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Compact kitchens which embrace all the essentials in a single free-standing unit are perfect for small flats. And the latest designs are so chic they're being fitted in the free-flowing living spaces of bigger homes too. Nicole Swengley reports
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If you've never used a compact kitchen you may find it a liberating experience. Cooking, chatting to friends, sipping a glass of wine and keeping an eye on the children can all take place in the same area.

If you've never used a compact kitchen you may find it a liberating experience. Cooking, chatting to friends, sipping a glass of wine and keeping an eye on the children can all take place in the same area.

Nor is there any need to sacrifice high style for convenience as the sleek lines of these highly engineered units are fashionably finished in glossy lacquers, stainless steel or coloured laminates.

It's indicative of their catwalk appeal that the latest breed of urban-chic kitchenettes were showcased at the spring Milan Furniture Fair instead of a kitchen industry trade show. It endorsed the idea that they're as much about sexy furniture design as high-tech engineering.

Single, for example, is a tiny compact kitchen in which cooking, washing and storage areas are hidden inside a glossy laminated box. Designed by Alberto Colonello for Boffi, it has a sink with tap, a glass-ceramic hob, oven, 50 litre refrigerator, small dishwasher and a utensil drawer housed in a unit just 64cm wide, 75cm deep and 80cm high. It's perfect for a design-conscious bachelor pad and costs about £1,400.

Another sleek design is the Techna by Varenna, available from the Italian manufacturer, Poliform (from £8,000 excluding appliances). At just 183cm or 244cm in length the aluminium-framed all-in-one unit can be taken with you when you move, which you may well want to do as it looks so stylish.

If that seems a hefty amount to pay for culinary minimalism, check out Neil Lerner's new design which includes appliances in its starting price of £6,500. This kitchen-in-a-box packs a sink, fridge, dishwasher, oven, hob, extractor and storage in a unit measuring 2.5m wide by 2.2m tall by 60cm deep. Scale up to a slightly bigger version and you can add a washing machine too. Since each unit is made to order you can decide on its content and looks.

Worktops come in a choice of steel, granite, Corian or laminate while door finishes are timber, stainless steel, high-gloss lacquer or laminate. You can also specify whether you want your kitchenette open-fronted or with folding doors to hide all of your culinary clutter from view.

Home-owners who prefer their kitchen to vanish when guests arrive might also check out Driade's Pantos Chef. This kitchen-in-a-cupboard is concealed by tall sliding concertina doors in a choice of finishes including maple veneer, ribbed aluminium or coloured lacquered glass. Slide them back and you have access to a stainless steel worktop with sink and hob while base units house a fridge, dishwasher and storage. It is available to order from Driade at Selfridges with prices starting from £6,600 excluding appliances.

If you want to cook and feed guests in one place then Driade has another chic design that makes this possible. Kuoko is an aluminium and stainless steel compact kitchen that embraces a double sink, dishwasher, five-ring hob, cooker and extractor. You can order it as an island unit with space for seating and eating at one side or as an in-line, back-to-wall design. Either way, it's an extremely neat solution with utensils and appliances all within easy reach. The Kuoko kitchen is available to order from modern furniture retailer, Viaduct, with prices starting from £9,251 excluding appliances.

For even more space - a fully-fledged dining table that could double as a bar or servery - turn to Norbert Wangen's Mono-Bloc compact kitchen with its extending stainless steel surface. Slide the top to one side and you find cooking and preparation surfaces, a stainless steel sink, dishwasher, refrigerator, oven, microwave and storage space below. The Mono-Bloc can be ordered in three sizes (the smallest measures 159cm in length, by 70cm wide, by 96cm high) from Key London. It costs from £10,730 excluding appliances.

Wangen explains that his compact design responds to the way in which lifestyles have changed in recent years. "Families live very differently from how they did 50 years ago," he says. "Today a kitchen is more of a social meeting-place. You don't need a restaurant-sized kitchen in order to be able to to cook well."

Which is why appliance manufacturers are following suit. Last month CDA launched three space-saving stainless steel combos: a microwave with dishwasher, a coffee machine with storage and a range oven with dishwasher. Each of these glossy free-standing units measures 70cm wide and costs £1,815.

Small, it seems, is suddenly very beautiful indeed.

Boffi from Alternative Plans (020 7228 6460 www.boffi.com); Techna by Poliform (020 7368 7600 www.poliform.it); Neil Lerner Kitchen Design (020 7034 4920 www.neillerner.com); Kuoko by Driade at Selfridges (020 7318 3101, www.driade.com); Kuoko from Viaduct (020 7278 8456 www.viaduct.co.uk); Mono-Bloc from Key London (020 7499 9461 www.key-london.com); CDA:(0115 970 3553 www.cda-europe.com).