Think big for small rooms: tips from interior designer Allyson Coates

Interior designer and design tutor Allyson Coates, speaking at the Design Centre, Chelsea Harbour, shared her insights on how to make small spaces work to your advantage. Follow Allyson’s expert tips so you can start to love and use every space in your house; get creative and make the most of any space, however petite.

Don't rush in

“Have nothing in your home that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful,” begins Allyson, quoting William Morris’ famous maxim.“Designing a space is all about careful planning.”

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“To start, think about who the room is for and how the space will be used,” says Allyson. She stresses five things to think about before beginning: Functionality; Practicality; Aesthetical considerations; Ergonomics (how will we relate to the furniture, how do we move in the space); and Proximities. “Think about the focal points that you want to highlight as you move into the space in relation to each of these considerations.”


“Light is so important, especially in small spaces.” Allyson stresses the importance of considering how much natural light will be available to the room, not just at one given time but throughout the day. If this highlights the room’s poor arrangement, for instance too many internal walls, consider building renovations before you begin. Of course, this isn’t always an option, and there are plenty of ways to work around this.

“Create layers with light,” advises Allyson. “The introduction of a skylight can be a fantastic option, but always remember the interplay of natural and artificial light so be careful not to drown one area in shadow because the natural light dominates one half of the room – the key is to create a balance.”

You can also use light to create layers. “Light should not just be at eyelevel or overhead,” she warns, “introduce floor to ceiling lighting and use lights to broaden and heighten what you look at. Group items around the light and use it to highlight them.”


“Interior colours affect our sensory perceptions and emotions,” says Allyson. “Culture or climate can influence the personality of a space. Colour can define the space whilst creating visual interest.” Crucially, Allyson stresses the importance of thinking beyond the walls, but about the ceiling and floor colours too.
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She asserts: “Don’t think that in a small space you must stick to white – bold colours in small doses bring warmth in a paler scheme. Be playful with colour – for example choose neon tones for window frames and borders, or add a splash of bright colour somewhere unexpected. And remember to think about proportions, always creating a balance between light and dark, and heavy and light tones between large expanses and small details.”

Surfaces & Textures

“Mirrors, high gloss, metallic or lacquered surfaces reflect the most light – but don’t forget about texture. Texture can add depth and movement to a room."

“Think about which aspect of the room you want to look at and draw attention to it through textures and surfaces.”


“Open plan areas work great for small spaces,” says Allyson. She advocates the use of soft divisions such as curtains or panels to give flexibility to how the space is used and allows the option to open it up.

“Use furniture to sculpt a room and direct movement,” she says, explaining that a well-planned room will be easy to move through and feel spacious without all the furniture pushed to the edges.

“Use colour to make it feel like all one space, but actually zone it. Replicate texture and surface for fluidity. Layer texture and colour to add definition, but don’t make it messy.” Another great tool for zoning that she recommends is with rugs: “rugs can separate the floor space and different areas of the room without walls and dividers.”

Storage & Furniture

“Storage should be hidden, accessible and versatile,” asserts Allyson. She recommends making use of all spaces, such as under the stairs or under beds. “If possible, use one wall for all storage”

“When buying furniture for small rooms, remember the 4 ‘M’s: Modular, Movable, Minimalist, Multiplicity. Furniture must earn its place in a small space!”

“Don’t be afraid of large objects – small items can draw attention to the small size of the room,” says Allyson, but also highlights the need to consider the materials and forms of the furniture: “slim legs and slender forms allows for sight through the furniture, making the room appear more spacious.”


[Image credits: Apartment Therapy; New Darlings; Cuded; Nodic Bliss; Apartment TherapyDecor8Domino Magazine, via Stockholm Vitt; Style by Emily Henderson]

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Annabel Sheen

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