U-shaped small kitchen ideas: how to work the perfect cook’s layout

Ten space-enhancing design rules for cabinetry, colour and lighting from kitchen experts

A U-shaped small kitchen is exactly what it says. It’s a classic layout in the shape of the letter U and usually (but not always) lines three walls of a room. While you may think of it as restrictive, kitchen designers disagree.

“U-shaped kitchens are a good option for smaller rooms as the design maximises the amount of work surface and allows for good access throughout the space,” says Elizabeth Sherwin, creative director at Naked Kitchens.

Take a look at our experts’ advice for U-shaped small kitchen design, cabinetry, lighting and colour ideas.

1. Work the triangle

Make sure you have room to manoeuvre

light grey kitchenCredit: Tom Howley
Position your hob, sink and refrigerator within arm’s reach

Meticulous planning is the first step to the perfect, small U-shaped kitchen. “Walkway space and the working triangle should be key considerations when designing your layout,” says Tom Howley, design director at Tom Howley. “Have your hob, sink and refrigerator located equidistant from each other; optimising your workspace means everything is at arm’s reach.”

Another golden rule is to avoid cramming in too much cabinetry. As Howley explains, “Although you may feel like storage is crucial, entire runs of closed cabinets can enclose the space even more. Only use wall cabinets on one side for a spacious feel and utilise corners by including clever pull-out solutions.” This is shown beautifully here in the Summerville Collection in Tansy.

2. Group cabinetry by task

Keep tableware near cutlery and store pans close to the hob

olive green u shaped kitchen with cabinets and yellow wallsCredit: Masterclass Kitchens
Keep similar items close to hand in a U-shaped kitchen

When designing a U-shaped kitchen, it’s important to place cabinets in considered locations to improve the flow of the space. For instance, planning to have cutlery drawers alongside tableware makes it easy when laying the table for a meal.

“Grouping frequently used items together ensures easy access and creates a more efficient workspace,” says Cassie Jones, brand manager at Masterclass Kitchens.

Referring to the Ashbourne Kitchen in Olive, Jones also says, “Adding design elements such as decorative doors or characterful handles can enhance the kitchen’s aesthetic appeal and add design flair to the space.”

3. Open up your room with shelves

Ditching wall cupboards can create a spacious feel

open wooden kitchen shelves with blue kitchen cabinets belowCredit: Chris Snook Photography/The Main Company
Create a sense of height with open shelving

When working with a small U-shaped kitchen, shelves in contrasting materials to the cabinetry will add personality and interest.

“Replace wall cabinets with open shelving,” says Alex Main, director at The Main Company. “It helps create a feeling of height by making the kitchen appear more open and spacious. You can still store plenty on the shelves – from crockery and vases to personal possessions – but aim to put larger items and kitchen essentials in lower cabinets instead.”

In this compact London home, reclaimed Weathered Barn Oak timber was introduced on shelves, cabinets, cladding and flooring to bring a distinctive warmth to the kitchen.

4. Tile a focal point

Add impact when room size limits design choices

blue kitchen with white tiled splashbackCredit: Second Nature Collection
Decorative tiles make for an interesting design feature

An eye-catching splashback is an engaging and creative design feature in a U-shaped kitchen, but also has other benefits.

“Opt for an interesting tile that ties in with the rest of your kitchen decor to create a cohesive scheme throughout the space,” says Ashleigh Hanwell, senior designer at Second Nature Collection. For example, you could choose hexagonal tiles and pair them with hexagonal cabinet handles, or a chequerboard pattern that you could then repeat on the floor, or through accessories.

Another advantage of a tiled splashback is how it helps to zone the kitchen as shown here in Mornington Shaker kitchen in Hartforth Blue. “Any kitchen will have a number of workspaces, so opting for a tiled splashback in the centre of your kitchen, for example, will help draw the eye in and naturally create separate zones,” says Hanwell.

5. Think colour

Choose one block hue that reflects the light

kitchen with pale blue cabinets and white wallsCredit: Naked Kitchens
Pastel shades are ideal for creating a fresh feel in your kitchen

The effect and intensity of the cabinetry colour is a design consideration that’s worth taking the time to ponder.

“As cupboard doors tend to make up most of the space, adding one colour across all the cabinetry creates a dramatic effect,” says Sherwin. On the other hand, going for multiple cabinetry colours in a small space can look a little chaotic. Although one option is to pick base units in one colour, wall cabinets in another, and then paint the walls in the same colour as the latter to help them blend in.

