A well-designed closet with logical flow and attractive design is not only an absolute pleasure to see first thing every morning, but can be a great selling point when you sell your home. However, I used to design for Closet Factory, so I've seen many many closets and I've seen how expensive a custom built closet system can get (I've sold 2 $16,000 closets, and few cost less than $5,000 - don't know about you, but I'd rather build my own functional closet and spend that money on a jet ski or something!). It's absolutely possible to have a gorgeous closet that will magically create storage space and won't break the bank.
Declutter first and foremost - (parts of my Spring Cleaning post may help) - objectively clean out your closet - unflattering fit or color, worn-out items, unloved accessories, or icky fabrics MUST GO! Donate work clothes to the local women's shelter, dresses to Cinderella's Trunk, the rest to Goodwill. You only need clothes that you love - better to wear something great over and over than to wear something not so wonderful just because you're sold on the idea that you need a heartily stocked wardrobe. In this article the author states that most people only wear 20% of the clothes in their wardrobe! I believe it. Keep this in mind next time you go shopping. Let go of (or put back, if you're still in the store) the things that aren't that great but were on sale, clothes your shopping buddy talked you into that just don't suit you, and trendy items that you will no longer wear. Classic, quality pieces that make you feel great are best.
Take inventory. Measure how much double hang, medium hang, and long hang you need, and how long your longest item is in each category. Measure how long and wide your biggest shoes are and count how many pairs you have. Consider all of these measurements when drawing out your design.
Measure your closet and draw it out to scale on graph paper, marking any obstructions and your doors, including door swing if it swings in.
When designing, keep in mind any obstructions such as switches, ducting, outlets, and vents that shouldn't be blocked.
Consider your doors, especially in a reach-in closet. If bifold, open them and measure where they fold up. Drawers, baskets, sliding shelves, etc. will not be able to open if the door is in the way. If sliding, mark on your drawing where the doors overlap - this 6" or so will be difficult to access. If a pocket door, do not hang anything on the wall where the pocket door inserts. A regular door is ideal.
Double Hang - If you don't already have double hang, this will be your new best friend. Measure out the length of rod required to hang all your short hanging items (shirts, skirts, shorts) and then divide it in two - this is how much space you will need to hang two rods, one above the other. Be sure to hang the rods with enough height so your longer shirts etc. will not drag on the floor or on the lower rod.
Medium Hang - Pants, long skirts, short dresses need a medium length rod (again, measure how much rod you need to hang all your items in this category). This is an excellent place for shelves above or below or drawers or baskets/hampers below.
Long Hang - Few of us need more than 12" of hanging tall enough for long dresses, so you can either have a dedicated rod for these or in a medium hang section have one small area that doesn't have shelving or drawers/baskets/hampers below it so your dresses can hang unhindered.
Shoe Shelves (shoe racks can be used if you have no room for shoe shelves, but please use the canvas type that either hang over the door or off a rod. Metal ones wreck shoes over time so I don't recommend those.) - use the measurements and inventory you took for your shoes into account here. For example, say your widest shoes are 8" wide. Then the length of the shoe shelves should be in increments of 8": 16" wide holds two pairs, 24" holds three, and so on. So if you have twenty pairs of shoes and a 24" space, you need seven shelves (only about 6" tall, except for boots). Easy! A 12" deep shelf is usually sufficient except for large-footed men who don't like the toes of their shoes sticking out over the edge.
Sweater/ Jean shelves - Should be 16" deep. Measure the width of your wider folded items to see how wide your shelves should be, using the same method as with shoes. Try to keep the spaces between shelves short so the stacks don't get tall and tippy.
Purse Shelves - This one is entirely dependent on whether you love big purses or little purses and your inventory.
Drawers - Usually the most expensive part, but it's nice to have some things hidden. Consider buying or making drawer dividers (can use a router and thin pieces of wood or plastic to make your own) - really helps things stay tidy.
If you're renting or afraid of commitment use something like this to add a second rod. Use a canvas sweater hanger for extra shelving too (not just for sweaters). Shoes will be happy in a canvas hanger over the door or (preferably) off the rod. These types of things can often be found at Ross for under $10.
Paint or even wallpaper the inside of your closet in colors much more daring that you'd usually use. It's a small, intensely personal space that can be hidden from view. Go wild! Choose a color or pattern that is invigorating, since you typically see it first thing in the morning. This would take very little paint!
If you're renting, you can "wallpaper" with a fun fabric and starch, which peels off easily when you move. Click here for a how-to on a really clever website.
Install an attractive light (can be very inexpensive if you shop well - Home Depot has good flush-mount ceiling fixtures for $15 for a two pack, also check out lightinguniverse.com). I've seen reach-in closets with a 2' rectangular florescent light mounted on the wall directly above the door (so it isn't seen) with a motion sensor, so it comes on when you open the door. Genius!
