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Small kitchen design tips: How real homeowners make compact spaces elegantly efficient

Adam and Miranda Groth installed subway tile which tends to widen the appearance of walls.
Adam and Miranda Groth installed subway tile which tends to widen the appearance of walls.

Miranda and Adam Groth had a galley kitchen measuring 90 square feet in their home. Both are architects, so they approached Lisa Otterness of Classic Kitchens Design Studio, with a vision, and she collaborated with them on the functional aspects.

Artist Babs Lowenstein needed a place to store her large collection of Heller Massimo Vignelli dishware and a setup that would keep her husband Bob from cluttering up her main kitchen.

She had just the spot for it when she called Geri Higgins of Portfolio Kitchens & Home — in an area at one end of her lower-level gallery and studio. The kitchen would have to be small, sleek and unobtrusive so as not to distract from her art collection.

Cherie Brown’s client was frustrated by the kitchen at the rear of her home, when she called and asked for help designing a new kitchen.

When that client explained that she entertains her family a lot — a family that includes 13 siblings, plus their spouses and children — the kitchen may as well have been the size of a broom closet.

All three homeowners got what they wanted, and their kitchens illustrate perfectly the overused cliche “size doesn’t matter.”

A good designer can employ a host of design tricks and products to make any kitchen look and function like it’s a lot bigger than it actually is. Here’s how.

Classic and Compact

Clients: Miranda and Adam Groth

Designer:  Lisa Otterness of Classic Kitchens Design Studio

The project: Make a long, narrow kitchen at the rear of an old home look and function like a larger modern kitchen while paying homage to the home’s history.

How they did it: “Adam and Miranda do a lot of CAD (computer-aided design) work and I do a lot of 3D work, so we could dimensionalize our plans since space was an issue,” Otterness says.

They installed subway tile which tends to widen the appearance of walls and opted to forego upper cabinets.

“We thought about open shelves, but that beautiful negative space makes the kitchen feel so much bigger than it is,” says Miranda.

Gallery Kitchen

Client: Babs and Bill Lowenstein

Designer: Geri Higgins, Portfolio & Home

The project: Turn a small section of a lower-level art gallery into a kitchen that blends with the rest of the modern space.

How they did it: “Babs has a ton of artwork that she wanted to display, and she wanted something subtle and elegant but that definitely has a New York vibe,” Higgins says.

They installed solid floor-to-ceiling shiny white modern cabinetry against a wall — Higgins calls it a monolith — that hides a refrigerator and microwave. Together with a large island that has storage on both sides, it provides as much storage as a lot of larger kitchens.

All the surfaces, even the stove top, are flat and sleek.

Elegant Efficiency

Client: A single professional woman

Designer: Cherie Brown, Kitchens by Kleweno

The project: Create an elegant, somewhat feminine kitchen that would accommodate the client’s huge family.

How they did it: Working with Pinnacle Construction Group, they started by flipping the dining room and kitchen so the latter would be in a long narrow space at the front of the house.  This allowed for more counter space and a long, slim island that people could gather around. The countertop at either end of the island is curved and juts out, allowing several people to sit.

“She (the client) is very clean and neat so I knew she wouldn’t be looking at a messy kitchen when she came through the front door,” Brown says.

Small Kitchen Design Tricks

1. Put outlets inside cabinets: They cut down on visual clutter by allowing small appliances to be out of sight when not in use.

2. Look for slide away doors: They open, then slide back into the cupboard space so you can leave doors open without bumping into them.

3. Mind your refrigerator doors: Do you need double doors that are shallower than a single wide door?  Or which way should that single door open so it doesn’t block or bump into something.

4. Install counter-deep appliances: It’ll save floor space and look cleaner.

5. Eliminate upper cabinets: None at all is ideal, but open shelves in lieu of cabinets also make a kitchen feel bigger.

6. Islands with double-sided storage: Especially if you don’t have seating on one side.

7. Go white on white: It’s light and airy.

8. Take cabinets to the ceiling: Store rarely used dishware and equipment up there.

9. Install subway tile: It make walls feel wider.

10. Go modern: Crisp lines and minimal adornment create a more airy appearance.