See more of the story

Older homes come with all manner of space challenges, but among the most common are too-tiny bedrooms and closets. A possible solution to both problems? The bedroom turned walk-in.

"You have to get creative when you're limited with old houses, and sometimes the more limitations you have, the more creative you have to get," says Erin Myers of Erin Myers Design in Arlington, Va.

Yes, devoting an entire spare room to clothing storage might sound indulgent, but if done right, the space can still have a secondary use. Myers, for instance, recently turned a small bedroom in a 19th-century D.C. rowhouse into a closet that doubles as a home office. And if you design strategically, you can transform the whole thing back into a bedroom if the need ever arises.

Here's how to pull it off.

To make an Ikea Pax wardrobe look more customized, Brenner framed it with millwork and installed beadboard wallpaper to the back.
To make an Ikea Pax wardrobe look more customized, Brenner framed it with millwork and installed beadboard wallpaper to the back.

Provided by Lindsayanne Brenner

Experiment with different layouts

Lindsayanne Brenner, the founder of the blog Hawk Hill, turned the spare bedroom in her 1910 St. Louis home into a walk-in closet and dressing room, but before buying anything for the remodel, she experimented with makeshift pieces. "Use a clothes rack that is on wheels, so you can test out different room configurations," she suggests. Even a folding card table or a bookcase can help you envision your ideal layout. Brenner discovered that she could use a significant portion of the wall to the left of the door without impeding the entrance to her room.

Add up how much storage you need

To figure out how much storage you'll need, "Take an inventory of everything in your closet," says Cassandra Cymbal, founder and principal designer of Bless This Place Interior Design in California. Measure your current hanging storage, folded storage and drawer space, and note where you could use more. If you're storing clothes outside your bedroom because your existing closet is too small, don't forget to account for those items in your new design.

Sketch out a floor plan

Once you've spent some time imagining the changes and assessing your needs, draw a basic floor plan of the room, says Cymbal. Measure and mark down the lengths of walls and placement of windows and doors, so you can reference them when you shop. "Depending on the space and position of the windows and door, your storage units can be in a single or double run, or a U-shape," Myers adds.

Look for pieces you can hack

Unless you're carpenter-level handy, it will save you time to modify ready-made wardrobes, shelving and furniture pieces. Brenner outfitted one wall of her closet with a Pax wardrobe from Ikea because it was affordable, easy to assemble and available in a variety of configurations. To make mass-produced items look more built-in, you can frame the edges with millwork that matches the molding of your home. Brenner says it took just a bit of handiwork to accomplish this, plus a saw, trim nails and paintable caulk. She also added textured beadboard wallpaper to the back of the cabinet to cover the plain white laminate and make it look a little "higher-end."

Open storage works well for shoes. Designer Erin Myers had the built-ins in this client project painted Deep Ocean by Benjamin Moore.
Open storage works well for shoes. Designer Erin Myers had the built-ins in this client project painted Deep Ocean by Benjamin Moore.

Laura Visioni

Decide what to hide and what to display

One big decision you'll have to make is how much open vs. closed storage you want. Cymbal says that as a general rule, you should use open storage for things you want to show off or easily access. Shoes are a popular item to keep on display: In a recent project, Myers specified custom open shelves for her client's collection. Brenner used a shelf from IKEA's Elvarli open storage line for her shoes. Opt for closed storage for things you don't use frequently or that you want to protect from light, or from wear and tear. For example, Myers designed closed-door built-ins for her client's long dresses.

Closed storage is also preferable if you're hoping to use the room for another purpose. For the main wall of a room turned walk-in that also functions as an office, Myers opted for built-in cabinets painted a rich blue (Benjamin Moore Deep Ocean). The doors conceal the client's clothes while pulling double duty as a colorful Zoom background (the desk sits on the wall opposite the storage). When designing for two uses, Myers advises installing all the storage along a single wall to keep the rest of the space free.

Choose the right lighting

Since it was once a bedroom, your new closet is likely to benefit from natural light, but it's still important to be strategic about the rest of the lighting, too. Cymbal suggests installing dimmers and LED bulbs in the 3,000K range to ensure you're cast in the most flattering glow while dressing in the mirror. In a bedroom-size walk-in, you can also have fun with fixtures. "A beautiful chandelier can work wonders in creating a bright and inviting dressing area," says Myers.

Address the windows

Most closets do not have windows, but when you convert a small room, you'll almost certainly have a window around which you need to design. To create a faux-built-in, Myers suggests placing two identical wardrobes on either side of the window. "A shelf can be fitted above the window or drawers below it," she adds. For privacy, cover the window with self-adhering, frosted film, which won't block daylight.

Make use of the door

Don't let the door itself go to waste. You can use a variety of back-of-door storage solutions to increase the room's functionality, or employ the classic maneuver of adding a full-length mirror to it. Elfa makes substantial over-the-door racks that are safe to install even on a hollow-core door. They adjust to various sizes and can store accessories.

If your room-turned-closet shares a wall with your primary bedroom, Cymbal says it may be worth the expense of adding a door to connect them (thus creating the coveted primary suite). Just make sure you're ready to commit to using the space as a closet for the long haul.

Add a place to sit

"I always try to put in a window seat," says Cymbal. "At the very least, you need somewhere to sit, put on your shoes." A storage ottoman is a particularly good choice since it'll give you one more place to tuck things away, she adds. Or, if you install high, harder-to-reach shelves, consider a step ladder that converts to a seat.

Layer in decorative details

Cymbal notes that a seat isn't just functional, but it can also create a design focal point and make the space feel more like a luxurious dressing room than just a walk-in closet. Other decorative touches, such as art or a vintage area rug, can serve a similar purpose. "Consider covering the walls or door with patterned wallpaper," suggests Myers. "And add accents like an ornately framed mirror."

Laura Fenton is a writer based in New York; she writes the weekly newsletter Living Small.