Part 1: Preparing to Design a Small Walk-In Closet

Remember when I teased our latest project? Dun..Dun..Dunn…Well it’s our master bedroom closet and I can’t wait to show you how it turned out. This project was quietly brewing for several years and I probably designed the closet 10 different times before we actually started the project. It’s one of those rooms that I’ve always wanted and dreamed about. I love when something functions at it’s best and I’ve never had a clothing storage system that really worked. All of our past incarnations of closets and dressers functioned enough but every 6 months or so we would need to do a major reset to get everything back in working order.

The closet is off our master bathroom and not only is it small but it’s an odd shape. Designing the closet felt intimidating at first since I didn’t really know what I needed (how many shelves? how many drawers?). I just knew that the old system was not working. I pinned a million pretty closets on Pinterest, but it wasn’t the style that worried me but instead making sure that the system actually worked for us. Just like every homeowner, we wanted to maximize the storage. Ideally, I wanted to store ALL of our clothes in the closet. I had no idea if that was even possible.

Now that the project is complete, I can look back and see clearly the different planning phases but while I was going through it I didn’t have a designated step-by-step plan to follow. The good news is now I do, so my next closet design will be much easier. I hope these 5 steps help others with designing their closet. While these steps are presented as clear and distinct moments, in reality it was messier.(Side note: I’ve listed books and articles that I read while designing my closet at the end of this article.)

Step 1: Make a Wish List

The first thing I did was make a list of what we needed and really wanted in the closet. I didn’t have a list of questions or things to think about (although that would be super helpful) to help guide the list. Instead I just thought about the items I had in my closet, what I needed to store in the closet and how I used the closet. I created a rather short list:

  • Store all of our clothes in the closet
  • Both long and short hanging (mostly short)
  • Drawer space for Jer and I
  • A spot to hold bathroom related linens
  • A space for a hamper
  • No storage for shoes (We keep shoes down stairs since we don’t usually wear shoes in the house)
  • Flexibility, so that it could change with our life

Looking at the list it doesn’t feel very “wishy” or “aspirational” since I 100% focused on the functional aspects of the closet, but considering this is a small walk in closet it was asking a lot out of it. I didn’t include any of the style components of the closet but you totally could if that is important to you. My general process of designing any room is first and foremost always space planning, so I apply my “style” choices to the room after I have a good idea of what I need and how I am going to arrange items.

My wish list was rather broad but you could get very specific if you already know you have 50 pairs of shoes. I felt like my wish list was also already pretty practical for my space. For example, the closet is too small to have an island of any capacity. If I had a larger space, I may have include island (or even shoe storage!). So, I would say dream big for the space you have but also keep it realistic.

Step 2: Take Inventory of Your Items

My wish list gave me a clear goal to work towards and reminded me what to focus on. Since my primary “wish” was to store all of our clothes in the closet, I started by examining what I actually needed to store. At this point, I needed to classify and count our clothing and identify how I like to store them. For some reason I thought this was going to be annoying and time consuming, but it turned out to be easy as most of my clothes were already organized based on type.

I categorized the clothing items into the following groups: dresses, blouses/tops, sweaters, toppers (cardigan/jackets), skirts, bottoms (pants/short), athletic tee/t-shirts, athletic bottoms, sleeping wear and swimwear.

Jer generally had the same categories (minus the dresses and skirts). When counting each category, I designated the item as something to hang or something to be stored folded/in a drawer. I did not count the number of underwear, socks or bras because I already knew that I wanted to keep those in a drawer and all of those items fit into one drawer without a problem. If you have a large collection of purses, shoes or other accessories, I would suggest you count those as well.

Make a list of the other items that you plan on storing in the closet. For us, this included towels, bathroom overflow (toilet paper) and a few storage boxes that stored random, personal things.

Step 3: Calculate Your Ideal Closet Needs

After I had a good idea of what items I had and how many, I needed to determine how much space I needed to store them. My approach was a combination of looking at general “guidelines” online regarding recommended space and actually looking at my clothes in my closet and measuring capacity. My calculations focus on the clothes–so really just hanging and drawer/shelf needs. However if you have a large collection of shoes, handbags or other type of accessory than I would be sure to include that information on your calculation sheet.

Hanging Needs

There are several websites that publish guidelines for how much space each clothing item takes up when hung. I’ve recreated the general guidelines here. Those guidelines are based on using a wooden hanger. I have mostly velvet and plastic hangers. so I’ve included my estimates.

