How to style a small living room – 8 tried-and-tested decor tips from the world's best designers

Use our top small living room styling ideas to make the tiniest of spaces feel perfectly composed...

How to style a small living room
(Image credit: Heidi Caillier / Future / Margaret Ash Design)

Styling a small living room to perfection is a style issue everyone wants to solve. However, it can often go horribly wrong if you don't know where to start. 

In our latest 'how to style' series, we spoke to the experts to find out how they turn a small living room into a space to be admired, including my shopping edit from my personal lust list. 

There are tons of small living room ideas and tricks of the trade to help turn that awkward, small space into something stylish and sophisticated, whatever its shape and proportions and make the most of space in your small living room. So whether you're working with a small apartment living room or a compact sitting room in a family home, you can make the space work best for you with some clever styling. 

How to style a small living room in 8 steps

In a small living space, expert styling is key. So here are our favorite living room ideas for smaller sitting rooms.

1. Start by laying a rug to anchor the space

Small living room with wood floor and rug

(Image credit: Margaret Ash Design / Julia Sperling Photography)

For most of us, rugs are an integral part of our room designs – but often an after-thought, low down on our list of living room ideas, picked to complement the decor we have carefully planned well in advance – and often a compromised choice.

However, as any expert in choosing a rug knows, this decorative element is far more than a low-priority decision – and getting that choice right can be essential to a successful space. 

'An antique rug is often my starting point for an interior: it might be a client’s existing rug or I might source one and build a scheme around it,' says designer Henriette von Stockhausen. 'Just like a lead fabric, the rug should have at least three colors in the design to draw upon and build upwards.'

James Thurstan Waterworth, founder of Thurstan agrees that rugs play an essential role in how a space is received, and should be your first port of call when styling a small living room. 'When working with less spacious rooms, we recommend a considered curation of essential pieces – spreading a large rug as an anchor for the scheme and then building out from there, picking out tones from the rug and embellishing these throughout the room.' 

Amber Lewis for Anthropologie Persian Rug | $47.60 – $698.60 at Anthropologie

Amber Lewis for Anthropologie Persian Rug | $47.60 – $698.60 at Anthropologie

Inspired by ornate Persian rugs, this rendering by Amber Lewis lends a touch of modern flair to a classic design.

2. Let in natural light with the perfect window treatments

Small living room with white shiplap and sisal floor

(Image credit: Becca Interiors / Rikki Snyder)

When thinking about how to design a living room, carefully choosing your textiles should be a priority – and choosing the best living room curtains is crucial to the end result. 

Light helps to brighten up a room instantly, so first and foremost allow any natural light to stream indoors by taking down heavy, dark window coverings. Try sheer window treatments or install white wooden blinds or shutters to let the natural light flow into your room during the day, while simultaneously providing nighttime privacy. 

'Sheers and lightweight fabrics made from natural fibers would be the best option for a relaxed look in a small living room,' says Hayley McAfee, design director at Villa Nova. 'These types of fabrics are naturally floaty and drape exceptionally well. Linen is also a great choice – its natural texture adds a wonderful softness to a space.'

Luxe Linen Blend Curtain | $82.60 – $148.00 $118.00 – $148.00 at Anthropologie 

Luxe Linen Blend Curtain | $82.60 – $148.00 $118.00 – $148.00 at Anthropologie 

This is one of Anthropologie's top-rated, best-selling curtains, and for that reason, it is already in my shopping bag.

3. Don't disregard the importance of statement lighting

Yellow living room with statement lamps

(Image credit: Kit Kemp)

With their delicate interplay between form and function, all small living rooms benefit from a well-executed decorative lighting scheme.

‘Some people feel the need to flood small spaces with ceiling lights to make them feel brighter and therefore larger,' says Claire Sa, director, of De Rosee Sa. 'However, I think atmosphere and dimension can be added to small spaces with different levels of controlled lighting. 

The lowest level might be lamps on side tables; the next would be lamps on a desk, console or chest. Finally, add fewer rather than more directional ceiling lights, positioned closer to the walls and angled away from the center of the room to create a feature glow on, for example, a piece of wall art.’ 

The lighting should be pretty, too. For a colorful look, follow the lead of Kit Kemp, creative director of Firmdale Hotels. Her well-honed eye for cleverly mixing unexpected yet uplifting hues and folk art patterns follows through to her lighting choices, which embrace pairings and mismatched bases.

Poldina Pro Micro Rechargeable LED Portable Table Lamp | $119 at Anthropologie 

Poldina Pro Micro Rechargeable LED Portable Table Lamp | $119 at Anthropologie 

A beautiful combination of elegance, Italian design, portability, and convenience, this LED table lamp is portable, rechargeable, and available in your choice of vibrant shades. 

4. Consider seating arrangements

Small living room in broken plan space with armchairs and gallery wall

(Image credit: Studio Peake / Alexander James)

Practicality is key for small rooms, and the layout and furniture placement you select should not only be able to accommodate your lifestyle but enhance it.

