5 colors you should skip using in a small apartment, according to a designer

(And what to go for instead)

Rohini Daybed Cushion
(Image credit: Urban Outfitters)

Renting an apartment sometimes means you have to deal with design choices you don’t necessarily love. Think: funky flooring, beat-up cabinets, and the dreaded old-school bathroom. Another common dilemma in the renting world is that you may not totally love the paint color in your space. However, if it’s the perfect apartment despite these design hiccups, it's hard to turn down.

Paint color can directly impact your mood, and just designing around a shade you hate is easier said than done. If you have permission to repaint, these are the hues designers say you should skip out on using in a small space — and which colors to use instead if you're trying to create a cozier environment while still enhancing "space" in small rooms. If you can’t repaint (whether it’s not in your budget or your landlord won’t allow it), our experts share clever ways to embrace the style while making it feel more like home.

Colors to avoid in a small apartment

First things first, you’ll want to avoid repainting your walls in any of these colors.


Catherine Hooper, interior designer and founder of iSpy Home Design, says red is the number one color she would discourage people from using in a small space. “It's actually proven to promote feelings of anxiety and can be very unflattering,” Hooper notes. If you like the color red, Hooper suggests moving towards a mauve or burgundy, which are both more calming and sophisticated. 


In the same color family, Hooper also tries to stay away from orange hues. “The brighter the color, the more it takes up space and detracts from everything else,” she explains. “You want colors that promote relaxation and calm, so aim for warmer hues that bring color to the space without overwhelming it.” 


Although colors are not completely off the table when it comes to small spaces, there are certain bright colors that can overwhelm a space. “Bright, primary colors such as a vibrant yellow may be too intense for a small space and should be avoided,” says Jessica McCarthy, interior designer and founder of Jam Creative Studio. If you like the sunshiney color, try a pale yellow instead.

Chocolate brown

Royal tones, like chocolate brown or deep navy blue, can make your apartment feel heavy. “Even if you love the richness of chocolate brown, it can weigh down your smaller space,” says McCarthy. “The same goes for a regal navy blue, which is better suited for a royal mansion with high ceilings.” No fancy castle house? Try to go lighter with your color picks.


White may intuitively be your first choice when painting a small space, but McCarthy says that the wrong shade of white can actually make your small space feel lifeless. It can also make things feel too clinical and it can create unnecessary shadows — all major design flaws. “If you are set on white, I would recommend a warmer tone that leans more beige to create warmth and depth in your smaller space,” McCarthy adds.

Try using these paint colors instead

McCarthy believes that the key to successfully adding color to your space is to know where it can best be utilized. Even if a color doesn’t work on your walls, most colors always work in small doses. “Successful design is all about creating contrast, so if you are drawn to bright primary colors but have a small space, consider using those colors on your rug or pillows and leaving your walls more neutral,” McCarthy suggests.

Rohini Daybed Cushion

(Image credit: Urban Outfitters)

Warm Off-White

Hooper echoes McCarthy’s thoughts on classic white paint feeling too clinical. However, she says warm off-white hues are a great option for renters, since landlords are more open to lighter shades that are easy to paint over.

Benjamin Moore's White Dove is always my go-to, though if you plan to display a lot of art, Simply White is a brighter, more museum-like option,” Hooper explains. “If you want something with a little more texture, I recommend Portola's line of limewash paints that are much more forgiving to apply and provide a more antique, European look.”

Beiges and softer tones

A light beige, soft pink, muted yellow, and cool light blue are always safe bets when it comes to small spaces. “These colors will add a bit of visual interest without requiring you to take too much of a risk,” McCarthy explains.

coral blush painted bedroom with low wooden bed, retro sideboard, black woodwork, hardwood floor, white bedding, plant

(Image credit: Backdrop)


Similarly to off-white, Hooper says that taupe colorways are a good option if you’re looking for something timeless. Another perk is that taupe paint is easy to match furniture and decor with. 

“If you're nervous about putting taupe paint on all four walls or going with an accent wall, you could paint just the ceiling or create an archway behind your bed to mimic a headboard,” Hooper says.

How to deal with wall colors you don’t like (but that you can’t repaint)

Small apartment with boho style seating and wicker accessories

(Image credit: Nedgis)

You just moved into a new apartment and love everything about it — except the paint color. Hooper confirms that this is an all-too-common conundrum, and repainting isn’t always an option. 

“The bottom line is to figure out what design style will do it the most justice,” Hooper says. “Basically, you want to make it all look purposeful, like you planned everything to match the walls instead of trying to hide them by going overboard with contrasting colors.”

For example, if the wall color is on the dark side, Hooper says you can lean into it with a more dramatic speakeasy and maximalist-inspired aesthetic. Try bringing in velvet fabrics, lots of patterns, animal prints (like a faux cowhide rug), and lots of indoor plants. Try to have fun with it.

Try incorporating your favorite colors in smaller ways

Another tried-and-true strategy when it comes to embracing the apartment space you’re renting: incorporating the design elements and decor that you do love. Even if you’re a fan of some of the colors from the list of hues to avoid painting a small space, they can still be worked into your apartment in tiny ways.

Love orange? Set an orange vase on your bookshelf or place a set of orange coasters on your coffee table. Drawn to crisp white colors? Plant something in a white pot. While no colors are off limits, some mentioned above can be trickier to include. Stick to these tips and you’ll surely end up with a well-balanced space. These are some of our favorite pieces for a quick pop of unexpected color without using any paint.

If you do happen to be painting...

If your landlord gives you permission to paint, Hooper shares that the real trick of the trade when repainting walls in small spaces is to paint both the wall and trim the same color, instead of using a contrasting trim color like white or cream. “By painting it all the same, using a mixture of flat/eggshell on the wall and semi-gloss on the trim, you create the illusion of more space.”

Kara Thompson

About me: 

Kara Thompson is a Denver-based journalist with over five years of experience writing lifestyle content. She has written for a variety of publications, including townandcountrymag.com, elledecor.com, goodhousekeeping.com, and Parents, where she covered all things home, food, fashion, travel, and holidays. During her time on staff at Parents, Kara launched her own home decor and organization column named Save My Space. In 2022, she left her full-time job as an editor and started her own writing, editing, and social media firm, Kara Thompson and Co.

Tennis, New York City, bourbon cocktails, and her sister's German Shepherd are a few of her favorite things.