Less is More

A new challenge is ahead of kitchen designers: creating small kitchens that are luxurious. An emerging trend finds sophisticated, maturing clients entering a “downsizing” stage of their lives where the space they live in is small, but the quality and amenities large. Additionally, families of all ages are opting for upscale urban loft-type living as opposed to sprawling suburban estate homes – with a small kitchen that’s part of a larger public space.

This month, we’ll look at new design strategies aimed at helping the professional create kitchens utilizing every square foot of the space. To demonstrate the points discussed, several “real life” case studies of small kitchen projects will be examined offering great lifestyle luxuries to the consumer.

In my experience, I’ve found that designing small kitchens requires an entirely different design “mind-set” than when working with a large space. I believe there are five key planning approaches that help a professional create a small space that isn’t just a simplified “big” kitchen jammed into tight quarters.

Ask questions

During the survey appointment, the designer can help shape the client’s expectations for the new room by talking about:

¦ Prioritizing their “wish list.”

¦ Establishing possible trade-offs in work areas.

¦ Rethinking how the family will live in the new kitchen.

Next, it’s important to establish the future lifestyle patterns of the family in the new, smaller space as compared to the current lifestyle. The designer must help the mature homeowner move beyond “how we live now” to “how we plan to live in our new home.”

For example, moving from suburbia to an urban condominium may mean far more gourmet “take-ins” from local restaurants rather than stocking up on grocery shopping in preparation for cooking from scratch.

In addition to planning new homes for the Baby Boomer generation, we should be equally comfortable planning smaller kitchens for younger families who have very different values from our more mature clientele. Convenience and casual living are far more important to Generation Xers – and that means they’re much more comfortable in a true “one great space” living environment, with a kitchen in full view of the entire public area. You need to find out what the client thinks is most important in the new living space.

A good approach to take during the survey appointment is to train yourself to never say, “You can’t have,” or “I can’t do… because.” Replace such negative comments with, “Together, I think we can find a way for all of your requests to be met – we just need to prioritize equipment, think about staging activities, plan multi-tasking spaces and move some activities out of the specific kitchen space.”


Next, focus on restructuring, reorienting and reorganizing the space set aside for the kitchen.

Many of us have designed a small kitchen in the corner of a loft-like great space. And, as such, we all know how to create a 42" stepped up area behind an island to protect the visitor’s view from the messy countertop that’s created when the cook is putting the finishing touches on dinner. Good design in the future will go beyond this rather predictable solution.

¦ Think about the kitchen as an island, with a back wall closet concealing the tall elements or primary storage. This is a solution long embraced by European designers, who are far more accustomed to working with small urban apartments or condominiums. A key element in such a solution is learning about new and innovative door hardware available for room dividers or closets. Visit Hafele America (www.hafeleamericas.com) and study its door systems to increase your door hardware sourcing.

¦ Think about the kitchen as a closet, with a movable island or a table island part of the space that has minimal storage for a short list of equipment. There’s no doubt about it: Individuals jettisoning collections of lifelong possessions and young couples taking a new look at what materialistic items they really want to own means less shelf space. A kitchen that’s more like a walk-in closet might be totally suitable.

¦ Think about the kitchen as a hallway. The kitchen might – literally – be a walkway for a single or two-person living environment. We’ve been trained to think carefully about people traffic patterns in kitchen planning. However, for some smaller families, there are few people who live in the home. Your new client may be a single adult. The kitchen might be quite suitable stretched along one wall that serves as a hallway between the dining room, television room and living room.

In addition to these rather avant-garde approaches to rethinking the square footage devoted to a kitchen, try to find new space just outside the kitchen footprint to expand the storage system. Following are several ideas.

¦ Can deep window sills become storage for the kitchen?

¦ Can a snacking counter designed for two be divided into separate areas?

¦ Can a laundry room with side-by-side top-loading equipment be transformed into an extension of the kitchen by adding new front-loading stacked laundry equipment?

¦ Is there a coat closet that can also do double-duty as pantry space?

¦ Can all dishes be moved into an antique sideboard in the dining area, completely outside of the kitchen?

¦ Rather than placing seating at the back of an island, can it be placed at the end so dish and serving storage can be in a furniture hutch-type cabinet that backs up to the island?

¦ Can stepped or jogged cabinetry provide shallow storage space against walls that would otherwise not be used?

Controlling Appliances

Another critically important element is to get control of the appliance list from the very beginning. Experienced designers know that one of the hardest struggles we have is helping clients understand that they can’t buy every single appliance they see advertised.

If you’re attending the Kitchen/Bath Industry Show in Chicago, go on a “treasure hunt” for creative new appliances designed for smaller spaces that deliver great value and efficiency in smaller spaces. Then, develop a portfolio of equipment design ideas just for small spaces. Here are some ideas you might consider:

¦ In really small spaces, under-cabinet refrigeration with the freezer in an adjacent laundry area might be a great idea. Or, a 27" integrated combination unit with a second refrigerator/freezer placed elsewhere may be a good idea.