When arranging living room furniture, keep in mind that sofas and chairs should face each other where possible to create 'conversational' seating. 'When you have people over for gatherings, you notice when you’ve got the seating arrangements right, says renowned interior designer, Nina Campbell

'You should always consider a small living room’s layout from a social and practical point of view,' says interior designer Nina Campbell. 'Plan seating in groups to ensure the conversation flows when you have guests and consider scale and how different pieces will sit together.' Do also ensure that guests can 'leave' comfortably without disrupting the flow.'

5. Use soft furnishings to enhance and excite

white living room with gray sofas and two armchairs, tv above console, square wood coffee table

(Image credit: Lindye Galloway Studio + Shop/Chad Mellon)

The soft furnishings in your home play a vital role in the overall look and feel of a space, so choose your materials, colors, and patterns wisely. 

Personally, I prefer to pull colors from my anchor rug (as mentioned earlier), but also from artwork and wallpaper. This will help you decide if in any doubt. 

Interior designer Eva Sonaike likes to involve the entire household in the decision-making. After all, styling a small living room should be fun. 

‘The living room is a communal space and should reflect everyone who lives in the house,' she says. 'It is a room where we socialize, entertain and relax so the design should be functional, but also fun. I like to play with pattern and color here. For example, I might use patterned scatter cushions on a sofa alongside occasional chairs and poufs upholstered in fabrics of your choice. These themes can then be echoed in accessories such as ornaments with colorful designs.’ 

Luxe Linen Blend Pillow | $68.00 – $78.00 at Anthropologie

Luxe Linen Blend Pillow | $68.00 – $78.00 at Anthropologie

Crafted from a luxurious blend of linen and viscose, this pillow features a silky texture that delivers refinement to any sofa, chaise, or bed.

6. Position mirrors to bounce light for a magical feel

A living room mirror idea with large, black-framed tarnished mirror over a black fireplace in a white room

(Image credit: Davide Lovati)

Well-placed mirrors are a small space trick that will enhance rooms without being obvious. It's no secret that mirrors can be used to create an illusion of space, but investing in the right options can make or break a room. 

Anna Franklin, interior designer and founder of Stone House Collective swears by decorating with mirrors in a compact living room: 'In terms of functionality, a mirror can be used to spread natural light and to create the illusion of space. If you have a small living room, consider mounting a large mirror above a fireplace, or style leaning against a focal wall. To maximize light, position mirrors in areas where natural light shines to reflect the light to more dimly lit areas – making the overall space feel brighter throughout the day.'

'Everyone knows mirrors are good at doubling a sense of space but I love a mirror for how it magnifies light and adds a magical mood,' says designer Henriette von Stochausen.

Color-washed Mirror | $128.00 – $2,498.00 at Anthropologie

Color-washed Mirror | $128.00 – $2,498.00 at Anthropologie
No two are exactly alike, and that is what we love about this hand-blown antique finish mirror.  

8. Take a strategic approach to displaying art

Living room with contemporary furniture

(Image credit: Werner Straube Photography)

The way art is displayed can have a truly transformative impact on a small living space. Not only can displaying artwork create engaging visual interest, but done right, it will also instigate a talking point, and is often the final finishing touch that can help pull a whole design scheme together.

No one should feel compelled to fill shelves with books – especially in a room that isn’t intended as a reading space. Shelves can act as art installations in their own right, without parting with thousands of pounds in the process. 

Displaying objects of the same kind creates a meaningful and significant statement and sense of repetition – but the items don’t need to be high art. The act of styling a shelf and putting objects together on display using a strong color scheme can create a coherent thread and a beautiful visual impact. 

Don't be afraid to include plenty of color and pattern. As interior designer, Kit Kemp says, 'it pays to be bold – stick to your guns. Colors that speak to you will bring life and personality to your interiors.'

AP8 Guy Bourdin framed print | $1,865 at Net-A-Porter

AP8 Guy Bourdin framed print | $1,865 at Net-A-Porter
Dramatize your walls with a piece of art that provides a striking design statement. 

Big Bubble gold-plated porcelain vase | $600 at Net-A-Porter

Big Bubble gold-plated porcelain vase | $600 at Net-A-Porter
Crafted by Italy's finest porcelain artisans, La DoubleJ's 'Big Bubble' vase will make a stunning addition to any display shelf or coffee table.

Light helps to brighten up a room instantly, so first and foremost allow any natural light to stream indoors by taking down heavy, dark window coverings. Try sheer window treatments or install white wooden blinds or shutters to let the natural light flow into your room during the day, while simultaneously providing nighttime privacy. 

Plus, wide horizontal slats help to magnify the illusion of a wider room. Dark corners can make a room appear small and cramped so position a floor or table lamp in a bare corner to visually expand the area, while recessed ceiling lights can illuminate an entire room without taking up much space.

Jennifer Ebert

Jennifer is the Digital Editor at Homes & Gardens. Having worked in the interiors industry for a number of years, spanning many publications, she now hones her digital prowess on the 'best interiors website' in the world. Multi-skilled, Jennifer has worked in PR and marketing, and the occasional dabble in the social media, commercial and e-commerce space. Over the years, she has written about every area of the home, from compiling design houses from some of the best interior designers in the world to sourcing celebrity homes, reviewing appliances and even the odd news story or two.