Given their inherent ability to highlight aesthetics, grandiose kitchens often get all the glory, frequently gracing the covers and interior pages of design magazines while simultaneously garnering pins, saves and tags on social media. Large, multi-functional islands; long sweeping runs of cabinetry, and multiple majestic focal points certainly do present a pretty picture. However, their more petite counterparts – often sans islands altogether but with power-packed cabinetry and streamlined aesthetics – can be equally as beautiful, and, as many designers assert, just as rewarding to design.
In some ways, small and compact kitchens are even more challenging to master, considering everything that has to be packed into them. This month, KBDN asked designers to discuss the trials and triumphs of creating functional and aesthetic kitchens with petite footprints.
Jason Thompson and Michael Howett often work in Philadelphia’s City Center where, on average, houses are small to mid-size with kitchens typically following suit. The same can’t always be said of client expectations, which can, at times, conflict with the size of the footprint.
“One of our biggest challenges is shaping clients’ expectations proportionally to the small space,” remarks Thompson, design director for J.Thom Residential Design & Cabinetry. “If clients have an extensive appliance list, they may end up with only one cabinet! Or, there may not be room for a dishwasher if they also want their large stand mixers and blenders.”
However, that’s also the beauty of small spaces, he points out.
“I love taking clients’ wish lists and making them proportional to what’s possible,” he continues. “Everyone is unique. Some clients may need more work space, others more oven space. I’ve always loved putting the pieces together.”
Howett, lead designer for the firm, also finds joy in designing small spaces.
“I like the jewel box quality of them,” he reports, “…of taking a small space and making it special. It can have its own perfect moment, even though it’s small.”
Thompson agrees, adding, “I love to create an admired focal point that makes the space feel special every time the client walks in. We can’t always do that wall to wall, but we like to find that special moment. That’s what keeps the space from being one note.”
For one young couple who recently renovated their rental unit into their own personal living space, the designers found just the right moment in a relatively unique place…the floor.
“I love the tile on the floor,” stresses Howett. “The rest of the home is rather calm and mid-century modern, but since the kitchen is its own space, we wanted to have a ‘wow’ floor. You get a peak of it from the other rooms, but when you come into the kitchen, you see all the color. Our clients are a fun, young couple and they went for it!”
The floor is complemented with a few additional bold choices throughout the room, such as the yellow range and orange accent tile that are given the opportunity to ‘pop’ when placed against maple veneer upper cabinetry, blue base cabinetry and white backsplash tile that clads the window and range walls.
The design duo also gave the couple more workspace by converting the previous galley kitchen into a u-shaped kitchen with a relatively long countertop. The base of the ‘u’ also includes two dishwasher drawers, which are a better fit for the petite space compared to a traditional appliance.
“The door of a regular dishwasher would cover the entire floorspace in front of the sink,” Howett explains. “With drawers, our clients can now rinse their dishes, spin to the right, pull open the drawer, fill it, then push the drawer closed…all in a seamless operation.”
In-kitchen seating was a critical element in the design as well, which they accommodated by removing a portion of the wall and creating a wrap-around peninsula with enough room for two stools.
Additionally, custom cabinetry addresses storage concerns, which is an issue in many small kitchens.
“We can work through all the nooks and crannies of a kitchen with custom cabinetry,” notes Thompson. “It also gives us the ability to include right-size inserts and dividers to maximize storage from the top down, and from right to left. We can always achieve a ‘right fit’ where contents don’t shift. Aftermarket accessories do gain function, but custom cabinetry is ‘next level’ and can give a small kitchen a very tailored look.”
There’s always a delicate balance when it comes to designing small kitchens, indicates Kelly Martin, interior designer, Kelly Martin Interiors in Los Angeles and San Francisco, CA.
“People often think they need to make big sacrifices, but they don’t have to sacrifice everything just because a kitchen is small,” she says.
When space is limited, Martin encourages clients to keep it simple, and to remember that less is more…as it applies to both contents and finish selections.
“Kitchens are naturally places where people have a lot of things…countertop appliances, dishes, etc.,” she says as it relates to contents. “It is hard to scale back, but I think it’s more important in smaller spaces, so I encourage conversations about what clients really need.”
Such was the case for this kitchen renovation, which she completed in collaboration with LA Remodeling Co. After demoing it to its studs and adjusting the placement of the range wall slightly to center the window along the back wall, the designer reconfigured it with function in mind, starting with appliance selection and placement.
