Design Tips to Play Up a Downsized Space

A senior man getting design tips

So, you’re thinking about downsizing. Or maybe you’ve already made the decision to move from a large home or dwelling to a smaller space, perhaps even a studio or one-bedroom apartment. You’ve gone through or are going through (or contemplating) the arduous, often emotional process of purging personal and household items, furniture, even precious heirlooms that mean the world to you but little to anyone else.

Downsizing – or even considering it – is one of life’s biggest decisions, especially if it involves moving to a senior community. Big congratulations to you for getting this far! You’re on your way to lighter, freer, more manageable living with less clutter and more possibilities.

Whatever stage you’re in, the move from more sprawling (and often burdensome) quarters means determining how you will use your new space most effectively while still embracing your personal style, treasured belongings and sense of feng shui. But design tips for achieving a sense of feng shui are often hard to understand.

While it may fall under the category of things that are hard to define but we “know it when we see it,” feng shui is described by Bernardon senior interior designer Laura Ireson as the practice that makes our home healthier and more organized, while also positively affecting our mood and well-being.

In a free Zoom event sponsored by Barclay Friends, Ireson shared valuable design tips to maximize function, personal aesthetic and healthy feng shui. Complete with photos, interactive floorplans and a fast-motion video of an apartment being optimally designed and furnished in our new building, Preston, the presentation highlighted simple things residents can to do make a big difference in a smaller space.

Know Thy Space

In advance of moving, know exactly how much space you have to work with. Even if you adore your current couch, says Ireson, if it won’t fit in your new home, it’s probably time to part with it. She also advises that you look at photos of the space into which you’re moving and imagine it decorated with the items that are most special to you.

Let It Go

Also before the moving truck arrives, organize your belongings by category so that they’re visible at a glance. Get rid of duplicates, items you no longer use or that no longer spark joy. Many of these items, including clothing, books, furniture, blankets, linens and older electronics, can be donated to various organizations or resold at resale shops or on social media. For those sentimental items or documents you simply can’t let go, Ireson suggests designating a box or bin especially for them.

Room Planning

When planning where to put furnishings and other items in a smaller space, three concepts are key:

  • Scale – how well your pieces fit together with one another. The chaise lounge you had in your master bedroom may stick out like a sore thumb near the bed in your tidier space.
  • Proportion – how well your pieces fit in the space. Again, knowing exactly how much room you have will help you decide which items will make the move with you. According to Ireson, the number one design mistake residents make is having too much clutter. “You want and need floor space,” she said.
  • Balance – Visual calmness. Keep in mind, balance doesn’t always mean symmetry. Asymmetrical placement of furnishings and curios, especially in an asymmetrical space with bump-outs, recessed areas, etc., can allow for creativity and achieve pleasing visual balance.

Multi-functional PiecesSmall spaces require that some pieces serve more than one function. For example, Ireson suggests putting your dresser next to your bed, where it can double as a nightstand as well as a place to store clothing. Coffee tables and consoles with several tiers are a plus, as is space under a bed. A secretary desk with drawers can serve as a writing surface or computer area as well as a place to store things. Baskets on shelves or tiers serve not only as additional storage but also add texture and visual interest. The possibilities are endless!

Everything Has a Place

The need for organization in a smaller space cannot be overstated. Clutter and scattered belongings cause stress and anxiety, not to mention the inability to find things. “Storage solutions – my favorite thing!” enthused Ireson, who touted the benefits of neatly arranged wicker, plastic, canvas storage bins and baskets, all clearly labeled with their contents. Entire stores, such as The Container Store, are devoted to attractive storage solutions.

The Power of Plants

Everyone can enjoy the aesthetic and healing effects of house plants. Plants add texture and color, purify the air, and facilitate feng shui. For those without a green thumb, fake plants can often pass for the real thing, especially faux succulents. Real succulents and cacti are also very hardy and don’t require a lot of attention. Plants are great design tips for people who would like to make a big difference with a simple change.

Think Vertical

Small living areas benefit especially from the use of vertical space. Hanging blinds and drapes as high as possible will make windows appear taller and maximize natural light. Vertical shelving and taller headboards (Ireson recommends upholstered headboards with accents, buttons or nail head trim to create softness and facilitate acoustics) will also emphasize height and make a room seem more spacious. Use a tall pantry in your kitchen for items other than groceries – generally not necessary in senior living – and you will gain more storage as well as the illusion of more space.

Mirror Images

Mirrors have a doubling effect on room size and also reflect natural light. A rule of thumb, according to Ireson, is that mirrors should not be larger than the pieces they’re hanging above. Also, space should be left for accessories and plants on furnishings beneath a mirror.

Picture This

Create a gallery wall with family photos or artwork that is personally meaningful to you. For interest and visual appeal, use frames in various sizes, textures and materials. A high shelf with a groove for resting photos is also a stylish option.

Let the Sunshine In

Mother Nature is the best interior designer of all, especially in smaller spaces. Maximize natural light by choosing lighter paint colors and window treatments that allow the changing hues of sunlight inside. Textured shades invite natural light while also providing privacy. As noted above, hang blinds and curtains as high as possible, and extend rods on either side of your windows to make them appear wider.

If you would like to view Laura Ireson’s presentation on design tips for smaller spaces, click here or contact Sean Tomlinson at

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