INTERIORS – Living the kitchen dream by Barbara Chandler


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Article from FOCUS Magazine – Spring 14 issue.

Increasingly, the kitchen has become the family room, and a seamless extension of the living room itself.

A recent survey attempted to quantify what makes people happy, offering a range of choices from a rather generalised  list, including “work,” “money,” and “religion.” Such issues are notoriously difficult to reduce to numbers, if not impossible. However it was “family” that came out top – selected by 84% of respondents, as the most important contributor to their happiness. This was way ahead of “sex” (32%) or “money” (30%).

Increasingly, the kitchen has become the family room, and a seamless extension of the living room itself. Here then (in terms of interior design) is perhaps the biggest potential for happiness within your home. As more and more activities gravitate towards the kitchen, it is indeed becoming the key space for family life. This is not only where all meals are prepared, but also these days where most meals are eaten, from breakfasts (anything from a quick snack on the go to a proper cooked meal sitting at a counter top) to possibly a solo lunch to teas and suppers (maybe at different times) and even a formal dinner.

This is where homework gets done, where the family tends to congregate to “chill” – swapping news, exchanging stories and opinions, listening, advising, comforting, encouraging, arguing. The modern kitchen demands wifi, and an iPhone dock, Bluetooth connections, and a TV – it’s where modern families keep up with the world outside. On the other hand, when children are out of the way, the kitchen can be a place of solitude for adults. The kitchen is where the day starts, with the kettle for an early morning cuppa, and where it ends – maybe the kettle again for a hot water bottle.


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It’s a far cry from those first forays into the “fitted kitchen” so excitedly welcomed in the middle of the last century, where the basic components were a sink, a cooker, linking work-tops and a fridge. This most important room in the house is now infinitely more complex to design and equip. An exploding multiplicity of wants and needs must be dovetailed into a functional framework which is technically and aesthetically packed with all the exciting potential of living in the second decade of the 21st century.

The famous British kitchen designer Johnny Grey likes to talk about “the happy kitchen.” Now the owner of a busy design studio and successful in the UK and in America, Grey has been inspired all his life by his aunt, Elizabeth David, the famous cookery writer, who transformed British food in the 1950s and ‘60s with her books on Mediterranean cooking. She died in 1992. “The vision expressed in her writing was a social one. Rather than strict adherence to her recipes, she cared about the process of cooking with friends and family and the simple pleasures of making and eating food in sympathetic environments,” says Grey.

And then he shares his illuminating ideas on what makes a kitchen happy. Words spring to mind like comfortable, fun, and relaxed, he says, with furniture that feels casually placed but not too organised. “Very welcome would be signs of easy occupation, a worn leather chair, an open fireplace, fruit in bowls, utensils on shelves, the personality of the household reflected in the décor.”

Of course, the happy kitchen will not arrive all of its own accord. “You will need quietly-efficient ergonomic planning so that, for example, food preparation can be done whilst enjoying conversation. The bones of the architecture should be visible without being overwhelmed by cabinetry. Try and secure natural light, and arrange places for sitting and chatting round a table and at a counter top. Have a table washed by sunlight with a view, a sofa for relaxing, a dresser for a visual record of family life.“

Such words are inspirational, indeed, but importing the happy kitchen into your own home may take a little more hard work, and you will need some hand-holding along the way. For in reality the whole exercise of improving or replacing your kitchen is complex in the extreme – so many family demands to accommodate, so many choices to be made, inevitably all circumscribed by the space, money and even timescale available.


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This is probably the biggest buy you will ever make for your home, and the one that will most affect your daily life. You need a good kitchen designer and specialist help. Put your trust in a reputable company – they will take the strain. Ask around your friends and local acquaintances for recommendations, and/or investigate leads from newspapers and magazines. Spend as much time as you can visiting showrooms, and get to know the people that run them. Chat with    them about their background and experience in kitchen design, and  ask for references. Your kitchen specialist should probably be a  hybrid of planner, interior designer, and sociologist, with architecture, engineering and psychology on the side. Your designer will need not  only expertise and experience but empathy.

You, too, will have to give of yourself. Reveal your lifestyle, and don’t be shy. We’ve all heard about “the dream kitchen” – here is your chance to live the dream. The more secrets you can share, the better the ideas become. List what you hate about your present kitchen – it concentrates the mind wonderfully. Also note down – or tear from magazines – anything you particularly like about a kitchen you have seen.  All this provides a framework for discussion.

