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Kitchen remodel in San Francisco

An Architectural Approach to Kitchen Design

During the past decade, we have received a good deal of pragmatic advice about kitchen design from appliance and cabinet manufacturers, and from individuals in organizations like the National Kitchen and Bath Association. The reason for this surge of information is that kitchens now play a bigger role in the lifestyle of modern families. Demands have been placed on this area of the home that did not exist previously. Further, well-designed kitchens provide one of the best returns on the renovation dollar compared with other types of home improvements.

Today we do much more in kitchens than store and prepare food. They are centers of family and neighborhood life, serving as places to have casual conversations, conduct household business, arrange social events, watch TV and surf the Internet, spend time reading, and monitor children while they play. These activities often occur simultaneously with the preparation and serving of meals and snacks.

Because the kitchen is used for many different functions, exceptional kitchen design involves more than just selecting feature-laden appliances and easy-to-clean finishes, maximizing storage space, and making sure that the “work triangle” (refrigerator to sink to range) does not exceed a certain length. If the satisfaction of utilitarian needs dominates the approach to kitchen design, or if the room is treated as little more than a “food lab” or a large work area with perimeter storage and you in the middle, the resulting design may be serviceable, but will not be as pleasant a space in which to spend much time.

The creative approach that is used to make other areas in a home special and memorable is appropriate for kitchens as well. It involves:

  • the imaginative shaping of the bounding wall, floor, and ceiling planes to achieve a particular spatial feeling,

  • the abundant and artistic use of natural and artificial light to accent work areas and provide an uplifting general environment,

  • the careful selection and framing of views to adjacent rooms and outdoor areas to visually connect the kitchen with the rest of the house and its site,

  • the positioning of built-in cabinets to allow one to move easily in a space without hitting them or having one’s movement unexpectedly constricted, and

  • the selection of a group of finish materials that do not compete for visual attention, and that allow the most interesting shapes and colors of a few of the items uniquely found in kitchens (bowls of fruit, colorful plates or utensils, cookbooks, etc.) to be the design accents that give the space it’s distinctiveness relative to other rooms.

Some Design Do’s and Don’ts

As you prepare for the start of your kitchen design work, the following suggestions may be of value in helping you develop a kitchen design that will give you much satisfaction and pleasure:

  • Do place your design emphasis on creating a kitchen that is spatially striking and stimulating. Kitchens that are bright, open, and generous in volume (actual or apparent) can be delightful places in which to prepare food and have fun interacting with others while doing so. Your functional needs are the starting point for this design effort. Simply fulfilling them is not its ending point.

  • Don’t expect to find many examples of kitchen design excellence in most home design magazines available at the supermarket. Their primary raison d’être is to promote building products. Featured kitchens commonly include far too many products, styles, and colors that battle for design dominance and overpower any ambience the room may have.

  • Do consider how the kitchen will be linked to the rest of the house from both a visual and a circulation point of view, rather than thinking about the room as a stand alone space. This detached view will prevail if you continually see drawings that isolate the kitchen from the adjacent interior spaces and outdoor areas that influence its design. As is the case for other rooms, the kitchen floor plan should work with the natural circulation pattern in the rest of the house unless there is a strong design reason for it not to do so.

  • Don’t think of kitchen cabinets as fine furniture. They are storage boxes in which to place things you periodically use but do not wish to see or have in the way all of the time. Consider selecting plain or subtle door and drawer front designs, as well as colors that blend with those of adjacent walls, to reduce the visual bulk of the cabinets and direct attention to the entire room.

  • Do remember that wall cabinet storage is often added at the expense of the natural light, views, and space otherwise available at the cabinet location. This is particularly troublesome for small kitchens. The use of the architecturally valuable wall area two feet above and below eye level for storage has a significant impact on the sense of openness in the room. Question your need to provide storage space within the kitchen for seldom-used items.

  • Don’t juxtapose 21st-century appliances and cabinets that seem to be from another era. The combination usually appears odd, and efforts to completely disguise modern appliances rarely succeed.

  • Do remember that the most heavily used area of the kitchen floor will be in front and to the sides of the sink. Consider a different flooring product that is more resistant to wear and spills in this location. To maintain as much visual continuity at the floor level as possible, install the product in a limited area surrounded by, and flush with, the main flooring material in the kitchen.

  • Don’t use sharp countertop corners along frequently traveled circulation paths. At some future point, when you are rushing around, you will be impaled — guaranteed!

Your kitchen may be modest in size, but its design can still be special. An architectural approach to kitchen design requires more technical knowledge and spatial design skill than does a decorative approach. However, your design options will be greater and more dramatic. You may be surprised at how much you enjoy being in an engaging architectural space that just happens to be your very own kitchen.

John McLean, Architect
San Francisco
(415) 777-9767