Apartment therapy: The doctor now is in

For 15 years, Maxwell Gillingham-Ryan lived in a 265-square-foot one-bedroom apartment in New York City. Last winter, with his wife and 1-year-old in tow, he upgraded to a “really huge” two-bedroom. It's 725 square feet.

But a new small-space challenge is just another day at the design office for a guy who has made a living out of helping to transform the homes of clients (and now Web surfers), regardless of the size of their space. Gillingham-Ryan is the founder of Apartment Therapy, one of the first and most well-known design blogs ( He started the company in 2001 as a one-man interior design service and went online in 2004 to share resources with his clients. Today, the site is visited by 1.5 million viewers a month.

He has written his second book, “Apartment Therapy Presents: Real Homes, Real People, Hundreds of Real Design Solutions” (Chronicle Books, $27.50), which brings together three years of the site's popular House Tours (virtual visits to readers' homes). The homes featured are owned and rented, are located across the country and vary in size (from Gillingham-Ryan's teeny rental to a 2,200-square-foot two-bedroom in Illinois).

We chatted with Gillingham-Ryan about design blogs, the new book and small-space living.

Q: Are you surprised by the proliferation of design blogs?

No. Design in this country is on track to continue to grow. Just like the “gourmet effect” on food in the U.S. in the past 20 years, we're seeing the same things in interiors and design. I believe that in five years, men will not only be talking about getting chairs for the dining room table, but they will be talking about the Philippe Starck chair. America is getting more sophisticated, and concern and care for the home among younger people is very real.

Q: What are the most important things to consider when living in a small space?

Clutter. Most clutter is generated the moment you walk through the door with your bag, cell phone, mail, shoes, coats, keys. To handle this, create a landing strip: When you come home, everything gets parked as close to the front door as possible.

Using a landing strip also means when you're rushing out in the morning, you know where everything is. This is especially important when you have kids, because when they can get to something, they will grab it. Ideally, a front hall should have a side table, a wastepaper basket, a mirror, a light and coat hooks.

Spaces feel smaller when they are dark. Lighting is really important, and most people have homes that are underlit. There should be at least three points of light in every room. Mirrors are also great for reflecting light and allowing your eye to travel through the wall, making your space feel larger.

If your budget allows, custom cabinetry is really nice. You could save money on furniture and instead invest in plywood and hire a handyman to build a bed or cabinets.

Q: What are common mistakes people make in small spaces?

The most common things I see are: people trying to pack too much in and not realizing how the sense of size can easily be manipulated with a few interior design tricks.

Space needs to breathe: It needs to be open and airy in order to feel good and comfortable. Paring down and simplifying are essential elements in a move to a smaller space. Don't think of it as punishment; think of it as the creation of new opportunities.

People often look at small spaces and give up hope, but they shouldn't. The feeling of a space is created by how the eye moves around a room. If you can change the eye patterns, you can really make your space feel a lot bigger. The biggest tricks here are more lighting, indirect or below eye level when standing; light, bright walls and trim; a dark floor or a dark rug on a light floor to ground the space and provide a contrast to the light walls; having 10 percent of empty space in any closet, shelf, cabinet or room. This creates an airy and open feel that is essential in enlarging mental and visual boundaries.

Q: Do you have any tips for renters decorating temporary spaces?

Too many people treat rentals as temporary and say they are waiting for the day they make their home. Start today. But if your landlord doesn't allow you to make many big changes, there's still a lot you can do. … Start investing in good furniture that you love and will keep for a long time. These are building blocks. ... Keep everything clean, including the windows. Any home or apartment can be totally transformed by a deep cleaning.

Q: What was your biggest design mistake?

I didn't measure the room I was working on closely enough and ordered a few pieces of furniture that ended up being way too big and looking ridiculous when they arrived. Luckily, I called the manufacturer immediately and was able to return the pieces. But ever since then I always measure very carefully before placing a furniture order.