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Small Space Big Design
By Tracy Dickinson
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Making a small kitchen function well has everything to do with a great design.

Making a small kitchen function well has everything to do with a great design.

The trend in home design is toward open floor plans with spacious kitchens and family rooms. And that’s a beautiful thing.

But not all of us live in new homes or have the option of redesigning our small galley kitchen into a dreamy gourmet prep space.

If you’re looking for ways to design or rework a small kitchen, take a look at these tips from some local pros. Making your small kitchen function like a well-oiled machine has as much to do with the design as it does with the cook.

Plan ahead

With no room to spare, small kitchens require close attention to every detail.

Tina Noel of Moehl Millwork says, “Small spaces can be much more challenging than a large, spacious kitchen due to the size constraints.” The right design always makes a difference. But in a small kitchen, it’s crucial.

AIM Kitchen and Bath’s Corey Gersdorf adds, “You want to try to maximize the usable space as best as you can. Anything that will let you get the most out of the space that is available should be considered.”

“I don’t think I approach the project differently than I would a larger kitchen,” Beisser’s Nancy Ruzicka says. “But I do try to pay special attention to clearances—making sure that all the appliance doors can open fully and all doors and drawers in the corners will clear when they are opened.”

Sunderland’s Jennifer Sweet notes, “Taking out soffits can help to make the ceiling feel taller. Also, using taller wall cabinets with a stacked crown molding to the ceiling can help maximize storage and make the kitchen feel more spacious.”

Choose wisely

In addition to coming up with the right plan, you also want to choose your appliances and wish list items wisely so your layout functions well.

Noel explains, “I try to always incorporate the wish list items for the homeowner. This is what personalizes it for them. If I absolutely have to cross off something, I try to make it accessory items that are great to have but not critical.”

Features such as pantries, built-in trash and recycling centers, and display shelves are great, but they’re not always the best use of limited space. “Small kitchens also typically don’t get fixed islands,” explains Ruzicka. “But I have done several movable islands. I also like to try and use extra built-ins in the dining room or family room if possible.”

According to Gersdorf, “If you have a smaller kitchen, sometimes you can still add an island to it. We have used wall-base cabinets to get a small island so the homeowner can have another work space. Not every kitchen has room for one, but it is a great option for additional storage and work area. Everyone likes an island.”

Any method of adding built-in storage is a worthwhile investment, Noel adds. “Pull-out spice racks, tray-base storage, drawer storage, lazy susans, deep storage above the refrigerator to gain extra space —all of these make a kitchen more user-friendly,” she says.

Emily Kaldenberg of Woodharbor advises, “It’s not just about square footage. It’s about designing enough counterspace and clearance between counters so the room doesn’t feel cramped.”

Get creative

Even a small kitchen offers opportunity for creativity. In fact, some designers say the limited space causes them to use more ingenuity in the design and to think outside the box.

“With a smaller space, you really have to focus on the proportion—the proportion of cabinet size to layout, the appliance size, everything,”

Kaldenberg says. She often advises clients to look at nonstandard appliance sizes, which are available through some manufacturers. “They are not significantly smaller in capacity, but they offer a slightly smaller footprint and don’t overwhelm a tight space,” she explains.

Gersdorf adds that even opting for a counter-depth unit can save a few inches and allow the kitchen to feel more open.

Sweet says, “With a small kitchen, you need to maximize storage. So drawers and roll-out trays are essential.”

Good designers always stress the value of built-in, usable storage like this. In tight spaces, that becomes even more important. In addition, creative storage ideas become more than clever design features. They enhance the functionality of the kitchen.

Kaldenberg says, “We added a niche behind the range in one project. It was just a recessed niche above the stove for spices and bottles of oil and accessories, but it added interest and valuable storage space at the same time.”

The kitchen doesn’t have to be huge in order to function well. It just needs a great design.

Big Ideas For Small Kitchens

  • Don’t skimp on countertop space
  • Always choose quality cabinetry
  • Keep the hardware simple
  • Focus on texture instead of pattern with fabrics and accessories
  • Choose lighter colors for paints, stains, and countertops
  • Opt for fine-grain woods to minimize lines and patterns
  • Use good lighting to enhance the design and expand the space visually
  • Emphasize recessed lighting and undercounter lighting
  • Consider glass doors or frosted glass doors on upper cabinets
  • Look for new ways to use traditional elements:
    • Install a pull-out pantry next to the refrigerator
    • Put a cabinet on wheels to make a movable island
    • Add a roll-out system for under-the-sink trash
    • Add narrow shelves above the stove for spices or magnetic strips for knives and utensils


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