While a fan of generous sociable kitchens, I enjoy designing small ones too. Years ago I was asked to make a galley kitchen for a bachelor in an attic space 1.5 by 4 metres. The result was a single curved cabinet with a built-in oven and fridge, a series of small wall-hung items including a plate rack, and a built-in table next to the window. A walk-in pantry was tucked into the roof void. I went on to do a series of kitchens around the world for this client but he told me this small first one was his favourite. He loved to sit at the table with a cup of tea looking down at the garden.
There are two ways kitchens can be small. There’s the walk-in galley with restricted floor space or the compact kitchen made by concentrating the culinary zone into one part of the room. The following thoughts on making small but efficient, pleasurable kitchens do not cover micro-spaces even though they are having a moment. These design solutions are for rooms that can fit some kind of peninsula or island, or possibly a pullout surface. One takes up no room at all since there is nothing thinner than a coat of lovely colour. So, here are some ideas that work for me when I design small.
FLOW. A curved table or peninsula allows for easy body movement. You don’t bump into corners or have to slow down because of the awkwardness of the furniture. More subtly, the softened shape is relaxing as lack of sharp edges rules out the flight or fight neurological response less comfortable furniture arouses. A peninsula encourages sociability even in a tight kitchen space as it allows for perching at one end as well as being a work surface.
Flow is encouraged by positioning the dishwasher at least 300 mm off the floor next to a china storage cupboard. If built-in the dishwasher can be designed with a raised height surface that doubles up as a parking area for crockery while loading. Alternatively dishwasher drawers fit under a standard-height sink worktop. The aim is not to have to bend down to use the main loading tray as this involves a back straining 100 or so actions per load.
DEDICATED WORK SURFACES. At any one moment you can only use the width of your outstretched arms. If you have to walk around, your cooking is less efficient so restricted but properly designed countertops are actually better than large expanses. Dedicated work surfaces are helpful too for forming good cooking habits as repetition brings unconscious, learned behaviour to the fore.
SQUEEZE IN A TABLE. Demographic trends indicate a huge growth in city living and small apartments. Anticipating this, the star piece from IDEO’s 2025 Future Kitchen for IKEA was a multi-purpose high tech table with a live camera-led information system. Set flush into the surface of the table was an induction cooking ring. I imagine a future when the hob will be a two-ring device at most as small appliances replace the traditional four-ring layout. The fridge is likely to shrink as shopping habits allow for daily delivery but what remains core is the table. Even a galley kitchen should have room for a small one maybe at one end to allow the cook to take a break.
BIG STORAGE. While a larder or walk-in pantry may not seem a likely part of a small kitchen, it can work extra well when space is tight. Common sense and experience suggest that tall freestanding pieces hold more than base cabinets and half-depth wall cupboards, the middle space being the handiest storage area. A built-in corner pantry is a good use of an antisocial area, as no one likes working in a corner. If you can’t find room for a walk-in pantry, maybe try a wall-based curved drum - or the space below a staircase can sometimes become a large cupboard, which leads me to:
CLAIMING EXTRA SPACE. Identifying a priority of needs means your human designer will always beat a computerized plan of standard units. Decisions about how much to customize the cabinetry depend on budget but there are a number of excellent inexpensive solutions to storage. One is a hanging rack made by screwing large cup hooks to a ceiling joist from which you attach a pole with a cable. Butcher’s hooks hang off that to hold saucepans, frying pans, cheese graters, sieves, strings of garlic etc. Some people worry about dust and dirt attaching themselves to these but it is no problem if you use them regularly. Move any you don’t into a cupboard.
A place to perch, where someone other than the cook can come into the kitchen for a chat, can be provided with a pullout or drop-down stool a bit like one of the seats on public transport that flips up when not in use. Swing-out work surfaces are also a possibility.
CLOSE FOCUS. Small spaces can be claustrophobic. Ways of fixing this include clever lighting that produces shadows and variable light intensity, making the design emotionally engaging. I spent many childhood nights in a gypsy wagon that my family used as an extra bedroom for my brothers, sister and me (we were five children in two-bedroom cottage). Cold and cramped, the wagon’s interior was reached up steep and slippery steps but it had atmosphere, intimacy and sliding doors for privacy on each bunk. We preferred sleeping there. There was a small yacht stove with imbedded tiles… miniature brass handrails, ornamental patterns, candles in front of mirror inserts and a pullout table; you were close to every detail. This must have influenced my design approach.
In a small kitchen you can vary the materials, colours and textures to make the details tactile. Translucent glass, wire mesh and reflective metal finishes can all be used. Add an unexpected luxury feature – an end-grain chopping block or maybe some wall bars with butcher’s hooks and open shelves for atmosphere and easy access. Shallow shelves are good for spices, glasses, sauce bottles and jam. It’s a bonus to see these and be reminded who made the jam and about the possibilities of exotic sauces.
COLOUR. We hand paint our furniture and coat it with tough lacquers, a simple way of personalizing and keeping the kitchen fresh looking. You can always redo it in different colours. This works best with artisanal furniture as factory finishes don’t take kindly to repainting, but another option is colour on the walls. A range of interesting hues offsets wooden furniture and brightens any room. One of the ways we use colour is in small bands, allowing vividness of tone and pattern without overwhelming the space. We commission artists to paint motifs onto canvas, which can be glued onto door fronts or other parts of the furniture and then lacquered over. This is a durable, washable finish.