Small space living in SF
January 15, 2014 3:40 PM   Subscribe

Help me make my apt a home!

I live in a very small 300 sq. ft railway apartment with a bathroom, kitchen, and bedroom. I've been here since April 2013, but it still doesn't really feel like home just yet. It just feels like a place that I live in. I have no intention of moving because my rent is low (especially for San Francisco), and I have great perks like splitting my utilities and free use of the washer and dryer. But this is definitely quite a wee space.

I'd really like to turn this place around so I feel like I own the space more.

My main problems right now:
1) Too much clutter, I don't really have storage space, but I have lots of small things that just sit out in the open. As a result, visually it's just a mess.

2) I have a quirk in the bedroom in that two of the walls have a ledge built into it.

3) Most of my furniture is stuff that I inherited or bought when I first moved to the Bay Area--very functional but lacking style.

4) I don't really have a style, other than wanting to declutter and try to keep it from overwhelming me on a regular basis. Things that I really like: bright colors, the Sapien

Where do I even start? I'd love to have that kind of pulled together look that I see on Apartment Therapy. What can I do to make my space feel more spacious and develop my own personal style? Any home decor or psychological hacks to make your small apartment feel more homey?

Budget: This is a long-term project for me, and I'm willing to spend up to $500 a month over the next six months.
posted by so much modern time to Home & Garden (21 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
1) Too much clutter, I don't really have storage space, but I have lots of small things that just sit out in the open. As a result, visually it's just a mess.

2) I have a quirk in the bedroom in that two of the walls have a ledge built into it.

It sounds like 2 is the solution to your 1. Move a lot of the little things up to the ledge, and bingo - now it's decor!
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 3:45 PM on January 15, 2014

Do you have art on the walls? I have found that having art makes a space look so much warmer and more inviting instantly.
posted by Nimmie Amee at 3:47 PM on January 15, 2014

Could you please take and post some pictures of your space, the stuff you are trying to fit into it, and of features like the ledge, so we can give you more specific suggestions? I have some ideas about storage but I need to see the position and size of the ledge relative to the rest of the room and furniture before I can figure out which ones might work for you.
posted by Jacqueline at 3:51 PM on January 15, 2014 [7 favorites]

I'd love to have that kind of pulled together look that I see on Apartment Therapy

First of all, these apartments are for the most part not real things. These are rooms set-up for photos that have had all the remnants of life taken from them. No one really has apartments like this because people have stuff. Unless you have a big garage, that's a tough metric.

The best way to de-clutter is to find a home for everything. You gotta make the most out of potential storage areas. Have a weird corner by the door that is unused? Get a corner shelf. Get under-the-bed storage containers that roll out where you can put your sheets or your winter clothes. Get a shoe rack that hangs on the back of your bathroom door. Clutter is just your stuff that doesn't have a good home. Make a home for it, and your place will look spiffy as hell.
posted by Lutoslawski at 3:51 PM on January 15, 2014 [4 favorites]

In quick'n'dirty hacks for the small-budgeted, there are several companies that make panels/designs/things specifically designed to be stuck to Ikea furniture: Panyl and Mykea are the two I know of (but hey, there are probably more). Really easy way to add "style" to non-stylish furniture without spending a ton.
posted by brainmouse at 3:52 PM on January 15, 2014 [3 favorites]

My recommendation is usually to take a full wall and make it all storage, floor to ceiling. You've got the budget for it, and IKEA has lots of ways to make that happen. You might lose the two feet closest to the wall and the length of the storage, but that's really not a huge amount of the whole space.

Putting stuff away is the biggest thing.
posted by cnc at 4:28 PM on January 15, 2014 [5 favorites]

When I moved to a much smaller place and had to downsize, if any one thing was the most important thing I did, it was picking an empty wall, and assembling floor-to-ceiling storage (from Ikea) with flat white featureless front panels (uh... doors?), along the entire length of the wall, so the wall was pretty much still a blank empty wall, same as before, the room had subtly lost about a foot of length, but press on a wall panel and it opens revealing floor-to-ceiling shelves packed with stuff.
It meant that all that stuff - a lot of stuff, is both easily available, and also entirely out of sight.

