How to make your small office space look and feel bigger, (and happier)

Small space solutions are obviously very popular. So when I decided to redo my office, I figured I should really assert all my small space knowledge to make this office work.

Ready for the breakdown, friends? Here’s how and why I transformed my office … (This pic is right after we moved in, don’t worrry.)

The goal: To make this small space functional for two people, and feel pulled together but visually quiet. As much as I love contrast and color, for this room I really just wanted it to be calm and fresh. Frankly, there is so much mental and physical chaos that happens everyday here that I needed it to have a calm and serene background.

1. Paint your walls/background white or a light color. Done. As you know, lighter colors make a room feel bigger, darker smaller. (Although you’ve probably heard me lecture that a very small space without natural light shouldn’t be white or it will look “dead.”) My walls are “Oyster Shell” from Benjamin Moore, which is a very soft blue-gray. It’s quiet and calming and almost white, but it contrasts nicely with the molding. Low contrast = not very busy.

2. Keep the color palette very simple. I chose white, blues (duh) with pops of green (just in the plants) and gold/brass.

photo by Kimberly Genevieve

3. Choose symmetry whenever possible. Reduce the amount of contrast in the furniture. Instead of eclectic desks and different vintage chairs, I decided to do matching desks (see sources) and matching vintage chairs with matching sconces above them. Symmetry is just so calming. Your eye doesn’t need to bounce around to see everything because everything is really simple to understand immediately. It reduces the chaos in an instant. You can keep personality in by mixing styles and finishes, but keep the furniture very same-sy if you want your space to feel bigger and cleaner. “Same-sy” — that’s an architectural term, not sure if you know it.

photo by Kimberly Genevieve

4. Don’t clutter the middle of the room with massive furniture. Oh I thought about getting a huge table for us to sit at because I love a big ass work table, but two smaller desks off to the side keep the room feeling so open and big. They also allow for the much needed walkway from the sliding glass door to our bedroom.

photo by Kimberly Genevieve

5. Go with sconces instead of lamps whenever possible. Sconces free up important real estate on tabletops. By taking them off the tables and attaching them to the wall, you’re making the desk way more functional and keeping the desk a lot free-er. Plus these wall sconces don’t have to be hard wired, but their chord is covered by a super chic chord cover so it looks more intentional than a chord hanging down.

photo by Kimberly Genevieve

6. Choose shades over curtains. Curtains/drapes are great in living rooms and bedrooms, where you want a lot of softness and texture and dare I say romance and glamour. BUT in the office, you want it to feel really organized and clean and curtains can add a lot of movement and distraction, especially if you have so many windows like I do. So having shades kept it so much cleaner and made it feel so much bigger. I got these at The Shade Store and I love them VERY much. I highly recommend you don’t mess around with cheap Roman shades. I have before and regretted it. These are so strong, such high quality, and if something goes wrong with them I can call the company and they’ll fix ‘em.

I thought about getting a pattern, but I wanted something more timeless and less busy. I thought about getting a dark color, but then when they are up, they would be a dark messy stripe around the top of the room and I wanted it to feel cleaner. I thought about getting white, but that seemed way too safe and could look too “ready made” and I wanted these to be more custom. I chose a color that was closest to the color of the wall, but in raw silk! It’s really beautiful and textural and slightly reflective. I love them very much. Again, less fabric/movement, less contrast in color = cleaner and quieter. I got a flat panel, so it’s more modern, but for a more traditional/romantic look you could get it pleated … there are a million options. Check out this post on ready made options.

photo by Kimberly Genevieve

7. Match your storage pieces. I have white lacquer Ikea Pax units across from the desks, so I got white lacquer filing cabinets and white lacquer desks. Mixing is totally fine and great, but if you are starting from scratch and want a clean modern feel, then try to keep the storage pieces either matching or high contrast — beige with white can look dirty and weird. Wood and white? Great. White and black? Great, but high contrast obviously. Office furniture doesn’t have to be stylish and often the more stylish pieces (like vintage filing cabinets) aren’t terribly functional.

UPDATE:  Since the shoot I’ve added white filing cabinets under the console. I didn’t have them in time to shoot them but that was always kinda the plan:

One is for clients, one is for office/blog, and one is for all things personal. It is totally amazing. I searched for these, making sure they were the perfect fit for that console. I really didn’t want to spend over $150 each since I was getting three of them. These are from Ikea and I can’t seem to find them on the site right now, they were super hard to find in the first place.  They are categorized as something strange not, “filing cabinet,” but the Eric is similar, $69.99. These that I bought were the last three within three Ikeas. I had to drive to two Ikeas and 45 miles to buy them, but they are totally worth it.

