How to Design a Closet The 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.

Planning a useful closet requires three steps.

  1. Understanding of how it will be used and what functions it must provide.
  2. Deciding what sort of storage organizers and accessories are needed to accommodate all of these functions.
  3. How to fit it all into the space that is available.

If you are building a new closet, there is at least some opportunity to size the closet to fit your storage requirements, provided you can get your architect to go along with the notion. Good luck!

For most of us that live in old houses, our closets are our closets. There is usually no opportunity to make them bigger, so they must do double and even triple duty in the same small space.

In this article we will guide you through the process of designing a closet, taking you through all three steps, outlining a number of helpful ideas that will improve the usefulness of any closet, regardless of its shape, size or configuration, or what you plan to store in it.

Some you will find more relevant than others. For example, if all you have to work with is a reach-in closet, then all of the information in this article that pertains to walk-in closets will be of little use to you. And, vice versa. Ideas that help expand the usefulness of reach-in closets may have little applicability to your walk-in closet design.

How Big is My Closet Space?

The first thing you will need to know is how much space you have to work with.

Space is the single largest limiting factor in closet design. If you don't have the space for all of the things you want your closet to do, then some things will have to go. It's as simple as that. So, measure your closet to find out how much space is actually available.

Accurate measurement is important, so important that we have devoted a whole article just on how to accurately measure your closet like a pro. It's called How to Measure Your Closet Like a Pro. The article includes a handy link to a blank measurement chart that you can use to record your measurements. You should go read How to Measure Your Closet article now and then come back to this one.

A caveat, your closet should be empty when you measure. Your chances of getting an accurate measurement while wrestling with dangling clothing and falling claptrap of all sorts are very, very small.

If you have not emptied your closet yet, go back to the first article in this series entitled The Well-Organized Closet and re-read the section on Getting Organized. Follow those instructions closely. Then come back here and resume reading.

Don't skip the floor-to-ceiling measurement. Space, especially in a small closet, is important and this includes the vertical space. We intend to use every inch of it.

What Do I Want My Closet to Do For Me?

Today's closets can be multi-functional, depending on the amount of floor space available. Storing clothing is the principal purpose of a bedroom closet, but a closet can also function as a dressing and clothes preparation area.

Clothes Storage

Except for linen closets and kitchen pantries, clothing is why most closets exist. Just about every closet stores clothing. Clothing will use up most of the space, especially in a reach-in closet.

So let's start with clothing. You will need to know how much clothing you intend to store in the closet, and how you expect to store it.

All of us have preferences. Some of us like to fold shirts, others hang them. Some roll socks, others fold them. Pants can be stored draped over a hanger, hanging by the hem, or folded in a drawer. As far as possible you will want your clothing stored in your preferred, customary way.

The next thing we need, to go along with our accurate measurements, is an accurate inventory of the clothing that will be stored in our closet. This means an actual count, not a guess. The chance that your guess will be accurate is on par with my chance of winning the Nebraska lottery.

To aid your clothing inventory, we have created a dandy, easy to follow, measurement form, which you can download here.

Follow the form carefully and you will have an accurate, and probably surprising, inventory of all the clothing you need to store in your closet. Remember, no guessing.

Dressing Room Features

What about other features? If you have a walk-in closet you may have options for incorporating other functions into your closet. Here are a few we have added to walk-in closets over the years.

Ironing Board

If you find a quick press desirable before you dress in the morning, or if you just like to iron in a friendlier place than that dank laundry room in the basement, you might include an ironing board in your closet.

This may be as simple as a standard folding board hung on hooks or stashed in a niche when not in use, or as complex as an in-wall ironing center with a swiveling, collapsible board adjustable to a convenient height, enclosed in a cabinet that also stores the iron (even a hot iron), spray fabric finish and other useful items.

Even a small reach-in closet can hide an ironing board if it is hung on the back of an out-opening hinged door — the type of door we recommend for all reach-in closets where space is available for it to swing out without obstruction.

A Place to Sit

In a walk-in closet, a space to sit while putting on shoes and socks or hose is a real convenience.

A bench under a window works well because it can double as a storage chest and occupies wall space that cannot be used for shelving or hanging clothes.

If your closet does not have a window, and most don't unless we build one, then a chair or stool in the middle of the room that is light enough to be easily moved out of the way when necessary is a good choice.

