Winning the Storage War

From walk-in pantries to pull-out spice racks to electronic device charging stations, designers employ clever solutions for overcoming kitchen storage challenges.

authors Kim Berndtson | October 12, 2018

As the heart of the home, the kitchen is routinely asked to multi-task by performing a vast array of duties. Everything from prepping/cooking food to paying bills and charging electronics often happens in the space once simply and straightforwardly associated with feeding the family. Each of those tasks also comes with a related storage need, which, if left unaddressed, can create kitchen chaos that not only looks unsightly, but reduces efficiency and functionality as well.

“Back in the day, the trend was to display expensive mixers and blenders on the countertop,” says Polly Nunes, Polly Nunes Design, in Los Angeles, CA. “Today, those appliances have to be hidden…no more showing them off!”

The same philosophy applies to the microwave, she continues, noting it can be replaced with a microwave drawer or moved to a pantry. “As a designer, my job is to remove all the appliances from visual display and find the perfect place for them to provide a clean look,” she states. “In fact, that’s my goal as it relates to all storage needs…select the right accessory for the best application for the right cabinet!”

The kitchen of this narrow, turn-of-the-century ‘twin’ home faced the pantry wall. To keep it light and bright, the homeowner wanted the walls to be open and decorative as well as functional. To make up for lost storage, Bill Dolan added a tall wall of pantry cabinets and a long island with deep drawers.
Photos: The Kithen Studio at Pine Street, Photographer, John Welsh

Bill Dolan, Pine Street Carpenters/The Kitchen Studio at Pine Street, in West Chester, PA, agrees. “If storage is done right, you can keep everything within arm’s reach and off of the countertop for a clean kitchen,” he says.

Proper storage allows for everything to be in its place, notes Diana Burton, designer at Drury Design, in Glen Ellyn, IL. “That creates a clutter-free kitchen that feels tranquil and in order,” she states. “And, knowing just where to look for any piece of cooking equipment improves efficiency and makes the cook’s life easier every day.”

Wayne Martin, AKBD/managing partner/designer, William & Wayne, in Seattle, WA, concurs: “When a kitchen is organized and everything is put away in its proper place, a kitchen becomes much more usable and ergonomically freeing for the homeowner.”

Margie McCulloch, designer/owner, Red Pepper Kitchen+Bath|Red Pepper Design & Cabinetry, in Boulder, CO, indicates that although most storage solutions are behind closed doors and drawers, they still have an enormous impact on how people feel about their kitchens.

“People love their kitchens and are so happy to be in them when their stuff is organized,” she believes. “They feel better about being in the kitchen…and cooking! The best compliment I ever received was from a client who said her new kitchen changed the family culture at dinner time. Her little girls were able to reach their plates and cups, and they could set their own places at the dinner table. Plus, everything was in reach for two busy, working parents. An organized kitchen made them happier and better able to work together.”

Design tips

Although designers agree about the value and importance of adequate and effective storage, they indicate there can be design challenges and client preferences that compromise its existence. One of the most notable is a trend toward fewer wall cabinets.

“We work in more contemporary homes with a lot of windows so we don’t have upper cabinets, which changes storage and moves it into base cabinets,” says Martin. He notes that, with the right organizational accessories, base cabinet storage alone can, in general, accomplish the same storage volume as base cabinets used in conjunction with wall cabinets, while allowing easy access to contents.

Burton also often faces challenges associated with clients who want more windows. To make up for lost storage, she utilizes tall/pantry cabinets wherever possible.

A sawtooth spice rack is one of Diana Burton’s favorite storage solutions. In this transitional kitchen, it is combined with a lift-up appliance garage, a pull-out utensil holder and a ‘command central’ feature at the end of a run of cabinets. The concept is popular with clients who want to organize mail as well as charge electronics in the kitchen.
Photo: Drury Design

“When we do a big window over a sink, we’ll do tall cabinetry on an inside wall, maybe next to a refrigerator,” she says. “We can gain some lost storage by capturing the space between the bottom of a wall cabinet and a countertop.”

Nunes indicates that, in addition to losing storage space to windows, removing walls and incorporating more appliances also negatively influence storage capacity.

“Clients are requesting more open space for family interaction and entertaining,” she explains. “But eliminating walls forces designers to look at base cabinets and pantries in a whole new light. Also, people used to just need one refrigerator, a sink and a range. Nowadays, they have two refrigerators, sometimes two dishwashers, a beverage refrigerator, a large cooktop, microwave drawers, double ovens, etc. More appliances mean less cabinetry.”

