Cooks and crannies

PUBLISHED : Friday, 06 August, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 06 August, 2010, 12:00am

Most home cooks in Hong Kong have trouble whipping up a piece of toast and a boiled egg in their small kitchens, but there's still a way to apply smart design for those who wish to make gourmet meals.

Even in the tiniest of flats, architects and interior designers say, there's room to create space-conscious kitchens. Roddy Murray from RJ Murray Design in Hong Kong says he once designed a serviced apartment for a client who initially thought there was no room for a kitchen. 'I managed to persuade him that this was probably not a good idea, so the kitchen became as small as possible - the space was tiny and basic but worked well,' Murray says.

Murray installed creative space-saving options, including a small square corner sink with side drainer that incorporated a single domino hob. The fridge was slotted underneath, while the microwave was placed on wall shelves, and a pull-out drawer doubled as a much-needed table and study space.

In their newly released Guide to Kitchen Planning, Italian designers Valcucine say that being mindful of distances and organising logical routes are the starting points to making work in the kitchen creative and fun. 'A simple rule is to connect the preserving area [larder, refrigerator], the washing area [sink, dishwasher] and the cooking area [hob], by means of small triangles,' Valcucine recommends.

Jill Lewis from JL Architecture says the kitchen is the most complicated area of the house, with many functions, appliances and plumbing all competing for space. 'There's no bottom limit to a small Hong Kong kitchen. I've designed kitchens that were carved out of something no larger than a closet space. Anything is possible if well thought through,' says Lewis.

Still, space limitations can be frustrating for a budding chef so designers say it's important to prioritise what's most important to you in a kitchen. 'Think of how a space can serve more than one purpose,' says Lewis. Sometimes sacrifices have to be made to increase the feeling of space and functionality. Considerations include forgoing the size or number of appliances in favour of more countertop space.

Appliances can 'make or break a kitchen', says Murray. 'A lot of appliances may be on your wish list but you can always get by with less.'

Lewis advises grouping appliances efficiently, leaving as much space as possible for work areas. 'Don't introduce a massive refrigerator if that comes at the expense of a decent sink and hob.' she says. But there are some things you should avoid downsizing. Interior designer Tara Highfield recommends two-burner stoves and doesn't recommend one-burner options because they take up the same amount of countertop space in terms of depth. And Lewis doesn't like smaller sinks because they make it difficult for handling the dishes.

Smaller appliances are easy to find in Hong Kong - look for designer recommendations in the form of under-counter fridge-freezers and dishwashers, combination ovens and microwaves, and retractable worktops that pull out to create a new surface. But be willing to do the dishes by hand if you can't fit a dishwasher in, says Highfield.

In a small kitchen with limited space, it's crucial to tailor the storage. Think through each item and how it can be most efficiently stowed - don't just throw in lots of cabinets without a specific purpose in mind, says Lewis. Inserts help keep things tidy and easy to find. 'I prefer using more drawers rather than cabinets because drawers are easier to pull out, organise and access items from, while deep cabinets are difficult to bend down and reach into, and things get lost in the back corners,' Lewis says.

Highfield also recommends raising the workspace a little higher than normal to gain more storage space for drawers or cabinets underneath. 'In a small space every millimetre counts - so also try using small corners with metal pull-out racks or multifunctional furniture such as a kitchen worktop space, dining table and even a TV-cabinet all in one saves space.'

Counter space is often limited in smaller kitchens, with big appliances and storage needs competing for wall space. Allocate your countertop space appropriately for each of your three main uses: cooking, preparation and washing up. It's critical, says Lewis, to provide a space for food preparation and pots and pans adjacent to cooking surfaces, plus a separate space for dishes near the sink. Consider custom-made countertops and cabinets - they may be slightly more costly but in the long-run may prove to be more workable.

'Open shelves instead of wall cabinets are always good for extra storage where you can literally stack them high with dishes, pots and pans,' Murray says.

Highfield prefers to open up kitchens as much as possible by knocking down the walls. 'In the case of structural walls, you are limited in opening the kitchen up, but I would suggest removing the door and extending the work counter out into the living space if possible,' she says. Alternatively, Highfield suggests moving the kitchen to another location.

In an open-plan kitchen a good extractor fan - either from a cooker hood or a window-mounted fan - is essential because, Murray says, 'opening a window is impractical in Hong Kong as you end up hot and bothered'. The problem can also be solved by installing sliding glass doors, as Lewis did in her own flat. When closed, they block the view, but emit a soft, glowing light into the main living space.

As a general rule, the more light the bigger the space will feel. Murray recommends two types of lighting - general lighting from the ceiling and task lighting under wall cabinets for preparing food. Light strips under the lower cabinets can also create the feeling of length, making the kitchen feel longer and giving the illusion that it's floating.

'Don't blast the space with a single, overhead light source or pendants that are pretty but impractical,' says Lewis.

Highfield says the smallest kitchen she's seen in Hong Kong measured just 16 square feet in an old Chinese walk-up. 'Many people cook in this size kitchen in Hong Kong, but I think this is too small and is almost unworkable.' Highfield's solution was to move the kitchen to the opposite side of the room, gaining an extra 40 sq ft in space by adding a multifunctional bar table with drawers for cutlery, and two stools tucked underneath. The table can be used for breakfast, as a worktop bench for preparing food, or a bar so that friends can socialise with the cook.

The final frontier

Some equipment on the market that saves square footage:

Undercounter drawer fridge freezers from Fisher & Paykel are less bulky. The brand also sells small pull-out dishwasher drawers.

Combination oven/microwaves from Siemens save on space, as do the brand's slim dishwashers.

Domino hobs from Smeg make the countertop look bigger.

Fisher & Paykel's showroom: 42 Leighton Road, Causeway Bay, tel: 2358 4228;

Siemens: 13 Duddell St, Central, tel: 2511 2323;

Smeg: 2/F, Amber Commercial Building, 70 Morrison Hill Road, Causeway Bay, tel: 3118 7449;