11 August 2009

Sensible Style: 10 Small Kitchen Tips

Sensible Style launched last month in this space, and on Kitchens.com, to answer your questions about how to get the most out of your kitchen. This second posting covers the topic of small kitchens, which so many of us have. Written by a professional designer who has worked on hundreds of condo and cottage kitchens, this will tackle the two most vexing issues associated with small spaces.

Part One covers how to maximize your storage capacity. Part Two covers the aesthetic side - i.e., how to make a small kitchen look great.

Part One - How to maximize your storage capacity

Small kitchens never seem to have enough cupboard space for all the items their owners want to store. After carefully culling to make sure you're only storing regularly-used cooking, meal preparation and clean-up gear in your kitchen, you can increase your storage capacity in several ways.

Tip #1 - Use your backsplash

Backsplashes offer dozens of square feet of untapped storage potential. Usually considered only for decorative purposes, these 18 inch spans between your countertops and wall cabinets can be put to great use as zoned, organized storage. For example, you can clear some counter space by installing a backsplash-mounted utensil crock near your cooktop. You could also mount a spice organizer in your meal prep zone, freeing up some cabinet storage.

Backsplash organizers, like these from Ikea, take advantage of untapped space in your kitchen and free up countertops and cabinet space.

Tip #2: Use empty walls or ceiling space

Even small kitchens typically have an unused wall or ceiling space above a peninsula that can be tapped for additional storage. By adding a pot rack to your kitchen, you can free up base cabinet space that would otherwise hold your cookware. There are racks available in almost any style and size to accommodate your needs. Small kitchens typically lack islands, but a peninsula housing a cooktop can be a good spot to tap into added storage potential.
This wall-mounted pot rack by Enclume lets you take advantage of unused wall space in your kitchen for both hanging and shelf top storage.

Tip #3: Use the back of doors

Another way to add organization and storage capacity to your kitchen is to install accessories on the backs of doors. For example, you can hang an organizer for your cleaning supplies on the back of the cabinet holding your sink. Additionally, you can add pantry capacity by putting a canned goods or food wrap holder on the back of its door. There are numerous options that can add to your kitchen's efficiency, as well as its storage potential.

This behind-door organizer by Rev-a-Shelf can be added to your pantry to increase its organization and storage potential.

Tip #4: Get Rollin'

Replace base cabinet half shelves with full-depth roll-out trays. Most builder-installed base cabinets have a shelf halfway between the bottom and top that is only about 12 inches deep. This means that a good amount of storage space is unusable. Replace this half shelf with a roll-out tray and you could gain close to 25 percent more storage capacity in that cabinet. This tip works best with cabinets 18 inches or wider. (Narrower cabinets can benefit from replacing the half shelf with one or two dividers to store flat items like trays, cutting boards, pizza stones or cookie sheets vertically.)

Increase base cabinet storage by up to 25 percent with roll-out trays. Shown here is one you can add to your kitchen from Rev-A-Shelf.

Tip #5: Add baskets

If you have at least eight inches between your wall cabinets and your ceiling, you can add storage capacity - and style! - to your kitchen with decorative baskets. Shelf baskets can easily accommodate small items that you want to keep in the kitchen area, but don't use on a daily basis. They can add a splash of color or neutral texture, depending on the look that works best with your space.

Baskets can add style and storage to your kitchen in a wide range of colors and textures. This selection is available at Michael's.

Part Two - How to make a small kitchen look great

Tip #6: Minimize contrasts

Compact kitchens tend to look smaller and choppier when there are too many colors and patterns running through them. Minimizing contrasts, on the other hand, makes them feel airier and spacious. You can achieve this effect by selecting solid-colored countertops, for example, and maple or painted cabinets, rather than oak, hickory or glazed finishes.

This New York City condo kitchen looks larger because its base cabinets match its flooring and its countertops, appliances and wall cabinet frames all coordinate to minimize contrasts.

Tip #7: Add glass

Replacing solid door fronts on your wall cabinets with glass fronts can also make your small kitchen look larger and brighter. To enhance the space-enhancing effect, you can paint the insides of your cabinets the same color as your walls.

This kitchen by Westlake Village, Cal. designer Laurie Burke looks larger and brighter, thanks to its glass-fronted wall cabinets.

Tip #8: Light it up

Kitchens look better - and bigger! - with great lighting. When I take on a kitchen design project for my clients, I always look for every opportunity to add lights to the space. This includes ceiling-mounted fixtures or recessed cans, under-cabinet lighting and, where applicable, island or peninsula lighting. Sometimes, above-cabinet and in-cabinet accent lighting are also applied. This layered approach to lighting makes working in the space easier and safer. It also enhances the beauty of your countertops, cabinets and flooring.

This small kitchen by Arlington, Va.-based Kitchen & Bath Factory features three layers of lighting, plus natural rays streaming in the large windows, to enhance its beauty and spaciousness.

