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Smart Closet Design Ideas and Tips

We share tips on how to design a closet or improve your existing closet layout to create more storage space.

A closet design that has two hanging sections and then shelves above it for shoes and folded clothes.

Just like all household appliances, closets these days come loaded with bells and whistles. Whether it's simply a place to store clothes or, as is increasingly the case, your closet needs to do double duty as a dressing room or sitting room, it must be adaptable, durable, and convenient to use. Here are a handful of ideas that can improve the function of any closet, regardless of its size or what items you stow in it.

Before you get started, here are some questions to ask yourself about how you'll use the space:

  • Do you want a place to sit?
    A chair is convenient for putting on socks and shoes. Under-window seating works especially well because you can't use that space for hanging storage anyway.
  • Do you want to be able to look at yourself in the mirror?
    Try to get at least three feet away from the mirror, and make sure it's in a place that can't be blocked, such as on the back of a door.
  • Do you plan to iron where your clothes are?
    A flip-down ironing board saves space.
  • Do you want to watch TV while you get dressed?
    If you do, plan your storage around it, because unless it's at eye level the TV becomes a radio.
  • Do you want to admire the view?
    Remember that if you can see out, others can see in, so keep the windowsill at 3 feet 6 inches or higher.

7 Ideas for Improving Any Closet

1. Use the vertical dimension — in both directions. Take advantage of all available space, up to the ceiling and down to the floor. Bins on high shelves, roll-out boxes that sit on the floor (available from many catalogues), even a third closet pole if your ceiling is over 9 feet high, are ideal for storing items you don't use all the time. Less accessible places work well for off-season storage; if you have enough room that you don't need to rotate clothes, use the space to get oddball shoes, hats, bags, or sentimental items out of damp basements and freezing/baking attics.

2. Think about lighting. For a closet to work, you have to be able to see what's inside it. Natural light from skylights or windows is a plus, but beware the fading that sunlight can produce (windows also eat storage space). When sunlight isn't available, you need good artificial light. The important thing to keep in mind about artificial light is that it has to be between you and the contents of the closet; if it's behind you, you'll cast a shadow on what you're trying to see. One consideration here that you might not think of is heat. Incandescent bulbs can be a fire hazard in the tight, enclosed confines of a small closet. Fluorescent lighting is often the only code-compliant solution.

3. Know your wardrobe — and habits. Closets, more than any other space in the house, work best if you know in advance precisely how you're going to use them. For example, if you bunch socks, they'll need more space than if you roll them. Ditto for shirts: Do you stack them neatly or hang them up? Think about what you wear and how you like to get dressed, and design the space to serve you: most-used items up around eye level, less-used below, and least-used high above. Most closets have too much hanging storage and far too little shelf or drawer storage.

4. Design in visibility. Being able to actually see all your socks, ties, and underwear (versus only the top layer) gives you real choices when you get dressed. Take advantage of the many accessories available, such as see-through wire bins, acrylic- or glass-fronted drawers, drawers with dividers, and belt and tie racks, to keep items organized. Shelves (and drawers that are part of shop-fabricated cabinets) should be adjustable and movable from place to place within the closet for maximum versatility.

5. Don't ignore the floor. You may be the only one who sees it, but the floor of a closet matters, because you'll be standing on it in your bare feet every day. For warmth underfoot, carpet is your best bet. But carpets in closets can be difficult to vacuum. For maximum cleanability, go with wood or vinyl.

6. Watch out for mold, mildew, and other still-air breeders. Closets need some airflow and dehumidification or they become breeding ground for mold, mildew, even insects. A bathroom-size fan, timed to go on and off at regular intervals, will help pull air through the closet even when the door is shut. A small dehumidifier is another way to keep things from getting musty, especially if the closet is in a damp basement.

7. Beware of cedar. Cedar closets do keep moths away, but the cedar scent can permeate adjacent spaces. If you don't want your bedroom to smell like a gerbil cage, locate the cedar closet in an attic or basement with at least one additional door (other than the door of the closet) between you and it.

Closet Design Tips

Your options for outfitting a closet are now nearly as wide as your choices for furnishing your house. Years ago, all you got were poles, hooks, and shelves. Today, custom millwork is not uncommon, with levels of visual finish as sophisticated as any high-end kitchen or bath.

How Do You Design a New Closet?

If you don't say anything to a contractor, you'll get a basic "pole and shelf" setup: a single pole with a fixed shelf above it. Then it's up to you to customize the interior yourself. Typically built and painted on-site, this is the least expensive way to go.

The next step up is multiple poles and shelves of varying lengths and heights to accommodate different types of garments. Typically, the vertical partitions holding up the poles are used as the sides for adjustable shelving. The components can be shop built and painted on-site or, for a more durable (and expensive) finish, surfaced with melamine or laminate.

The third option is shop-built, pre-finished wood — essentially furniture that is designed and dimensioned to fit your closet interior precisely. Custom-made dresser drawers, shoe cubbies, shelving, and partitions give you the maximum amount of storage but also cost the most money.

How Do You Create Closet Space In an Existing Closet?

The quickest way to increase storage capacity in an existing closet is with a standardized closet "system." The classic coated-wire basket system is widely available, simple to install, and inexpensive, but often has bins that are too deep to allow for easy access to smaller items. Garments can also catch on the wire shelving.

Supplier-installed standard systems, professionally designed and measured to fit your closet, cost less than a custom-crafted interior but are far more expensive than the do-it-yourself option. The upside is that they have true drawers, offer the maximum storage capacity, and have a more finished look.

What Type of Door Should You Use for Your Closet?

Swing Door

One option is to design your closet space with a swing door.
Swing door on a closet design.
Illustration by Duo Dickinson

There are essentially two types of closets: those you can walk into and those you can’t. Reach-in closets pose the biggest challenges, not the least of which are the doors used to access them.

If there’s room, a swinging door is the best option because it gives you full access to the inside of the closet. The downside is that you can’t swing a door into a single-depth closet, and a standard out swinging door means nothing can be in its path.

Sliding Door

If you have a small space design a closet with a sliding door.
Sliding Door on a closet design.
Illustration by Duo Dickinson

Your next best bet if space is too tight for a swinging door. But these bypassing slabs are prone to racking, binding, and even popping off their tracks — and you can only get at one half of the interior at any given moment. Swapping out the generic hardware for “HD,” or heavy-duty hardware, limits the problems and is well worth the cost in the long run.

Bifold Door

A bifold door on a closet design diagram from a bird’s eye view.
Bi-Fold door on a closet design.
Illustration by Duo Dickinson

Because they afford access to the full width of the closet while gobbling up only half as much floor space as swing doors, bi-folds are tempting. Until you realize they’ve got twice the number of moving parts as sliding doors and twice the opportunity for binding or falling off their tracks.

When You Need an Armoire Instead of a Closet

Sometimes building a closet isn't practical for economic or design reasons. Armoires still make a lot of sense for hanging items. You'll have to trade off a little storage space (say 10 to 20 percent), but an armoire can have several advantages over a closet of comparable size:

  • Flexibility. Unlike an armoire, a closet can't be moved around, which means your options for furniture placement are more limited.
  • Cost. Inexpensive, prefabricated armoires are inevitably cheaper than even the simplest comparable closet.
  • Aesthetics. Like any piece of furniture, an armoire can add to the look of a room.
  • Sense of Space. Because an armoire typically does not extend all the way to the ceiling (and often is set on feet above the floor), it allows for a better appreciation of the full volume of the space surrounding it.