Thursday, 16 September 2010

Architectural Mini-Tutorial: The Sociable Kitchen

Kitchens aren’t what they used to be—not that you’d know it from the antiseptic grey and mirrored offerings in the trendy magazines and most of the kitchen showrooms. 

Kitchens are the place wherein the products of fire, light, earth and water are combined to become food; a place of experiment and sustenance.  In the modern house, the kitchen is the crucial hinge, linking family room, lounge dining room, breakfast space, BBQ area and more—and should open up to morning sun for breakfast, afternoon sun on the deck for barbecues, and mid-morning sun for coffee. Yet in this most  important space, where more money is spent per square metre than anywhere else in a house, “the kitchen industry - and kitchen designers - have to own up. The kitchens most people end up with look depressingly similar.” And dull.  And unable to really do what a kitchen should: support the essence of the kitchen

So let me tell you about a different kind of kitchen than you normally see: "The Sociable Kitchen." Not the place that Jona Lewie would always find himself in at parties, but somewhere in which you might be inspired to kick a party off.

Designer Johnny Grey talks about The Hardworking House, and he reckons in any house it’s the kitchen that’s the hardest-working room--especially with what he calls "The Sociable Kitchen."


In The Art of Kitchen Design he talks about The Sociable Kitchen as being a place like a combination of Great Hall and the Great Kitchens of yor, but much better equipped and more fun to be in. Not so much just a kitchen that you need to hide away, as a living room in which you can cook, i.e., "open plan living environments that unite social, practical functions and the outdoors in one multi-functional hub." 

_Quote My belief [ says Grey] is that the kitchen is effectively a sociable space, its origins lie in the hearth; cooking and eating are largely group or family activities; when done alone they become purely functional and provide a somewhat incomplete experience that is better for being shared."

The Sociable Kitchens Grey has pioneered are places that are pleasant in which to cook, to hang out, and to pass through—even (you might say especially) in relatively narrow or constrained spaces. akd2190-10-dunster-441x450

Here, by way of example, are three designs by his students for a Sociable Kitchen at the Obama White House.


Here’s another for a narrow three-metre space.

Jones01 Jones Kitchen 3 Jones Kitchen 2

Part of his method is that, rather than making "straight-line" kitchens that everyone will recognise as “the kitchen!”, he uses instead specialised pieces of furniture--often with curved or "soft" edges--each carefully located to perform a major kitchen function (e.g., storage, prep, serving, appliances) and linked to the scale of the space.  In a carefully designed kitchen (such as his own, in a remodelled garage), this might mean the preparation area might represent no more than 40 percent of the floor space--"the remainder being devoted to a comfortable and sociable lounging area... and integrated dining area, and a play space for our four children.  This," he says, "is typical of [our] recent divisions of kitchen space."

The concept involves something he sometimes calls “the unfitted kitchen,” especially suitable for spaces like the one shown here through which people will be moving to other related parts of the house.  Unfitted, today, means unrecognisable as a kitchen, allowing the sociability of the space to come to the fore. In Grey's designs these “unfitted kitchens” often involve a lot of curved elements (rather than straight) to reduce the visual presence of the units, and the presence of different units at different heights, from 700 right up to 950 (rather than continuous benchtops all at the same height) to help break up the normally monolithic kitchen furniture and invite people in.

By "people" he means guests as well as family. 

Using the popular Tripp Trapp chairs for children, for example, is one way to invite children in. 

And there are others.

The main thing is to embrace people rather than exclude them, something today’s traditional  straight-line fitted kitchens do poorly.

In a sociable kitchen you want lots of places to perch, and more work areas facing people than facing walls.  In the traditional galley  or U-shaped kitchens, however, this can be difficult, if not impossible.

Because as well as all the links to spaces beyond, the kitchen also needs to accommodate both the ideal work-flow of a main "inner" kitchen (i.e, storage -> prep -> sink -> cooker -> serving -> eating -> dirty dishes -> dishwashing -> crockery/cutlery storage) and the needs of the "outer" kitchen (e.g., snacks, sandwhiches, tea, coffee, cocktails) without either impinging on the other.

With Grey’s concept of the unfitted kitchen, the specialised pieces needed to do that can placed just right, needling less space and giving more delight than the normal "straight-line" kitchen layout.

As he says himself, "the science of marketing has taken over to a large extent when it comes to the design of our kitchens today," especially when it comes to the idea that size and straight-line continuous bench tops--made of the finest Italian marble--are the answer in today's kitchen.

But it doesn't have to be that way, says Gray at his blog.

_QuoteDuring the 1980s [and beyond], kitchens were created where you could not have conversations because the work surfaces faced the walls, showroom spaced, clad in plastic with shiny surfaces and matching doors. Domesticity was too old fashioned or simply too difficult to mass produce…
The focus [in designing kitchens] should be on creating spaces for living, eating, prepping and cooking. Instinct tells us everything we need to know. We want to be in a room because it feels like home.
A kitchen has simple needs: modest-sized, freestanding furniture pieces for each major function (like cooking, prepping and washing up), minimal countertops, a walk-in larder and a storage cupboard or two, a decent table, access to the outdoors and panoramic eye contact. And don’t forget about a place to make a mess, have a drink, chill out, experiment, and generally behave like you live there.
So throw out your matching units, continuous counters and matching doors with repetitive handles. You have nothing to loose but convention, and everything to gain. More space, less cost, more of you in the surroundings and less of being self consciously stylish, more playing with colour and use of vintage pieces. Enjoy discovering your inner interior designer.

And re-discovering even a tightly-constrained kitchen as a place to enjoy, rather than endure.


10013-Sketch02-Kitchen03-NE-o1 [Cross-posted at the Organon Architecture blog]


  1. I am a lazy reader so thanks for the pics. Love that round window.

  2. Tom Hunter says...

    Ah Ha! My American wife almost tore her hair out a couple of years ago during our kitchen remake, when she used the phrase "unfitted kitchen" - and encountered nothing but blank or puzzled looks from architects, kitchen "designers" and builders.

    We're fairly happy with what we ended up with - but it's still not as social as we would like since one area off to the side we designated as the homework place. Oh well, more changes in a year or two perhaps. Will use this link and Gray's site as a reference.

  3. Kitchens lost their dynamism and became sterile when fashion dictated that pots and pans and all the other batterie de cuisine stay out of sight, I think. Soon after that people didn't even want the *smell* of cooking in kitchens, what with all the extractors and range hoods that came on to market.

    Nigella Lawson talks about the dynamic, somewhat cluttered, working kitchen:

    "I've always found people speak more freely [in the kitchen] than anywhere else. Maybe it's because when you're cooking, you can talk and listen without shining the light of your attention too closely on those who may need to talk or be listened too."

    Very true, that.

  4. @Lindsay: You're welcome. But there's some good words there too. :-)

    @Tom: Great story. Well, sad story. Too many kitchen "designers" are just selling product. And anything they haven't seen before confuses them.

    @Ruth: Very true on both points. Take away what makes a kitchen lively and you take away the life of the kitchen.

    And you can see the last point again and again -- even in retail, where customers are more likely to open up to a shop assistant who's busy, and consequently NOT shining the light of their attention on everyone who walks through the door.

  5. Yes, yes, yes! My kitchen is the social hub and having kids coming and going I've set it up with couch & stereo & books & accumulated important clutter. It's the most important room for alot of life's best moments, and I don't mean my cooking.


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