Before the dishwasher, trash compacter, microwave oven, food processing center, range hood, side-by-side freezer-refrigerator of 25 cubic feet and before anyone even heard of an "island," kitchens were small. In postwar Washington, when new housing couldn't keep up with demand, kitchens consisted of a stove, a refrigerator and a sink. Why waste floor space when what America wanted was more bedrooms for the boom?

Now, of course, we have to live with our shortsightedness, made more desperate by apartment conversions into condos. No apartment builder worth his net profit ever deemed a kitchen worthy of generous square footage.

Worse, in many households today there are two cooks, one suitably liberated from postwar stigmas, who demand a share of the space, and growing informality in entertaining makes the kitchen a focal point for guests while dinner is being delivered.

Ask painter Dale Appleman: "There is nothing more frustrating than getting up from a good conversation to check on things in the kitchen and having to say, 'Don't say anything important while I'm gone." Appleman and architect husband Volker Zinser cook in a small but dazzlingly efficient curved kitchen near Dupont Circle.

"Most people like to congregate in the kitchen," says Zinser, who fashioned theirs in a semicircular space between the living room and dining area of their townhouse. The arrangement of appliances and counters suggests some serious time and motion studies of just how he and his wife use kitchen space.

Zinser has reduced the classic kitchen work triangle -- sink, stove, refrigerator -- to its minimum. It's not claustrophohic, even for two cooks, because the space above the waist-high counters is not enclosed and the cooktop is on the opposite side of the kitchen from the oven. The counter, with its bar-height stools on one side, also provides for what amounts to an eat-in kitchen.

The overall dimensions of the first floor of the townhouse are 21 feet by 45 feet. The kitchen from outside counter to outside counter is 13 feet long, creating what Zinser calls "a kind of sculptural divider between the living room and the dining area." Despite the kitchen's small size, there is 14 linear feet of counter space and lots of storage on both sides of the 3-foot-wide counter. The storage areas on the outside of the semicircle are enclosed, but it would take too much room to open and close cabinet doors inside the circle, so Zinser used open shelving within the work area.

The total cost, exclusive of plumbing and electrical work, was $8,000 and while you can't hide the dirty dishes from the guests, at least you can talk to them while you're cooking.

Interior designer Gary Lovejoy had the luxury of more space than Zinser and Appleman. In his three-room duplex apartment, he managed to squeeze a long thin kitchen into what had been a wide hallway between two apartments. Plumbing and electrical connections are on one wall. The space is 18 feet by 6 feet with more counter area and storage than most people have in a kitchen twice that size.

To separate the kitchen from the hallway that connects the living-dining room to the bedroom and loft, Lovejoy put in a 5-foot-long, 1-foot-wide stand-up bar, with wide entrances to the cooking area on either side. "Every time I entertain, the party seems to begin around the bar," says Lovejoy, who can cook, serve drinks and talk to guests while he prepares dinner.

Lovejoy's kitchen does not have the traditional window over the sink or near a food preparation area because the kitchen has been placed in the hallway. But an old air shaft has been converted into a dramatic skylight, with a winding staircase that culminates in a view of the kitchen. By tucking the kitchen into this wide passageway, Lovejoy managed to make it a useful space far enough from the living-dining room so that one can't see the dirty dishes while eating.

The entire job, executed two years ago, cost Lovejoy $6,000 for the white Formica cabinets and all appliances except the new plumbing and electrical lines.