The Virtues of a Tiny, Vintage, Not-Open-Concept Kitchen

My husband and I just bought a house. It’s the second home we’ve owned, but the twelfth place we’ve lived since we got married seventeen years ago. If you count the year we lived in a different town every month or so, it’s the twenty-first place we’ve lived.

In other words, we’ve lived a lot of places.

Like most modern-day Americans, when we went looking for a house to buy, “open concept” and “large kitchen” were right at the top of our wants. We watch HGTV, after all. Open concept/large kitchen is like THE LAW.

But then we actually started looking at houses, and homes in our price range were flying off the market. So when we found a house that had just been listed, and it had the vintage charm that we love with the textured walls and the stained glass window and the curved entryways, we jumped on it.

But it wasn’t open concept. The kitchen is a distinct room of its own with two traditional doorways. And . . . well . . . it’s not large.

That’s okay, we thought. We can always remodel. We talked about taking out the wall between the kitchen and the dining room, refiguring the cabinets, putting in an island, blah blah blah.

But you know what? We’ve done the open concept/large kitchen combo before. We’ve had the big island with the fancy countertops open to the dining area and family room—several times, actually. And while large, open concept kitchens can be great, there are some major drawbacks that have become startlingly clear as we’ve settled into our tiny, older, not-open-concept kitchen.

After thinking long and hard about our cooking and cleaning habits, our lifestyle, and our experience with various kitchens, I thought I’d share some of my thoughts that go against current kitchen wisdom.

But first I’ll share our adorable kitchen and how we’ve altered it to make it (almost) perfect for us. 🙂

Here it is looking from one doorway:

Small Kitchen

And here it is looking from the other.

Small Kitchen

And here it is standing in front of the window in the first photo:

Slide-out Pantry

That’s it. It’s not big, but it’s cute, no? It wasn’t quite as cute when we bought it (Band-aid colored walls, for one). But we did some painting and added some features to make this kitchen really work for us. (If the lack of counter space gave you a little panic attack, no worries. I’ll address that later.)

First up, I’m ridiculously proud of my little roll-out pantry here:

Rolling Pantry

I bought a solid wood bookcase on Craigslist for $25, painted it white, put casters on the bottom so it rolls out, and added a handle to match the rest of the kitchen. Voila! Slide-out storage.

Slide-out Pantry

My other two favorite things we added—the pot rack and the spice shelves.

Small Kitchen

Even if you don’t need it for space, I highly recommend a pot rack. It’s the one thing we never had in any of our kitchens, and I am IN LOVE with it. It frees up a bunch of cabinet/drawer space, it’s super easy to just grab the pot or pan you need, and it’s super easy to put them away after washing. It’s not even funny how much I love it. We got this from Amazon. It came as a charcoal gray color, which was okay, but all of our hardware is oil rubbed bronze, so I got a spray paint to match and gave it a quick coat. Easy peasy.

Pot Rack

Side note: I also love that clock. I got it at our local hardware store, but they sell it on Amazon, too. 🙂

Coffee Clock

My next favorite thing is our spice shelves. We made them ourselves to look like distressed wood. They’re actually just basic pine boards all beat up with hammers and stained with coffee and a mixture of apple cider vinegar and steel wool. I’ll share how we did that later. It’s pretty freaking cool.

Spice Jars

I’ve always loved the look of mason jars. I got an assortment of jelly jars and canning jars and dumped all of our spices into them. (They sell these jars on Amazon, but they’re way cheaper just about anywhere else. I’m just linking so you can see the ones I got.) Not only does it make for a uniform look, but we like to buy our spices in bulk anyway. (It’s usually exponentially cheaper than buying them in containers.)

The chalkboard labels and chalk pens are super fun. I’m a little obsessed with them.

Chalkboard Labels

(One recommendation for the chalk labels: Put a coat of clear nail polish over the label once you’ve got it how you want it. Chalk pen smears when it gets wet, and when you’re cooking/baking, wet hands is sort of unavoidable. Alternatively, you could just use a white paint pen, but then you have to get it just right the first time.)

Another reason this kitchen works is that the cabinets go all the way to the ceiling. Our last house looked like it had a lot of cabinet space because it had a lot of cabinets, but they weren’t very tall and there was a lot of wasted space above them.


To reach those tall shelves, my mom insisted that we needed this Cosco folding step stool.

After she gave it to us, I totally agreed. This thing is like magic. It weighs almost nothing, you can fold it open and closed with one hand. It’s amazing. We keep it folded between the fridge and the wall.

We don’t have a walk-in pantry (which also seems to be the law nowadays), but our big pantry cabinet works fine.


Funny story about that trash can. My husband has been wanting a garbage can that doesn’t go under the sink since we got married. I’m rather partial to the under-the-sink trash myself, but since he does more than his fair share of the housework, the guy deserves to have the garbage can he desires. Those suckers are expensive, though, so we were psyched when this one was 70% off at Shopko. And I admit, it’s pretty nice.

I made the Dinner Menu with some chalkboard contact paper. We’ll see how much it actually gets used. Looks cute, though!


A couple more things to round out our tour . . .


