Mad About . . .

How to Plan A Small Kitchen

24th November 2021
AD / May contain affiliate links

Our houses are getting smaller and our piles of possessions are getting bigger and, at some point, something is going to have to give. With the average British kitchen now measuring 13.4sqm (down from its largest of over 15sqm in the 1960s) this room really has to multi-task as it’s a space to cook, to eat, to meet – perchance to party – and quite possibly to work as well.

pink and wooden kitchen design by studio duggan and 202 design photo by mariell lind hansen

pink and wooden kitchen design by studio duggan and 202 design photo by mariell lind hansen

If you have a small kitchen you need to be clever so start by making a list of what you have and what you need. We were given a set of three saucepans as a wedding present 20 years ago and that, plus a frying pan and a couple of casserole dishes, is enough. Nor do you need 26 mugs – six will do. The first message here is declutter.

We all know the old adage about gadgets needing to live on the worktop if they are to be used. And I may be disciplined about my saucepans but at the last clear out I had two juicers and two blenders, the removal of which freed up an entire cupboard which I have been able to fill with mismatched Tupperware. So that’s been helpful.

open shelves at madaboutthehouse.com

open shelves at madaboutthehouse.com

When planning a small kitchen, it helps to know the standard measurements of 60cm x 60cm, but Ikea, beloved of budget kitchen planners everywhere, now supply readymade carcasses at both 40cm and 20cm so you need to sit down with a piece of graph paper and plan your space. And while we’re doing the numbers, allow for at least 90cm for a passageway between, say, an island and a run of units.

If you are wrestling with small spaces then looking at hotels is a really good way to get inspiration – they have to pack a lot into a single room – a luxe bathroom, a sitting/working area as well as the bed. And their designs have to be practical and easy to clean as well as stylish.

whitworth locke hotel in manchester

whitworth locke hotel in manchester – that’s an entire kitchen along that wall

The Manchester Whitworth Locke Hotel has kitchens in every room (and even more helpfully includes floorplans). The Suite has housed an entire kitchen in a wall dividing the sleeping from the living area in 2.4m long run and it feels luxurious; partly because it includes a slimline dishwasher. The fridge and oven are on top on each other in a tall unit and there’s even a washing machine. The rest is made up of a tall, narrow storage unit and a mix of drawers and overhead cupboards.

I have created a small kitchen in a large room – I can unload my dishwasher without taking a single step and drain the pasta with only a pivot from hob to sink. The design was based around the open plan kitchens in the now defunct Byron restaurant chain, where pretty much everything was within arm’s length. It’s been in place for 10 years now and while the cupboards and worktop have changed the layout remains the same. Because it works.

Once you have the layout right you can adjust the materials to fit your budget. Wooden worktops are the most affordable (but need maintenance) as does expensive natural stone. Composites, such as Caesarstone are also expensive but tough and there’s a reason restaurants all use stainless steel.

open plan kitchen at the kingsland locke hotel

open plan kitchen at the kingsland locke hotel

For those on big budgets the new buzzword is pantries. Fifteen years ago, everyone wanted an en-suite. Now that those are common, and any vendor with more than three bedrooms knows they will need at least two bathrooms, the new must-have is a pantry.

But before you dismiss this as no use to you in your small space take a closer look. A pantry is essentially a kitchen in a cupboard. The doors often have narrow shelves attached to incorporate even more storage and sometimes an extra slab of worktop can slide out to give you more prep space or even create a breakfast station that can be shut away to make the room feel tidier and less busy. And in a small space that is key. Nothing will ruin the look of a small, but expensive, kitchen faster than stuff on every surface.

A good trick for overstuffed cupboards (and fridges come to that) is a Lazy Susan so you can spin round the contents to see what you have while Lakeland (a favourite of all storage obsessives) has expandable organisers that look like staircases so things don’t get lost at the back. And, or course, when you run out of cupboards use the walls.

cupboards and goods green kitchen with tongue and groove and green cupboards

cupboards and goods green kitchen uses the wall for extra storage

If you have wall cabinets take them to the ceiling and paint them (and the ceiling) the same colour as the walls so they disappear. If you leave a gap on the top of the cupboard it will fill with dust and clutter. A tall cupboard that disappears into the ceiling will blur the edges and make the room look taller and emptier which will, in turn, make it feel more spacious.

Alternatively, glass doors (fluted so you can’t see any mess behind) will make the room feel lighter and brighter. Using antique mirror as a splashback will also bounce the light around and trick the eye into thinking the space is bigger than it is.

Remember the old trick of the more floor you see the bigger the space will look? Well, you can either replace traditional kickboards with more mirror to reflect more floor or put cabinets on legs.

kitchen via historiskahem

kitchen via historiskahem

Once you have perfected your layout, it’s about filling it with the things you really need. If you hate washing up, then sacrificing storage for a slimline dishwasher is a good idea. If you prefer drinking to eating, then a wine fridge might bring your joy. For those blessed with high ceilings then suspending a rack from which to hang pans and utensils is another way to wring more storage out of a tight space.

