Her Home Logo This article was reprinted in Her Home Magazine.

To obtain reprint permissions, click here .

Closet Basics: Part 2 Beyond the Closet. The 21st Century Storage Solution

A Wardrobe Wall…

In bygone days, before central heating and running household water, houses did not have closets as we know them today.

Closets were features only of the manor houses of the very well-to-do. Washington, Jefferson, and Madison had closets, but they were not used to store clothing. They were used to store foodstuffs and household implements. We would probably call them pantries today.

Clothes were not hung on hangers. They were folded and kept in a chest or clothes press, or hung on hooks. In most homes, a row of pegs next to the door was enough storage for all the clothing in the household. Even a very well-to-do colonial woman would have had only a few dresses.

Clothes hangers, originally called "shoulders", did not come into use until the last decades of the 19th century when the new emphasis on sanitation and hygiene dictated that clothing be "aired" for better health.

Even after the closet tax was repealed most families did not have enough clothing to really need special rooms for storage. The very rich in their mansions had closets, but for the average household, closets did not begin to appear regularly until very late in the 19th century, and even then, they were very rare.

By then the industrial revolution had produced the powered loom and sewing machine. These made good quality, relatively inexpensive clothing widely available, and articles in newspapers and magazines were already starting to complain about closet clutter.

In the 1950s, bulging closets inspired the last major closet innovation — the walk-in closet. A great improvement over the modest reach-in closet.

The walk-in quickly became an indispensable adjunct to the master bedroom (also a post-War innovation). Throughout the 1970s and '80s, it was almost impossible for a builder to sell a new house without an ever-larger walk-in closet.

We have now reached the point at which walk-in closets have evolved into sumptuous rooms, far beyond just places to store stuff, and even beyond mere dressing areas — the latest master closets feature his and her vanities, dressing tables, sofas, and chairs, televisions, spas, saunas — even steam showers. In many upscale homes, the master bath and closet have largely merged into the master bedroom becoming one continuous and often luxurious master suite.

Thinking Outside the Closet

The rest of us, however, especially those of us who live in and love old houses, are still stuck with those tiny reach-in closets.

They may occupy one whole end of the bedroom, hidden behind graceless rows of bi-fold doors. More often, they are dark little recesses stuck in one corner of the room behind a narrow door. Half of the clothing stored in them is pushed into corners where it cannot be easily seen or reached. Anything stuck on the upper shelf is lost in the "twilight zone" of the closet.

To improve closet storage, an entire new industry has been born. The closet organizing industry. It is huge and getting bigger. The Department of Commerce estimates that Americans spent $4.5 billion on home storage in 2014 — much of it on closet organization.

Scads of new companies enter the business every year. Everyone is getting into the act from Sam's Club for DIY closet storage to Mommy Organizers, a new franchise opportunity that may well become the Amway of the 21st century.

Closet organization can indeed work wonders — greatly increasing the storage capacity of a basic closet.

But there is a limit to what closet organizer folks can do because they think "closet". Their designs are limited to what can be made to work inside a typical closet.

We, by contrast, don't think "closet", we think "storage". Maybe a closet is the best storage solution for your ward­robe organization, or maybe not. Reach-in closets have serious structural problems that have no real solution.

So, for the most effective ward­robe storage, the first step may be the realization that the closet may not be the best solution to clothes storage and open our minds to some alternatives. Think "outside the closet". In fact, think about getting rid of the closet for something better.

What's Wrong With My Closet?

Everyone knows there is something very wrong with the typical small closet. It is not very convenient storage. It's usually poorly lighted with lots of dark places and shadows. Clothes get tangled, fall to the floor, are seemingly always out of sight or reach. There is no good place for shoes, belts, or ties.

The problem is the closet door.

Access to your reach-in closet is limited by the size of its door. Closet doors are people doors, not cabinet doors. Cabinet doors are designed to fully expose all of the contents of a cabinet for easy reach-in access. A room door is intended to let people walk from one room to another. It is not reach-in friendly.

Room doors are always smaller than the wall that contains them because of the way they must be installed. This means that there is always some part of the closet (primarily at the top and sides) you cannot easily reach or even see. You can access only the parts of the closet exposed through the door opening.

There is no real solution to the problem of the closet door except get rid of the door. Any effort to make a closet truly efficient storage is certain to be confounded by the door. No matter what is done, any storage above the top of the door opening or at the hidden sides of the closet is destined to stay fairly useless.

The door drastically restricts the placement of drawers and pullouts. The only space available to pull into is the doorway, so the practical limit of any pullout device whether it is a drawer, basket, or shelf, is the doorway width. The rest of the closet might as well not be there.

If a closet is filled with pullouts then the side areas become inaccessible dark pits — graveyards for coins, cufflinks, and dropped hangers. As much as 1/4th to 1/3rd of the closet floor space becomes unusable, largely offsetting any storage gain from using pullouts in the first place.

One solution is, of course, the walk-in closet. In a walk-in closet, the door reverts to its normal function — letting people walk in and out. It is no longer a porthole to the contents of the closet. Walk-in closets were invented to overcome the more obvious limitations of reach-in closets.

