Small but Mighty

by Autumn McGarr

Good things come in small packages” is a popular sentiment that is widely known – and often disputed – depending upon the contents. When it comes to small kitchens, clever design is what translates to good, and even great, status.

According to Tracey Stephens, founder and owner, Tracey Stephens Interior Design, Inc. in Montclair, NJ, the major complaints clients have about kitchens of any size is that there is too much clutter and not enough storage or counter space, and that the layout is too crowded for more than one cook at a time. For the smaller-sized kitchen, these issues are magnified. But experienced designers aren’t daunted by lack of space, instead arming themselves with an arsenal of tactics to deliver small kitchens that overachieve.

When designing in a small space, Nadja Pentic of KNOCKKNOCK takes cabinets to the ceiling for extra storage, and uses appliance garages, blind corner pullouts and drawers as much as possible for optimum functionality.


A smaller footprint doesn’t have to mean less storage or function, according to designers. In fact, the constraint on space means every single inch is considered for its possibilities.

“When a kitchen has a smaller footprint, it is very important to make sure that there is a continuous workspace for efficiency and continuity, and to plan so that everything to be stored and all planned uses for the kitchen have designated places,” emphasizes Kim Feld, CKD, CBD, NCIDQ, design/sales, Perspective Cabinetry & Design in Webster Groves, MO. “Too much disjointed workspace won’t be used.”

To gain as much continuous workspace as possible and to open up the space, Nadja Pentic, owner, KNOCKNOCK in Oakland, CA favors a particular design strategy when working with less square footage. “I like to stack all of my tall cabinets on one side, allowing the countertop to be on the other side,” she explains.

For example, in a galley kitchen, the pantry, refrigerator and double oven would be grouped together on one side, and the countertop, uppers and lowers, windows and sinks would be on the other. “That way, you don’t have tall cabinets flanking the kitchen, which tends to close things up,” she offers.

Appliance size is also key in the smaller kitchen, designers agree. Stephens notes that, while many small-kitchen clients have a 36″ range on their wish list due to the influence of television cooking shows and such, their actual lifestyle doesn’t reflect the need for six burners at one time, and in reality they would prefer that extra counter space.

“When working in a smaller footprint, every inch is precious, so I will often recommend smaller appliances like a 30″ or even 24″ refrigerator,” states Kate Roos, owner, Kate Roos Design in Minneapolis, MN. “These smaller refrigerators still offer a lot of space, and less food is wasted. You see what you have and use it.” She adds that, depending on the kitchen, the inches saved with these changes can make the difference between having a dishwasher or not.


Items that don’t have a designated space and are always being moved around add to homeowner stress and the concept of clutter, and make a kitchen of limited size feel even smaller than it is. It’s one reason why designers are laser focused on cabinet interiors when designing space-challenged kitchens.

“Once the layout is confirmed, I pack the cabinets with as many interior organizing accessories as possible to get the clutter off the counter,” offers Stephens. “This also officially designates a place for everything, which reduces time and stress when trying to find that spatula or spice.”

She notes that clients particularly love pull-out base utensil/knife storage, docking drawer charging stations, food storage container organizers, drawer dividers and pull-out cutting board storage.

“Food storage is easily handled with a full-depth tall cabinet with roll-out shelves,” she continues. “In a medium or large kitchen, the width of that cabinet is typically 30″-36″. But smaller kitchens don’t have to lose out and can still benefit from an 18″- or 21″-wide cabinet.”

The first thing Pentic looks for is whether there is a corner cabinet, and if a smart corner solution is needed. In years past, the kidney-shaped pullout for the corner was only available in larger sizes, so clearance had to be a minimum of 18″ – a tougher situation for a small kitchen. “This year I’m excited because Hafele came out with a version that only requires a 15″ clearance, and it was like Christmas!” she says. “Those 3″ sometimes make a big difference, like whether your silverware drawer is 9″ or 12″. In small kitchens, every inch matters!”

“I’m a big fan of pullouts and drawers everywhere, as well as appliance garages,” Pentic continues. “If you do have to use your counters as part of your storage for small appliances, I try to hide them behind a garage, so when you’re not using everything, you can just close it up and the space looks neat and put away, which also makes it look bigger.”

Narrow and shallow spaces are also put to good use in the smaller kitchen. “18″-deep cabinets are the perfect depth for two or three jars, boxes of cereal, larger, bulk-sized containers, and small appliances like crockpots and mixers,” reports Feld. “Shallow can-pantries that can even recess and fit between studs like a medicine cabinet might only hold two-depths of spices or one can, but provide easy access, prevent double buying and rotate food on hand,” she continues.

Pentic likes skinny pullouts for spices. “If you have a small space – like if your refrigerator needs to be near a wall but not against it so that you can open the doors – you have just enough room to add a skinny pullout on the side,” she explains. This can be a spice storage area or a broom closet or even a pull-out pantry. “I like using those in narrow spaces, because even 12″ pullouts with chrome baskets with six or seven shelves can make a big difference,” she remarks.

