Make the Most of the Closet You Have

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Mercer Interior designed this Brooklyn storage solution. Photo: Emily Gilbert

Mercer Interior designed this Brooklyn storage solution. Photo: Emily Gilbert

Take heart, the first day of spring is less than one month away. Time to make a spring cleaning strategy, starting with your closet.

If yours is cluttered with jumbled stacks of sweaters, more hangers than can actually fit and that one box full of sentimental items you never use but can’t bear to part with, you’re not alone. We’ve consulted experts from the interior design and organization world to help us work through our closets issues.

Since New York closets are in a class of their own, (read: smaller and dearer than average) we’ve divided this guide up by specific closet challenge. Whatever your closet size, the main rules are the same: categorize, part with your junk and work with the space you have.

Teeny Tiny Closet
Tiny or small closets can be both a curse and a blessing. If you try to pack too much in there, you’ll never find what you need. On the flip side, it forces you to only store what you can. “There will be hard choices, but it’s about asking yourself what kind of end result you want,” according to Elizabeth Aurandt of Mercer Interior.

Aurandt, who is a member of the Designer Society of America and graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, is all about being realistic and facing the “tear down” process. “With every closet I’ve done, we’ve always had to tear down and reduce things,” she says. “The more you can refine, the better the end result will be.”

Aurandt’s Tips:

  • Organize and group the items by what will be folded, half-hung or fully hung—this determines what kind of storage (mostly hangers versus mostly shelves versus a mix) you will need
  • Bins and boxes are your friends, and can vary in price points but bring the same, organized, end result
  • For seasonal things, if you can’t store them in boxes or a storage bed, don’t be afraid to have them out with your current items
  • Use all the vertical space you possibly can. If you’re sharing a tiny closet with someone who doesn’t own dresses or suits that require hanging, consider using that empty space for a shoe rack, bins or boxes

Bonus: Save space by folding items and storing them on their sides–think of it like a filing cabinet full of sweaters. This way, you’re not rummaging through things and ruining the space to get to your item. This technique can be used for baskets or drawers, and eliminates messy piles.

: You can expect to spend anywhere from $100 to $500, depending on the system you choose to use. Aurandt often suggests Ikea products to her clients, which include busy professionals like lawyers and doctors. Ikea’s solid wood products have Aurandt’s stamp of approval, as does the Pax Wardrobe system.

Bins or boxes that match look neater and more pulled together. Photo:, Jennifer Morris

Bins or boxes that match look neater and more pulled together. Photo:, Jennifer Morris

Normal Sized Closet with Way Too Many Things
Unlike tiny closets, storage areas that are one size bigger may give the illusion of having more space than you actually have. Yes, you can fit more storage bins, hang more dresses and acquire more cute vintage coats, but over time, without organization, your closet will burst.

Before tackling the actual closet, interior design consultant Jennifer Morris recommends journaling.

“I am big on function in my process,” she says. “So I ask my clients to really journal their process of either getting dressed or getting something out of your kitchen pantry. If you take too many steps, there is a problem.” Grouping and logging are lifesavers, according to Morris, whose clientel has ranged from Bobby Flay and Emeril Lagasse’s restaurants to residential properties for single professionals and families.

Morris’ Tips:

  • Do an inventory: pull everything out at once or in sections and come up with groups and categories—start with broad breakdowns, then go into more detail from there. If the categories get too specific, you can run the risk of not being able to remember them
  • Anything you don’t need day-to-day should be stored on the sides or shelves above the main space
  • Create a chart of your closet with a simple diagram of what goes where so you can go back to it when things go messy, then tape your diagram inside the closet wall or door
  • For seasonal items, place in a clearly marked bin and mark in your chart
  • If you have shelves, place them at various heights, but not too high (as this will encourage stacking—an easy way to lose track of items)
  • Three or fewer is a magic stacking number. Any more than that, and it’s easy to get jumbled or forgotten

Bonus: Morris recommends one bin for memorabilia and items you can’t seem to part with. Put the bin in the furthest reaches of your closet and come back to it in six months or a year to edit and get a gut check on its value to you. Clear bins, containers, big labels and photos are also helpful for organization.

