Design philosophies come and go. Big cars with fins were replaced by small cars with good gas mileage. Then came the SUV. Then the hybrid. In the kitchen design industry we grew up with the kitchen triangle. As appliance companies created more and better choices, the single triangle became two triangles. As the needs of the American family changed we shifted into zones. A prep zone, a baking zone, a cooking zone, a home-work zoneas many zones as the kitchen has activities. That was the first step toward thinking outside the box to improve function. However, the zone and triangle philosophies ultimately fail because they are arbitraryignorant of the home they are in and the family they need to serve.
Design needs to begin by focusing on cooking. Cooking is a process, not an activity, so it requires a design system based on concepts like volume, expansion and compression, fluidity, and frequency. This is the new language of kitchen design. It enables the designer to see the kitchen as a whole system with component parts that must be made to work togethernot placed haphazardly based on the convenience of the cabinet manufacturer.
The kitchen system consists of the related sub-systems of storage (including refrigeration), food preparation, clean-up, cooking and baking. Understanding the relationship between the subsystems is a fundamental responsibility of a kitchen designer and it comes from understanding the requirements of the space. When kitchen designers sit down with a new client, the first space they should visit is not the kitchen, but the dining room because the core concept a designer must understand is volume. Volume of people, volume of meals, volume of workthese are all based on the number of seats in the dining room. Shopping, cooking, and cleaning up for four people are a very different task than it is for eight or ten or twelve. It requires different appliances and often, different layouts. Remember, the house itself can be thought of as a client so the kitchen and dining room must be in balance. Here is where many kitchen designers begin to object, saying Its a family of four. They will only have people over on the holidays. Holiday cooking doesnt count because they have time to cook all day. Since when has good design been based on satisfying minimum requirements? Perhaps these families entertain less than they like because their dysfunctional kitchens prevent them from cooking large meals comfortably and enjoyably.
The other objection we encounter from designers is, Dont worry about it, they dont cook anyway. This is simply not true. Eighty-two percent of Americans cook at home four or more times per week. Forty-nine percent make meals from scratch on a regular basis (TIME Magazine, 2002). Even more fundamental, The Food Network is watched in Prime Time in over 800,000 households. Thats a lot of families who want to watch cooking shows instead of Prime Time TV. American families may cook less often during the week but many of them cook for fun on weekends. And that brings us back to volume: the most important factor to consider before you begin to design a kitchen is the volume of people the kitchen will need to serve, not just on a daily basis but also when entertaining.
Just as a functional kitchen will allow the cook to make a sit-down dinner for ten with ease (expansion), it should also work when cooking for one (compression). This kind of expansion and compression creates a flexible space where the cook manipulates the environment, instead of the kitchen manipulating the cook. Many large kitchens are actually harder to use than small kitchens because they lack this kind of fluid, adjustable workspace.
What makes a kitchen able to work for one or two people as well as large groups? Different types of storage are one factor. Walk-in pantries are wonderful for storing low-frequency items bought at Costco or the ice cream maker that gets used once a year. If the cook must go to the pantry to retrieve pasta or chicken broth or other items used on a daily or even weekly basis, then having only a walk-in-pantry begins to work against him or her. The additional steps make the cooking and clean-up processes longer than they need to be. High frequency itemsbe they food products, pots or serving dishesmust be stored within close range of the cooks primary work center. That work center is the heart of the kitchen. With minimal walking, the cook should be able to move from the refrigerator and high-frequency pantry to the food preparation area. The individual space will determine what these distances can be and it is critical to be aware of prioritiesit is more important to have continuous counterspace next to the prep sink than to have the shortest possible walk to the fridge. Optimal kitchen layouts allow the cook to move something from the prep area to the cooking area (and back again) simply by turning around. All of these recommendations depend upon the specific space and the people who live therethey should be viewed as goals, rather than guidelines.
In kitchen design, fluidity is defined as the unobstructed movement of people, food, and tools from one subsystem to another. Some designers place wall ovens like an afterthoughtin the corner after everything else has found a home. Unfortunately, many recipes call for certain dishes to move from the cooktop into the oven (or vice versa) at some point in the cooking process. The kitchen then becomes an obstacle course with hot, heavy pans careening from one end to the other. This is just one example of how poor flow impacts the cooks ability to prepare meals.
Another very common problem is that dishes, dirtied in the cooking process or coming from the table, move through the cooks work area. This is especially problematic in kitchens that have only one sink. Its difficult to wash lettuce, drain pasta, or add water to dough if the sink is already full of dirty dishes, pots and pans. When designing kitchens with separate clean-up and preparation sinks, the dirty dishes should go the clean-up area without getting tangled in the cooks work center. It is a widespread belief in the design industry that only large kitchens deserve multiple sink stations. This assumption is faultywe have successfully designed many kitchens less than 100 square feet and the addition of a prep sink has transformed a constricted space into a convenient workstation. That simple change can improve the flow of a kitchen so much that it doubles the utility of the kitchen without enlarging the footprint. More importantly, it allows two people to work in the kitchen with ease. When considering flow patterns, the individual family and their space are of paramount concern. Many kitchens force children to walk through the cooks path to get a glass of juice or a snacktroublesome for many parents but not so critical for a couple with an empty nest.The last pillar of kitchen design is frequency. Weve touched on it already because it is of vital concern in any kitchen design. Understanding frequency-of-use enables the designer and the consumer to make the most of their space, their budget, and improve their quality of life. In the storage subsystem, place frequently used items near where they will be used most often: pots and pans near the cooktop, cookie sheets near the oven, cutting boards near the food prep area and so on. While this seems obvious, many kitchens ignore the principal. For example, when a clean-up area (or the kitchens only sink station) is put on an island, it usually requires clean dishes be carried from the dishwasher to a wall cabinetwhich could be many steps away.
Frequency is also important when it comes to placing appliances. For example, many kitchens have cooktops on an island because the designer or consumer assumes this will make the kitchen more social. They imagine lovely conversations held with family and friends while preparing a meal. Unfortunately, most of the work done on the cooktop is unattended: put the pot on the burner, turn it on and turn back to the prep area. Food preparation takes more time than any other activity in the kitchen. Given the choice, it is usually much more social to place the prep sink on the island.
Another common assumption in the design industry is that the clean-up sink must be placed under a window. In reality, washing dishes takes far less time than food preparation or cooking. Since most dishes are generated at dinnertime, is it really so important to be near a window for a short amount of time and in the dark?
Designers are exceptional, creative people. They are enormously talented when it comes to designing kitchens with forward-thinking outside the box aesthetics. Unfortunately, when it comes to the function of a kitchen, outside the box design fails because whats inside the boxthe design strategy of triangles or zonesis unrelated to the process of cooking. These incomplete design philosophies engender beautiful, dysfunctional kitchens that ultimately serve no purpose to anyone. The homeowners lose much of their initial satisfaction as frustration overwhelms beauty. Consequently, the designer loses repeat and referral clientssomething most showrooms and independent designers agree is critical for long-term success. As designers, it is our responsibility to educate ourselves about the cooking process so that we can give our clients a truly completebeautiful and functionalend result. Its not just good for our clients, its good for our business and the reputation of our industry.
Mr. Silvers is the author of Kitchen Design with Cooking in Mind and co-author, with Moorea Hoffman, of Kitchen Appliances 101: What Works, What Doesnt and Why.