Do you know what you’re storing in your closet right now? Maybe not. Despite the fact that these rooms become havens for lost and forgotten items, closets are one of the biggest client concerns when we start planning a renovation at our interior design firm in Austin, TX. People move into older homes with smaller closets and think, “How did they ever do it?” After all, where did they store their holiday decor, their crockpot, their yearbooks, and their “who-knows-what” box? Closets are important. However, homeowners often sacrifice actual living space for storage space. Take note: homes are for living, and storage units are for storing. In this Design Glossary entry, I go over the definition, history, and types of closets to consider. Then, I explain why you don’t actually need as big of a closet as you think you do. Shocking, I know.
What are Closets?
We all generally know what a closet is. By definition, a closet is a type of specialty room used for storing clothes, linens, or other household items. Closets are architectural features of the home rather than pieces of furniture. They typically include four walls, a door, and built-in shelving.
A Brief History of Closets in Interior Design
Throughout history, there have been many storerooms that are considered early predecessors to the modern closet. For example, butler’s pantries were developed in the Middle Ages to house dishes, provisions, and even the butler themself! However, Americans are credited with designing the closet as we know it today, and we continue to expand upon it. The first advertised closets date back to the 1870s when The Dakota apartment building (where John Lennon lived and was shot) was constructed in New York City. According to The New York Times, the closets measured two-and-a-half feet deep by six feet wide. These are tiny by today’s standards but were considered a luxury to the wealthy tenants of the day.
In the late 1800s, closets were still rare in America because people had fewer possessions. However, that all changed after World War II. After the post-war boom, consumerism picked up. People started buying more clothes, more kitchen gadgets, and more everything. So, they needed a place to store all their new finds. As a result, developers created the suburbs, which boasted large spacious closets and room to hold everything you ordered from Sears. In many ways, closets became a marketing tactic themselves, working in tandem with the glossy ads of the 50s and 60s. As you know, we never looked back. Homeowners continue to demand larger and larger closets akin to those of their favorite celebrities.
Types of Closets
Walk-in closets are by far the most requested and sought-after types of closets. They are large enough for one to step inside and peruse their shelves and racks of clothing. In addition, walk-in closets are typically outfitted with custom built-ins and maybe even a storage island with a chandelier.
Reach-in closets have a shorter depth that can accommodate the length of a clothes hanger. One has to open the door and reach in from the other room to access the items inside rather than walk inside the closet itself. Reach-in closets are commonly seen in older homes and are separated from the main room with accordion or sliding doors.
Linen closets usually are much smaller than a bedroom closet and may resemble a cubby with a door. They are typically located in hallways or bathrooms and are perfect for storing towels and extra bedding.
Wardrobe and Armoire Closets
Wardrobe and armoire closets are traditional pieces of furniture. However, some variations can be built into the architecture of the home. These closets are more common in older homes when closets were not as large of a concern.
Utility closets are often located off the garage, kitchen, laundry, or mudroom. They are usually small reach-in closets used for storing vacuums, cleaning supplies, and those items we don’t quite know what to do with.
Coat closets are located off the home’s primary or secondary entrance. These small reach-in closets are designed to fit a few winter coats, umbrellas, and maybe some shoes. In addition, coat closets work to keep the entrance mess-free.
Pantries are one of the oldest types of closets. However, they remain a popular home feature today. Pantries are located in the kitchen and used for storing non-perishable food items, snacks, and dishes.
Do We Own Our Stuff or Does Our Stuff Own Us?
Closets suck a lot of time, money, and space from interior design plans. Still, homeowners have an obsession with creating a massive celebrity-grade walk-in closet complete with custom built-ins, storage islands, mirrors, and a sparkling chandelier. Wake up call! Celebrities can have oversized closets because they live in mansions.
Between the home organization shows, moves to the suburbs, and trends to convert bedrooms into closets, it seems like we are willing to go to great lengths to store things we hardly use. It brings up the question. Do we own our stuff, or does our stuff own us? Before expanding your closet, ask yourself if your items are worth the time and trouble to store.
After all, does it spark joy?
Why Smaller Closets Actually Make for Better Home Design
Back in the day, when I designed in NYC, my old boss would say, “It is a mistake to design a home around your closet.” Here are a few reasons why smaller closets actually make for a better and more organized home.
The Importance of Scale and Proportion
First things first, scale and proportion significantly affect how we interpret, feel, and function in a home. Basically, scale and proportion are how rooms and design elements feel next to each other. For example, no one wants the entry hall to be larger than the living room or the laundry room to take up more space than the primary bedroom. There is a hierarchy of rooms, and size dictates the importance of the space. Getting the right proportions is crucial for creating a liveable home.
When homeowners started requesting larger closets, designers had to create larger bedrooms and larger homes. Scale and proportion dictate that you cannot allow your closet to be bigger than a bedroom. Letting your closets dictate the design of your home can lead you to a sprawling mess of a structure. The trick to designing is balance. Start with the size house you want to live in, not the size closet you think you need.
Less Really is More
Sometimes, less really is more. Organizing your clothes and possessions in closets is essential. However, design choices around the closet shouldn’t be made at the expense of the living room. After all, why should your clothes have a roomier space to live in than you? The function and aesthetics of a home should be centered around living first and storage second. Otherwise, our stuff begins to control us. Smaller closets force you to streamline your collections and only keep the things you use. In the end, purging a few items will take a weight off your shoulders.
Stop Storing and Get Back to Living
According to the National Association of Home Builders, closets take up around 150 square feet or more in the average home. It’s fine to include closets in your home, but consider the square footage you are sacrificing to store boxes that will go unopened for another decade. Rather than dedicate square footage to a walk-in closet, expand a family room for games, conversations, and movie nights. Create spaces like these where you can make memories with your family and friends. (Memories take up zero space, by the way.) Get the most out of your home design. Stop storing and get back to living.
Now, What to Do If You’re a Hoarder Like Me…
I admit that I am judgemental about folks wanting an oversized closet. However, I have no room to talk. You see, like many interior designers, I am a furniture and accessory hoarder. So, I have to eat my words when designing around stuff. My solution? The garage. I’ve never been able to or interested in parking a car in my garage. It is my zone to store vintage goodies, treasures, and furnishings that eventually make their way into some of my interior designs. After all, I can’t give up space for something as dull as a car when I have a 1940s toile privacy screen and a box of brass hardware to store! If you must store items like me, my advice is to get them out of the house and put them in a garage, shed, or storage unit. Keep the home for living.
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Amity Worrel is an award-winning interior designer based in Austin, Texas. She has worked on high-end interior design projects for celebrities and tastemakers in NYC, LA, and the Bahamas. In 2008, Amity decided to bring her passion for diverse design back to her hometown of Austin. Her spaces pull from timeless design concepts ranging from coastal contemporary to cozy cottage to Austin eclectic. Emotional connections, functional flow, and a touch of humor remain central to every interior design scheme. Her work has been published in national and local publications, including The Wall Street Journal, House Beautiful, HGTV Magazine, Better Homes and Gardens, and Austin Home. In her free time, she loves perusing estate sales and diving into design history. Learn more about Amity.