To accommodate this, Nunes, like Burton, gravitates toward tall cabinets. “Large islands also come into play, and walk-in pantries are a must have!” she adds.

Dolan sees pantries as a way to maximize storage capacity as well.

“One of the best solutions, if space allows, is a walk-in pantry,” he says. “It solves a lot of problems because we can line it with shelves at different depths and heights to accommodate everything from occasionally used appliances to large bags of dog food. It can also be a less expensive option because a client isn’t spending money on custom cabinets.”

Dolan also indicates that storage is being challenged by electronics moving into the kitchen.

“People need places to store and charge their devices,” he states, noting a progression from a single laptop in the kitchen to a laptop, tablet and phone…from each family member. “We’ve tried putting them in another room like the study, a bedroom or an office. But they all end up in the kitchen. People used to fight it, but now they’re accepting that electronics will be in the kitchen, so we need to create space for them.”

That often means repurposing former built-in kitchen desk areas that have gone unused for their initial purpose, ultimately turning into more of a junk zone than functional workspace.

“It’s a neat space to recreate,” he continues. “We can replace the knee hole once used for a chair with drawers. The countertop, whether it’s open or hidden behind doors, can be equipped with power outlets for charging. Or, we can put power strips in drawers, safely and in a way that is protected and up to code. Plus, this new area can be a place for pens and paper. As much as we rely on electronic devices, paper doesn’t seem to be going away.”

“For one client, we built a pull-out drawer for her laptop,” he continues, adding that she uses it to run her business in addition to tasks associated with raising her kids. “It seems that no matter where she wants to be throughout the house, she always ends up in the kitchen. It’s the best place to multi-task so we brought the office to the kitchen.”

Burton has also seen clients transitioning away from kitchen desks and toward what she coins as ‘command centrals.’ Oftentimes they are shallow-depth storage, as thin as 4″ deep, tucked behind tall doors at the end of a built-in refrigerator or tall cabinet and equipped with cork board, white board and/or bulletin board, mail slots and outlets for charging electronics.

“Desks in kitchens have almost completely gone by the wayside,” she says. “Whether clients are paying bills, returning emails, etc., most of the time they are doing it from a laptop or tablet while they are sitting at the island, versus sitting at a desk. They can still be involved with the family, or even talk with the cook while they are paying bills online.”

Many of Margie McCulloch’s clients love to incorporate drawers into their kitchens. To further enhance their usefulness, she often incorporates a drawer within a drawer where multiple drawers are behind one drawer face. In this kitchen, the homeowner stores lids in the smaller drawer and pots in the deeper one.
Photo: Margie McCulloch

McCulloch echoes an appreciation of stealing seemingly insignificant space and transforming it into valuable storage.

“I love shallow storage,” she states. “It’s one of my favorite storage solutions. Even a 4″-deep cabinet can be useful.”

As an example, she recently redesigned the small kitchen in a condo where a stacked washer and dryer are located next to a workspace that includes a countertop, base cabinets, a microwave and a toaster oven.

“It’s very European,” she says. “The washer and dryer are behind an aluminum sliding door. When my client is doing laundry, she can slide the door in front of the workspace. When laundry is finished she can slide the door back in front of the washer and dryer so she can use her workspace. At the end, I added shallow, 6″-deep storage. She says it’s her favorite place to store things because everything is lined up and nothing needs to be stacked.”

Product tricks

Within the world of storage, designers are also incorporating a variety of products, both built-in and aftermarket, that make storage more efficient and more functional.

“Cabinet companies and accessory manufacturers really try to keep their fingers on the pulse of consumers and respond to what people are asking for,” believes Burton.

An example she appreciates is improvements made to corner storage in base cabinets.

“One of my favorite storage items is a corner unit that allows for easy access to pots and pans,” she notes.

Nunes favors corner organizers as well, as do Martin and Kilbourne, who suggest that blind-corner storage accessories have essentially become ‘standards’ rather than ‘options.’

“Twenty-first century organization is all about easy access and eliminating wasted space,” adds Nunes. “Blind-corner cabinets now have pull-out shelves and magic corners so clients don’t need to reach inside of cabinets and into ‘dead’ corners. Rollouts, which are one of the most requested accessories in my kitchen designs, are also ‘must-haves’ because they give full access to everything.”