And then just to give you a sense of the space with relationship to the cabinets, I took this Instagram:

8. Bring in style with accessories, storage, and plants (but within the color palette). I’m not good at leaving surfaces totally empty, but I didn’t want a ton of clutter, so I chose to mix plants and objects in glass domes (to bring pretty reflection and still feel “light”), with pretty design books.

9. Minimize your patterns. The rug is my pattern and it’s bright and fairly bold, so I decided not to bring in any other patterns. Again, more contrast means more visual chaos.

Overall, I love how the office looks and I love going into it every morning. I never knew how emotionally influenced I was by my lack of pretty work space (which is why I REALLY need to redo my nasty rental kitchen) because now I love working at 7am, when the sun has just risen.

So hey big corporations, here’s some advice: If you make your offices attractive and pretty, people will work harder and happier. I can absolutely attest to that.

In case you want to “get the look,” which would flatter ever so much, here are my major sources:

West Elm Rug (different, but similar vibe), The Shade Store shades, Lamps Plus sconces, Lamps Plus semi-flush mount fixture, Dwell Studio vessels and gold animal, chrome chair (mine are vintage, but these are similar — although make sure they are high enough to be desk chairs before you purchase).

What do you guys think? Could you work here?

  1. Tonia

    So fresh. So clean. I'm sure you come up with some fabulous ideas in there. Love love love it!

  2. About to do an overhaul on my studio and this is just the post I needed to direct me. Thanks Emily Henderson!

  3. LOVE this space on so many levels. Those three filing cabinets under the console is genius. I always struggle in the office between function and style. I mean, there is nothing sexy about a printer and my space feels terribly functional. Def will be using this guide as inspiration.

  4. jordi

    Thanx for the tips. Your workplace is pretty aswesome. You always give me some greath ideas!

  5. Shayna

    It's a little crazy how obsessed I am with that light fixture. It's perfect six ways til Sunday. Have any tips on wall color in a small room with a ton of windows but not a ton of light (crowded by a tree and neighbors)? Thanks!

  6. Nicolle

    Love it…but missed where the desks are from?

  7. Oh how I miss having a pretty office space! We've been moving every 3-6 months thanks to my hubby's job and our last 4 rentals I've had to work at the kitchen table. Definitely not inspiring..

    Love how serene this room is and the plants really add warmth and life. Love it!

  8. chloecolette

    thank you for these tips! your office is gorgeous!

  9. Dawn J

    What a beautiful space- I LOVE it. We're moving to a new house next month and I would love our office to be inspired by this one. That light fixture is officially on my wish list. Where are the desks from?

  10. Just today I was remembering my last job, with a grey cubicle in a grey office with beige carpet, fluorescent lights and no windows. It made me feel like a lab rat rather than a person.

    I know that if I could work in an office like yours, I would feel much happier and more motivated to create. One day when I'm rich and have my own personal art studio, I will hire you to decorate it!

  11. Liz

    Could you please share a source for the cord covers? I can't seem to find any other than the boring white plastic ones.

  12. Love love. I especially appreciate the instagram add-on for size perspective. Your design makes it seem so big! I can just feel the warm California sun coming through those windows (well, almost, it's snowing in Colorado and I'm sitting in front of a space heater).

  13. Kendra

    gorgeous! love the colors and the light airy feel. would LOVE to work in a space like that!

  14. love the space! these tips are so helpful since i need to design an office space for myself.

  15. lilia

    love what you've done with the place! dying over that console — from where?

  16. anon

    I absolutely agree that a great space equals a happy more functional person. I think people underestimate what good design can do for them.

    Your office looks beautiful. Well done.

  17. Kris

    I love this transformation! That little succulent corner is so cute!

  18. stella g.

    So, after seeing your plant situation and that killer "Dwell Studio vessels" as we'll call them, I've decided I'll be learning to macrame this weekend. Thank you, once again, for adding to my to-do list in such a way that my house will someday look as amazing as yours.

  19. Yes! You just affirmed that my new office ought to be white and modern. I was debating but you're right about the dark color in a small room issue. Thanks for the link to your resources, too,

  20. Meredith

    Love the new look! I copied your office wall color in my own office/future nursery. It's very soothing and I actually want to spend time in there. Now I'm coveting those roman shades and all of your accessories. Never thought I was a hanging plant person, but you've changed my mind! Off to check which room will host a future hanging vessel :)

  21. Donna

    I love, love, love your office Emily, the star ceiling light is AMAZING!!! I did white walls in my art studio too, the calm atmosphere let's the creative juices flow.

    PS……LOVE your show!!!

  22. Suzanne

    LOVE this post and even have come back to reread a couple times. Did you say where the wall sconces are from? Love them especially.