The room doesn't feel smaller. If anything, it feels larger because so much of the clutter is gone. And it's not just moving clutter out of sight, it created a lot more storage space than before - shelves all the way up.
posted by anonymisc at 4:55 PM on January 15, 2014 [4 favorites]

* Hire someone to come help you declutter for a couple hours each week. Advertise for an organised student or something.
Once you have the excess crap cleared away, or boxed by activity (figure out 'categories' of stuff. Like with like. Office supplies. Music. Art, etc) you can work on it looking nicer.

* Floor to ceiling bookcases (or storage).

* Lighting - Perfect is the enemy of good. If you haven't worked out what you want permanently, at least string up some warm-white fairy lights, or some mellow warm lamps (or put some round paper lanterns on the lights it they are bare). They pretty much instantly turn a space from stark&bleak to cozy. Put something better up when you figure it out.

* Bed - In a space that size, the bed becomes pretty focal. Invest in a mezzanine/loft bed for maximal use of space. Even if it's on the ground, get a nice throw for it. I like plain bed sheets, then a patterned decorative sheet on top. If it's being used as a couch etc as well, some bright multi-coloured cushions help.

* Storage, storage, storage. I have three sets of drawers in my room. If you need more drawers, just get more drawers man. Easy access.

I figured some of 'making a space a home', while backpacking and watching other backpackers.
It can be really draining being on the move, and not feeling like you have a home turf/territory/*home* for so long.
Things I carried with me:
- a cotton blues&gold indian print sheet (so handy for so many reasons while travelling!),
- a couple of postcard sized pictures & blu-tack,
- and picked up a tiny string of multicoloured fairy lights.
I'd walk into the blank, cell-like room I'd be staying for the night, or week, throw my sheet over the bed, string the fairy lights anywhere convenient, and press my pictures above the bed.
Only a couple minutes overhead, max, and yet suddenly the space felt like MINE.
I'd also often get local flowers for a dollar or two to put next to the bed.

Another traveler, had a row of pictures pegged to a thin line of string (as well as decorative bedsheet), which she would attach to the wall wherever she was staying.
Once I really *got* how to do that, all my rooms/houses have felt much more cozy, personalised and welcoming.

So, strip it right back. If you had to personalise a hotel/hostel room, what would you use? In a decluttered space, just a few objects will stand out better. That'll be a good start.

P.S. What is 'the Sapien'? Had no idea what that meant, so couldn't suggest any specific style ideas.
posted by Elysum at 5:54 PM on January 15, 2014 [6 favorites]

There is a lot of good advice here, and it's hard to say without seeing pictures.

It sounds like you need to get storage/decluttering figured out: what are the small things you actually want to keep? Then toss the rest. Of the ones you want to keep: which do you want to display (on shelves/ledges), and which don't need to be displayed? Then get some clear plastic shoe-box size boxes from The Container Store or target and put those little doo-dads in categories and stick 'em under your bed. (electronics related little things, memento/keepsake little things, office supply little things, etc.)

For homey-ness, here are some things that can help:
1. Painting the walls (I'd recommend a cool light gray for a stylish neutral)
2. Curtains (can be sleek and modern)
3. A rug or two
4. A bedspread or duvet coordinated with paint, curtains, rug
5. A throw blanket and pillows on the couch
6. WALL ART. In real grown-up frames.
7. Interesting statement lamp instead of generic Ikea thing.
posted by amaire at 5:58 PM on January 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

Have you ever gone through the Apartment Therapy Eight Step Home Cure? I did it several years ago with my Brooklyn studio and it was a miracle. Covers a lot of the advice you see here re: lighting, getting a direction, reducing clutter, and generally making your place a happy place to be. And I was surprised, but there's a lot of emphasis for how to do this on a reasonable budget.
posted by mochapickle at 6:02 PM on January 15, 2014 [3 favorites]

Buy a beautiful item that makes you happy. It could be a lamp, a table, a sofa, a piece of art. You don't have to break the bank decorating, but that one piece should make you glad every time you look at it or sit on it or wash it.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 7:33 PM on January 15, 2014

Great suggestions so far, do keep them coming.

I posted a draft in haste and didn't catch it in preview, this is what the #4 point should have read:

4) I don't really have a style, other than wanting to declutter and try to keep it from overwhelming me on a regular basis. Things that I really like: bright colors, the Sapien bookcase from DWR (I have a green West Elm version), West Elm in general, modern floral patterns.

