The Ultimate Open-Plan Kitchen
A kitchen that looks integrated in a larger open plan requires attention to every detail. Here are some key ingredients
Like many homeowners, Sara Lopergolo and Ed Wood love having the kitchen in their downtown Manhattan loft open to the conversation and activity in the adjacent living areas. But one glance at the cluttered restaurant-prep-table island and the homemade plywood countertop that ran the length of the kitchen's one wall made it obvious why the cobbled-together cooking zone was the area of the home that most often made them cringe.
Of course, closing off the kitchen wasn't really an option. So Lopergolo spent years mulling over an upgrade. She always envisioned modern white cabinetry with slab doors but abandoned the idea of stainless-steel appliances when she got a look at gleaming, glass-door models from Jenn-Air. With help from This Old House magazine, she arrived at the perfect solution: a uniform row of glossy, white-lacquered cabinets set around even shinier glass-front appliances and fitted with charcoal-colored resin countertops. Not only would the reflective surfaces appear cohesive, but they would also be a sleek counterpoint to the loft's rougher-textured exposed brick and beams.
The majority of the storage would be in deep drawers, the most practical option now that the couple's daughter Chiara, 9, and son Bennett, 6, want to grab their own after-school snacks.
Read on to learn what design changes cleaned up her kitchen; what worked for her could help streamline any kitchen with an open plan.
The least fussy configuration looks the cleanest. So a straight line of cabinetry will read as less messy than an L-shape, especially if building an L means adding an interior wall that interrupts flow to the rest of the space. Although Lopergolo and Wood—who were renters when they first finished the kitchen—initially chose a one-wall setup because it was easier to power and plumb, Lopergolo has since learned that this type of layout has great benefits. It eliminates the cost of building interior walls; it keeps the space open to maximum natural light; and it enhances the kitchen's social flow. "This way, it is literally the heart of the home," she says.
Of course, limiting upper cabinets can save you money. But in lofts, where you can't mount heavy kitchen cabinets directly on crumbly old exposed bricks, and ceilings are 12 or 13 feet high, there are other reasons to resist them. Probably the biggest downside to upper cabinets is the time and labor it takes to prep the walls to hold them. In this loft, for example, the original brick wall sits 12 inches behind drywall that conceals the kitchen's pipes. The wallboard alone could not support the two 24-inch-deep cabinets Lopergolo wanted over the ovens and fridge. Before each of these—and a smaller, 12-inch-deep cabinet above the sink—could be hung, head carpenter Patrick McCormack had to cut out small sections of drywall, then screw plywood panels, or "grounds." to the back side of it in between the steel studs. The grounds reinforced the drywall, giving him something solid to which he could fasten the steel mounting cleat. "A lot of people make a big mistake relying on a string of toggle bolts to mount cabinets on drywall, and it doesn't hold," says McCormack. "But this combination holds up to 100 pounds."
Lopergolo concentrated as much storage as she could down below, in 24-inch-deep, drawer-filled base cabinets and in the new 3-by-8-foot island.
A loft's telltale industrial elements, including brick walls and cement or terrazzo flooring, make adding an unusual amount of shine, as Lopergolo did, look balanced instead of over-the-top. Next to the loft's rougher surfaces, the high-gloss, lacquered Toffini cabinetry appears refined, not slick. The manufacturer's process of heat-curing the paint after it's sprayed on and then hand-polishing the cabinet exteriors delivers a more reflective surface than enamel paint alone. Jenn-Air's Floating Glass appliances continue the lustrous look on the fridge, dishwasher, cooktop, and ovens; each is covered with a layer of translucent white glass.
Mixing warm and cool light in one area, or in a single fixture, is one way lighting designers approximate natural light indoors. That's important in this case, where the kitchen "borrows" daylight from the open plan's windowed living area. To wash the island in what she calls "balanced light"—ambient light that is bright enough to work under—Lopergolo took advantage of a pair of five-socket, drum-shaped aluminum factory fixtures salvaged from the raw loft space, filling each with two compact fluorescent and three incandescent bulbs. Their drama is offset by a simple row of dimmable halogen floodlights screwed into $4 porcelain sockets between the fixtures and the vent hoods.
As in any open kitchen, neatness counts. Here, building the island from the same glossy, white-lacquered cabinetry uncluttered the view from the dining table and front door. Beneath the sink, one drawer hides garbage and recycling bins; over the basin, the wall-mounted cabinet is made specifically to conceal a dish-drying rack and drip pan, helping to keep the highly visible countertops clear. And some streamlining came from keeping upgrades simple: Domel vent hoods, for instance, cool and recirculate cooking vapors, eliminating the need to add ductwork. Moving the cooktop to the island would have meant rerouting the power lines under the original terrazzo floor—at an additional cost of about $10,000.
Don't underestimate the power of an even plane of surfaces to polish up any kitchen. That's why Lopergolo took great pains to achieve that look in her own space. Her main reason for adding the extra-deep cabinets over the refrigerator and wall ovens was so they'd extend out enough to create an integrated look with the doors on the appliances. That meant the crew needed an extra day to build a 3-inch recess in the drywall behind the fridge, so it could be pushed back until the doors and cabinetry lined up. "People like to imagine how appliances will look head-on. But what really finishes a kitchen is how integrated everything looks from the side," says Lopergolo. Her own kitchen now presents a clean line viewed from any angle—just as she envisioned it.
Consider the needs of the individual space with final touches. Here, stainless-steel toekicks conceal the cabinets' adjustable legs, which are helpful where the floor is slightly sloped.
The original space had a cluttered restaurant-prep-table island and a homemade plywood countertop that ran the length of the kitchen's one wall.