How to Downsize Like an Interior Designer

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Lots of people have lots of different ideas about how to downsize. Some tackle one drawer at a time over months. Others say you need to tackle your whole house at once, or you’ll end up just moving things around and never making hard decisions. Some people say you should pull everything out of a room or closet, and then consciously choose what you’ll put back in, choosing only those items that “bring you joy” or that are absolute necessities.

I’ve got a different method, and it comes from my experience as a designer. What I do — and what I want you to do — is decorate your storage areas just like you’d decorate a room in your home. A closet is just a room, after all, and a drawer is just a small closet. You can apply interior design principles to spaces that are very, very interior.

Instead of focusing on the furniture, we’re going to focus on the space. We want organization. Room to move. Flexibility. Convenience. Flow. All of these, and some delightful surprises. Don’t think we can make that happen in a closet? Just watch.

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As an example, we’ll use my china closet.  

Step 1. Remove everything. Find a good place to put it, so that you can see it all. Check for damage, cracks, chips, etc., and set aside anything that you wouldn’t put on your table.

Step 2. Clean and refresh. The cleaning is obvious, but how about a fresh coat of bright paint behind that white cabinet door? You’re about to turn your collection (of china and glassware, of shoes, of socket wrenches — it doesn’t matter) into something spectacular, and that means starting with a beautiful space to store it in.

Step 3. Start with your favorite thing. Pick something you love, something that sparks joy. Put it front and center, at eye level so you see it first. Even if you don’t use it a lot, it’s going to be the centerpiece of your closet décor, so it’s working just by creating visual appeal.

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Step 4. Pick the necessities. And I mean real necessities, the things you use most often. Put them back in the cabinet in a place where you can reach them easily. Don’t crowd them in — you want to be able to reach in and grab them without having to shuffle things around, ideally with one hand. Repeat this for all the things you need on hand, filling all the shelves from eye level to knee level. Keep your rows straight!

Step 5. Divide and conquer. Look back at what’s left in your pile. Starting from the most beautiful/useful, place things back in the closet. You can pack these items in more tightly since you won’t be accessing them as often, but don’t let things get messy.

Step 6. Find the other necessities. Do you have a couple of items that don’t quite fit, but you use at least every other month, or for entertaining a large group? Or maybe they are items that aren’t particularly attractive? In that case, put them on the very top shelf or find a place in the garage.  

Step 7. Donate the misfits. Give it away — everything that’s not in the closet — to relatives, or charities, or neighbors. Just get rid of it.

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When this exercise is over, you are going to have a lot less stuff. You may feel a twinge of regret when you think “I used to have the most perfect gravy boat for this sauce,” but that’s likely to happen twice in the rest of your lifetime. In exchange for that, you have given yourself a beautiful new closet, one that brings you joy every time you open the door. You’ve also given yourself permission to use the items you truly love more often, since you don’t have to rotate through your entire collection (and because they’re easier to get to).

I’ve got to tell you, that’s a pretty awesome swap.

What have been your great downsizing successes? What’s your method for clearing out and straightening up? Let me know in comments.


Mary Spalding is a Nashville based interior designer with over 30 years of experience. She has overseen countless home revitalizations, renovations, and restorations. She can be reached with your projects and ideas at mary@spaldingway.com.

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