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Right at Home: For young renters, living small requires thinking big

For many young people, a first apartment might be a cramped studio or just a bedroom in a shared living arrangement. Juggling that room's living, dining and sleeping spaces requires creativity.

Take Meg Volk, a New York-based producer and photographer who at 22 is a seasoned veteran of the tiny-home trenches: She's on her third, under-300-square-foot studio apartment.

Find vertical space; think small and light; and when in doubt, do without, she advises.

"In my first solo studio apartment, I had about 200 square feet and the option of a twin-size bed or a futon," she says. But she was lucky enough to have 10-foot ceilings. She built a sleeping loft with a porthole entrance and storage in the stairs. Was it claustrophobic? A little, but worth it, she says.

"While it's nice to be able to sit up in bed, it's even nicer to have room for a couch, media centre and side table."

IKEA has embraced this mobile-renter demographic with its P.S. collections. Now eight years running, the collections feature pieces that are portable and inexpensive but well-designed. The Havet sofas have wheels; a stool has an embedded LED lamp.

Peter Klinkert heads the retailer's Special Collections. He says this year's 50 pieces came out of collaborations between young international designers and the IKEA in-house team.

"Small space doesn't always mean no space," Klinkert says.

Buy furniture that's multifunctional, he advises: storage cubes that also work as coffee tables, or a dining table that offers storage, so it can be used as a workspace. (www.ikea.com )

Bookcases can be clunky and cumbersome. Consider floating bookshelves that take advantage of wall space without taking up floor space.

IKEA's Lack wall shelves come in a variety of colours, and there's also a corner shelving unit in the P.S. 2014 collection that would maximize a dead space.

Check out Umbra's clever Conceal wall shelves that give you a steel bar on which to anchor a hardcover book; stack a few more, or add a small accessory, for a neat combination of wall storage and art. (www.umbra.com )

Consider mirrored or clear acrylic pieces to give the illusion of more space. Overstock's got side tables and chairs priced a lot lower than high-end designer pieces. (www.overstock.com )

A great coffee table can serve a lot of functions. Entertaining, dining and crafting can all happen at a decent table in front of the sofa and television. Dania's got the cool Harwich oak-veneered table: four stacked slabs, and the top two swivel. Two sturdy levels of elm veneer and steel create a workhorse piece in the Matson coffee table. (www.daniafurniture.com)

Volk says her spaces seem bigger when she uses furniture with legs rather than pieces that squat solidly on the ground. Choosing light-colored woods and fabrics also contribute a sense of airiness.

If you're strapped for cash, consider TV trays for side tables, and park a bin or basket underneath for storage. Target sells them individually for around $10, or buy a set of four and use them in both the living room and bedroom. (www.target.com )

For good deals, hit the sale sections at your favourite retailers; dents, torn wrapping and scratches often warrant heavier discounts, so keep checking in. (www.westelm.com ; www.cb2.com ; www.homegoods.com )

One good thing about a small living space is that it doesn't take much to add a lot of punch. A peaceful palette may be just right, but if you love colour and pattern, inexpensive textiles are easy to add. Buy a couple of yards of interesting cotton, or use neat towels or cute baby blankets to cover seat cushions or throw pillows. You don't need sewing skills — staple guns handle the job on furniture, while iron-on tack, Velcro, diaper pins or knots work on pillows. (www.joann.com )

A block-printed shower curtain can work in the bathroom or at the window, and be cheaper than drapes. (www.worldmarket.com )

Check out www.apt2b.com for contemporary wall-art designs at good prices.

Finally, exercise self-control when it comes to tchotchke displays and tempting but unnecessary gear.

"Piling stacks of books on the floor, covering your desk with collectibles or using your coffee table to show off the trinkets you picked up in Paris sounds lovely, but generally comes off feeling as though you had nowhere else to put them," says Volk.

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