Whether you're planning a new kitchen from scratch or just making a few improvements, here's how a design pro navigates the choices—with ideas that can work at your house, too
Somewhere between The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Sopranos, the American kitchen stopped being some faraway room offstage, from which casseroles miraculously appeared, and became the family hangout. Like Tony and Carmela's great-room cooking space, today's kitchen is where everybody ends up—to sit down for dinner, scrounge up a snack, stare at the TV, tear open the mail, and generally take care of family business (minus the guns, wiretaps, and screaming matches, we hope).
It's not the first time the kitchen has taken center stage in our homes. In the 19th century, in houses without servants, it was the primary gathering place because of the cooking hearth, says social historian Merritt Ierley, who has traced the evolution of modern conveniences in The Comforts of Home. "The kitchen was the warmest room in the house, and sometimes the only warm room," he says. This Old House TV's current project house, an 1849 farmstead in Carlisle, Massachusetts, once had a similar sort of kitchen, with a potbellied stove—modern for its time—in the middle of the room.
Future owners of the Carlisle house won't need to warm their hands over an open fire, but they will enjoy a kitchen that's once again a nexus of family life. As envisioned by the TOH team and designer Kathy Marshall, who has created over 100 dream kitchens for clients in the last 10 years, the Carlisle kitchen offers all the elements 21st-century homeowners want. "The challenge was to create a kitchen for today's lifestyle that still feels warm and cozy," says Marshall.
Who wouldn't want a piece of that? Here's a look at the smart choices they made—and how they can apply in the hub of your own home.
The All-Important Work Triangle
Sizes & Spacing
Getting the dimensions of—and distances between—counters, cabinets, and fixtures right is crucial for comfort and utility. Too small or too close together, and the space feels cramped; too big or too far apart, and it becomes hard to work efficiently or ergonomically.
There's at least 42 to 48 inches between counters or banks of cabinets that face each other (or an appliance) to provide comfortable clearance. These countertops are a standard 36 inches high, but if a homeowner expects to stay in a house for a long time, it's worth customizing their height for someone taller or shorter than average (say, over 6 feet 1 inch or under 5 feet 3 inches tall). The usual countertop depth of 25 inches makes efficient use of the work surface. The lower island countertop is 30 inches deep to accommodate a farmhouse sink, with 24 inches of work space on either side of it. The raised breakfast bar is 12 1/2 inches deep, a minimum to accommodate full-size plates. The flushmount sink gives the surrounding countertop a seamless look; the basin should be no more than 11 inches deep to be easy on your back. For an undermount, 9 inches is a good max (allowing for a 2-inch-deep counter).
Appliances & Amenities
These are a big consideration early in the design process: reconciling what's on your wish list with what will work in your space. A kitchen outfitted with more than the basics is not only a dream for entertaining, it makes daily meal prep a lot more fun. This wireless, flat-panel TV is portable, handy for watching cooking shows while preparing a meal—or keeping the kids occupied while you fix their dinner. A side-by-side refrigerator minimizes bending, so it's easier on your back. This one's a generous 48 inches wide—great for storing giant containers and food platters for parties. With a more standard 36-inch model, go for one with the freezer on the bottom. Place it near eating areas to make repeat trips easier. In a kitchen that is open to a seating area, as here, an extra-quiet dishwasher with a stainless steel interior minimizes noise. (Stainless steel is also less likely than plastic to discolor from hard water.) It's placed next to the sink for convenient cleanup.
To make baking and cooking for a crowd easier, there's an electric wall oven, a warming drawer, and a microwave centralized in one location. A range should be sized to meet a household's needs at full capacity. This six-burner, 36-inch-wide model can more than handle everyday cooking as well as entertaining. A dual-fuel range like this one delivers the fine control of a gas cooktop with the even baking temperatures of an electric oven. An oversized 48-inch hood was specified to handle the heat from this powerhouse range—and create a better visual balance than one matched to its 36-inch width. Two garbage and recycling bins pull out next to the sink. Intended to serve a family of four, each has 35-quart capacity.
Any kitchen should have three types of lighting: ambient, which provides even illumination throughout the room; task, which brightens work surfaces; and accent, which decorates and highlights an area. Low-voltage cable lighting is the best ambient option with this space's vaulted ceiling. It is also easy to adjust. Sconces mark the entry to the home office and, placed at eye level, help bring the high ceiling down to a more intimate scale. Low-voltage strip lights are positioned near the front edge of the upper cabinets, which allows the light to wash over the backsplash. All ambient and accent light sources can be dimmed for entertaining.
It goes without saying, you can never have enough. Luckily, today's wider range of cabinet sizes makes it easier to exploit every nook and cranny. The thin spaces on either side of the stove are ideal for narrow base cabinets with slide-out spice racks, or dividers to hold baking sheets. Utensil drawers are easy to reach directly under food prep areas. Upper cabinets in this plan are 13-inches-deep (rather than the standard 12) to better accommodate today's larger dinnerware. A cabinet in the wide, hard-to-reach area above the fridge holds big platters and trays. It has a flip-up door with a safety hinge to hold it open. A separate pantry with open shelving is ideal for storing bulk dry goods and canned goods, infrequently used serving pieces and appliances, and extra china and glassware.
Materials & Finish
The kitchen surface materials shown here were chosen to withstand heavy use but also look good enough for company. Natural stone countertops (these are low-maintenance granite) are durable and resist scratches and burns. The wood flooring used in the rest of the house (Brazilian cherry) is continued in the kitchen, as it would have been in the 19th century, but here it has radiant heat underneath. The engineered-wood strips have a factory-applied finish that comes with a 25-year warranty; it will protect against scuffs, scratches, and moisture, and make cleanup a lot easier. Area rugs placed in high-traffic spots, like in front of the sink, will help reduce wear. The colors of the countertops and floor are designed to complement each other. The island's mahogany raised counter is stained to match the floor. Ceramic tile used on the backsplash is easy to keep clean. The painted cabinets are kiln-dried maple, with a factory-applied, baked-on finish that's 3-mm-thick. The porcelain farmhouse-style sink looks appropriate with the traditional, flat-panel cabinets.
The All-Important Work Triangle
It's Kitchen Design 101: Arrange food prep and clean-up areas in easy-to-navigate groups of three for comfortable and efficient work flow. The most common grouping is sink-stove-refrigerator. In the Carlisle kitchen, there are a number of additional, specialized work zones, including:
Microwave, island counter, dishwasher — for casual meals.
Refrigerator, sink/dishwasher, snack-prep counter — for afternoon snacks.
Oven/warming drawer, range, sink — for informal entertaining.
Where to Find It
Jeremiah Eck Architects Inc.
Kathy Marshall, CKD
K. Marshall Design Inc.
Lorna Aho, CKD
Art By The Square Foot Inc.
Plain & Fancy Custom Cabinetry
The Cabinetry Kitchen Design Studio
Culinaire Pull Down
London Farm Sink Model # 35020
Huntington Beach, CA
Huntington Beach, CA
Walker Creek Furniture
Hardwood engineered flooring:
Flat-screen wireless TV:
Sharp Electronics Corp
Audio/visual home entertainment:
author of The Comforts of Home: The American House and the Evolution of Modern Convenience, Three Rivers Press, and Open House: A Guided Tour of The American Home ,Henry Holt and Company