Clothing ItemWooden hanger*Velvet hanger
Suites2.5 inches/item1-2 inches/item
Dresses2 inches/item.75-1 inches/item
Men’s Shirts/ Women Blouses1 inch/item.6-.75 inches/item
Separates: Slacks, Skirts, Pants1 inch/item.75-1 inches/item
Wooden Hanger Estimates Are Reported by Closets.com.

The wooden hangers estimation just didn’t make sense to me. That would mean that 24 inches of hanging space could only hold a maximum of 24 shirts. Based on my closet, I calculated that I was current fitting substantially more (prior to re-doing the closet). So I narrowed it down to .6-.75 inches/item which would increase the capacity to 32-40, which made more sense based on my own closet. If you want to get an idea of your true capacity with your current hangers, go into your closet and measure 2 feet of hanging space and count the number of shirts that would fit in that space comfortably. This could be repeated for each additional item type (skirts/pants/sweaters) that you want to hang.

If you decide to use the estimated space per item (listed above) rather than look at your own capacity you do the following calculation: take the number of blouses you have and multiply it by the estimated space it’s going to take up.

For example 40 blouses x .6 inches = 24. This means that I would need 24 inches of hanging space to hold all 40 blouses. Based on my own closet, I know that 40 will fit fine in a 24 inch space. I have included the calculations for my closet below.

Hers
ItemNumberHanging NeedsTotal Inches NeededStorage Type
Dresses/Skirts190.7514.25Long
Bottoms (Pants/Shorts)16Drawer
Tops330.619.8Short
Toppers/Sweaters (hung)130.759.75Short
Coats/Blazers515Short
Sweaters (Fold)8Drawer
Athletic (Pants & Shirts)15Drawer
Sleepware6Drawer
T-Shirts, Camis10Drawer
Swimsuites4Drawer
129
“Her” Total SpaceInches of Hanging Space
Short Hanging34.55
Long Hanging14.25
His
ItemNumberHanging NeedsTotal Inches NeededStorage Type
Bottoms (Pants/Shorts)8Drawer
Tops160.6510.4Short Hanging
Toppers/Sweaters (hung)100.757.5Short Hanging
Coat122Short Hanging
Suite122Long Hanging
Athletic (Pants & Shirts)12Drawer
Sleepware4Drawer
T-Shirts, Camis25Drawer
Swimsuites3Drawer
“His” Total SpaceInches of Hanging Space
Short Hanging19.9
Long Hanging2
Total Hanging Needs for Closet
Short Hanging54.45
Long Hanging16.25

After you have calculated all your hanging needs, add together categories (blouses, sweaters, toppers) that would fall into “short” and you have the total amount of space you need for short hanging. Do the same for anything that would need “long” hanging (dresses, suits). Presto, now you have a pretty darn good idea of how much hanging storage you need in your closet. I estimated that we needed ~55 inches of short hanging space and ~17 inches of long hanging space.

A note on height: I have designated two heights when designing my closet: long and short. I did not determine the exact heights until we were actually constructed the closet.

Drawer/Shelf Needs

How I approached my shelving/drawer needs is not scientific and I didn’t use any type of calculations. I already had a good idea on what I wanted to store in drawers (because I was already doing it!). So I just counted the number of drawers I already had (3) and added one more for sweaters that I wanted to fold. This left me with a total of 4 drawers. Jer needed 4 as well making the total drawers needed 8.

Then I dealt with some “loose end” items that never had a designed area and were sometimes put in the closet, sometimes shoved in a drawer. It was my pajamas and my swim wear. I would need one drawer or less to store both of those. However, I wasn’t sure if I could add another drawer. So I kept an open mind about putting them in a basket on a shelf. Likewise, Jeremy has a ton of ties stored in a basket. I knew that we would need some space for those (although I would like to get an organizer for those eventually).

If you decide to go this very unscientific method, I would advise measuring your drawer space, so you have something to compare it to when picking your closet system and designing it. You may find that your dresser drawer is larger or shorter than the drawers available for your closet. If you have a good idea of your current drawer size, you’ll easily be able to estimate how many drawers that translates into you new space. The drawers in our closet were nearly the exact size of the ones in the dresser.

On deciding what should be hung and what should go in a drawer, I don’t have a great answer. I decided my items based on just living for the last 35 years. I know myself and I know that I don’t like to hang t-shirts or pants. you may be different and that it is totally fine.

If you have other accessories or shoes that you want to store in a closet, check out closets.com as they provide some general guidelines for space needs for shoes. Similar to their hanging measurements though, you may want to actually check your own preferences. You may have super tiny feet and be able to fit much more than they suggest. As for accessories, I would measure the actual items and estimate the space you’ll need for them. Again, since this was a relatively small concern of mine–I didn’t measure any purses. My advice would be to just focus on the essential things that must fit in your closet.

