No longer banished to the back of the house, the kitchen is evolving into the social, aesthetic and technological heart of the home. By ilze hugo
If you consider your kitchen as nothing more than just a utilitarian space for food preparation, think again. That’s just one of its many hats. Nowadays, this space is a multi-purpose nerve centre of activity: think office, lounge, dining room and cooking space, all rolled into one.
Having friends over? Don’t usher them into the lounge: ‘For many years, it has been the heart of the household where the family gathers, but now the kitchen has also become the social hub of the home,’ says Richard Lurie, director at luxe Italian kitchen purveyors, EuroCasa. ‘Instead of socialising in the lounge or around the braai, friends now gather in the kitchen with a glass of wine. This has led to a noticeable progression towards designing social spaces that feature long kitchen islands and plenty of seating for guests’ comfort.’
As part of this move towards the kitchen becoming a space for entertaining, we are also seeing high-end homeowners enlisting professional or celebrity chefs to prepare meals in front of guests, says Kim Benatar from Three14 Architects, ‘so that cuisine and cooking become almost theatrical – a performing art. This can often present interesting design opportunities and an almost voyeuristic experience of the kitchen and preparation of food.’
Show it off
Another effect of the kitchen no longer being tucked away out of sight is that aesthetic has become paramount. ‘The space needs to be beautiful and engaging without compromising on functionality,’ says Lurie.
‘The kitchen now forms the anchor of most modern architectural layouts. It needs to serve all the modern demands, while still offering an element of show,’ says Philip Richards, brand director at kitchen architects, blu_line: ‘It’s becoming even more functional, ensuring all tasks are catered for through effective zone planning, internal cabinet design and a relational flow throughout the space. Due to the move towards open living, it also needs to keep pushing the boundaries in terms of aesthetic appeal (integrating seamlessly with its surrounding space while standing out as a feature).’
Finer and more exotic materials are being detailed in clever ways. Benatar notes, ‘Kitchen islands are no longer
just utilitarian solutions, but pieces of furniture or even “functional sculpture”. Lines between counter-top and under-counter joinery are blurred by using new materials, such as the engineered stone now available in slabs as thin as five millimetres, which are also suitable for joinery fronts. As islands become larger and more centrally located, there is also more opportunity for storage, and we often design double banks of storage below our islands, front-facing for dining storage and back-facing for kitchen storage.’
In line with global trends towards natural, handmade, artisanal products, the kitchen is also moving closer to nature, with earthy finishes reigning.
‘Wood is making a strong comeback. Three or four years ago a wood or wood veneer floor in a kitchen was almost unheard of, as homeowners were nervous about spillage, but technology and water-/stain-resistant properties have improved dramatically,’ Lurie explains. For cabinets, a combination between a lacquered and wood veneer finish is on trend. ‘So you’d have the island in a wood veneer and the back units in a lacquered finish.’
According to Ramón Casadó, design director and co-owner at luxury kitchen architects, bulthaup SA, they are also seeing extraordinary interest in having the interiors of cabinets, pocket doors and drawers in a veneer or solid wood, which provides a refined finish. Not only does this add warmth to the look of the space, but it means that the interiors are both beautiful and better integrated into the overall design.
Metals are also in vogue. Front of the pack at the moment is brass and bronze, says Lurie. ‘Stainless steel worksurfaces are making a comeback, along with brass splashbacks and taps.’ Metal finishes are very indulgent and dramatic, so you have to be quite careful not to overdo it. Lurie recommends marrying a metal finish
with something more understated, such as a matt-lacquered finish.
With the move to more natural-looking finishes, matt is also making a comeback: Historically, home owners wouldn’t look beyond a high-gloss finish, says Lurie. ‘But now, matt-lacquered finishes are becoming increasingly popular.’
Luxury kitchen designers are also starting to apply more interesting textural finishes to everyday materials, explains Benatar. For example, timbers are now available with sawmill finishes, where controlled machine markings uplift an otherwise standard oak finish. Granite tops are sometimes flamed for a rough, unfinished aesthetic. Counter proportions are also exaggerated – from seemingly paper-thin tops to oversized, chunky granite slabs.
‘One major trend coming out of Europe is to use more than one finish in the kitchen,’ says Lurie. ‘Whereas before, homeowners would go for all-white kitchens, now there is a move towards kitchens with a combination of finishes, for example, you could have an island in a wood veneer (like light eucalyptus or acacia) with a stainless steel unit on the wall and a dark wood finish on the base.’
For Benatar, the concept of ‘less is more’ is coming through in a lot of high-end kitchen design. Surfaces are less cluttered, and storage solutions more intelligent. Lifestyles have changed and so has our need for storage, says Lurie. ‘In years past, you would design kitchens with ample storage because mothers would do a weekly shop and need to store enough food for a week. But with better access to stores and extended shopping hours, homeowners are shopping much more regularly and no longer require three chest freezers and a walk-in fridge.
Separate front-of-house and back-of-house kitchens are still on-trend in the high-end market though.
Messy kitchen? Hide it with the pull of a door: ‘Pocket doors are becoming more popular, and we’re big fans,’ says Benatar. ‘The idea of kitchens “disappearing into walls”, and becoming kitchens only when needed is something that interests us. Pocket doors that enable everything, from sinks, ovens and hobs, to vanish behind closed panels are very efficient, particularly in smaller or multi-use spaces.’
‘Smart homes are becoming the norm, and kitchens are not excluded from this technology,’ says Benatar. ‘The kitchen quite often becomes a technological hub in a household, from which all home automation, security, network and audio-visual technologies are accessible and controllable. As more lifestyle time is spent in kitchens, little luxuries and technologies are finding their way into the space too. Access to media libraries, built-in speakers and hidden TVs on cupboard fronts are just a few.’
Other useful gadgets include infrared and electrical mechanisms used to open cupboard doors (where, for example, you touch the bin with your knee or knock on the door of the dishwasher to open it). The latest Miele coffee machine allows you to set a coffee preference and save it under your name: ‘You can save your extra-strong espresso as “John’s breakfast cup” and your wife’s skinny decaffeinated cappuccino as “Susan’s after-dinner cup”,’ suggests Lurie. This custom technology takes extra steps out of the process.
Extractor fans are getting an overhaul: ‘Nobody likes extractor fans, and with the types of views we experience in Cape Town especially, even “pretty” extractors often block the view,’ says Benatar. So fans are becoming much stronger and extractors integrated into ceilings at higher levels. Or alternatively, you can install a downdraught extractor that sits below the counter and lifts up and unfolds at the simple press of ta button.
However, Lurie warns against technology for technology’s sake: it has to be practical, sustainable, relevant, and shouldn’t date in two or three years. Having said that, technology certainly should not be ignored. Charging stations, for example, should be accounted for, but at the same time kept universal, because the technology keeps evolving. ‘For example, you can now put a device under a Corian countertop and place your smartphone on top to charge it wirelessly.’
As with all spaces in smart homes, three-prong plugs are no longer sufficient, adds Benatar. ‘We all have smartphones, tablets and a host of other USB or plug-and-play devices which we would like to plug straight into a wall. Slick electrical cover plates are scarred by hideous double and triple adaptors. Avoid this by providing ample three-prong, two-prong, Ethernet and USB wall points.’
Photography: Courtesy Images