An overcrowded closet is a daily frustration: sweaters fall off the shelves, shoes that seem to disappear into a black hole, clothes rails crammed with so many hangers that pushing another closet together takes herculean strength. So we force the door shut and try to ignore the problem even as we accumulate more stuff.
But there is a solution – and it’s not just about getting rid of clothes. Designing your wardrobe the way you want can help maximize space and make your storage space more functional.
“A closet should never be an afterthought,” said Jessica Schuster, a New York interior designer. “Your clothes are important to your identity and how you present yourself to the world. That’s why I always try to create a space that feels like an extension of the house.”
Of course, that’s easier said than done. Maximizing closet space can be so difficult that even professional interior designers like Ms. Schuster sometimes turn to specialist closet designers or organizational experts for help. “There are some amazing systems and organization tips and tricks these people can teach you,” she said. “I learned a lot.”
We asked some of them to share some of their wisdom.
Pull everything out
You can’t create an efficient closet if you don’t know what to organize.
“Often times, people design their dream closet the way they should look, without the quotes, rather than starting with what they really need,” said Hanna Baxter, interior director at Horderly Professional Organizing. “Then we run into problems.”
Before you buy those great looking drawers or baskets, it’s a good idea to find out exactly what to store. “Pull everything out of your closet, sort it into categories, edit those categories, and remove donations and trash,” said Ms. Baxter. “Then you can take stock of what you have kept.”
This doesn’t require extreme interference filtering or lavish cleaning, but if you have clothes that you haven’t worn in over a year – and that you don’t reserve for special occasions – it’s probably time to let them go.
Lisa Adams, the executive director of LA Closet Design in Los Angeles, said she listed the remaining pieces by making an inventory on a spreadsheet.
“That means counting and measuring every pair of shoes and every piece of clothing,” she said. “An inventory is really important so that I know how many pairs of shoes have to go in there and what the ratio of short to medium hanging to long hanging is.”
Consider alternative storage areas
If it looks like you still have too much stuff to fit in your bedroom closet, consider whether some of it could be kept elsewhere.
“If your family is the kind of family where everyone takes off their shoes when they walk in the door, you may need an entry closet for coats and shoes instead of using your main closet space for such things,” Ms. Baxter said.
Or, remember to use freestanding furniture for extra storage space. “The easiest thing to do is to buy a dresser for your bedroom,” said Carolyn Musher, vice president of sales for California Closets in New York.
If you need space and “you have room for drawers outside of the closet,” she added, “don’t waste your closet space.”
Design the main components
A simple closet with a single hanging rod and high shelf won’t do you much good. “People are going to have all sorts of things on top and falling all over the place, hanging some things and then some shoes on the floor,” Ms. Musher said. “It’s just not a way of life.”
The introduction of more rails, more shelves and, if you have space, some drawers, will allow you to keep more tidy.
Opening the cabinet door should feel as good as entering a store. “The goal is to be able to shop your closet,” said Ms. Musher. “You want to be able to see everything you own” without digging through piles.
Use your inventory to determine how much space you will need to hang longer items like dresses and shorter items like shirts while creating a little more room for newcomers.
For shorter articles, “Double-Hang is the way to go,” said Ms. Musher, “because you really open up the space.”
It usually leaves 40 to 42 inches between the floor and a low pole, she said. Then she adds a shelf over it and measures another 40 inches for a taller pole.
Your rule of thumb for other items? “If it doesn’t work on a hanger, it will go on a shelf,” she said. “But if it falls off a shelf, it has to go in a drawer.”
That means most bulky items like sweaters and jeans should be folded and stacked on shelves, but underwear, socks, pajamas, and T-shirts can all be tucked away in drawers.
Shelves should be at least 12 inches deep, she said, “but ideally you want your clothes shelves to be 14 to 16 inches deep.”
Cabinet designers at the container store like to use a mix of different depths, said Courtney Lomonaco, the store’s home operations manager – 12 inches for taller shelves because they’re harder to get to (especially in closets that are inaccessible) and 16 inches for lower shelves where the extra depth is easier to access.
Adjustable shelves are best because they can be raised or lowered in the future. However, the shelves should generally be about 9 to 11 inches apart when you lift them. Ms. Musher said, “If the pile gets too high, it’ll just start to fall over – and then you’re in a mess again. “
Make space for shoes and bags
Your shoes don’t have to live in a pile on the floor or in boxes. Putting them together in rows on shelves will keep things tidy and make it easier to find what you want to carry.
Although angled shelves are often advertised as a shoe solution, Ms. Musher isn’t a fan. “They’re incredibly inefficient,” she said because they take up more space than a flat shelf and limit shelf life. Flat shelves can be closely spaced (or further apart in the case of boots) so that more shoes can be stored on each shelf by moving every other shoe.
Handbags can also be stored in rows on shelves. But because they have a tendency to fall over, they may need some extra help. Ms. Schuster worked with the Container Store to build an Elfa closet out of clear polycarbonate dividers between her handbags in her Manhattan apartment.
“You create a little pocket for everything,” she said, “and keep everything in place.”
Add functional accessories
Once the main components of your closet are in place, there are any number of accessories and extras that can make it easier to use.
Ms. Adams at LA Closet Design sometimes has a pull-out surface for folding clothes. She also builds hanging sections in small pockets with space for scarves and jewelry.
Ms. Musher likes retractable hook systems for straps and ties, and particularly likes retractable valet bars that pull straight out to create a hook to hang dry cleaning items, a suit jacket, or an empty hanger on the return of everything wait you carry.
“It’s what I always put in every closet no matter what,” she said. “There are so many uses for it.”
In drawers she adds dividers to keep underwear, socks and bras in separate compartments.
The back of the door is an often forgotten space where a full length mirror or additional storage space can be fitted. “There are now many systems out there where you can store shoes in the back of your door or store extra accessories like hats, which really free up more closet space,” said Fillip Hord, founder of Horderly.
Sweater boxes are good for storing and protecting off-season clothing on tall shelves, Ms. Lomonaco said. And if you choose clear, it will be easy to see what is in it.
Even your hangers are worth some attention. “Using a slim hanger really helps you fit more into a tiny space,” said Ms. Lomonaco. “And the uniformity of the hangers really only helps to ensure a uniform feel throughout the closet.”
A label printer can also be useful. Horderly organizers often label dividers, bins, and baskets with clothes rails to help their customers keep the organization organized over time.
Finish on a personal note
Closets don’t have to be devoid of personality. Even the smallest of them can be painted in a vibrant color that adds a little pop every time you open the door. In walk-in closets, it is often possible to add a small piece of furniture, a rug, art, or a sculptural mirror.
Ms. Schuster, for example, painted her walk-in closet blue, mounted framed art on the wall, and laid a generous ottoman on a sheepskin rug.
“When you get dressed in the morning or undressed in the evening, you want it to feel like home,” she said. “Being comfortable in your space is why I do what I do, and the closet is part of it.”
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