Resources: Depending on how much updating you’re doing to the actual closet space (rather than your clothes), Morris recommends investing in closet systems designed by Easy Closets (“You can get a great working layout with the website design tool”) and The Container Store’s Elfa system (“They have really inexpensive wall mounted options with bins”). Otherwise, some simple sorting, purging and a new set of bins or shelves are affordable at places like Ikea or The Container Store.

Wonk designs and makes custom storage solutions in Brooklyn. Photo: Wonk

Wonk designs and makes custom storage solutions in Brooklyn. Photo: Wonk

No Closet Space
Creative peeps, it’s time to work your magic.

Whether you’re updating the bins and racks in your closet-less abode (like a small studio or loft) or seriously considering a custom-designed storage unit, here is your chance to be the interior designer you’ve always fantasized about becoming.

“Usually loft spaces without closets means you’ll have to buy something or make something yourself,” says interior designer and Parsons alum Daniel Bontrop. “In that way it can be fun to make your own storage solutions but it also means that you’re putting in your time and energy.”

“Creating storage in an open space offers many options but since storage becomes part of the décor it must be done thoughtfully,” echoes Diana Pearl of Wonk, a 10-year-old furniture company based in Clinton Hill.

If you already have a freestanding clothing rack (like this one from Ikea), Bontrop suggests adding a wood plank shelf to the base to serve as a secure place for shoeboxes and canvas boxes for accessories, socks and undergarments. “If you line up two or three of these rack and shelf [units] you will create a nice long element in your loft space,” he says.

Bontrop’s Tips:

  • Group like items with like items so that in a tight space, what you’re looking for is easier to find
  • If available, use the few inches in the back of your storage area for items that can store flat or with hooks
  • Store seasonal items in unused luggage or areas that are harder to access like high shelves or under the bed
  • Donate what you haven’t used in one year’s time
  • Keep all storage elements consistent and if possible, from the same design or line of storage solutions
  • Avoid anything plastic because this looks cheap
If DIY isn't your think, the Etsy shop Maverick Industrial makes clothing racks. Photo: Maverick Industrial

If DIY isn’t your thing, the Etsy shop Maverick Industrial makes cool clothing racks. Photo: Maverick Industrial

Resources: Depending on how many you need and can fit in your space, clothing racks, wood planks and canvas boxes can cost you approximately $60 to $150 per set. Price can also vary by the quality of your planks and clothing racks. Home Depot or Lowe’s will probably get you the best deal. If you’re not into the DIY scene, you can purchase something very similar on Etsy for about $275 and up.

For Pearl, who works with clients on the hunt for custom-designed storage units, it’s all about balancing an area’s cubic feet, current and future storage needs and the client’s personal touch. “It takes a while to decide if you want to spend money,” she says of the customization process. “It’s a daunting task for so many people. We try to make it as user friendly as we can. You’re starting with nothing and you’re going to come out with something unique and one-of-a-kind.”

Part of Wonk’s recipe is a thorough revision stage, which can include photographs of past projects, sketches and finish samples. Each piece is handcrafted in their wood shop in Bushwick. From the drawing board to the final screw of a shelf or cabinet, the makeover can take up to 12 weeks.

Pearl’s Tips:

  • Organize and categorize what gets folded, hung and stored
  • Don’t forget about your shoes or your jewelry
  • Seasonal items can go in higher shelves, lower drawers, trunks or bins
  • If clothes are exposed on hanging racks, group by color (create a “color block”) or use large neutral colored hanging garment bags to protect items from dust
  • Don’t try to fill each and every cubic feet, save room for future items

Cost: Pricing depends on size, features and finishes, explains Pearl–a closet design with a bureau that stands 6 or 7 ft. high could cost up to $5,000. The number of drawers in your unit can also increase labor and material costs. Fixed shelves will cost more than adjustable shelves. Bamboo and gloss finish also adds up.

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