Here is a set of photos of my apartment, Chez Hobbit Hole. I had to clean it up a bit so this is a lot neater than it usually is. You can see how the ledges work.

I also added in a picture of my kitchen island as it is full of stuff and bursting at the seams, but I'm not really sure what else I could do to organize it. I have very little counter space.
posted by so much modern time at 9:20 PM on January 15, 2014

Above your kitchen island an easy solution would be to get a couple of kitchen wall shelves. You can also get a couple of bins to put on them to keep your food in plastic bags/ messy packaging looking neater and more organized.
posted by Blitz at 10:11 PM on January 15, 2014

Love your bedcover. Keep building on that sumptuous eggplant and gray thing you've got going. Maybe add some deeper purple tones, and consider some headboard decals.

I don't know if you're into draperies, but they can add a lot of visual interest, warmth and sumptuosity. Since your walls are neutral, adding contrast and interest with fabric is the best way to go. And use lots of fabric.

The black curtain looks good and adds needed contrast. I'd just say you need to add more fabric. You don't need anything that's being sold as a drapery - a large fabric panel will work. It should be wider and longer than what you have, dropping to the floor or at least to the top of that low lacquered bookcase (LOVE that bookcase!). You could grab a king-size bed sheet in a fab fabric (Ralph Lauren sheets look amazing as drapery), scrunch it and toss it over the curtain rod.

Congrats on finding an affordable space in SF!
posted by cartoonella at 4:04 AM on January 16, 2014

Put something on the walls. It looks like you're just camping out.

Get the stuff OFF the fridge--all it does is magnify the clutter. Put up a corkboard if you need to have things posted out in the open.

When you're not sleeping, fold up the futon into a sofa. Make the bed. If you are going to have a dedicated bed, buy a bedframe and a mattress. Get one with drawers underneath for storage.

Put bookshelves on the wall. Those vertical things might look good in a shelter magazine, but it takes up floor space.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 5:22 AM on January 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

Oooh, you posted pictures! There's potential here...

A few things:

1. Adopt the philosophy of "curating" instead of decorating, organizing, or decluttering. By curating your space, you're displaying and maintaining things you use and love. Don't keep anything that's not beautiful or useful.

2. The Breadbox Rule changed my life. You have lots of small things, and small things tend to read as clutter. So put away the small things. The advice above about your fridge is spot on.

3. The round kitchen table is probably making life more difficult, as it's a weird shape for the space. If you don't often host dinners for four, you may want to consider a long narrow bar along that wall, with barstools that can double as extra seating in the main room. Ikea has options -- desks and tables and bases. 1 2

4. You don't have enough kitchen storage. I think you just have the one cabinet and it looks like there's no room for food prep. In your position, I'd probably look for a kitchen island to put along the wall where you have your short shelves now, and then add shelves to the wall above.

5. Your books and storage in your bedroom look cluttered because you're using every inch of space. You gotta let your shelves breathe a little and give the impression that your life has room for more. If you need to use storage boxes or baskets for odds and ends, get several of the same color. I'd consider getting a secondhand filing cabinet or two (my local habitat for humanity has them for $45 each and I'd paint 'em a bright color) because they have a ton of space and you can hide your clutter.

6. You also look like you don't have nearly enough closet space, and the collection of hats and scarves on the door are too much. Pick a hat and a scarf to keep out and put the rest away.

I mentioned the Apartment Therapy Book above, and seeing your photos, I think you'd get a lot out of it. One of the tips is to buy yourself fresh flowers every week, and this has this fantastic indirect effect of making you keep whichever room the flowers are in beautiful and clean. The book doesn't have a ton of pictures, so the small spaces category on the site may be helpful for visual reference. The best ones are the ones that look lived in.
posted by mochapickle at 6:11 AM on January 16, 2014 [3 favorites]

Looks like you've got a futon. Get a platform storage bed. Here's one from Walmart. Or this one from Ikea. You can put linens in there, or out of season clothing, or what have you.

I agree, get a wall unit from Ikea and go floor to ceiling with it. I like Ivar, you can stain it or paint it for a custom look, or leave it bare, if you like that. It's customizable too. Then, get attractive storage, either canvas cubes or baskets.

Another option is the Pax Wardrobe. They come shallow, and have all kinds of attachments, hooks, shelves, drawers, etc. They also have an on-line configuration tool, so you can really make it work for the space. Also, you can take it with you when you decide to move.