¦ There are 18"-wide dishwashers, and there are dishwashers that fit inside a sink: Learn about them!

¦ An oversized “D-shaped” sink with the faucet mounted to the side can replace a double-bowl unit if the sink is well designed with a strainer. The better strainers sit high in the sink so refuse can easily flow under the racking to the disposal.
Well-engineered racks don’t fit the sink snugly on all sides, and have a large opening around the drain. The racks provide ample room for food products to wash down the side of the sink to the drain, or to be pushed off a plate into the drain without catching on the rack. The best racks sit on a groove in the sink, rather than on rubber tipped feet resting on the bottom of the sink.

¦ KWC America makes a single faucet that has a filtered drinking water attachment that’s part of the faucet, as opposed to a separate item, which saves space.

¦ High-quality gas ranges and range tops with powerful BTU ratings are available in 24" and 30" wide units.

¦ Look at source ovens that have readable control panels when installed below the counter.

¦ Avoid microwave/hood combination units if possible. This is really important for petite cooks or mature clients who are not as strong or steady handed as younger consumers.

¦ Take a look at downdraft systems with a pop-up ventilation system that rises behind the cooktop. A great way to stretch a small space is to eliminate the overhead hood. This might be acceptable to a family that does not engage in gourmet cooking most of the time.

When seeking out the best small items, at K/BIS and in your other product shopping travels, look for combination appliances that will provide the function intended, but offer an additional benefit. For example:

¦ Microwave/convection ovens can take the place of a full-sized oven.

¦ Sinks undermounted in stone, quartz or solid surface can have a “yacht-like” sink cover made out of the sink cut-out so the only opening that remains is a small one for a disposal.

¦ The new induction cooktops have the instant on/off feature of gas, and provide powerful heat – yet, because they are smooth topped, they can do double-duty as a countertop when not in service as a cooking appliance.

Just as a note, I think induction is one of the most important new cooking innovations for both novice designers and seasoned professionals. The high level of performance with induction cooking, the willingness of consumers to purchase the types of pots and pans that must be used, and the advantage of extra counter space being available when cooking is not part of the meal preparation, is going to lead these appliances to be highly valued in the future. Another big advantage is easy clean-up.

Flex Space

Next, it’s important to think “flex space,” or making multi-purpose functionality a priority.

Long stretches of counter space, or an area reserved exclusively for an infrequently used desk in a kitchen, just won’t work in small spaces. Once you have a clear, understandable list of priorities from the consumer, it’s time to start thinking about how you can create a storage system that “doubles up” on serviceability.

¦ Replace a sit-down desk with a stand-up desk at 36" or 42". Much like Scandinavian furniture, think about a desk that’s attached to doors and “folds” in and out.

¦ Rather than a table that’s a static size, think about the versatility of antique tables with fold-down sections or tables with built-in extensions. A table that’s only 18" wide when not in use – but then opens to a full 42" for dining – makes great sense in a small area.

The key here is that people circulation takes place before or after dining – normally not during dining. Therefore, a walkway can do double-duty by providing seating space if you plan a mobile table arrangement: flip-up, pull-down, pull-out, swing-out eating areas. For example, a mobile shaped table base is available from Hafele America that lets you plan a lovely table for two that can be folded back against the wall when not in use. For years, we’ve seen European manufacturers that have tables that pull out of drawers. This may be an option for a project you’re working on.

¦ Use vertical “pedestal” cabinets to stack some of the point-of-use appliances the consumer would like. Perhaps a 48" tower at the end of an island can house the dishwasher and microwave. Make it a little wider and the built-in coffeemaker might be placed on an opposite side.

¦ Redesign base cabinets. Use units with full height doors so you can maximize the interior storage system for the client.

Keep it Simple

When looking to make a room look big, you need to keep your design details simple. The more design activity ­– in mixture of materials or structure of materials – the smaller the space will appear visually.

For example, consider using solid surface materials or quartz materials rather than granites with a great deal of movement. Have one focal point only. You cannot distract the eye with many delightful details – it will simply cause visual confusion in a small space.

Think about proportion – that huge mantel hood might not be a good idea. The mantel hood look might be possible, but would probably work better if it was held off the counter with brackets that return to the wall.

Opportunities abound for designers to showcase creativity in today’s “downsizing” kitchen design market. Clients are flocking to designers who can solve the problem of limited space. The key seems to be creating rooms and specifying equipment that can serve a dual purpose: allowing a space or a center of activity within the kitchen to change with the activity at hand.

I think this is an intriguing design challenge. Designers need to practice thinking “out of the box” to ensure success with “mini” great rooms. KBDN