Find a system of hanging your clothes that makes sense to you: Separate by work/play, formality, warmth, color, or otherwise. This will make dressing faster and simpler, and will give your closet a soothing, organized visual flow. Maybe a little OCD, but I break it into color, in ROY G BIV, then brown, white, grey, and black. Then I hang clothes in order of warmth, tank tops to sweaters. It helps me because I can think, 'well, I feel like wearing purple, and it's a little cold, oh look, my purple sweater section!'. Matt just likes the short sleeve shirts separate from the long sleeves. Whatever works for you!
For the shelving, build your own or buy freestanding bookshelves from secondhand stores or Ikea.
To reduce costs, consider using the white wire shelving and rods from Home Depot/ Lowe's. My old boss would whack me for this, but if your budget is limited it's better to have organization in a less ideal material than to live with an inefficient closet. OR check out something like this.
If you have a reach-in closet that has deep wall returns (the wall that surrounds the door, blocking your view) you may consider cutting the wall back so the closet space is more accessible. The doors can be replaced by larger doors or hanging dramatic curtains that go well with the bedroom (go deluxe on these or it will look cheap), preferably floor to ceiling to create the illusion of height.
Avoid storing non-clothing items in your master closet. The bedroom (closet included) is ideally a sanctuary, not a storage room.
Hang a hook for each closet user so that clothes can be chosen at night and hung up, ready and waiting, to speed up morning routines.
Hooks are also great for frequently used things, such as PJ's, jacket, jeans that are clean enough to wear again, today's bag, etc.
A Little Bit Luxe:
Invest in beautiful wood hangers (Bed, Bath, and Beyond has the best price - $15 for 24). This may seem like an unnecessary purchase but it beautifies your closet, dresses up your wardrobe and will truly make your clothes seem more satisfying. This could actually save you money because your wardrobe will feel more full and you can better fight the subconscious urge to shop. I used to have a variety of colored plastic hangers that made my closet look mishmosh and disorderly, despite any organization (and made putting away laundry slow, as I have a touch of OCD and can't hang clothes on a clashing hanger). I love my wood hangers!
If you choose to have a custom closet made for you, keep in mind that white will be cheaper than colors and drawers and doors will make the cost jump very quickly. Closet Factory charged $100 for the most basic drawer, and the cheapest wood grain melamine was a price increase of 15%. If you go into custom stained wood, the price would be astronomical. I've quoted closets at $24,000, but the same layout in plain white with standard accessories would be more like $7,000. You can, of course, do a reach in closet for about $800 if it's very basic. Ikea does custom closets for MUCH cheaper.
There are a lot of plan-it-yourself websites, which of course you can order from, or just use their website to design your closet and then use that plan when you build your own. Please oh please do not have a closet designer come to your home to draw plans and give you an estimate if you're planning to DIY - this is disrespectful of their time and money (they get paid strictly commission and gas prices hurt when you drive for hours on end for free - trust me, I've been there) and you risk bad closet karma. ;-)
Most older homes have teeny-tiny closets. I may be worthwhile to steal some space from the room to expand the closet, for resale value and your sanity. If done well this could create enough storage space that you can eliminate the dresser from your bedroom.
Triple Hang! This is the most wonderful thing about kid's rooms. Their clothes are small enough that you can hang 3 rods vertically, or one or two rods with lots of shelving or baskets. Make their closet easy for them to use as they grow. Toy baskets can go on the bottom. The more colorful and easy to understand their closet is, the more likely they will actually use it. Also, consider shelves or hooks where, as they begin dressing themselves, you can set out outfits for them to choose from. They'll learn a little bit of independence and you won't have to have as many arguments about clothing choices. ;-)
To Make it Green:
Use secondhand bookshelves.
Use low VOC paints.
Build your shelves with FSC certified wood.
Donate your old closet rods and shelves to re-do.org.
Keep in Mind:
Consider form and function. Function is of course the first priority with something as hardworking as your closet, but it should be beautiful too. It's where you start every morning. Make it pleasing!
Don't neglect your other closets, either. Do you pray that your guests don't open the linen closet? Is your coat closet full of unused coats or things that don't belong there? Is the pantry overwhelming? Invest some time, creativity, and a little money and these can be places to show off in the grand tour! (A couple ideas - coat closets should ideally have space for plenty of guest coats as well as shelves or hooks for gloves, purses, scarves, hats, etc. If you're blessed with a linen closet, make sure it is orderly and isn't a booby-trap set to spring when someone opens it. Anything not linen-related should live somewhere else or be eliminated.) And then there's the garage...
Absolutely under no circumstances use the melamine coated particle board they sell at Home Depot. It may look like what closet companies use, but I've seen it for myself - it will peel, scratch, and look cheap almost immediately. If you build a wonderful closet system yourself, use paint-grade MDF or plywood (plywood will be more expensive). Don't use particle board - it can't be painted, it could snag your clothes, and it usually has formaldehyde in it.
I'll probably update this post as I think of a few more ideas, but please let me know if you have questions or great ideas!