A boiling water tap, while not the cheapest bit of kit, can save you a lot of space and given that most of us are on some sort of budget, and some of us have small kitchens as well, you have to balance the equation of cost versus space with every single purchase.

If you dream of an island but don’t really have room then a trolley can be wheeled to one side when not needed and also used as extra storage. Even a console table, traditionally meant for a hall, can double up as a breakfast bar and extra storage space.

yellow window frame, patio doors and yellow painted kitchen cabinets at the home of skye mcalpine image by madaboutthehouse.com

kitchen island trolley at Skye McAlpine, who has just launched her own range of tableware Tavola

Finally, can you turn the kitchen doors into a sliding doors? This will immediately free up space and potentially give you another wall for shelf storage. I recently visited the Charlotte Perriand exhibition at the Design Museum and one of the exhibits was a kitchen she had designed with sliding doors. Why don’t we have those any more? It seems incredibly sensible and space saving. A quick google revealed some comments about it making access difficult but is that really it. I am, for once, stumped. Do let me know what think. My grandmother had a high cupboard with sliding doors in which she kept her wartime spam (well into the 80s I might add) but it wasn’t the sliding door that meant she didn’t reach up there very often (she also had war time jam on top of her bedroom wardrobe so… )

sliding pantry door landscape mark antony fox

sliding pantry door landscape mark anthony fox

Don’t forget that you might also be able to turn the actual kitchne door into a sliding one which will give you more wall storage where the door used to open. Having done this in my pantry I’m currently pondering this in my own kitchen although it will involve moving a radiator so it’s a slightly more complicated affair.

The message here is whatever your budget don’t get mad get clever.


This is an edited version of a piece I wrote for The Times over the summer. 

You Might Also Like

  • Emily 25th November 2021 at 11:15 am

    I love these tips! We’re moving house soon and will be designing a small kitchen from scratch. We will have to say goodbye to my beloved mug collection! Emily x

  • Lenore Taylor 24th November 2021 at 12:14 pm

    I am moving soon, and am using your delightful kitchen as a model when I set up. But I will ditch the cookbooks, because nowadays I just google for recipes. They do make nice props though. Hmm… Cheers from Canada!

  • Anna 24th November 2021 at 11:06 am

    These days there’s no need for a cooker hood when planning a kitchen because there are the more efficient pop up ones which are ideal for a small kitchen, giving you more space.
    One of the nicest small “eat in” low budget kitchens can be seen on the Blog of Cate St Hill.

  • Pia 24th November 2021 at 9:53 am

    I love sliding doors! So smart! In our extension in our cabin (built 2019) we only have sliding doors between the rooms. What a space saver! Should be the default option for all small houses, I think. It is not more expensive when building so I don’t understand why it is not? Perhaps the Sophie’s Brilliant Builder Husband can answer that on the podcast in a future episode?

  • Silvia 24th November 2021 at 8:31 am

    I’ve lived in Japan for a while and think sliding doors/windows would be their default way, for wardrobes and cupboards as well. And if you think of it, they do struggle with space, somehow they manage to fit a million things into tiny rooms. You know those super minimalist Japanese Zen spaces you see online? That’s a lie! They’re master in cluttering and nothing gives you more space, and hide better, than sliding doors! So, the answer to your question is, we don’t like sliding doors because we are used to the swinging doors and we tend to like what we’re familiar with!

    • Sian 24th November 2021 at 9:08 am

      Yes, totally agree about liking familiarity! In the UK, washing machines are put in the kitchen (often greasy), whereas in continental Europe they are usually in the bathroom (closer to where you remove your clothes). Also, windows in the UK often open outwards, so you can put things on wide windowsills. On the continent, windows open inwards. Not so good for displaying stuff, but you can more easily clean your own windows!

      • Lucy 25th November 2021 at 9:30 am

        That’s so interesting. Here in Spain, washing machines also tend to go in the kitchen, though many flats have tidy laundry areas for them. Most windows here are sliding (also, most people in the cities live flats) and shutters are default (no one could sleep with the Spanish morning sun on your face). Now, what I find most awkward is that bathroom light switches are placed outside the bathroom. I find that so strange. Where are they placed in the UK?

        • Mandy 29th November 2021 at 1:22 pm

          Switches (electricity) needs to be kept away from wet fingers – hence the placement of switches outside the bathroom. In the U.K. the switch is usually inside the bathroom but on a (non-metal) pull cord so there is no direct contact with the electricity …. And… I have discovered a pull cord bathroom switch that can DIM your bathroom lights ! (and it doesn’t CLUNK when you pull it ! )

  • Sarah Mitchell 24th November 2021 at 8:31 am

    Beautiful kitchens, all of them. Such clever ideas here. Thank you Kate. When I did my kitchen I emoted all the wall units and it seemed as though the room had doubled in size. I also couldn’t find a cooker hood I liked so I went without and have never missed it – I just open a window like my Granny did in her kitchen! I promise that there are no lingering cooking smells in the house and now I don’t have to clean a great big greasy unit either!

  • This website needs cookies to work correctly. Click the ACCEPT button to use cookies or click Read More for additional info.