Put a nice picture over the bed, or an arrangement of smaller pictures of similar subjects.

Get a nice hanging lamp for the ceiling. I like this one from Ikea. See if you can plug it in and swag it over the bed or in the middle of the room.

The kitchen can be more streamlined and sweet as well. First of all, again, do floor to ceiling shelving where you have the little cart. This Wall Shelf is innocuous and inexpensive, and it will provide a lot more storage than the cart.

I love the rail systems they have, and these seafoam colored containers will add a pop of color to your kitchen. Put this table cloth (or something like it) on your table to tie it in with the rest of the kitchen.

Now for some art. I buy posters at, then I go to Wal-Mart for cheap frames. Here's a nice picture that reflects the green, and the lemons. This would be nice right over your stove. Or this. Your California picture would work well in the kitchen.

If you MUST save magazines (and with the internet, WHY must you?) put them in Magazine Files.

One thing I did was take my DVDs out of their plastic boxes, and put them, and the artwork into little sleeves. Then I put them in storage boxes. You have some now, but they're not cohesive. You can cover them in pretty wrapping paper that you can pick up at Cost Plus. To make them all the same.

Books with different colored spines make the joint look garish and cluttered. Put them behind doors on the Ivar, or put them in canvas cubes or baskets.

Your jewelry can go into organizer trays and then into a drawer.

You can do similar things in the bathroom too. Towels, pretty shower curtain, a small picture and good organization can make you LOVE your small place. I think it's sweet and you should be very happy there.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:51 AM on January 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

This is mostly pretty low handing fruit - shouldn't be too spendy, but will make a difference.

- Get rid of the table, keep three of the chairs. Get a small square or rectangular two or four person table and push it up against the wall.

- The space beside the bedroom door would probably fit a narrow cupboard. Could either be a linen cupboard or a cleaning cupboard. Either way, a cheap white cupboard would give you a great place to store stuff, and wouldn't look too awful. In Australia they are available at hardware stores. They may also come with matching cabinets, and you could replace the trolley you've got, and maybe fit another beside the table opposite the stove. Definitely replace the trolley though, and look into putting a sliding bin into it.

- Get the pictures/mirror up onto the wall. The removeable hooks should work.

- Your desk works really well in that room. Could either of the things behind the door fit on top of the ledge next to it? Any chance you could shift the laundry basket? Bathroom, behind the door in the bedroom? A small rug beside the bed would pull the room together.

- Buy some matching storage boxes and get the stuff on the bookcase and ledges organised.

- Curtain. More colour, easier to open, longer. In the short term, you could put the one you have on hooks like these. Put the left most one on the left-hand side of the bracket, and open it to the left.

More long term and expensive:

- Measure the exact dimensions of your room and furniture and put it into Floorplanner (way easier than actually shifting furniture).

- A little on the DIY side, could you buy a taller bed and cut the bedhead end legs shorter and put is up onto the ledge? But you should definitely consider getting a higher bed with storage underneath. You might even be able to pair it with a bookcase on the ledge behind it.

- I would try to find a cupboard or bookcase that maximises the space behind the door in the bedroom. As close to the ceiling as possible, and do some surgery on it so that it fits around the bump in the wall. (You'll need to reinforce it if you do this)
posted by kjs4 at 4:31 PM on January 16, 2014

If you can get to a Container Store, their Elfa door/wall rack systems are dead simple to put on your door and will hold a lot of the little fiddly stuff that clutters the place. (Measure the thickness of the door first, so you get the proper top and bottom things--one of our doors ended up being thick enough to need the Commercial version instead of the Residential.)
posted by telophase at 5:47 PM on January 16, 2014

Here's a starting point:

Along with the "every thing has a home" rule is "nothing belongs on the floor." If something typically lives on the floor (other than furniture), it is time to find it a new home.
posted by aniola at 6:22 PM on January 16, 2014

Here's a warning: I've seen people get more storage capacity, fill that storage space, and need more storage. So if you get more storage, it may still need to come with a change in habit.

On things & stuff management: I know someone with enough stuff who has this rule: If they get a new thing, an old thing has to go. Me and my partner have a dedicated space for outbound stuff.
posted by aniola at 6:27 PM on January 16, 2014

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