Tip #9: Open it up

Open shelving can make a small kitchen feel larger, too. It also shows off your pretty serveware, making it a well-deserved element in your room's style. One other organization benefit offered by open shelving is making it quicker and easier to find things in your kitchen!

Small kitchens, like this one from the Kraftmaid gallery, look larger with open shelves, rather than closed wall cabinets.

Tip #10: Minimize countertop clutter

Countertops loaded with accessories and other items will make your kitchen look cramped and cluttered. That's why real estate agents always advise you to minimize what sits on your tops when you list your home for sale. Larger kitchens are more appealing to home buyers - and homeowners! The backsplash system, storage baskets and door organizers will help in reducing countertop population. So will prioritizing the small appliances that need to remain accessible. For example, if you only serve coffee when guests arrive, keep the coffee maker in a remote storage area when you're not entertaining.

Minimal countertop clutter makes this petite kitchen from the National Kitchen & Bath Association Inspiration Gallery look larger!

Visit the Sensible Style box on the right column for links to all the posts in this ongoing series.


  1. Great post! Will try some of these, expecially numbers 1 and 10!


  2. I am loving the glass side panels in the wall cabinets in Laurie Burke's kitchen! Lovely!

    This is a great post, especially for us here, where space is a premium!

  3. These are all great tips. We can always use more storage space in our kitchens! I have a basket on my counter to stash all of the paperwork in that accumulates in the kitchen. When it's time for dinner, or company's coming over, I scoop it all up and toss it in the basket. The key is not to forget it's in there and to clean it out once in awhile! :-)

  4. Tip #6: Minimize contrasts

    Would this same idea work with darker wood cabinets and wood floors or would the darkness visually close in the space?
    There are lots of good ideas in this blog post.

  5. Anonymous, Thanks for your feedback. I've seen it work with darker cabinets and countertops, but you've really got to ramp up the lighting to offset the darker tones.

    Julie, I'm a "basket case" myself. We have one for each family member on a console with drawers and cubbies for everyone, too. I call it our Landing Zone, and design similar spaces into my clients' kitchen/great room areas, also.

  6. What constitutes a small kitchen these days anyhow? I thought my 9x17 galley kitchen, which I'm considering opening to the family room, was medium or normal sized, but I read something about kitchens 25x40 feet the other day, and maybe much of the standard remodel advice I'm reading is inappropriate to my situation.

    My husband wants a larger than standard fridge--I started daydreaming about double ovens when I realized I'd probably use them twice a week since I'm often arranging to cook dessert before or after in the oven, or some vegetarian dish my daughter doesn't want sharing airspace with the meat. Surely there are more factors in setting scale than the budget?

  7. Think long and hard about what will be on open shelving and open baskets: Items there will accumulate dust and grease no matter how good the ventilation in your kitchen. Baskets on high shelves for infrequently used items should have lids.

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  9. I loved your ideas and this Blog is a great resource of ideas. I see most of the cabinets are light in color which is a good idea. I am asked many times if it is ok to put darker cabinets in a small kitchen. The best answer I believe is it is ok provided you have bigger windows or perhaps a patio door and break up the look with some glass doors. I loved the idea of adding some roll outs even in an older kitchen. http://www.designsmallkitchens.com

  10. Excellent tips, both with the great practical space-saving ideas, as well as the several excellent ways to make a small kitchen seem roomier!

  11. Jamie, this was WONDERFUL. HUGE thanks for the tips. You made this a wonderful, but simple, blog. This is a great resource.

    Arrielle P

  12. Thanks for all the great feedback. I really appreciate it!

  13. Great good post, Jamie. Another tip which I've found to be quite useful is to install a 3 Bin Recycling Center in the base corner cabinet. We all want to do what's best for the environment, but to separate our trash properly we usually end up with a number of receptacles in our kitchen. In a small kitchen this takes up valuable floor space, but by switching to a "Corner Cabinet Recycling Center" your trash is out of sight and you gain more floor area. I know this means giving up some cabinet storage, but most base corner cabinets have a lot of underutilized space so, this can be a better use of the cabinet unit. Anyways, this is just a tip that I thought might be helpful.

  14. I like to use those, too, when the sink is within reach of a corner cabinet. I wish more product lines offered them! Thanks for the super tip.

  15. Great tips! I have maximized my backsplash, but I sure wish I had a spot for a pot rack! Under-cabinet lighting was one of THE best things I did in my kitchen. I now consider it a must! And people in their 20's and 30's might not appreciate it, but the roll-out trays or deep drawers instead of plain old base cabinets with shelves are a real boon!

  16. Thanks so much, Jean. I'm planning to add under-cabinet lighting to my kitchen, too. I find that even my younger clients like the convenience and storage enhancement of the roll-outs. They're absolute life savers for us boomer types, though!

    BTW, you have a lovely blog, too!


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