As you can see from my clock, I love my morning coffee. We’ve had a couple of fancy espresso machines over the years, but I use and abuse those things pretty hard, so they eventually give up and die. When our last one kicked the bucket, I decided “slow coffee” is my thing. Stovetop percolator with a stovetop milk frother. It doesn’t actually take very long, and it makes great coffee and awesome foam. I like that it’s all stainless steel—no teflon or plastic to wear out or leach toxic nastiness. Plus it doesn’t take up valuable counter space.

Speaking of stovetops and counter space, the flat-top stove is awesome in a small kitchen. When it’s not in use, it gives you some extra prep space, which helps with the whole counter space issue. And it’s super easy to clean.


This doesn’t have anything to do with a small kitchen, although I suppose if your counter gets cluttered with glasses, it does. We use a rubber band system to keep track of whose water glass is whose. When you get a glass, you put a colored band around it and that’s your glass for the day. When people actually use the system, it works like a charm to keep glass usage to a minimum.


Are there downsides to our little kitchen? Sure. Our sink is super shallow. I’m a sucker for those big, deep farmhouse sinks. But so far it hasn’t actually been much of an issue. I thought I’d hate it, but it turns out to be sort of a bonus. Less space to pile dishes. 🙂


The one thing we would change is the portable dishwasher thing. It’s not actually as bad as I thought it might be, but it’s definitely a small inconvenience. Personally, I think having some small inconveniences isn’t a terrible thing. It’s not like it adds any extra time or anything—it’s just a bit cumbersome.

That’s it! Now that I’ve given you the tour, here are my current thoughts about kitchens based on our various kitchen experiences.

1) Counter space is overrated.

WHAT?! That’s right. I said it. The thing about counter space is that unless you’re habitually neat, more counter space just means more places to put things. Rather than clean up what you were working on, you can just move on down the counter. And that’s if you actually have empty counter space. Counters are clutter catchers, or at least they always are in our house. For us, just enough counter space to do one or two things at a time is perfect.

(Cabinet space, however, is NOT overrated. If you don’t have places to put things, they end up on the counter. So storage is definitely a big deal, but pretty easy to accomplish, even in a tiny kitchen).

2) Kitchens are for cooking.

The open concept idea is based on the fact that people tend to gather in the kitchen, which is totally true. But the flip side of that is that open concept kitchens invite all sorts of other activity/clutter that doesn’t belong there.

Our last house had a nice, big island and a kitchen that opened to the dining room and living room areas. But it was ALWAYS covered with kids’ half-finished artwork, piles of mail, stuff we weren’t sure what to do with, things to give back to people, etc. All kinds of non-kitcheny, non-cooking, non-food-related stuff ended up piling up there.

In our tiny kitchen, there’s no room for that. And the fact that it’s a separate room makes it so people aren’t tempted to drop stuff there.

3) Bigger kitchen = bigger mess

Having a tiny kitchen forces you to clean up as you go. In our large kitchens, some folks (who shall remain unnamed) would make colossal messes while cooking because they could. All that counter space allowed for a sprawl of dirty dishes, food left out, etc. In a tiny kitchen, you have to clean up as you go or you can’t cook.

4) Smaller kitchen = quicker clean-up

The fact that we are forced to clean up as we go in order to function means that there’s a limit to how messy the kitchen can get. And even if the kitchen is as trashed as it can get, it doesn’t take that long to clean up. In our large kitchens, clean-up could be totally overwhelming. In our tiny kitchen, it’s never a huge job.

5) Small kitchens force minimalism and creativity.

In a small kitchen, there’s no room for excess. We might starve in an apocalypse, but at least we won’t be bogged down with too much stuff in the meantime. And we have to be creative with our storage and the way we use things. Nothing wrong with that. 🙂

There you go! That’s why I’m in love with our small, not-open-concept kitchen.

Do you have a kitchen that you love? Big or small or in between? Share your best kitchen tips—I love getting new ideas!


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Annie writes about life, motherhood, world issues, beautiful places, and anything else that tickles her brain. On good days, she enjoys juggling life with her husband and homeschooling her children. On bad days, she binges on chocolate chips and dreams of traveling the world alone.

Comments 6

  1. Our current and last kitchen were small and not open to anything. I have loved them — for all the reasons mentioned above — and because it’s okay if the kitchen is a mess. I can cook up dinner and not feel overwhelmed eating it because I can’t see the messy kitchen!!

  2. here in Malaysia kitchens are generally quite small, unless renovated. I like having a medium kitchen with plenty of cabinet space. We just moved into a new rental and I finally have a stretch of counter space long enough to place a cutting board next to a bowl next to an open cookbook. In our previous house I almost always had to put the cookbook on a surface behind me, causing a lot of spinning in circles while cooking! Drove me nuts. But I agree with your points about having enough cabinet space and keeping it clean as you go along. Boy would I love a pot/pan rack to save cabinet space!! Although my kitchen is longer than yours you have more than twice as much cabinet space as I do!

  3. You’ve seen our kitchen, not as big as your one when you lived closeby, but not as teeny as yours is now. It pretty much is the perfect space for us. That said, I totally get the stuff from other rooms migrating into it, and the bigger mess=bigger space conundrum. Yours is cute. I wish I could keep stuff like spices and pots out, but they’d get too grody if I did.

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