Obviously your budget is crucial. Explore in advance ways of raising any additional money you need – some kitchen specialists can help  with finance. Put your cards on the table right from the start. If you feel that a designer is supercilious or condescending about what you have to spend, go elsewhere. A good kitchen specialist will help you make the most of the money you have available, rather than seeking to impose extra expenditure. Indeed he or she will suggest clever ways to make your money go further. On the other hand, expect your designer to be frank about false economies. A designer may well encourage you to spend as much as you can on the “working” parts of the kitchen – the appliances, cabinet hinges, drawer runners and the taps for example. It’s important also to invest in robust surfaces for worktops and floors. A clever designer can provide clever storage at budget prices, and you can economise on wall surfaces. It helps to think about your kitchen in terms of “zones” – a buzz word with modern planners. One zone might be for cooking, another for wet tasks like washing-up, another  for storage, another for eating, for relaxing and so on. Obviously zones may overlap.

Flexible lighting is essential for the multi-purpose kitchen, as it copes with all its different functions. You will need general lighting to move around by – but it is helpful to have this on a dimmer. You will need bright lights over work surfaces and sink, that can be independently controlled. You could add perhaps a decorative pendent (or a row of them) over your countertop/bar to link it back into the living area.

Well-suited to the modern, social kitchen is the major trend  for a kitchen “island” – simply a free-standing block of storage units, topped by a work surface with   maybe a hob and/or a sink, and a table-top for eating. Such a layout means that a cook can carry out tasks whilst facing into the living space, rather than with back turned. Cooking – or washing up – facing a wall is lonely and isolating. Avoid a “slab” look to your island by adding curves and angles, mixing materials, and combining heights. Make sure an island has room for access. Leave a walkway of 1200mm all around, so two people can pass comfortably. (It’s a common mistake in kitchen design to allow insufficient space for moving around, and for using appliances.) Remember that your island will need electrical connections, and probably plumbing and maybe gas. A good kitchen designer will take care of all these points.

In the same survey mentioned at the beginning of this article, 61% of respondents also said that “nature” made them happy, along with “plants and green.” And it is the “natural” kitchen that is steadily gaining in popularity over the more clinical ultra-streamlined and fitted approach. Natural kitchens use natural materials such as wood, stone, cork and copper. Natural kitchens follow flowing organic shapes, avoiding sharp edges and right angles where possible. Natural kitchens are smooth, gentle and harmonious.

Yet, in little more than the past half century, the proportion of people living in cities has risen from a third  to over one half of the human population of our planet. So achieving nature within the home may need to be a conscious effort, since many people will not have a “natural” view, or come home surrounded by nature. Fashionable “forecasting” has fastened on “indoor farming” as a coming trend. It foretells kitchens with in-built ways to grow your own food. This is still pie in the sky, and may well never happen, unless the growing process can be simplified, compacted and freed from the mess of soil. But right now, what you can do is to link your kitchen where possible to space outside, even if only a balcony, or simply a wide sill lined with a window box filled with herbs. Inside have plants, and baskets on display with vegetables and fruits.

Well-suited to the natural look are the custom-made kitchens from British cabinetmakers, such as Smallbone, Mark Wilkinson, Molem, John Lewis  of Hungerford and Roundhouse, typically in natural solid woods or painted finishes, which can easily be revamped over the years. Or you may find a smaller local company offering a similar service. Not perhaps so flashy as their continental counterparts, such home-grown kitchens have a solid traditional appeal which does not  date, and the reassurance of a long experience of craft workmanship.  And you can add as much extra technology as you wish or can afford.

“Natural” also means being environmentally conscious and kind to the planet. There is much talk of recycled and recyclable materials. But of far greater importance is to have materials that are durable – they may well never need to be recycled. The German manufacturer Franke, for example, has a 50 year guarantee on their stainless steel kitchen sinks. And recycling your daily waste is obviously crucial, so build an efficient system of separate bins into your kitchen design. Energy- and water-saving, too, are of the utmost importance. Choose triple A-rated appliances where possible, and have taps, dishwashers and so on that are mean with water. But a good kitchen specialist will help you take care of all such design challenges.

Yet if, after reading all this, all the planning and the decisions seem a little daunting, maybe a quote from Albert Einstein, no less, can put things into perspective: “A table, a chair, a bowl of fruit and a violin; what else does a man need to be happy? ”