The Kitchen Conundrum… (or: the complete and utter uselessness of rental apartment kitchens)

It’s true, though, isn’t it? Rental apartment kitchens, traditionally, are not exactly known for efficient layout, great design, or functionality. They’re most commonly a tiny, enclosed galley style space barely large enough for one person, often opening up on one end to a small dining area. You know what I’m talking about, right? It’s the generic layout of almost every apartment kitchen built in North America from around 1970 to 2000.

The building my husband and I live in was built in the 1970s. It has useless kitchens throughout. I’m not going to sugar coat it.

Fortunately for us, we live in a studio apartment, which means the kitchen is quite open – only walled off on one end where the oven lives. Because of the openness, there were things we could do with the space to make it more efficient.

First off, let me share with you the actual, physical dimensions of this kitchen. It is 55″ wide. That’s one inch more than four and a half feet! Ok? That’s the total width. Nearly half of that width is taken up by counter and appliances. The length of this silly little excuse for a kitchen is 97.5″ – just over eight feet. So, the open floor space we’re talking about here is approximately 32″ by 69″.

Then there’s a “dining area” that measures four feet at its longest point (it’s a slightly angled outside wall). Consider the minimum amount of space needed for a small dining table with oh, say, two to four chairs. Could you fit it into 48″ by 55″? No you couldn’t. No sir.

When we first moved into this apartment nearly three years ago, a dear and helpful friend gave us a few pieces of furniture for free, one of them being the little white cabinet pictured below, next to the refrigerator. We put open metal shelving in the bare space between the cupboards’ end and the outside wall. Then we added a little breakfast counter (which we built from a couple of free legs we found on Craigslist, and a piece of 12″ x 72″ wood) facing the big beautiful kitchen window, and a couple of second-hand bar stools, also found on Craigslist. This way we had a little dining area for the two of us and our dog (note the dog bowls next to the fridge).

Photo credit:

Now, this may seem like a decent solution to our inefficient little kitchen/dining area, but it wasn’t working for us. For one thing, it felt weird to sit at the counter with our backs to the rest of our home. I don’t know why that felt so weird. We have a lovely view from that window! But the set-up felt wrong. The other thing was that the refrigerator was in the middle of it all, just a huge monolithic mass right there: front and centre. It all felt chopped up and lacking any kind of flow.

So we decided to turn the entire space into kitchen. Here’s how we did it…

The first thing we did was slide the refrigerator to the very end of the space, so it’s right against the window wall. We now had a gap between the counter and the fridge that measured 44.5″ (we couldn’t get the full 48″ because of the baseboard heater). In this newly empty space we were able to fit a 24″ wide cabinet with three large drawers, the top one with a drawer-in-drawer feature making space for flatware on top and spices below. The drawers fit SO MUCH STUFF! We put tea towels, napkins, a recipe box, foil wrap, wax paper roll, zip freezer baggies, and a few other odds and ends in one drawer, and all – yes all – of our plastic storage containers/Tupperware thingies in the other. It’s incredible how one 24″ wide cabinet can add so much storage to a kitchen, not to mention the additional counter space! This cabinet and its magnificently huge drawers eliminated almost all of our counter clutter.

This fantastic beast of a unit was purchased new at (do you even have to ask?) Ikea. Seriously, though. The Swedes! So brilliant. I’ve even heard contractors rave about Ikea kitchens. Say what you will about the quality of some of their furniture, but kitchen cabinets are the pinnacle of what they do.

In that 44.5″ space gained by moving the fridge all the way to the end, we also got an 18″ wide portable dishwasher, purchased second-hand from Craigslist, and removed the top so that it could roll underneath the countertop. The countertop is a beautiful piece of bamboo butcher block, a leftover from a custom kitchen construction project a friend of ours did. We got it, cut to size by our friend, for free! There was no way we were going to be able to get a piece of countertop to match the existing white laminate, so this was a great solution. If you can’t match it, go for something completely different! Besides, butcher block looks great in any kitchen. I believe this to be a universal truth.

We got a second open metal shelf that we installed above the first one. These are now over-the-fridge storage for plates and bowls. We found these metal shelves to be a great way to extend the upper cabinets right to the end of the wall. They give the space a sort of industrial vibe, which I love. And they make that big useless space, between where the upper cabinets end and the window wall, functional.

Now, you might be wondering where we eat now that the tiny dining area has been taken over by the refrigerator and its new friends. Well, I’m glad you asked. We got an island! It’s counter height, and measures 21 inches wide by 47 inches long. We placed it with one end to the window wall, and it sits on the carpet right where it meets the kitchen tile. So it doesn’t actually take up any space in the kitchen. It has a butcher block top, stainless steel rails right underneath to hang things from, and an open shelf near the bottom where we keep all our pots and pans.

We’ve set the bar stools on the side facing the kitchen, but we usually sit on either side when eating. It can even fit up to two or three more people if we want to have a little dinner party. So now I can sit at our island, sipping a glass of wine while I watch my husband cook! It’s a lovely place to sit.

The whole area has much better flow now, and the little kitchen has big presence and great functionality.

The one key change that made all of this work was moving the refrigerator. This is not the first time we’ve relocated the fridge in a rental apartment. But it’s incredible what a difference a well-placed refrigerator can make. It’s because it’s the biggest thing in the room. And if it’s in the wrong spot, it’s going to destroy the flow of your kitchen completely. Move it to the most out-of-the-way spot available in your space. And if the hinges are on the wrong side of the door(s) after you’ve moved it, switch them so the doors open the right way. It’s easy, and it’s necessary to maintain a proper flow in your workspace.

Some other random bits: we switched out the generic “ceiling tit” light fixture for a cute pendant light; if you can hang things on the walls or underneath the cupboards, do it – it’s a great space saving trick in tiny homes; we added strip lighting to the underside of the cupboards; the stacked antique canisters on the bamboo part of the counter might actually be my favourite thing in the kitchen (from Jojo’s Place on Main); the old trunk underneath the island was my father-in-law’s suitcase when he went to England on two tours with the Vancouver Boys’ Band in 1953 and 1955 (he was a trumpet player). It makes for additional storage for things we only use occasionally. And it’s the coolest thing ever.

So that’s it. That’s the story of how our tiny, practically useless kitchen was transformed into a functional space we actually like looking at and being in!

Photo credit for the above three: TinyHomeintheCity

8 thoughts on “The Kitchen Conundrum… (or: the complete and utter uselessness of rental apartment kitchens)

  1. That looks so much better! I agree that moving the Fridge gives the whole kitchen a more unified and open feel. Good decision. The whole thing looks larger than it was originally meant to be, and that table is great! Nice job on the whole thing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks! It’s a constant battle to keep clutter from creeping in, though. In a space this small, just one or two extra bits will make a difference. We’ve purged so much in our kitchen, but I feel like we could still get rid of some stuff!


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