“The original layout didn’t make logical sense, so creating one that utilized the space in a more functional way was the most important thing to achieve,” she explains. “The kitchen needed to function as a regular kitchen, despite its small size.”
While the homeowners wanted a full-size range, it ultimately just didn’t fit so they downsized to a 30″ model, allowing them to maximize storage within the custom cabinetry.
“Custom cabinets are worth the added expense…even more so when the kitchen is smaller,” Martin indicates. “Smaller kitchens are harder to plan with regard to storage. You have to think outside the box, so if a client can afford custom cabinetry, it’s worth it.”
The designer also adjusted the placement of the dishwasher, which previously was located directly around the corner from the sink.
“The sink and dishwasher were so close together that my client couldn’t even stand at the sink and load the dishwasher,” she recalls. “We ended up bumping the dishwasher down and closer to the kitchen entrance so now she can open the door and stand at the sink at the same time.”
As the less-is-more notion applies to finishes, Martin maintained a limited color palette – which works better in small spaces – grounded in darker finishes that combine to create a one-of-a-kind, ‘artsy’ space.
“I loved that my clients wanted a darker feel,” states the designer. “But I wanted to make sure it wasn’t too dark, otherwise the room might feel like a hole.”
To accommodate, character oak cabinets were stained to highlight the knots and imperfections that give the wood personality. The designer complemented them with zellige tiles in shades of green and brown, where the former adds a pop of color and the latter ties the backsplash to the cabinets.
Quartz countertops further enhance the earthy, organic vibe. Their custom edge detail adds texture to the space and is one of Martin’s favorite elements in the entire kitchen.
“It was a little tricky to master, but it makes such a difference,” she notes. “I wanted to include something special, and in this small space the subtle detail doesn’t make it feel overloaded. I often like to add texture because it can break up a monochromatic color palette. In this case, I layered similar colors where the sink, the counters, the floor, the hood and the cabinet hardware are all essentially the same color. Then I used texture to show differentiation that creates interest.”
To keep the room feeling larger and visually lighter, Martin purposefully omitted upper cabinets on the window wall, choosing instead to include floating shelves in one corner. She also maintained the pass-through that brings in light from the living and dining rooms and facilitates entertaining.
Making it their own
To those outside of the design world, it may be presumed that small kitchens are easy to design. After all, a smaller footprint means there’s less to think about, right?
That’s not necessarily so, indicates Michael Howells, who stresses that small kitchens are actually quite difficult to design successfully.
“You have to be super intentional when a space is smaller,” explains the architect, owner/principal of Howells Architecture + Design in Portland, OR. “You also have to do a lot of diligence at the front by getting to know the clients, and the existing space…to within fractions of an inch!”
And yet, the architect loves the challenge of working with less.
“It can be an extraordinary transformation to a client’s quality of life when it’s done right,” Howells indicates.
To ensure that happens, he spends a lot of time getting to know his clients, asking questions about how they live, what they prioritize…and what they can let go of.
“It’s like therapy,” he says. “It can be painful, and I understand that.”
Along the way, he gets into discussions about function, and how much is too much.
“If someone can let go of the idea of a double oven, or the idea that they must have an island, they will be glad they did,” he reports.
He also encourages clients to divorce the giant American refrigerator in favor of European-style units and other more compact appliances.
“They are essential for a scaled-down space,” he explains. “Think 30″ max at the range.”
Open shelving is another small-space essential that the architect often likes to include in any small kitchen.
“Whether it’s pantry staples, dishware or plants, or a mix of them all, open shelving makes a kitchen feel personal and lightens up the space visually,” Howells states. “However, too much of it and you’ll get dusty dishes. But a slice of open shelving is a signature move of mine. I love seeing how my clients fill their shelves with the things they love to see every day the minute the remodel is complete. A kitchen comes to life when the owners make it their own.”
Open shelves were a foundational element in a recent galley-style kitchen renovation completed by Howells, where the client’s mother is a cookbook author and her daughter is a lover of cooking and reading.
“We brought books into the design as a core element,” says the architect. “We designed a large built-in bookshelf as a divider between the kitchen and dining rooms, then added a smaller built-in bookshelf for cookbooks to frame the kitchen nook.”
Choosing rift-sawn oak for the bookshelf elements and blue paint for the cabinetry creates a two-tone scheme that adds a richness to the space and highlights the owners’ literary and culinary interests. White countertops and backsplash also add to the room’s light and airy feel. ▪