Written by Eddie Reyes
For most of us, especially those of us who live in and love old houses, we’re 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 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 “twilight zone” of the closet.
To improve on 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 billion on home storage in 2004 — most 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.
Don’t think “closet”, think “storage”. Maybe a closet is the best storage solution for 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 to recognize 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.
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 that 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.
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, lets design a wardrobe wall to replace a typical reach-in closet.
Dressing Up the Wardrobe
Now we need to dress up our storage modules a little. You don’t want all of these clothes just hanging out in the bedroom, conceal the storage with something that looks nice — that we can close when things in the closet get a little untidy.
So let’s add some good-looking doors to the hanging and shoe storage space. You don’t need to add doors over the drawers since the contents of the drawers are already nicely concealed by the drawers themselves. 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?
Using the Soffit Space
Finally we need to decide what to do with the last foot of space at the top of the cabinets. You can…
• Leave this open — it makes a nice shelf for displaying favorite items,
• Enclose it in a soffit
• Even add an extra row of cabinets to hold infrequently used items such as that Christmas sweater, or nonseasonal clothing: boots in the summer, sandals in the winter. It’s not handy space. It’s too high for daily use. But for stashing rarely used items, it’s workable. We can even provide a cubby to conveniently store the small step-bench you will need to reach it (or you can stash the stool under the bed like most people).
Oops! Almost forgot about tie and belt storage. A divided drawer works great for ties and belts. But most people prefer hanging racks. 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 attach pullout racks to the side of any of the hanging clothes cabinets. Both are equally effective. It’s just a matter of preference.