The designer also tries to make good use of space when clients open up the wall between the kitchen and a living or dining area. “If you’re creating a peninsula, it helps to make that space wider so you have 24″ cabinets on the front side and 12″ cabinets on the other,” she states. “You might not use that cabinet every day, but you can store extra china and wine glasses there.”

And, when it comes to useful upper cabinets, Pentic believes the ceiling is the limit, maximizing the height of the space by removing useless soffits. “We tear them out and gain an extra foot of space,” she reports. “You may need a step stool to reach it, but it’s a great place to keep holiday dishes or other seldom-used items,” she contends.

Designers also agree that incorporating trash and recycling receptacles into the cabinetry is key to keeping a space open and clean looking. “I allow at least 13″ for a trash pullout, because people forget about it and try to maximize the space, and then the trash bin ends up randomly placed somewhere on the floor, getting in the way,” notes Pentic.

Roos also looks to less predictable places for storage, including toe kicks, cabinetry above doorways and open shelving. “I’ve added magnetic stainless steel to unused walls for pots and pans or spices. I have created spice storage in shallow, often unused areas,” she remarks. “And, when it works, I have added very useful pantry space by adding a shallow cabinet perpendicular to the end of a run of cabinetry.”

Kate Roos, of Kate Roos Design, opened this bungalow kitchen to the adjoining dining space, adding a larger window for natural light, a peninsula for more storage and counter space, a 24″ refrigerator and magnetic wall for hanging pots and pans.
Photos: Andrea Rugg Photography

Newer to the U.S. market is the idea of using the backsplash as storage – whether it’s a railing to hang items, metal backing to hold things in place or sliding doors for invisible storage. “Americans don’t use their backsplash storage nearly as much as they could,” stresses Pentic. “Sometimes, when I’m short on counter space, I introduce rails and hooks for storage, and sometimes even recessed storage like you would in a shower, where you create a ledge inside your wall that holds all of your spices.”

Elaborate storage systems aren’t always the answer, though, warns Feld. She notes that, when considering all of the interesting accessories and storage products for cabinets, it’s important to weigh the pros and cons of giving up the space for the unit or mechanism in return for the added benefit.

“Swing-out spice racks, pegboard drawer divider systems, pantries with deep roll-out shelves and pop-up mixer inserts all look ‘cool,’ but the space that has to be given up for a mechanism, for clearance, or for the gaps created between stored items can dramatically cut into space that would be much better utilized and maximized by less flash and more simple and practical storage solutions,” she emphasizes.


Smart design for smaller spaces goes beyond storage amenities and counter surface area, however. Designers use a range of visual cues and other elements to provide the illusion of space.

While many designers have taken down walls between kitchens and adjoining living spaces to provide a more open design and allow light to pass through, when walls can’t come down, there are alternatives. “Opening the doorways between the dining room, kitchen and hall from 30″ to 36″ or 42″ surprises clients with a bigger impact than they expected by creating more visual connection with the adjoining spaces,” notes Stephens. “And, of course, it reduces the inevitable bottlenecks.

In this 11’x10′ kitchen, Tracey Stephens of Tracey Stephens Interior Design enlarged doorways to adjoining spaces to add to the illlusion of space, and enlarged a window for natural light. Small-scale versions of storage and organizational items are cleverly housed throughout.
Photos: Wing Wong/Memories TTL

“Another way to add a feeling of openness in a small kitchen is with windows,” Stephens continues. “Most of our projects start out with a small window over the sink. Enlarging the width, increasing the height and installing it closer to the countertop creates better daylight and connection to the outside.”

Pentic adds that she likes to add a skylight if the budget and construction allows. “It makes the space feel a little bit taller and lets some more natural light in, which helps the space feel bigger.”

The designer is also a fan of two-tone kitchens in smaller spaces. “If a space is kind of narrow and doesn’t have a lot of natural light and the client really likes wood, I might suggest doing the lowers and the tall cabinets in wood but the uppers in a white or light gray, or maybe glass-front doors,” she explains. “Breaking things up tends to make it feel a little more opened up.”

“Glass doors on wall cabinets visually increases the size of a kitchen by a foot because the eye continues into the cabinet, rather than stopping at the face, and the items inside provide a point of interest,” adds Feld.

She also favors lighter countertops and cabinets to help the space feel more open, because the palette helps the eye continue from the floor to the ceiling. “The trend of the 90s, with lighter cabinets topped with a dark countertop, automatically cut the space horizontally in half,” she explains. Remodeling of those spaces now includes removing the dark countertop and replacing it with white and gray and pale colors. “It makes the kitchen feel larger without increasing the footprint,” she concludes. ▪

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