Renovate Your Kitchen—Without Knocking Down a Wall

When most people think of redoing a dated ’70s- or ’80s-era kitchen, their first instinct is usually: Knock down a wall! Open up the space! Buy some gleaming, modern appliances! All fine ideas, but, sadly, not within everyone’s reach, financially oraesthetically.

Maybe you’re part of the emerging backlash against open kitchens, or maybe your checking account just can’t accommodate the open plan of your dreams. But here’s the good news: There are plenty of other approaches to maximize the space and functionality of your enclosed kitchen—and you’ll likely love the results! Check out these pointers from the experts.

Define your space

Is your kitchen primarily a workspace or more of a social hub? Because any renovation plans should take into consideration how you use it. If yours is a little bit of both, however, New York City–based architectTimo Lindman suggests creating a kitchen that flows into other areas of your home while maintaining a “defensible perimeter.”

One option: a pass-through (think of the window inside a taxi) that opens onto a living space, such as the dining room. Another way to go? Pocket doors that can be slid shut while cooking and left open at other times.

Lighten up

One key (and, weirdly, often ignored) way to make an enclosed space feel airy and contemporary is through great lighting. So if you’re renovating, expand or insert windows if possible—or consider adding a skylight. And when selecting interior light fixtures, remember that light needs to come from different directions to minimize shadows, which can render routine kitchen activities like chopping or cutting seriously dangerous. That means strategically installing overhead lights and focused pendant lamps as well as under-the-cabinet fixtures.

Skylight in kitchen
Skylight in kitchen

“If areas of counterspace or various corners of a kitchen are poorly lit, they end up as underused workspaces, which reduces the amount of overall space in a kitchen and makes it feel smaller,” explainsTyler Merson, a professional chef-turned-master carpenter who designs and installs kitchens with his New Jersey–based company,Codfish Park Design.

Choose wisely

Smaller and enclosed kitchens mean more airborne grease and steam, which can take a toll on cabinets, lighting fixtures, and wall treatments. For these spaces Merson suggests choosing painted cabinets (over varnished or stained) because they can be rejuvenated more cheaply than those requiring extensive stripping, sanding, and refinishing. Also important: Select appliances that are actually suited to your space.

Kitchen cabinets

Spaces Images/Getty Images

kitchen cabinets

“As gorgeous and trendy as commercial-grade cooktops and ovens are, most domestic spaces don’t need them,” argues Merson. “In fact, their heat and output can overpower a small space, making it harder to work in and advancing the deterioration of all your finishes.”

Enclosed kitchens also require more discipline when it comes to choosing what gets to stay and what hits the recycle bin. “Over time, we all acquire kitchen paraphernalia—extra pots and pans, serving platters, random appliances that once seemed like a good idea,” says Merson. “But to maximize and enjoy a closed kitchen, you need to be ruthless and honest about what really needs to be accessible on a daily basis versus what could live in deep storage and come out only for special occasions.”

Trick your brain

In a closed kitchen, cabinet depth and placement make a world of difference. One way to fake space: Mount wall cabinets a few inches higher than the standard 18 inches above the counter. Another option is to use open shelves instead of upper cabinets (though shelves are actually best for daily-use items—like drinking glasses—that usually aren’t in place long enough to accumulate dust). Better yet, do away with the upper cabinets on one wall entirely.

“The Matrix”

Warner Bros.

"The Matrix"

“The eye needs to pause or a place of respite,” Lindman explains, “whether it’s a window or some open space where pots and pans are hung. Kitchens feel smaller when every last bit of space is maxed out for storage.”

Ultimately, just because your kitchen is separate doesn’t mean it has to be closed off or claustrophobic. “Be honest with yourself about how you use your space and what you really want from it,” counsels Merson, “and you’ll find your way to the design with the right amount of openness for you.”