in spaces that have an open-concept layout.

Easy paint strategies

As with wood color, paint color can be a game changer in a small space. If your living room is open to the kitchen or dining room, consider using the same paint color in both. It will unify the space. Chelsea prefers a white or a hue that’s on the lighter side.

Right now she is seeing a trend of painting the entire room the same color. That means everything: the walls, baseboards, window trims, and moldings. This reduces how many lines and seams are seen. “It’s a really cool tactic for making the room seem more interesting without making it feel smaller,” says Chelsea.

Tricks of the trade: curtains

Most people have at least one window in their living room, no matter how small a footprint. If you do, make the most of it. Window treatments give the illusion of a larger room. Chelsea often advises hanging the curtain rods higher, closer to the ceiling. And also to make them a few inches wider than the actual window frame. This gives the illusion of more space. “By hanging window treatments this way, you are softening up the hard edges of the wall and creating a new depth perception in the room,” says Chelsea.

Small living room ideas for the fireplace

Mirrors can also “trick” us into thinking a room is larger than it is. Chelsea prefers oversized floor mirrors, especially if the room lacks windows. The mirrors can draw the light upward, as do mirrors that sit over fireplace mantels. They give you much more height. “They reflect more light at the top of the room, making it bigger in the negative space above the furniture,” explains Chelsea. For above-mantel mirrors, you want to go big or substantial. Try something with a lot of detail or a thick frame.

A non-working fireplace presents a nice niche to decorate, such as layering paintings and frames inside. According to Chelsea, stacking logs can allude to a working fireplace or scoring a vintage firescreen would bring a lot of character to a small space.

No matter how you decide to layout and style your small living room, Chelsea says layering the scale of things is really important. And don’t forget to think big. Don’t limit yourself to smaller-sized furniture and decor.

More popular questions

In a small living room with multiple walls, avoid placing furniture along every wall. Window treatments hung above windows closer to the ceiling and slightly wider than the window give an illusion of a larger room. Walls, baseboard, window trim, and moldings painted the same hue reduce lines and seams.

Use large mirrors that sit over the fireplace on a mantle to draw light upward. It also fills the negative air space above the furniture. Avoid placing furniture on the same wall as a fireplace, so it is the focal point.

Sweeten handpicks the best general contractors to match each project’s location, budget, scope, and style. Follow the blog, Sweeten Stories, for renovation ideas and inspiration and when you’re ready to renovate, start your renovation with Sweeten.

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