Otherwise, a cozy bench nook can double as a mixed storage area by creatively using baskets and cubbies to hold odd items above the bench and bulky items inside the bench.

A Good Mirror

A mirror in your closet is useful if only to spot the dental floss stuck to your lapel before you get to the big meeting. Even tiny reach-in closets can sport a mirror attached to the inside (or even the outside) of the door.

For walk-in closets, there are a number of options. A mirror can be attached to a wall — if you are willing to give up valuable wall space.

In most closets, a mirror that folds up and tucks out of the way alongside a tall cabinet is better. It uses up almost no wall space.

We can even get those three-panel mirrors you find in clothing stores that have angled side mirrors so you can see yourself from nearly every angle.


Walk-in closets are essentially small rooms that always have their own lighting. Reach-in closets are even smaller rooms that almost never have their own lighting.

For some reason the architects that design houses assume that the ambient bedroom lighting is enough light for the closet. Having lived with reach-in closets for more years than I care to think about, I can assure you that it just ain't so. Reach-in closets have more dark corners than the halls of Congress.

Adding lighting to an existing closet can be tricky. There are a lot of rules about the type of lighting allowed and where it must be placed to avoid contact with clothing that could cause a fire.

Before 1990, closet lighting was provided mostly by incandescent or halogen bulbs. Both of these lamps produce more heat than light, and high heat is a potential problem.

But, with the new, much cooler, compact fluorescent lighting (CFL) and LED bulbs, fire is unlikely unless the electrical circuit shorts.

Unfortunately, most electrical and building codes have not been updated to take into account the lessened fire danger from these modern lamps, and closet lighting must still be treated as a potential fire hazard even when the safer bulbs are used (because the idiot that buys your house in a few years may install incandescent bulbs where you intended only CFL or LED bulbs be used, and burn the place down).

We often do install lighting in reach-in closets — a cumbersome process that sometimes requires tearing into the walls to run wiring. But, newer options exist.

LED lighting technology has revolutionized battery-powered, install-anywhere lighting, offering extremely bright illumination that lasts a long time between battery changes (or charges). This is the easiest, DIY-ready option. Installed with a wireless switch, it cannot be distinguished from a wired lamp. These can be had for less than $30.00 at almost any building or electrical supply store, and take about 30 minutes to install — 15 minutes of which is interpreting the instructions that are printed in "easy Chinese English".

The wireless switch works on the same principle as your garage door opener. It sends a coded radio signal to the light fixture that tells it to turn on (if it is off) or off (if it is on). The switch can usually be installed as much as 50 feet away from the fixture. Several fixtures can be set with the same code to turn many lamps on or off at once.

Battery-powered lighting does not have to follow the building or electrical code rules in most jurisdictions because it is not considered a permanent fixture subject to the codes, but it is still better to locate the lamp away from clothing if only to get a better illumination spread.

We installed our first one about ten years ago when LEDs were still horrifically expensive. Its owner swears he is still using the original batteries. More normally, batteries last about a year.

At Least One Hamper

A walk-in closet should include a hamper, or better yet, two hampers, one for whites and one for other.

We have installed as many as four hampers in a large walk-in closet (whites, colors, delicates, and dry cleaning). We see a lot of elaborate walk-in closets that are hamper-less and wonder where the dirty clothes go.

A hamper in a reach-in closet is more of a problem, but laundry bags can be hung on the back of a closet door on hooks, a solution that gets the hamper off the floor and out of sight. The hooks allow it to be easily removed for transport to the laundry room.

A variety of manufacturers make pull-out hampers designed to be used with closet systems. Many use plastic baskets. We don't think these are as useful as our preferred hampers that use cloth bags. When removed from their frames they become laundry bags that make it easier to tote the clothes to the laundry room for washing.

We have also installed laundry chutes in closets where the closet happens to be over the laundry room. In one installation, we built a cabinet door into the wall that opened into the adjacent laundry room, allowing the homeowners to simply drop their clothing into a laundry basket in the other room. We liked that idea so much that we have used it several times since.

A Television

If you just have to keep current with the latest news, or you just like a little entertainment in the morning, a television in your walk-in closet may be a welcome addition. This requires a little planning. The television should be at eye level, which means that the storage in the room must be planned around it.

Keep the device to a reasonable size. You do not need a 60" screen in the closet. If a TV seems a bit much, consider a radio. You can look forward to, at minimum, some nice music or Morning Edition from PBS.

Rev. 04/30/22