Step 4: Measure Your Closet and Draw it Out

My closet has a funny/challenging shape, so I measured each wall and wrote down the measurements. I modeled it on graph paper and the computer. Even if you have a rectangle box, you need to measure it and measure it again. These measurements will be your foundation for how everything else is designed in your closet.

Don’t forget to make note of outlets, light switches and other essential items that you’ll need to consider when designing the closet. The direction the door swings is also important. If you have a pocket door that will also impact your design (you can’t put anything on the wall where the pocket door hides when it’s open).

Lastly, consider the thickness of your baseboards if you plan on leaving them in place. Most rooms are not perfectly square, so also take several measurements of the same wall at various heights and utilize the smallest area.

After all that, I was ready to finally start looking for a closet system!

Step 5: Explore and Choose The Closet System

There are tons of different closet systems that exist on the market. My first step was evaluating the ones that I already knew the most about and seemed the most interesting to me.

Since seeing all the amazing Ikea Pax closet make overs, I initially thought we could implement that system but when I attempt to design the closet using the Ikea Planner it became clear that it was not a great fit for the space. The problem was really two fold. First, it seemed like there wasn’t a good solution for the corners. The Ikea Pax frames are a little deeper than other closet systems which makes the corners even more troublesome for my tiny closet. Because the room is so small I didn’t want to lose space by ignoring the corners. Secondly, the tiny wall 2 (see diagram above) isn’t quite big enough for standard closet systems…especially if there isn’t some type of way to deal with the corner.

So, I started looking around at other options available at our local stores and others online. We looked at a variety of them including Closet Maid, Easy Closet, Modular Closet and Closet Evolution. Each time I used their closet design software and they suggested a layout for me. But I was disappointed because it didn’t feel that the suggested design was utilizing all the space and based on their recommendations it seemed I would have less storage than before. However, playing around with their closet design software gave me some clues on what was possible and the different combination of things that could be used. I would highly recommend you spend some time playing around with them even if you don’t ultimately use that system because it will help inform your ultimate design later.

In addition, I did not like how disjointed many of these closet systems appeared. Most of the designs felt like individual units installed rather then a cohesive unit. As you can see in the Closet Maid and Modular Closet designs, the units are separate and not continuous. Similar to Ikea, there wasn’t a good corner option for many of the systems I looked at. That also felt like a missed opportunity for me. So, I kept shopping around and considering alternatives. Wall 2 continued to be a major problem as it didn’t seem like any of the software thought there was enough room to have any type of storage (at least utilizing their units). However, our current arrangement had storage there and I knew it was possible. It just seemed to be something that we may need to customize.

Easy Closet did have a corner option which made the design feel cohesive. However, it was a corner unit with shelving and they didn’t really offer any other configurations. But wall 2 (again!) was completely unused in this design. I started looking at why these systems weren’t utilizing wall 2 and I discovered it’s because the depth of the wall is not enough for the standard units that typically require 14 inches of space.

One day I was in a popular hardware store in the midwest, Menards and they had a closet section with a couple of displays. I was intrigued and started looking at their different systems. Dakota Closets was the most popular brand they had, so I decided to investigate them a little more. They didn’t have any fancy planning tools, so I had to lay out everything myself, but I felt like the system provided the flexibility needed to fully utilize all the space. Again, wall two was troublesome but I started to feel pretty confident that we could make it work. Then I saw the picture below of a Dakota Closet system. I know that it’s hard to tell but they have a solution for corners that make the design feel cohesive. I was pretty much sold.

Source – Dakota Closet Image

Finding information to design the closet was a little frustrating, but I went to the Dakota Closet’s website and downloaded their literature (found here) and it provided a brief guide on how to design the closets. I started sketching my design and used their standard product measurements to eventually come up with a reasonable option. Working through the whole design process was not necessarily complicated but it took time and some guess work since they didn’t have many tools to help you. Next week, I’ll go through exactly how we designed the closet using the Dakota System and I’ll include all the tips and tricks I wish I had known to make planning easier and faster.

References/Resources

Morgenstern, J. (2004). Organizing from the Inside Out. Holt Paperbacks.

Thomas, A.J. (2020). Closet Secrets: Essential Advice for Expertly Designing Your Closet or Dressing Room. Amazon.com Services LLC.

Knierim, A. (2019). How to Design a Closet. The Spruce.

Hart, S. (2015). How to Design a Practical Closet. Forbes.

How to Design a Custom Walk-Inn Closet: The Ultimate Guide (Part I). (nd). Closet America.

Closet Capacity Calculator. (nd). Better Homes and Gardens.

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