10 Ways To Upgrade Your Small Space For Free

We’re bombarded by images of the ideal home — the apartments we should have, made perfect by the decorators we don’t. Yes, we love the inspiration, but the reality falls nowhere near our budget. So, we must think outside our box-shaped studios — and get a little help from a pro interior designer like Thomas Altamirano, founder of Studio Alta

Inspired by HGTV‘s new series Flipping The Block — where four teams renovate rundown condos — Altamirano’s showing us how to elevate a space with zero cash. From creating vignettes with random trinkets to repurposing old books, these genius tips can turn the cheapest pieces into major statements. We might still be holding out hope to win the lottery, but we just hit the domestic jackpot. Now, it’s your turn.

Photographed by Alice Gao

Lower your bed frame to fake higher ceilings. 
We might not all be blessed with large, expansive rooms, but Altamirano says the secret to making any space feel like a loft is “creating a low eye line [with your bed], which opens up a larger, airy volume above.” He recommends dropping your bed frame if it has height-adjustment options, removing the box spring, or abolishing the frame altogether and placing your mattress on the floor. Last tip: Any wall art should be minimal and placed close to the bed frame.

Photographed by Marcos Fecchino

Mix and match distinct items with common details. 
Think about your chairs as besties: They’re not identical, but they have enough in common to make a great group. Each is unique, but all are light in color, similar in size, and feature thin, wooden dowel legs. Besides, Altamirano says, “Nothing is more boring than a matching furniture set.”

Photographed by Amelia Alpaugh

Turn everyday items into art — and still use them.
Not only is this whole table a cutting board (genius), but arranging the pots and pans on the peg board above actually makes them ornamental. Turning necessities into decor is a free way to upgrade any room and a space-saver to boot.

Photographed by Gunnar Larson

Add pops of color to a neutral foundation. 
The brights in this room feel subtle, not juvenile, because the canvas is a simple white bedspread and black-and-white blanket. Altamirano recommends “developing your interior space with a good foundation of neutrals, so that you can introduce brighter hues, such as pillows, vases, and art.” 

To build this space without spending a dime, Altamirano suggests taking stock of your belongings and organizing them into complementing groups. You might find a color story forming, like the citrus hues here. Then, keep all the coordinating pieces and sell the furniture that doesn’t belong. You can use your extra cash to fill in any gaps with throw-pillow covers and vases.

Photographed by Marcos Fecchino

Display notes, posters, and pictures on a modern chalkboard. 
This magnetic display board makes rearranging mementos a breeze. You can buy magnetic chalkboard paint that turns any wall into a presentation or pinup wall (and it’s pretty freakin’ cool) for less than $10. But, to go the totally free route, you can reuse any old cork board. Just align your keepsakes symmetrically for a “I did this on purpose” look.

Photographed by Marcos Fecchino

Create depth by breaking up your matching sets. 
Depth and contrast like this “are only achieved by stepping away from the matchy-matchy aesthetic,” says Altamirano. If you’ve got coordinating sets and accessories in one room, try mixing different textured items together. Here, the eclectic mashup of a brick wall, wood floors, upholstered chair, weathered antique bench, and varied artworks creates visual interest in the room.

Photographed by Alice Gao

Group similar items together to create a focal point. 
This taxidermy collection confirms the desk as the central piece in a space that might otherwise seem cluttered. If mounted deer heads aren’t your thing, use some graphic-patterned dinner plates or that pile of seashells you’ve been hoarding.

Photographed by Gunnar Larson

Turn sentimental items into sweet ornaments. 
Altamirano recommends giving rooms a serious edit before a refresh. But, if there are things you can’t part with (like the designer belt you never wear), make ’em work for your space. With a handful of old books and said belt, you can create a lovely new room accessory.

Photographed by Gunnar Larson

Combine contrasting influences with similar proportions. 
The trick to mixing different pieces is choosing items of complementary scale. The depth of this room (which is what makes it so fun to look at) comes from the uniquely layered textures and finishes of the furniture, art, and furry rug, says Altamirano. Bottom line: Don’t be afraid to mix it up.

Photographed by Marc Iantosca

Incorporate lighthearted extras into functional spaces. 
An undersized shelf in your bookcase makes a perfect niche for trinkets and serves to lighten the mood in a room full of functional basics. “My home is strewn with Mexican wrestler dolls, dinosaurs, and masks,” says Altamirano. (A man after our own hearts.)

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