5 Ways to Personalize a Tiny Kitchen, Without Making It Feel Cluttered

published Dec 28, 2022
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Kitchen of Sophie Donelson with cranberry cabinetry and a blue-grey island

While the kitchen has long been considered the heart of the home, decorative touches have become increasingly important, from hardware and faucets that read as jewelry to artwork, table lamps, and tchotchkes on various surfaces. But how can tiny kitchens keep up with this trend, when shelf and counter space is at a premium, and the room still needs to function for cooking? The answer lies in being strategic about how and where you personalize and customize. “Kitchens want to be warm and welcoming by nature — and small kitchens succeed at that extra easily, so embrace the space,” says design expert, author, and journalist Sophie Donelson, who just renovated her own kitchen in partnership with Fisher & Paykel appliances.

While this time around, Donelson wasn’t dealing with as limited square footage as she was in her former Queens galley kitchen, she still has a space-efficient mindset. For that reason, I tapped Donelson, as well as Drea Montali, a New York City-based professional organizer at Dream Organization and the owner of ShelfGenie West Brooklyn, for some tips on how to eke out a few precious inches — or feet! — for personality and storage opportunities in a teeny-tiny cook space. These five tips struck me as especially smart, and hopefully, you’ll find them just as useful.

Double down on hooks.

If you’re not currently using hooks somewhere in your small kitchen, you’re missing out on the opportunity to utilize storage space that’s hidden in plain view — and the possibility of displaying some of your kitchen go-tos both conveniently and artfully. “Two cheap little hook styles are great for maximizing the space — the screw-in C-shaped hooks and S-hooks,” says Donelson. “The former are perfect for hanging coffee mugs and tea cups, such as above upper cabinets. you can press and screw them in so easy!”

Donelson also likes to hang S-hooks on cabinet door handles for kids’ lunch bags, pot holders, and towels. “Command-strip hooks (everyone’s favorite hack) on the inside of cabinet and closet doors go a long way, too,” she says.

Seize (hidden) spots you haven’t thought to use before.

Along those same lines, don’t discount the real estate inside your cabinet doors for decorative flourishes either. This can be key for taking the sterility out of a small kitchen without visually overwhelming the counters or walls. “I love to decorate a small space, [and] really fill it with personality, but if it’s feeling too cluttered, consider putting small art, postcards, kids’ art, etc. on the inside of cabinet doors,” says Donelson. “It’s a joyful little surprise.”

Another similar solution Donelson has come up with for displaying art and mirrors in the kitchen? Using the sides of cabinets in a similar way, which you can see at work in her former galley above, with two pieces flanking the window above her sink. At at distance, these symmetrical pops of color, pattern, and shine are hardly visible, but when you get up close, they’re there to make dishwashing a bit less mundane. Donelson also decorated the side of her lower cabinetry in her larger Montreal kitchen (pictured at the top of this story) by trimming it out with a floral flourish. Even though space is no longer at a premium, she’s still taking every opportunity she can to make her setup unique and joyful with the colors and patterns she loves.

Consider paneled appliances for the most streamlined surfaces.

If you’re undertaking a major kitchen renovation and have the budget for paneled appliances, they’re worth considering for a seamless look that can make your kitchen appear just a little bit bigger. Again, while Donelson’s kitchen isn’t small, concealing the Fisher & Paykel Integrated Double DishDrawer Dishwasher behind paneling that matches her cranberry cabinetry helps to create an uninterrupted band of color that can trick the eye into seeing a space as more expansive. If you can’t spring for paneling, appliances with a bit of a sheen or large, reflective surfaces, like a white glossy subway tile backsplash or snowy quartz counters, can create a similar effect by bouncing light around.

Credit: Courtesy of Drea Montali and Shelf Genie

Sometimes it’s worth splurging on a next-level customization.

According to Montali, quick fixes like bins or and baskets don’t always cut it in super-small cook spaces, particularly in certain spots that are already tricky to organize. “Lower kitchen cabinets are hard to access in general, especially when there are heavy items like pots, pans, and appliances, such as KitchenAid mixes or crockpots stored in them,” she says. “Pull-out shelving makes items much more accessible and easy to use.”

If your budget allows, spring for custom or semi-custom organizers like the ShelfGenie ones you see here, which can make grabbing your cookware and other items so much easier. Though personalized inserts can be an investment, they’re much cheaper than replacing your current cabinets with entirely new souped-up, more functional cabinetry.

Work your vertical space with unexpected, practical-meets-pretty accents.

“Take a cue from the great kitchens of Joan Didion and the Missonis, and bring back the wire hanging fruit basket,” says Donelson, whose Queens kitchen, which you can see above, featured a slim silver version hanging from a wall bracket. “They actually preserve produce and feel very sexy ’70s chic in their own quirky way.”

You can snag one of these retro meets modern pieces on Amazon, and they come in a variety of finishes to match a bunch of aesthetics. Choose one in white if you have white tile, walls, or cabinetry so it recedes visually even more into space. You can also opt to hang one straight from your ceiling, too.

Buy: Fox Run White 3-Tier Kitchen Hanging Fruit Baskets, Starts at $14.38 from Amazon