The price you pay, however, is steep. Walk-in closets take up a lot more bedroom floor space. The minimum depth of a reach-in closet is 2 feet (we use 25"), for a walk-in closet, the minimum depth is a whopping 6 feet (7 feet is better) to allow for walk space. Walk space itself is not storage space, it is just a pathway to storage space. If you have the abundant space required, then a well-designed walk-in closet may indeed be the answer to your storage needs. But for most heritage houses, there is not that much extra floor space available without impeding other essential functions.

Replacing the Reach-In Closet With a Wardrobe Wall

But, a better solution for most homes — especially older homes — is a space-conserving ward­robe wall. In a ward­robe wall, the restrictive closet doors are replaced by cabinet doors and drawers for easy access to stored items. To see how it works, let's design a ward­robe wall to replace a typical reach-in closet.

Storage Re­quire­ments

The first thing we do is get rid of the front closet wall and its doors. This eliminates the blind areas and reveals the space we have to work with. Next, let's remove the rods and shelves and start adding modules for specific storage needs. Here is what we need to store in an average ward­robe closet:

The view of the closet once the wall and doors are removed. At least we can now see what's in the closet. Notice how much space was wasted.
Our ward­robe wall (shown with doors removed) provides nearly three times the storage in the same floor space, organizes clothing effectively, and ensures easy, fumble-free, access to all of the items in the various storage modules. Typical closet drawer units are 16” to 21” deep. Ours are 24”, providing up to 50% more drawer storage.

Let's start with hanging clothes. Unless your name is Shaquille O'Neil, you will need 68-75" of hanging space for full-length coats and dresses, 60-63" for street dresses, and 42-45" for suits, blouses, skirts, and pants.

A hanging rod about 80" from the floor is about right for most of us. Much higher and it's out of reach. Much lower and it crowds good storage space below that we can use for other things. To accommodate an 80" rod, we want about 84" of vertical space. This just happens to be the height of a normal full-height cabinet. Isn't that a nice coincidence?

We don't own a lot of floor-length clothing. The days of ball gowns are pretty much past. Full-length overcoats are often stored in the entry closet rather than the bedroom. So this space can be fairly narrow - or even eliminated if it does not fit your lifestyle. We can easily hang 4 overcoats or 12 gowns in a 20" space. So that's what we will use here.

Street dresses require about 1-1/4" of rod space each to hang without crushing. We can easily store 20 dresses in a 24" space. If you have more than 20 dresses to hang, then we need to make the space bigger. Since we design the space to fit your specific storage requirements, we will provide as much storage for street dresses as you need.

Shirts, pants, blouses, and similar types of clothing also require about 1-1/4" of rod space for each garment. Most of us have a lot of this kind of clothing. So we are going to allocate a full 72" to their storage, for 50 such items.

None of these hanging items takes up the full 80" of vertical space available. So below the hanging space, we have room for drawer and shelf storage. We can use drawers for folded clothing, socks, hose, and small items; and pull-out shelves for shoes and purses. We can make these as fancy or plain as you want. Dividers in shirt drawers keep folded shirts and sweaters nice and orderly.

Cube dividers in underwear, sock, and hose drawers make this storage more efficient. We like to line jewelry drawers with felt to prevent scratches. Dividers can be made of aromatic red cedar for that wonderful cedar smell, and to keep bugs out of the closet.

How much storage did we add? Triple the capacity of the former closet. And we did not use a single inch of additional bedroom floor space.

Now we need to dress up our storage modules a little. We don't want all of these clothes just hanging out in the bedroom. We want to conceal the storage with something that looks nice — that we can close when things in the closet get a little untidy.

We can provide a divided drawer for ties and belts. But most people prefer hanging racks. We can attach racks to any of the ward­robe doors (ties and belts don't take up much space and will not interfere with the hanging clothing), or we can attach pullout racks to the side of any of the hanging clothes cabinets. Both are equally effective. It's just a matter of preference.

Dressing Up the Wardrobe

So let's add some good-looking doors to the hanging and shoe storage space. We don't need to add doors over the drawers since the contents of the drawers are already nicely concealed by the drawers themselves (We think drawers behind doors are a complete waste of money and a serious handicap to efficiency. Why do we want to open a door, then open the drawer to get something? See What We Can Learn about Kitchen Design from Commercial Kitchens for more discussion).

Another storage problem is handbags. They come in many sizes, some rigid, some flexible, some with shoulder straps, some without. Our usual universal solution is to install cubbies or divided shelves. Otherwise, Shaker-style hooks on an otherwise unused wall provide a convenient place to hang handbags and other hard-to-store items such as scarves.

Using the Soffit Space

Finally, we need to decide what to do with the last foot of space at the top of the cabinets. We can…

Principles of Smart Closet Planning

In most households, the vanilla closet with a rod and shelf above is no longer adequate to meet closet needs. Whether it's just a place to store clothes or, as is increasingly the case, your closet is expected to do double duty as a dressing room, it must be convenient to use and flexible enough to adapt to changing requirements. . . .(Continues)

Rev. 05/01/22