07 September 2009

Sensible Style: Small Kitchens, Big Splurges

Sensible Style launched in July to answer your questions about how to get the most out of your kitchen. …But what if your kitchen is totally teeny-tiny? Consider yourself lucky. Kitchens like these give you the opportunity to splurge on higher-end products, even on a smaller budget. While it’s more challenging to squeeze the storage and work space you need into tighter kitchens, it’s much, much easier to add style without breaking the bank.

Let’s take a look at making your small kitchen live large, stylistically-speaking.

Custom Cabinetry

In a medium or large kitchen, custom cabinetry can be a tremendous expense. In a small kitchen, this expense is far less, since there are fewer cabinets to order and install. So the benefits start to outweigh the costs. These benefits typically include:

  • Soft-close, full-extension drawers and roll-out trays to maximize storage usability
  • Soft-close doors for quieter operation
  • Custom widths that increase storage capacity and reduce unsightly fillers
  • Exposed furniture-style ends
  • Deluxe joinery
  • Superior, multi-step, hand-applied finishes
  • Lifetime warranties on construction and finish

This small kitchen features Wood-Mode Fine Custom Cabinetry’s Brookhaven series

Performance Countertops

Regular readers of this blog know that I’m a big proponent of engineered stone countertops. They offer the heat and scratch-resistance of granite, but with a non-porous, stain-resistant finish that never needs sealing. Sensible Style is all about easy maintenance and these tops, often called quartz, offer that feature. They also offer a manufacturer’s warranty, which I consider an added benefit. The only drawback to these engineered tops has been their cost. Typically higher than granite, they are a large expense in a large space. For those clients with smaller kitchens – and less counter space – they move into the affordable range.

Engineered stone countertops like this one from Zodiaq offer easy maintenance, stain resistance, durability and a manufacturer’s warranty

Backsplash Bling

Backsplashes offer a phenomenal, high-visibility way of adding style to your kitchen. And with less square footage to work with, you can splurge on designer tile without breaking the bank. To create a Sensible Style-oriented focal point, be sure that the look and colors of your new backsplash integrate well with the overall feel of your kitchen.

Backsplashes add a style note to your kitchen. Shown here is Cappricio in Tasmania Green by Ann Sacks

Heavenly Hardware

Fewer cabinets also means fewer knobs and pulls. That means you can splurge on great-looking hardware without burning through your budget. Use knobs or standard-spread (3 to 4 inch) pulls to introduce some creativity into your kitchen. If you tire of them later, (or want to take them with you when you move), it will be easier to replace them with something else down the line.

Make a design statement with your cabinet hardware. This installation showcases styles by Soko

Finer Faucets and Fixtures

Sinks and faucets are often selected later in the design process and so they may be subject to harsher budget cutting. Smaller kitchens with their smaller budgets give you the chance to get higher-end items in this category.

If you’re going to undermount a stainless steel sink in stone tops, you’re going to want a better quality fixture as they’re very difficult to replace later on. Look for an 18-gauge or 16-gauge model. (The builder-grade stainless sink you once had and detested was likely a 20 or 21; the lower the number, the better the quality.) Other great sink options include durable, easy-maintenance granite and fireclay.

Faucets can be stylish as well as functional, and a terrific splurge opportunity. Look for added-value features like integral filtration, sensors, coordinating soap dispensers, hot water dispensers and high-arc pull-outs for easier pot cleaning.

Silgranit Performa Sink by Blanco offers durability, easy maintenance and optional clean-up accessories

Upgraded Appliances

The larger kitchens I design often have two dishwashers, 48" or 60"-built-in refrigerators, double ovens, warming drawers, along with specialty cookers like steam ovens and convection microwaves, wine captains and ice makers. Simply stated: Small kitchens don't! A typical condo or cottage kitchen will have a range or cooktop with single oven below it, 30" to 36" fridge, single dishwasher and, maybe, a built-in or overe-the-range microwave. The bad news is, your wine and ice need to fend for themselves. The good news is, with the shorter appliance list and smaller appliance sizes, you can afford higher-end selections.

Here are some ideas to consider:

  • Select a microwave oven that also includes convection cooking and warming capability, to combine three appliances into one efficient unit.
  • If you're not a serious, volume chef, consider a 24" range, rather than the standard 30" model. This will give you more storage and counter space. If you occasionally like to delve into cooking, you can shop for a portable induction cooktop burner that can be stored when you're not using it.
  • If your household is very small, consider an 18", rather than standard 24" dishwasher for the same space and countertop enhancing purpose.
  • Consider a French door refrigerator, rather than a side-by-side or single door model. The French door will maximize your fresh food storage capacity, (and handle catering trays, which a 36" side-by-side won't do). Its narrower door swing also works better in tighter spaces.

French Door refrigerators, like this countertop-depth freestanding model from GE Monogram, can be ideal for small kitchens

Luxe Lighting

Your smaller kitchen needn't feel like a cave. Enhanced lighting will give it the illusion of greater size, while improving your ability to work in the space. You can opt for a luxurious ceiling fixture, as you'll likely need just one, rather than two to four to top large double islands. You can also go for high-quality LED lights below your wall cabinets to illuminate your counter tops. They are pricier, but you'll need fewer of them, and they may outlast your stay in the home. You can also look for the types of LED lights that install just below countertops to illuminate drawers, and those that go into deep, dark base cabinets to make it easier to find your stored items.

Small kitchens typically call for just one dramatic ceiling light, rather than multiples. This one from Rejuvenation

Elegant Embellishments

Another advantage of small kitchens with fewer cabinets is that you can opt for some of the luxuries that would be far pricier in a large kitchen. These include stacked moldings to the ceiling, glazes, distressed finishes, decorative glass inserts and corbel-style bar supports for traditional kitchens. Small contemporary kitchens can take advantage of exotic woods, stainless accent pieces, and premium lacquer finishes.

The stacked molding, fluting, and furnished cabinetry ends would have been much pricier in a larger kitchen. I designed this one for a client's island getaway home

Final Thoughts

I expect that my next kitchen will be much smaller than my current one, as I anticipate downsizing in the next year. With some clever planning, I know I can overcome the storage shortcomings. And I'm actually looking forward to the design opportunities described here! (Look for a future series on the remaking of a designer's own kitchen!)

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


  1. I like the modern furnishing of this kitchen, very beautiful.

  2. Jamie, when perusing design sites I almost always find several points of disagreement, but so far I don't disagree with anything! You are one sensible and practical designer!

  3. Thanks to all of you for your great feedback! I really, really appreciate it!


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