  23. Jennifer

    Can you source that lovely silver box/rattan-ish storage thingey under the desk? I've been searching high and low for something just like that…thanks!

  24. kelly

    I think the desks are Ikea…

  25. Randy

    WOW! Beautiful! What a before and after! Love this room:)

  26. Paula

    I LOVE this transformation, as always! Can you link to where the desk are from please?

  27. Jessi

    love it!! i needed this too. i have a sunroom very similar to this that I want to use as an office/room for the dog to hangout in during the day/eventually a playroom for future kiddos. I love everything about this! I'm stuck on what floors to get though, don't want hardwood since the dog will be in there all day. Hmmm…. anyways I pinned this!

  28. Maddie

    Wow! Love it! And even though I LOVE huge desks, your arrangement with the smaller desks is awesome and really does make the room feel so open. And there is a similar Persian Hand-knotted Navy wool rug on Overstock right now!

    Link:
    http://www.overstock.com/Worldstock-Fair-Trade/Persian-Hand-knotted-Isfahan-Navy-Light-Blue-Wool-Rug-101-x-148/7156970/product.html?SID=tfc_-_8_9_130114_70b390f011c9dfbd1ae9840183a11f92:0000&TRACK=affcjfeed&PID=1609763&AID=10654383&CID=207442&fp=F

    welliestyle.com

  29. Donna

    Love the light fixture! I actually saw that online and was like 'eh. But in your room it just works so well. Also love the blue rug and all the plants. I think plants are an overlooked resource for texture and color.

  30. You've got another winner. It helps that I love blues as much as I do, and white is a runner-up. As always, you did a bang-up job of mixing high-end pieces with low-end pieces, as well as mixing new with vintage.

    Seeing your rug reminds me that I need to get over my obsession with modern graphic printed rugs. I mean, I love a modern graphic print. But you and Jenny Komenda always amaze me with your vintage rugs. If I were to see them on my own, they would look old and stodgy to me. But when I see them in place, I love them and they help bring both warmth and a maturity to the space. Maturity is one thing I need to work on in my spaces. I love all colors of blue, and I love pops of other bright colors, but sometimes it gets too immature-looking, especially when I've got a lot of graphic prints, too. Would love to see you do a post about how to use bold colors and graphic prints, but how to do that and make the room look mature and expensive as well!

  31. Sunne

    That light!!!

  32. Wendy Lee

    It looks great! I love the lighting and the rug.

  33. Jelena

    LOVE, love this room! You did an amazing job! I am in love with that ceiling light and thought it might work well in our bedroom. In your room that light looks perfectly proportioned. However, on the web site it is stated that it is 26 inches long which seems too long for our bedroom. I was wandering if that is a description mistake or if your home has non-standard (8 feet) high ceilings. Thanks.

  34. TR Mac

    I like the Milo Baughman chairs here. I thought I had seen 'em before, so I searched for Milo on the site and found the Mike & Amy episode. Re-watched it and got a kick of how much they didn't like the first look. Funny, awkward, and slightly tense? You really pulled that one out with the second look. And re-orienting the living and dining rooms made soooo much sense. So did they ultimately give back the Milo chairs or are they different ones? Do the homeowners get to keep everything in the ultimate look? You mentioned in that show's blog that they don't pay for the furniture. Do they pay for anything?

    Nice job on the office!

  35. Lauren

    Hey Emily- great post, love the look of your office!
    Just wanted to give you a heads-up about a frequent typo you seem to make on here- a cord for a lamp doesn't have an "h"- "chord" spelled that way refers to a a musical chord. Just an FYI :)
    Thanks again for the great post!

  36. Hmm it looks like your site ate my first comment (it was super long) so I guess I’ll just sum it up what I wrote and say, I’m thoroughly enjoying your blog. I too am an aspiring blog blogger but I’m still new to the whole thing. Do you have any tips for novice blog writers? I’d definitely appreciate it.

  37. Carmen

    Love your space. It all looks so pretty and peaceful. It is really fantastic how you put everything together. I was wondering if you remembered the name of the filing cabinet by any chance. It would fit perfectly in my space and couldn’t find it online anywhere. Thanks so much!

  38. I love the door handles you added to the closets to dress them up. Can you share your source? I’m looking for something similar but in polished chrome. Thanks in advance.

  39. Wow, this is great. I also have very small office space but that is not looking good as yours. You have arranged that nicely. I want to apply this to my office space too. Thanks a lot.

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  43. lexie

    this is an EMERGENCY. the link to the star semi-flushmount ceiling lamp is defunct and i must have that fixture. someone please help me source this! thanks.

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  47. Marrika

    I’m in agreement with lexie – I NEED that star ceiling fixture, but they no longer sell it… Any ideas on where to find it?

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