Less is More: Design Insights for Smaller Kitchens

Kitchens certainly continue to reign as the heart of the home, but are they getting smaller? With our interest in sustainability and the current economic conditions, it certainly seems a possibility. While the overall space impacted by the kitchen is not smaller, in many cases the operational kitchen may be.

Picture a lovely open plan with a kitchen at one end. Often times, that kitchen may be a simple galley style, with a sense of “big” but a very concentrated actual working kitchen area.

The average home size has dropped 300 square feet, and in home plans I have been involved with, the eating nook is often shrunk down or eliminated, with that need being satisfied by the snack bar and adjacent dining space of the Great Room. These thoughts and the incredible small kitchens I have seen recently have prompted me to touch on some of the things that contribute to designing kitchens creatively for a smaller space.

Less is More

Following are 10 tips for designing smaller spaces effectively.

  1. Be sharp and discerning with your client as to their needs, desires, habits and priorities. Compare daily habits with wishful thinking based on the space available, and prioritize those things that might be desirable, but not essential.
  2. Work with your client to help them organize the space. Establish what they will need in each zone of the kitchen and which items might be stored elsewhere or eliminated. If 90% of the meals are for two people, the extra set of dishes and even some portion of the everyday tableware might be stored out of the working kitchen.
  3. Use space and concepts to create storage at the point of use, and make it specific to that list of priorities. There are limitless accessories today that use every square inch of space. Pull-outs that fit into three-inch widths, drawers that span both sides of a corner or those drawers within a drawer, and backsplash storage are a few.
  4. Examine adjacent spaces for possible storage near the kitchen or elsewhere. Is there a wall into which a recess might be created to accommodate canned goods or glassware? Can a pantry be created in adjacent space? Is there an existing furniture piece or the chance for a new one in an adjacent space that might house back-up storage for the main kitchen?
  5. Choose appliances carefully. The obvious is to pare down the list of appliances and the size needed for each. In this regard, there are so many more choices available today, from 18"-wide full-height refrigerators to 24"-wide high performance ranges and 18"-wide or single-drawer dishwashers. Using your knowledge of a client’s daily habits, a desire for two full size ovens might be satisfied with a design that incorporates two ovens in the space traditionally given to one range, or a speed- cooking oven that can perform as a microwave/second oven as needed. Next, apply the same vigilance to each appliance’s use of space that we already apply to cabinetry and storage space. Current appliances have come a long way in access and flexibility, with such features as pull-outs and half shelves in refrigerators, refrigerator space that converts to freezer and back as needs change, or the range previously mentioned, in which the bottom drawer has been brought to the top and made into an oven or microwave.
  6. Make the most of available space for the eating area. Building in the seating or the table will save valuable square footage by reducing the need for passage. Look carefully at existing or desired window areas to see if side-by-side stools might create an eating area that will double as work surface, allowing light in and eliminating any additional eating space in the kitchen proper.
  7. As suggested in the storage comments, consider borrowing from adjacent space. A snack bar that integrates with the open living space or a banquette that doubles as game table or dining area saves work space, as would recycle storage in an adjacent family entry, perhaps with a pass through chute for easy use. Space might also be found for a supplemental appliance.
  8. Remember and apply design elements and principles. Incorporate features that increase the sense of space: a strong horizontal line, lighter tones and finishes with bolder colors and contrasts for emphasis, a mirrored backsplash, a diagonal pattern on the floor or ceiling.
  9. Light it up! Look for ways to increase natural light. Consider increasing the size and number of windows where storage is not at stake, as at the end of a galley kitchen or above or below the wall cabinets. Plan generous and adjustable well-directed lighting to increase not just the function, but the sense of space.
  10. Attend to every detail and make the space sizzle. There may be some forgiveness in a large kitchen, but to make a small space stand out, every detail counts. It’s almost as if in a small kitchen, the focal point is the entire space. Clean design details do not have to be strictly neutral or monogamous. Use products and finishes to add character to the space. Notice the wonderful statement made by the design shown above.

    As I listed these ideas, I thought of exceptions to almost every one, but consider them food for thought. In the design competitions I have judged over the past year, I have been drawn to these smaller kitchens, which can be incredible masterpieces in the hands of a good designer. The truth is that smaller kitchens are not lesser kitchens, but truly grand when designed carefully, and finished distinctively.