Designers Sarah Roussos-Karakaian and Nick Karakaian strategically placed this mirror in their basement Airbnb to not only provide an opportunity for guests to check their appearance before heading out for the day but also to reflect light from the only window in the space. Picture: Kris Rogers Photography/Washington Post

Washington - Cramped rooms with little natural light are challenging to decorate.

We asked designers how renters can optimize these tricky spaces and feel like homes. Here are their tips:

Keep it cool

"Lighter, brighter, cooler colors help the walls recede," said Jaye Langmaid, owner of Hudson & Crane, an urban design studio in Washington, D.C. Light blues and grays can make a small room feel larger and enhance limited natural light. But don't be afraid to accent a wall in a darker colour, which can lengthen an oblong room or hall. Stay away from warm colours, which may make a small space feel crowded.

Raise the roof

Shannon Claire Smith, a D.C.-based interior decorator and design blogger, said that renters have a number of ways to make low ceilings appear higher. "I always have clients try to stretch the walls as high as they can," Smith said. "A darker colour on the ceiling makes it look like the night sky - you don't know where it ends." Hang floor-length drapery panels, or arrange artwork gallery-style so that it fills walls from floor to ceiling. If you don't have enough artwork to do that, a few large pieces can have the same effect.

Add mirrors

Decorative mirrors create an illusion of space and light. "Mirrors can help reflect what little natural light comes into a basement apartment," said Sarah Roussos-Karakaian, who co-founded the artisan contracting and design team Nestrs with her husband, Nick Karakaian. "The light bounces around your space." Floor-length mirrors, too, can make a low ceiling look higher.

Pussy willows work well in basements abodes because they don't require watering and have an interesting texture. Picture: Kris Rogers Photography/Washington Post

Look to the past

There's nothing new about trying to make the best of a small, oddly shaped space. To find furniture that will fit down narrow stairwells and into cramped rooms, check out French, English and Japanese antiques, said Rachel Dougan, founder and principal designer of ViVi Interiors. "In Paris, you had really tiny alleyways and stairwells," Dougan said. "These vintage pieces were made for smaller spaces to begin with . . . and they're made to be disassembled and put together again." Dougan especially recommends "campaign furniture," originally made for soldiers on the move. If you don't like the old-timey aesthetic, she said, you can always add a fresh coat of paint to an antique piece.

Lighten up

Overhead lighting in rented apartments tends to be less than flattering, said designer Anna Matthews, who suggests buying lamps that will warm up the space.


Get the most out of a small space by purchasing furniture with more than one function. "Have all your furniture be multipurpose," Roussos-Karakaian said. Couches can pull out to double as beds for overnight guests, and coffee tables with built-in shelves can serve as storage space. Roussos-Karakaian also recommends wall-mounted shelves: Use them as bookcases or fill them with decorative storage baskets.

A darker colour on a low ceiling can make it appear higher, D.C.-based designer Shannon Claire Smith says. Picture: Shannon Claire Smith/Washington Post