McCulloch reiterates an overriding theme of storage that pulls out.

“Whatever can pull out, should pull out,” she stresses, drawing particular attention to pantries, spice racks and tray storage. “The idea is to have everything come to the cook.”

The granddaddy of all pull-outs is the drawer, which, these days, seems to reign supreme. Both McCulloch and Dolan, as well as Kilbourne and Martin, note a client bias toward drawers.

“We’ve gone almost exclusively to drawers instead of doors,” says Kilbourne. “Contents are easier to access and you can see exactly what is inside.”

“We do mostly drawers in base cabinets, rather than doors with shelves,” adds McCulloch. “No one has to bend down and reach in underneath a countertop. It goes back to the concept of having everything pull out so the cook can see what’s inside.”

For Dolan’s clients, drawers are often the preferred way to corral reusable drink bottles and plastic containers, both of which greatly influence storage selections in his designs.

“There has been a big push from people who are trying to get away from [single-use] plastic water bottles, which means they need to find a place to store their reusable ones,” he says. “Instead of putting them on a shelf in an upper cabinet, which can be cumbersome, they are storing them in a drawer, sometimes one with a divider for storing lids and straws separately.”

Margie McCulloch is a firm believer that anything that can pull out, should pull out.
Photo: Margie McCulloch

The same philosophy applies to plastic containers and lids. “Finding a place for all the Tupperware, Pyrex and Rubbermaid is still an issue,” he continues. “People used to try to stack them neatly, but now I am getting more requests for 30″- to 36″-wide drawers that are very deep.”

To further enhance the usefulness of a drawer, designers sometimes include double drawers, or drawers within a drawer, and peg/dowel systems, which are particularly helpful for plates, bowls and glasses.

“A popular concept, especially for pots, pans and lids, is to have a small drawer above a big drawer, both behind one drawer face,” says McCulloch. “Lids can be stored in the smaller drawer and pans in the larger one.”

The increased popularity of peg/dowel systems in drawers is, in part, driven by a decline in wall cabinets, which has forced dishware into drawers. Increased plate size plays a role as well.

“Dinner plates are getting larger,” says Burton, “so for wall cabinets, we’ll do a standard 13″ depth instead of 12″. For plates stored in base cabinets, we’ll use deep drawers with a peg system that prevents contents from sliding as a drawer is opened.”

“Pegs are absolutely trending now,” adds Nunes, who indicates they are one of her favorite storage solutions, along with mixer lift-ups. “They are turning drawers into new uppers!

“They are a great way to organize plates, cups and plastic containers, even pots and lids,” she continues. “And, they are adjustable and removable so, if for some reason a client gets tired of them, they can simply remove the pegs and turn the drawer into a traditional deep drawer.”

Dolan has noticed a trend toward more customized storage, especially as it relates to coffee and beverage needs. This can be accomplished with the use of specialized drawer inserts.

“Some people are getting into mixology, too,” he adds, indicating that clients are looking for more ways to store liquor in and around the kitchen. “Storage for high-end liquors goes beyond just a simple wine rack.”

Martin has also seen a trend toward more specific storage needs. Sometimes that specificity finds him and his partner evaluating accessories for uses beyond their intended purpose.

“For example, bread boxes are available for base cabinets,” notes Kilbourne. “But no one uses them for bread anymore. Instead, our clients with pets will use them to store pet food. We’ve also used jewelry trays typically used in a bathroom as organizers in junk drawers. Not every storage accessory has to be used for its specific purpose. We often get creative.”

Another trending storage accessory for Kilbourne and Martin is integrated lighting built into the cabinetry.

“It’s especially useful for corners,” says Martin. “When you open the door, you can see what’s inside.”

While storage accessories can be relatively high-tech, Burton and McCulloch both appreciate low-tech solutions.

For Burton, one of her favorites is a sawtooth spice insert located near the range.

“It’s actually a relatively basic, old standby,” she says. “But I think it’s awesome to be able to open a drawer and find whatever spice you need at a glance. To me, it’s an ideal way to store spices.”

McCulloch appreciates low-tech solutions because they are relatively inexpensive. “And, they don’t generally break,” she notes. One her favorites is floating shelves.

“I personally love open storage,” she says. “It is really efficient and it allows for an easy grab. Kitchens, in addition to having to be aesthetically pleasing, also have to be work spaces.” ▪

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