Living in a 325-square-foot studio apartment doesn’t have to cramp your style — and Matt Melis is proof of that.

Melis, 28, has painted the walls of his $700-a-month apartment in light hues of blue, green and yellow, outfitted the place with vintage furniture picked up on Craigslist, eBay and a local flea market, and replaced the old kitchen floor with a checkerboard pattern.

With no bedroom, he sleeps on a sofabed with a platform that slides out to create a queen-sized bed, but takes care to stow it away when he goes to work at his job. That can create some confusion for visitors.

“The first thing everyone says when they come in is … ‘Oh, this is great. And where’s the bedroom?’” Melis says.

Moving into a smaller space, as Melis did last year when he moved out of a pricier one-bedroom apartment in the same complex, can be a challenge. (He keeps his bicycle hanging on the wall over the kitchen table.) But it can also have benefits.

For one thing, it forces dwellers to pare their possessions down to the true essentials. The rent, or mortgage, can be cheaper. The heating and cooling bills are smaller. The location is often better. And the apartment can still be stylish, even if it’s not very spacious.

“It has just enough room for everything I need,” says Melis, who was so enthusiastic about his apartment that he entered it in a design contest run by Apartment Therapy, an urban living blog. “I brought over my best pieces of furniture (and) got rid of the rest.”

Over the past three decades, homes has ballooned from a median size of more than 1,500 square feet for houses built in 1973 to nearly 2,300 square feet for homes built last year, according to Census Bureau statistics.

But signs show that this is starting to change. Interest in a smaller, more modest lifestyle has been growing. The American Institute of Architects, in a survey of 500 residential architecture firms this year, found that one-third of those surveyed were designing smaller houses, compared with around 15 per cent who said sizes were increasing.

Some architects and designers are enthused about what they see as a move away from McMansions, with their vaulted entranceways, overstuffed couches, circular driveways and three-car garages. Architect and author Sarah Susanka has written a series of books advocating what she calls a “not so big” esthetic, encouraging people to downsize and make better use of their space.

Thoughtful details — such as stained-glass windows — are key. “A good architect will suggest reducing square footage to allow for more detail,” she wrote in her 1998 book The Not So Big House. In many large homes, she wrote, “a substantial percentage of space is rarely used.”

David Colby, a writer, had an entranceway in his family’s one-bedroom co-op apartment converted into a wall unit with a desk and storage space. The change was needed to accommodate a nursery for his daughter, Madeline, born more than two years ago. “No space is really wasted,” he says.

New York architects Frederick Biehle and Erika Hinrichs design upscale renovations for city apartments that make the most of small spaces by including cabinets that stretch all the way to the ceiling and translucent materials that create an airy feel.

“The paucity of space almost requires a greater intensity with regard to invention,” Biehle says. “Greater challenges ultimately bring out better design.”

Design gurus have some common tips for working with small spaces. One constant is to make your lighting interesting, and to use multiple sources of light in each room.

Maxwell Gillingham-Ryan, founder of the Apartment Therapy blog, suggests using track lighting with small halogen bulbs directed at the walls. “They don’t take up any space on the floor, so that’s very useful,” he says.

Davis Remignanti, lead design consultant at, recommends simple, cleanly designed furniture. Sofas, he notes, don’t have to have arms. Beds needn’t have footboards. He also suggests buying furniture made before 1970 that was designed for the smaller houses of that time.

Small kitchen?
If you love to cook, but are afraid of getting a place with a small kitchen, fear not:

• A small kitchen doesn’t have to be a big drawback if you use your space creatively. How to design and outfit a cramped or narrow kitchen is a common quandary for urban dwellers. You can use small appliances, cabinets that extend to the ceiling, multipurpose furniture and simple additions like wall shelves to make use of the limited space you have. In fact, being small can actually be an advantage as it discourages excess.

• “Too often kitchens just become bloated,” said David Eisen, principal with Abacus Architects + Planners in Boston. “Small kitchens aren’t necessarily bad.”

• Whether you’re doing a full-fledged kitchen remodelling project or just trying to make the best use of the space you have, experts say you need to get creative.

• One way you can save space is designing a kitchen island with flip-down seats like an old-fashioned taxicab (see Eisen’s design in photo). They can be custom-made for around $500 US.

Small bedroom?
Here’s some tips for transforming your small bedroom:

• Think carefully about what space you have and whether you can use furniture that folds away, or has more than one purpose. Loft beds, which allow a desk underneath, and Murphy beds are good space-savers. Also, filling up the wall with built-in cabinets or a flexible storage system are great options.

• A good way to save space without spending too much money is to turn old dresser drawers into under-the-bed storage containers, said Kathy Wilson, editor of the website In a small bedroom, it’s essential to put things in their place. “Keep clutter to an absolute minimum,” she said.

• To create the illusion of a larger room, Wilson advises painting woodwork and trim the same colour as the walls. Also, use light colours and make sure that curtains and blinds don’t block the window. “You want as much light in the room as possible,” she said.

• Another way to maximize the space is to have a cabinet maker build floor-to-ceiling drawers and cabinets.

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