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8 ways to create the illusion of ‘rooms’ in a small studio apartment

Denise Bayron, a knitwear designer who lives in a 280-square-foot unit, placed several houseplants on top of her credenza to create the illusion of privacy. (Denise Bayron)
6 min

The benefits of a studio apartment: All your things are nearby, there’s less square footage to dust and vacuum, and you have fewer pieces of furniture to buy. The downside: You’re in one room. All. The. Time.

This is especially true since the pandemic started, when working from home became more common. Those who have called a studio their home within the past 2.5 years know that sleeping, eating, working and hanging out in the same room can take a mental toll. But thanks to inflation and a rising cost of living — as of June, rent growth was at 14.1 percent year-over-year, according to an Apartment List National Rent Report — a studio is the most financially viable option for many people living alone.

So, what can studio dwellers do to make it feel less like their lives are confined to one small room?

You can “create separate seating areas, sleeping areas and working areas that each serve a different purpose, so that you can move throughout the space throughout the day, according to what activity you’re doing,” says Shannon Claire, an interior designer in the District. “You’re not working from your bed and sleeping in your bed and having absolutely zero space between your work life and your home life.”

Here are tips from Claire and others on how to create distinct zones within your studio.

Be intentional. Put thought into how you structure your studio, says Denise Bayron, a knitwear designer who lives in a 280-square-foot, one-room accessory dwelling unit in Oakland, Calif. In which zone will you spend the largest chunk of your time? The living room, the bedroom, the office? Dedicate the area with the best views and most natural light to that purpose. “My workspace is where I’m at 70 percent of the day,” says Bayron, who runs her business out of her home. She put her desk against the space’s largest window, which gets east-facing natural light and is surrounded by houseplants.

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Create a foyer. Even if your studio doesn’t have a dedicated entry area, it’s important to create one, Claire says, because it gives you a moment to pause and take a breath before entering your home. “If you don’t have this, I find it’s really easy to walk into your apartment and throw your coat on the couch and put your mail down on the dining table,” she says. “It also just really closes in those walls, because it makes your entire studio apartment feel like it’s the entry, as opposed to the moment after the entry.”

Claire recommends placing a small table along the wall by the front door to drop your keys and mail. If you don’t have the floor space for that, hang key hooks, a small wall shelf, a mail basket or even just a mirror near the entry.

Rugs and lighting are your friends. Claire is a fan of positioning lamps throughout a space, especially in a studio. (“Never, ever rely on overhead lighting in any design, no matter the size of the room,” she says.) For instance, place a floor lamp by your sofa, put a table lamp on your media console under the TV, set a table or floor lamp by your bed or hang a plug-in pendant light over your dining table. Keep them on while you’re in those zones, and turn them off when you aren’t. Switching the lights on in each section will help you feel as if you’re in a separate room.

Rugs also help visually break up a space. Claire recommends placing one under your sofa and another under your bed to define separate areas and add texture.

Accessorize wisely. You can also use accessories and other decorative items to trick your eyes into seeing different “rooms.” Art or a gallery wall can help designate zones, says Chelsey Brown of City Chic Decor in New York. For example, hang one collection of art over your bed and another over your TV. Or use Command strips and Velcro to hang wall moldings to break up a space. Peel-and-stick wallpaper is another option. (Pro tip: Renters can also easily apply and remove real wallpaper using liquid starch instead of glue, Brown says.)

Use your furniture. People tend to push their sofa against one wall and place their TV on the opposite wall, Brown says. She recommends putting your sofa in the middle of your studio instead, to create a designated living area. Then place a narrow credenza or console table behind the sofa. This will visually separate the living area, and you can tuck two stools under the console and use it as a desk or dining area.

Another good option is a canopy bed, Brown says, which will create a visual barrier between your sleeping area and the rest of the space.

Repurpose the closet. There’s nothing worse than feeling as if you don’t have any separation between your time during and after work. If you have a small closet, consider turning it into an office, Claire says. Empty it, then add a small desk and chair. You can either take the door off for easy access, or keep it on and close it when the workday is done.

Tiny cloffices — workspaces in closets — are big, thanks to the pandemic

Designate a private area. One peril of entertaining in a studio apartment: guests sitting on your bed.

“You want to control the flow of the room and how people enter your space,” says Bayron, who tucked her bed in a corner of her studio and placed a hip-height credenza alongside it to carve out a sleeping nook that wouldn’t cut off her sightline or block natural light. She placed several houseplants on top of the credenza to create the illusion of privacy. The credenza is on sliders, so she can easily move it out of the way to make her bed or vacuum under it.

Divide and conquer. If you want to create a strict designation between zones, consider using dividers. Traditional trifold room dividers or shelves that are open on both sides, such as the Ikea Kallax unit, could work, Brown says. Open shelving units have an added bonus: They let light in. If you go this route, though, make sure to keep the shelves tidy, she says, because a mess will make the space seem smaller.

Sheer curtains are another option. They’ll separate your space while making your ceilings seem taller and letting natural light through. Brown recommends drilling a sliding track onto your ceiling or hanging curtains from Command hooks. (But make sure they hit the floor, she says, otherwise the space may appear unfinished.)

If you’re willing to invest the money and effort (and your landlord will allow this), Brown suggests building a faux wall with wardrobe doors. Drill a sliding rack onto your ceiling, and install light wardrobe doors that can slide back and forth. Consider something with frosted panes that won’t block natural light.

Mimi Montgomery is a writer and editor in D.C.