Rule #1: Avoid It – If You Can
Standard home advice is to “think vertical” with storage.
I did this in our old apartment, but couldn’t relax with the tops of bookcases lording over me and my clutter staring me in the face.
I swore when I designed my own dream space it would be a sea of calm with clutter out of sight, below eye level, tucked away in drawers, lower cabinets, or benches.
After buying our 989 square foot family home high in St. Paul’s skyline, it became clear my solemn vow would be broken. To make everything fit – 3 bedrooms, an office, laundry, 2 baths, and all our stuff – compromises had to be made.
Which leads me to the other rules, #2-#10.
When there truly is no other choice, these rules will create room to spare without the typical vertical side effects of feeling cluttered or cramped.
Rule #2: Keep It in the Closets
Best case scenario is to maximize closets so you don’t need extra storage furniture. Away from daily life, there’s no need for expensive drawers or doors. Stuff will be convenient to see and reach.
We used Ikea Sektion kitchen cabinets for all our closet spaces and built ins.
Their extra deep wall cabinets at 15 inches instead of 12, paired with their 26 inch deep corner wall cabinet provided more storage and usable space than other closet systems I found.
Off the shelf closet rods from any home improvement store finished off the uniform look we wanted.
Rule #3: If It’s Not in a Closet, Make It As “Wall Like” As Possible
Our once master bedroom walk-in closet is now an office area. An assembly of 12 Ikea kitchen cabinets created the needed replacement behind our bed.
It works because it goes wall to wall, floor to ceiling. I used the least ornate doors possible, flat panel or flush, to make it the most “wall like”. By using shallower cabinets in the middle, we created a needed night stand.
I regret using the wide silver handles. Had I known my own rules at the time I would have chosen black, discreet handles enhancing the “wall effect”. Live and learn.
No question this closet system behind the bed was integral to making our small space work.
Rule #4: Recess!
No, class is not dismissed. I mean recess the vertical storage. It’s an involved technique that gets into your walls – literally.
We used this 3 places and it required careful framing with exact measurements for cabinets and drywall, plus wiggle room for drywall mud.
- Our kitchen pantry borrowed space from the laundry room behind it.
- A medicine cabinet in the master bath is recessed into a wall.
- Our master bedroom had an awkward space, so we used cabinets to continue the wall with storage to boot.
My contractors (the framer, carpenter, and drywallers) all tried talking me into trimming around these recessed cabinets instead of mudding them in. No way. Every inch counts and if you give 3 inches of wall space to trim, that’s 3 inches unavailable for other cabinets, outlets, hardware, etc. Look close at these pictures, trim would have caused problems for the items next to it.
Rule #5: In the Kitchen, Stretch Open the Middle
I dislike upper cabinets. Probably from all the times I left a door open, bent down, stood up, then hit my head. Unfortunately, with unavoidable plumbing walls and needing more places to put things, I couldn’t get around it. I had to go vertical.
But two things I would not compromise.
- Nothing at eye level.
- No demon cabinet doors that could reach my head.
There’s an online battle between the pros and cons of open shelving, upper cabinets, or nothing at all. Dust and visual clutter vs. concealment and practicality vs. uber modern spaciousness. It doesn’t seem to be occurring to people that having a mix of 2 or more options is possible. We’ve got all 3 and love it.
Standard placement of upper cabinets put the bottom edge at about 54″ from the floor. A 36″ height counter means 18″ for a traditional backsplash. Additionally, a standard cabinet is 30″ tall, leaving 10″ to 12″ inches of dead space above them.
By simply having what would be the bottom shelf of a cabinet be instead an open shelf, then starting the 30″ cabinets 10″ higher than normal, I have a 28″ tall backsplash without loss of usability. Pretty stuff goes on the open shelves, mismatched mugs and plastic containers behind the doors.
I made an additional decision to protect my bruised head. Ikea has horizontally hinged doors. Lift up and away. Aah. So nice. I can forget to close them all I want.
If horizontally hinged cabinets aren’t available, and you must do upper cabinets, stick to 12″ doors so they don’t crowd you when open. Three 24″ cabinets with all 12″ doors is better than two 36″ cabinets with four 18″ doors. Or worse still, three 24″ single doors. They’ll block your vision, get in your way, and make you crank your head back every time you open the door.
