Kitchens are on my mind lately. In order to maintain my status with the American Society of Interior Designers, I am obliged to fulfill a number of hours of continuing education every year. This year I decided to sample some courses from the National Kitchen and Bath Association. Kitchens and bathrooms are the most highly designed rooms in the home, where design solutions are often planned to the ¼” and, consequently, they are the rooms that drive most people to seek the help of a designer. That being said, my all- time favorite kitchen was never touched by the hand of a designer or architect.
I encountered it as a young married woman when I was living in Vermont. As a professional rite of passage, the Chairman of the Board of the bank where my husband worked invited us to dinner at his house. Whatever trepidation I had experienced about meeting the Chairman and his wife disappeared as soon as I saw the utterly charming antique farmhouse. Entering through the mudroom, the typical point of entry in Vermont, and into the kitchen, I was completely captivated by the generously-sized country kitchen. For starters, I was greeted by a tiny pond lined with maidenhair fern sunken into the stone floor just inside the back entrance. I learned that it was a natural spring-fed pond and so was always clear and clean. Lucky for the dogs and cats who enjoyed an endlessly refilling water bowl. There was a long trestle table surrounded by eight sturdy Windsor chairs and a floor-to-ceiling multi-pane window alongside it which flooded the whole kitchen with light while offering an unobstructed view of the Green Mountains. There was a large island with a mismatched collection of stools tucked under the counter and lots of beautifully made rustic cabinetry; also plenty of counter and storage space including a separate well-stocked pantry. But I nearly swooned when I saw a toasty fire blazing away in the original kitchen fireplace and a plump chintz loveseat parked cozily in front of it. I settled neatly into the down cushions, gazed into the fire, thoughtfully holding the stem of my wineglass, and sighed contentedly. This is all I really need, just one room like this. It’s hard to convey the atmosphere of peace and hospitality embodied in that farmhouse kitchen, but it’s a spirit I aim for in every kitchen renovation.
Work Triangle – The Basics
In an attempt to re-invent thinking about kitchen workflow, kitchen designers have made attempts to replace the age-old work triangle of sink-stove-refrigerator with work zones or linear prep lines. Personally, unless you are running a restaurant, I think it’s hard to improve on the idea that the three workhorses should be in close proximity; if not, it’s simply annoying for the home cook.
However, really useful innovations have been made to the appliances themselves. Most serious cooks prefer a big undivided sink and now that sink can be fitted out with cutting boards and drying racks. A real luxury is a sink long enough to accommodate two faucets and, on the subject of faucets — it should be high enough and the sink deep enough to accommodate rinsing out the tallest pasta pot.
Professional cooks seem to prefer gas for stovetop cooking and electric ovens for baking; hybrid ranges are available but, if space allows, a gas cooktop coupled with electric wall ovens is ideal. If safety is a concern, new induction cooktops will sense when a pot is empty and turn off automatically.
New configurations in refrigerators include refrigerated drawers, French-door refrigerators, top freezers, bottom freezers, and side- by-side. I could never understand the popularity of the side-by-side. Having had one, I often had trouble fitting a large item in the freezer side. My personal preference would be to have both a full size refrigerator and freezer but, due to space considerations in my own kitchen, I settled on the 36” Subzero with the bottom freezer and I’m very happy with it. Built-in models like the Subzero are only 24” deep so that they fit neatly into standard cabinet depth. Alas, the one drawback is that they are not as energy efficient as deeper models and don’t qualify for the energy star designation.
High hats have long been the solution for kitchen lighting and in many instances they are the best choice. However, if your ceiling is high enough, investigate using a flexible track system with some good looking trackheads that direct light where you need it. Undercabinet lighting is helpful as a task lighting addition to the general ambient light, but I like it more for the atmosphere it creates; when we eat dinner in the kitchen, I turn off the overhead lights and leave the undercabinet lighting on for a soft glow. Chandeliers and pendants can make lovely focal points in the kitchen but they are not to be relied upon for task lighting. For dramatic effect, glass countertops and glass paneled backsplashes that are lit from behind truly have an inner glow. On the older end of the technology spectrum, table lamps can be used on an island or a peninsula that is big enough.
Before the 1950’s, all kitchens were “unfitted.” With the advance of “domestic engineering,” kitchens became streamlined; cabinetry was standardized and seamless runs of countertop became the norm. I’m all for efficiency but when taken to extremes, the engineering approach robs the kitchen, the heart of the home, of its soul. I’m not suggesting a return to the unfitted kitchen but it does make the kitchen more visually and emotionally satisfying if you can incorporate a few interesting pieces of furniture such as an antique desk or a custom designed table. If you have room for club chairs and a sofa, so much the better. Rustic wood floors create warmth and are easy on the legs. Keep a bowl of fruit on the counter and a canister of wooden and stainless implements out and ready to use. Random countertop items look best when grouped in a tray or basket.
Keep it Simple
One superior quality set of pots and pans is better than a mixed assortment and a bunch of infrequently used gadgets. Same goes for knives. Keep your most used items within easy reach; do you have a shelf over the range to hold them?
If you have the option, choose pullouts or drawers for most of your lower cabinets; they are much easier to use. Kitchen counters are typically 25” deep but if you can extend at least one counter to 30”, it can free up some valuable workspace in front of the toaster or coffee maker.
Designing a kitchen can be a daunting task for a homeowner; there is no one-size-fits-all answer because every cook, every family, every space is different, but the rewards are great. Every time I cook in my kitchen, and I cook a lot, I truly enjoy it and although it is a smallish kitchen, I am satisfied that I made the most beautiful, functional space for my family and me. Making the kitchen work is definitely worth the trouble!
Barbara Sternau is an Interior Designer with offices at 4 South Washington St., Tarrytown, NY