One block of colour is a way to success in a small room. “Although stand-out colours are often associated with being bright and saturated, beautiful and understated pastels are also a sure-fire way to elevate the overall aesthetic, as shown here in a bespoke Ladbroke kitchen painted in Beach Hut. As U-shaped kitchens tend to be smaller, opting for lighter hues reflects the most light and can help to open up the space, making it feel fresh and spacious.”

6. Make room for seating

U-shaped layouts lend themselves to a breakfast bar

green and white kitchen with wooden floor a breakfast bar and stoolsCredit: Pluck
A breakfast bar is an ideal solution for a U-shaped kitchen

Even a small kitchen can be mapped out to include somewhere to sit for breakfast or supper.

“U-shaped kitchens work well in smaller spaces as they use the footprint of the room efficiently and provide maximum worktop area,” says Leila Touwen, co-founder of Pluck. “In this kitchen, which includes Brockwell Moss and Elm cabinetry, the three-sided design means a seating area can be included at the peninsula. There is a natural flow to the design due to the location of the window. The open shelves and wall cabinets keep the space feeling light and uncluttered.”

7. Plan your lighting

Space it out around the U

metal pendant lights hanging over kitchen worktopCredit: Multiliving by Scavolini
Use a combination of lighting to avoid shadows and dark spaces

It is important to have illumination in each of the three sections of the U. This will ensure that the entire space is well lit and free of dark corners.

“There are several types of lighting to consider,” says Brani Hadzhi, head of design at Multiliving by Scavolini. “The first type is task lighting, which provides focused light on key workspaces such as a peninsula island (as seen here). The second type is ambient lighting, which provides overall illumination for the space (in this case, a series of downlights was used). The third type is accent lighting, which can be used to highlight specific areas of the kitchen, such as artwork or open shelving.”

This kitchen is designed by Multiliving by Scavolini and features pendants from Diesel with Foscarini and cabinetry from the Diesel Social kitchen by Scavolini.

8. Go narrow

Fill any awkward gaps

narrow pull out kitchen cabinet for wine and bottlesCredit: Crown Imperial
Don’t forget to use up all the available space for maximum storage

Maximising those unused centimetres can make all the difference in a U-shaped kitchen, where the layout can leave you with some tricky spaces to fill. One way to do this is to go narrow and deep for certain types of tall bottle storage, such as wines, cordials, cooking oils and sauces.

The Crown Spaceworks+ measures just 150mm (6in) wide, yet pulls out to offer maximum two-tier storage. The Midsomer shaker range is styled here in Grey Aqua. The pull-out is also available in a 300mm (12in) version.

9. Add character cooking appliances

Get a range designed for small spaces

small yellow range oven in sage green kitchenCredit: Everhot
Even range ovens come in smaller sizes

When it comes to appliances for small kitchens, don’t rule out the idea of a classic range cooker that’s been specifically designed with a 600mm (24in) width – a standard cooker space.

“Space is at a premium in a U-shaped kitchen,” says Graham Duke, sales director at Everhot. “Placing the cooker at the heart of the design doesn’t just provide a centrepiece, it also maximises the workflow. You don’t have to compromise on cooking space either. The 56-litre (12 gallon) ovens on the Everhot 60 provide cavernous cooking capacity, and with the large boiling and simmer plate you’ll cater for the largest occasions with ease.”

10. Choose interesting flooring

The way you lay it will create the illusion of space

wooden herringbone floor in grey and white kitchenCredit: Masterclass Kitchens
Use your flooring to create interest or enhance the sense of space

To break up the uniformity of a U-shaped kitchen, you can create interest and rhythm with a herringbone or zigzag style floor.

“Choosing an interesting flooring can enhance the overall look of the kitchen by complementing its colour palette,” says Jones. “It is one of the final touches that not only adds visual appeal but also defines the space and creates an illusion of more room. To achieve a beautiful and functional kitchen, consider pairing wood-effect cabinetry with a flooring that has a similar tone.”

Ways to make a kitchen feel bigger with flooring include laying your tiles or wood boards diagonally, choosing larger-format tiles, and avoiding very busy patterns.

Shown here is Hardwick Lava and Heritage Grey with Portland Oak cabinetry.

Written by Rhoda Parry

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Rhoda Parry is the former Editorial Director of Ideal Home, the UK’s best-known media brand, and its sister titles, 25 Beautiful Homes and Style at Home. She is also former Editorial Director for Gardeningetc, Amateur Gardening and Easy Gardens.

As an experienced Interiors and Gardens journalist, she’s spent her career tracking the trends, interviewing the experts and reviewing the best products for inside and outside living spaces. When she’s not writing, she’s tending to her gravel garden that overlooks the sea in Sussex.