One more thing that is subtle, but will lengthen the feeling of space, is reducing or eliminating the lip of the counter backsplash. Two inches is a standard back border for a countertop. With a custom counter top this lip can be eliminated all together. Because we did a wood back splash, we needed some sort of lip. At 1 inch, half the usual size, it still provides protection but without the bulkiness for a more modern look.
Rule #6: Rethink What Is Normal or Necessary
After my upper cabinet tirade, you can imagine how I feel about something that hinges out 30 inches – even more than 24″ cabinet – right in your face. That my friends is a standard above the stove microwave door. Nobody needs that big of a microwave! This is the one we got. We use it all the time. It fits comfortably into a 24″ cabinet below the counter, and nothing we’ve put in it to date has been too big.
Then there’s the range hood. Cooking at home for nearly 20 years, I’ve turned on a range hood maybe 5 times and that’s when I burned something. This remodel I let it go. Normal or not, I don’t need it and it’s not required by building code. It’s a bonus of eating healthy and vegan. Frying fats from oils and animals is why it’s considered important. I don’t do that. As for boiling too much water – I can turn on a nearby bathroom vent or open a window.
Rule #7: Use a Mirror
Instead of looking at a cabinet, a picture, or cluttered shelves, you can look at yourself. What could be more beautiful! Give yourself some self love and affirmation. Humans as art is wonderful – and practical. Be sure mirrors are hung so they don’t cut off anyone’s head. For us, that meant hanging vertical 4 foot mirrors to capture both our youngest and oldest family members.
Small space advicers love to recommend mirrors as much as they love to say “go vertical”. Again I disagree. Mirrors should serve a purpose – like facilitating grooming, reflecting light in a dark room, or bringing the outdoors in. But if the purpose is to “make a room feel bigger,” don’t do it. Whenever I’m tricked into thinking a space is bigger by mirrors, as soon as I realize the illusion, I have a disorientating, fun house feeling. The first impression, in my mind, is not worth the longer lasting feeling of having your head messed with.
Rule #8: Secure It to the Wall
Safety first. If you have metal stud walls like us or find wood stud walls aren’t ever where you need them , you gotta know about anchors and toggle bolts. We have hundreds in our walls holding up cabinets, securing loft beds, hooks, tvs, etc.
Anchors or toggle bolts will increase drywall strength from 20 to 200 pounds depending. The more they hold, the more expensive they are. We used 80 pound strength toggles which cost about $1 a piece. A cabinet held up with 4 of these toggles would hold up to 320 pounds – no stud wall needed.
Rule #9: Love What You Look At
By love, I mean, it lifts your soul, you can’t help but smile, you feel joy, wonder, gratitude, or inspiration.
If it doesn’t, move it. If you keep something on display because someone else loves it, double check every now and then. Nothing is forever.
For example, here’s how I ask my kids about older art projects not worth saving.
Me: “How do you feel about ‘x’?”
Kids: “I don’t know. I like it.”
Me: “Me too.”
We discuss. Then I drop my closing line.
Me: “So, are you ready to say goodbye, or should we put it away in your drawer?”
They pick one, it comes down, there is room for their next masterpiece.
Kids’ art work aside, don’t fill a space with something you don’t love because you want your house to feel staged. HGTV brainwashed me to believe every wall needed adornment. Empty walls didn’t look like HGTV houses, so I decorated the walls, but when that still didn’t feel right, I clued into my brainwashing.
Empty spaces are beautiful, calming, and perfect as they are. Only interrupt that bliss for something you truly love.
Rule #10: Kids Have Their Own Rules
We have one room dedicated to Kid Land. Loft beds. Low couch. Ways to display and store stuff up and down the walls.
It basically follows traditional “go vertical” advice. The beds went up so we could use the space below. The walls are lined from bottom to top.
The kids love it. I love that the kids love it.
But, if we had used these techniques in the rest of our house, we’d be living in an over-sized dorm room.
Our other bedroom, below, is a compromise. Appropriate, as it’s a multi purpose room – a guest room, a family den, and at times a kid’s room if they want it. For the vertical storage, half is open the way the kids like, half is closed the way mom likes.
The angled wall prevented us from following the wall to wall or recessed rule to the letter, but the cement column, behind the door to the left of the cabinet, creates a partially flush feel in an area that would otherwise be difficult to utilize.
We ended up with a lot of vertical storage. But, thanks to using Rule #1 as much as we could, and Rules #2 – #10 everywhere else, our home came together nicely – plenty of space for ourselves and our stuff. Not bad for 4 people in 989 square feet.