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7 Solutions for Small Kitchens

Top solutions for cabin kitchens that satisfy functionally and aesthetically
by Whitney Richardson

A cabin kitchen has a lot to live up to: It’s expected to serve as a cooking arena, entertainment hotspot and occasional dining area all in one. But with only so much square footage to work with, how do you ensure an attractive design that will fit all the essentials without feeling like it’s bursting at the seams?

For a small kitchen — defined by the National Kitchen & Bath Association (NKBA) as 150 square feet or less — it can be hard to find a balance between countertop and storage space, notes certified master kitchen designer Sandra Tierney of California-based Cabinets by Design ( The professional chef-turned-designer plays on her strength in understanding how a kitchen should function to create practical spaces that are as easy on the eyes as they are to use.

To start, she determines the main uses for the kitchen to help create the most functional space. “I take a long look at the stuff that [clients] have,” she says, asking about cooking and entertaining habits in the process. Cooking requires the proper appliances and storage for all the necessary tools; entertaining is all about traffic flow, serving space and convenience items, such as a warming plate built into the countertop.

Oftentimes, solutions are as simple as sticking to a slide-in dual-fuel range to compartmentalize cooking instead of separating oven and cooktop for aesthetics. But don’t mistake utilitarian basics for drab. We asked Tierney for her small-kitchen solutions to create a space that’s functional and attractive.

Clean, simple Shaker-style cabinet doors complement the rustic stone backsplash and colorful countertop of this cabin kitchen. Credit: Heidi Long photo

1. Shaking It Up. The most popular style in today’s kitchen is referred to as transitional — a blend of traditional and contemporary. Although traditional rustic tends to rule in most cabin settings, there are simple ways to incorporate a more trendy design without it appearing out of place in your new retreat. Tierney recommends using Shaker-style cabinet doors — known for their clean, simplistic appearance — as the base. “That door style lends itself so easily to so many different styles,” she states.

2. Rich Finishes. Wood species play a large role in the appearance of your kitchen. Don’t pigeonhole yourself into just one, though; just because the majority of the wood elements in your home are pine doesn’t mean you can’t opt for something else in the kitchen, Tierney notes. She counts rustic maple among her recent favorites, as well as some of the more contemporary exotic veneers.

Want something a little more colorful? Check out the ever-increasing selection of tonal finishes available. “The color palette has gone absolutely crazy,” Tierney observes. “Most cabinet companies are offering custom colors — you send in a paint chip, and they’ll send you the cabinets.” Paler yellows and greens have dominated of late, she adds.

3. Blending In. As open-format floor plans have risen in popularity, it has become increasingly necessary to integrate kitchens with the surrounding areas. In doing so, elements such as cabinetry and palettes potentially compete with the furniture pieces and color schemes around them, and items such as appliances become more visible from outside spaces. To ensure the transition from kitchen to adjacent spaces isn’t jarring, Tierney recommends creating furniture-type pieces for the kitchen to help them blend more easily.

Customizing the storage fixtures in this cabin kitchen with finials, panels and molding allow the space to blend more easily with adjacent spaces. Credit: Roger Wade photo

4. Glowing Setting. Lighting can add ambience both to the kitchen and its adjacent spaces. “I love to drop the wall cabinets from the ceiling and place lights above, especially if your dining room is open to kitchen,” she explains, adding that the color palette you select will influence your lighting choice as well (e.g., cool tones need cool light, warm tones need a warmer glow). “I use the lights on top of cabinets at night to create a nice atmosphere.”

5. Visual Expansion. Windows are an easy way to visually enhance any area of the cabin, and the kitchen is no exception. Rather than installing a simple square casement above the sink, Tierney recommends extending windows to the countertop to allow for more natural light and to open up the kitchen area. “When you take it down to the counter, it gives you another 3 inches behind the faucet,” she adds. “And if you can do a bay window, even better.”

6. Smart Storage. Galley kitchen layouts can be more effective for smaller spaces because they eliminate blind corners and allow the homeowner to utilize all the available cabinet space. Built-in benches that double as dining seating and storage also are a great solution for storing linens and other miscellaneous kitchen items that may not be used frequently and creating a more casual dining atmosphere. Requests for deep drawers — height, not depth — also are increasing to create more versatile storage options, Tierney adds, especially for pots and pans.

This compact kitchen/dining arrangement showcases the benefits of built-in seating and the casual atmosphere it can create. Credit: Roger Wade photo

7. Function First. Use-appropriate appliances help create an efficient kitchen without hoarding unnecessary space. To determine best fits, Tierney usually asks her clients how often they cook at home. Oftentimes, people are set on an expensive 36- or 42-inch range for aesthetic purposes, but in reality, a basic 30-inch range is all they’ll ever really need. “I’ve been a professional chef for many years, and I don’t think I’ve ever used all four burners [at once],” Tierney explains. “Anything bigger than 30 [inches] is going to look richer, but 30 is more practical.”

The same goes for dual ovens. “Oftentimes, I have a client who insists on having two ovens,” Tierney says. “’How often do you use that second oven?’ I ask. ‘Every Thanksgiving,’ they respond.” Hoarding that wall space, she adds, for an extra appliance you’ll only need once or twice a year is impractical. Her solution? Invest in a portable oven to use on those special occasions.

Published in Country's Best Cabins
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