Some pantries are bigger than this 180-square-foot kitchen but its clever design makes it just right for an owner who likes to cook, bake, and entertain. Isolated in the middle of a 1980s Des Moines, Iowa, condo, the room had no windows and no real connection to the surrounding spaces. The challenge was fitting the owner’s considerable wish list in the kitchen’s existing footprint.  

“The client is quite a cook and wanted access to daylight and the ability to interact with her guests when she is making dinner,” says Paul Mankins, principal of Substance Architecture. “She also wanted a separate baking area she could close off and easy access to the things she would use every day.”

The architect first opened up and brightened the kitchen by removing the wall separating it from the dining room. The efficient rectangle is outfitted with light-reflective and budget-friendly white lacquer custom cabinets, including a wall of floor-to-ceiling storage that incorporates the refrigerator. That move eliminated the need for upper cabinets, which can visually close in a kitchen. 


Location Des Moines, Iowa
Architect Substance Architecture, Des Moines 
Builder M.D. Eggers Construction, Des Moines
Kitchen Size 180 square feet
Construction Cost $550 per square foot

To further capitalize on the new-found natural light, Mankins covered the backsplash behind the sink area in mildly reflective spandrel glass, back-painting it white to create the desired color effect. As he explains, the iron in the natural glass gives it its green tint. “We looked at samples of low-iron glass whose edges look clear, and as a result it takes on the color you paint on the back,” he says. “Our client wanted aqua green, which comes from back-painting natural glass white.” 

With the light-enhancing surfaces in place, Mankins still had to fit a lot of programming into the modestly sized kitchen. The room revolves around a commodious, 5-foot-square island that holds a dual-fuel oven and a 36-inch cooktop with plenty of space around it for food prep. “It’s almost like having three countertops because you can access it from three sides, and it’s an easy way to hide a whole lot of storage,” he says. A taller bookcase holding the owner’s large cookbook collection flanks the island, defining the point between the kitchen and dining room while also screening cooktop clutter from the eating area. 

Even in this compact space, Mankins carved out room for a dedicated baking center. It is tucked behind a section of wall cabinets and fitted with doors that open out and pocket back into the wall. Along the opposite storage wall, he developed a niche for the microwave, stainless steel shelving, and drawers that give the owner easy access to everyday cookware, dishes, and utensils. Next to the sink is a space-saving drawer dishwasher. “The owner lives by herself and can use just one drawer, or both when she has larger groups over for dinner,” Mankins says.

The minimalist design paved the way for inventive details that are subtle but pack a functional punch. Dry-erase marker board was installed on the back wall of the baking center and on all four sides of a newly exposed structural column abutting the cooktop island. This magnetic material holds a neat grid of metal spice jars to the wall at each workstation, freeing up precious counter and cabinet space. 

The sleek and practical board consists of stock, porcelain-covered metal panels with an integral fiberboard backing. “The panels come in standard sizes up to 4x8 feet or so and are light-gauge enough that we could cut them on a table saw to the size we needed,” says builder Mark Eggers, president of MD Eggers Construction in West Des Moines. The panels were glued in place and their edges finished with a thin frame. “The material allowed the client to use her magnetic spice containers, and she can write on the board as well,” he says.

Eggers also installed a wine rack on the dining-room side of the column. With its artful combination of custom and ready-made materials, the polished new kitchen reflects the casual way the owner likes to live and entertain.