8 Ways to Make a Small Kitchen Sizzle

Whether you have a galley in a high rise or a small space in the suburbs, these decorating ideas will help you end up with a delectable kitchen, cooked just the way you like it.

By: Mark Mccauley

1. Downsize it

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Focus on function and scale down on appliances.

Small spaces can sprain a design brain as much — sometimes even more — than large spaces, especially when you add storage and style in tight quarters to the typical kitchen challenges of fixtures and function.

Face it, in a small space you can’t have a kitchen that is a jack-of-all-trades — accommodating schoolwork, mail, laundry, recipe hunting and cooking duties. Unless you don’t cook at all (in which case, feel free to store your out-of-season clothes in the kitchen cabinets!), the small kitchen’s main chore is meal prep. So focus first on function, making sure you have the appliances and work areas you need. You may be able to save a bit of space by using scaled-down or innovative appliances, including refrigerator and freezer drawers and pint-sized microwaves, stoves (some with just two burners) and single sinks. The function is there, without all the square footage! If workspace is at a premium, consider a small-scale island or a counter-topped cart that can be rolled away into a closet when not in use.

Clean contemporary lines, a simple monochromatic color scheme and downsized appliances combine in this small but sophisticated open-plan kitchen designed by Simon Temprell.

2. Open it up

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Trade in top cupboards for open storage.

Tiny kitchens can feel claustrophobic when overhead cabinets are towering over your head in tight spaces. Many cooks can’t reach what’s in them (and there’s not a lot of room for a step stool or ladder), and the overall feeling is boxy and closed in. If you can get organized enough, trade the top cupboards for open storage. Consider shelving, pot racks, and magnetic knife or spice holders instead. Not only will your kitchen look more spacious, it’s a great way to show off your favorite dishes or shiny pots and pans — even artwork.

In this Washington, D.C., apartment designed by Andreas Charalambous, the kitchen was treated as an extension of the living/entertainment areas, not simply as a service area. The upper cabinets visible from the living room were removed and artwork from the owner's collection was displayed instead, extending the art gallery feel of the living room into the kitchen.

3. Mix up the Materials

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A mix of materials and shapes can create a pleasing combination.

You may not have wide-open spaces in your pint-sized kitchen, but you do have lots of choices. In fact, these choices loom larger in a small space than in today’s basic Taj Mahal-sized kitchen. In a big area you can more easily hide flaws or separate competing styles; in a small space everything really has to work, including the mix of wood and metals and other surface materials. And because your petite kitchen may be short on interesting architectural details, it’s up to you to add the all-important style in compelling countertop surfaces, cabinetry, fixtures, flooring, lighting and color. Is there any place you can add a pleasing curve? Will your granite countertop (more affordable in a small space!) coexist with your cabinet color? Your best bet is to create a mix board with samples and swatches of everything you’re considering. One tip: using the same color and style of fixtures and cabinet pulls can help unify a look.

The mix of materials and shapes in this kitchen designed by Steve Appolloni —from the stainless steel fixtures and granite counters to the curvy island and custom backsplash — creates a pleasing combo of function and fashion.

4. Look Into it

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Photo By: HEAD Productions

HEAD Productions

Glass features visually expand a space.

One of the simplest ways of "expanding" a kitchen is incorporating glass, which lets you see through the objects, thereby enhancing the feeling of spaciousness or what designers call "negative space." Try a glass counter or tabletop, or glass door cabinets. Glass kitchen doors, to the outside world or to the next room, can also visually expand the space. There is even highly reflective glass tile that can give your kitchen sparkle. Mirrors, in a backsplash or strategically placed around the room, also lighten up the look.

A pass-through window into the next room also expands the space. If you don’t have one, consider how you might be able to add airiness and architectural detail if you punched an arched window or counter pass-through into the next room.

Opaque glass doors and a monochromatic simplicity open up this kitchen designed by Gail Drury.

5. Light it up

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Consider pairing fluorescent lighting with pendant lights to give your kitchen a more appetizing color. (Photo by Maxwell Mackenzie)

Like any other room, your small kitchen needs a combination of task and atmospheric lighting. Fluorescent lighting, which casts a bluish light impacting the colorization of objects in the room, including the food, is frequently found in kitchens. To counteract it, consider hanging pendant lights that bathe your eating area in a more appetizing color. And try these easy ways to increase the feeling of size in your small kitchen:

• Use incandescent lighting (which is more yellowish) underneath the upper cabinets shining down on the countertops. Ceiling incandescent spot lighting, when directed at the cabinetry, will increase the shadowing of the space and give the area greater visual movement through light and dark contrast as opposed to cabinetry simply shown in the cold blue of fluorescent lighting.

• Think from the ground up — lighting has also been employed in flooring in recent years, glowing like starlight at night up from the floor. It also can be installed under the base cabinetry shining down onto the toe plate.

• Cabinets lit from within and spotlighted backsplash tiles lighten up this beautiful kitchen designed by Rouzita Vahhabaghai. The space may be small, but it is sophisticated enough to be in complete view of the living areas. (Photo by Maxwell Mackenzie)

6. Get Floored

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Flooring can make up for a lack of detail and size, and provide a great first impression.

Where does our eye go when we walk into a room? Often it goes down — right to that dust bunny or scuffed floor. That’s why the flooring in a petite kitchen is so important. Linoleum — that old favorite of kitchen floors everywhere — can be really eye-catching in checkerboard black and white in a small space. It’s a relatively inexpensive choice.

Since dimensions are diminutive, you may be able to afford a beautiful tumbled marble that can give you a touch of the outdoors. Of course, marble can be really cold and hard underfoot, but the impact may be worth it to you. Or try cork, which is the number one flooring used in industrial kitchens in the United States. You’ll have to make sure it’s properly sealed (water can make it expand), but it’s a beautiful choice. And you can feel smug about using a politically correct "green" flooring.

Retro is all the rage in this kitchen designed by Liz Stewart. The room may be small, but the white high-gloss cabinetry and laminate black-and-white flooring pack a big design punch.

7. Color it Big

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Good use of color affects the space visually and fools the eye into making the space seem larger.

The color of walls, appliances, counters, stools — even the dishtowels — can change the atmosphere and perceived size of the kitchen. Pastels or light colors, with good doses of white, reflect light drawing the eyes upward and make the room seem taller. But don't think you have to be a color chicken in a small space. Bold colorations can be very effective in smaller kitchens. How about some Porsche red metal cabinets with celery green walls and a banana-colored concrete countertop? That’ll get your motor started in the morning!

White is nice, but color can rev up a small kitchen, too: Interesting hardware and colorful cabinetry make for a bright space designed by Lou Ann Bauer. (Photo by David Duncan Livingston)

8. Go for Comfort

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Use the existing architecture to create a comfortable atmosphere in your kitchen.

Sure, we now know how to increase the visual size of a small kitchen, from layout and design to color. But consider this: When decorating a smaller space I’ve often found it’s not necessary to increase the size of the room through interior design. The reason: by going with the existing architecture of the small area, you can often create a wonderful well-designed cozy space. So instead of using tricks to enlarge the space, maybe you want to embrace it just the way it is. Instead of going light or sleek, maybe you go country cozy. Perhaps you make sure there is a little nook where you can sit with a visitor knee-to-knee. Or choose a dark, rich color that creates a sophisticated feeling — and use accessories that emphasize that look. The kitchen is small, yes; but it sure is sexy.

Denim blue painted cabinets and a wood beadboard backsplash play up the cozy country style of this kitchen designed by Candice Olson.

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