Growing up in the 1950s, architect Duo Dickinson clearly remembers what lay inside his father's closet. "He had about 12 gray suits, a few ties, some white shirts—and that was it," he says. But those days — when a closet could be outrigged with a single metal pole — are long gone. Today's wardrobes include not only formal garb but also a profusion of casual clothes and footwear: Dickinson recently designed a closet for a client with a collection of 400 sweaters, and another for one with 200 pairs of shoes. "The amount of clothes we accumulate has increased. Our closets have to work harder now," he says. The best way to make your closet more efficient, say closet-organization experts, is to segment the space with a variety of shelves, cubbyholes, and clothes rods set at different heights. Not only does this eliminate the wasted 3 or 4 feet below a dangling shirt, it makes it easier to see an entire wardrobe at a glance. "Whether you have a big walk-in closet or a standard reach-in one, you want to be able to choose your clothes for the day and close the door in about two minutes," says designer Mary Danowski of the Italian furniture company Poliform, one of many closet-system manufacturers.
In order to intelligently divide the closet, professional designers begin by sorting through a person's wardrobe—a first step even for those heading to the local home improvement center to buy inexpensive shelving. "There's no formula that works for everyone in terms of how many linear feet of rods or shelving you'll need, but by grouping like items of clothing together and seeing exactly what you have, you can pretty much figure out how to make any closet work," says Ginny Scott, a designer with California Closets in San Rafael, California. To begin, the pros organize clothing items into categories according to how much space they take up when hung from a rod. At 64 inches or more, long gowns, overcoats, and bathrobes use up the most. But few people own many of these, "so you might be able to get away with a rod only a foot or two long" that could be hung at eye level, says Scott. Next come medium-length dresses and trousers hung by the cuff, at 48 to 56 inches, followed by shirts, jackets, blazers, and folded pants, which, at 38 to 42 inches, require the least space. Rods holding these shorter-length clothes can be hung one above another, thereby layering more into the closet.
Some designers plunge foot first into the closet—by counting shoes. "For me, that's really the determining factor for how you're going to carve up the space," says Danowski. "You can squeeze shirts on thin wire hangers if you need more room, but you can't squeeze a pair of shoes." If someone has a dozen pairs or less, Danowski adds a sliding vertical rack below the clothes or shelves. Significantly more shoes require cubbyholes that hold individual pairs or large sliding shelves that can store them two-deep.
Creating Personalized Storage
In addition to arranging things by size and type, the closet can be made more efficient by organizing things according to how often they're used. In the typical wall closet with sliding or bi-fold doors, "you'd put your 9-to-5 clothes right in the middle where you can see them," says Scott. In these closets, the corners are often hard to get to—making them perfect for out-of-season clothes or less-used items like raincoats.
Toward the bottom, shelves can be added to store items such as sports gear and winter hats and gloves, while shelves at a more accessible height make good places for dress shirts and sweaters. "You can stack them, but if you can't pull the bottom one out without toppling the entire pile, it's probably too tall," she says. For sweaters, limit the pile to three or four; for shirts, five or six. Scott usually adds one shelf across the very top of the closet about a foot from the ceiling to store pieces of clothing or extra blankets or pillows that "you might get down only once a season."
The dividers, shelves, and modular units that can help make closets efficient are available in a wide range of prices and finishes. Home improvement centers sell the cheapest versions, and some even offer a computer program or consultants to help work out the design. Filling a standard 8-foot-wide wall closet with professionally designed and installed shelving might cost as little as $500 for laminate, or as much as $5,000 if wood veneers or solid hardwoods are used. And then there are gadgets that can make them more expensive still: The fanciest closets have hydraulically operated rods positioned very high in the closet that you pull down when you need to access them. One client of Danowski's, a TV personality, even has a computerized library to guide him through his prodigious wardrobe, down to his last pair of socks.
In many cases the problem isn't too little closet space but too much stuff. "People stockpile clothes," says designer Scott. "Before you redo your closets, purge first.You'll be amazed by all the extra space you'll find."
Tom Silva On Shelving
Rather than use modular units to outfit a closet, This Old House contractor Tom Silva likes to build the shelving himself. First he makes cleats to support the shelves: He cuts long strips of 3/4- by 4-inch pine and attaches them along the back and sides of the wall with 2 1/2-inch finishing nails. He then cuts shelves to rest on top of the cleats, but instead of nailing them into place, he attaches the boards with a few 1 1/2-inch screws. "That way, if I ever want to rearrange the shelves for any reason," says Silva, "I can do so easily." As for the wood, Tom prefers paintable birch-veneered plywood to planks of a solid wood such as pine. "The plywood won't warp," he says, "and it's actually a lot stronger than most plain boards."