Design isn’t about going shopping or making choices between several readily available alternatives — instead, a fundamental constant of good design is rethinking from first principles. So often I hear of people who are ‘designing’ a kitchen, when what they actually mean is selecting finishes, door fronts and a layout.
It is staggering how boringly predictable the kitchen is. In almost every house in this country, whatever the provenance, one could pretty much predict that it features a fitted kitchen, with 40mm-thick laminate-topped bullnosed worktops, 62x900mm melamine-faced chipboard units at 600 centres. The desperate and terrible tyranny of normalisation has such a stranglehold here that one almost never sees any alternative to this.
What is the point of building a house if it is going to be just like every other out there? When did the fitted kitchen become so utterly ubiquitous? How, too, did this happen so quickly? Up until about 1950, no one had fitted kitchens, as such, but around this time we took inspiration from our American cousins and haven’t looked back.
The Curse of the Fitted Kitchen
There are several problems with the fitted kitchen, but the main problem is the culture around them that prohibits thinking of other alternatives. The fitted kitchen that is usually on offer is mean, badly made and expensive. With this, they are typically banal pieces of design and construction that prohibit the use of space and material in an inventive, appropriate and original way.
More than any other domestic space, the kitchen has changed radically in recent years. It is almost always the heart of a home — it is where we gather as a family, with friends, hold impromptu meetings, do our homework, make Play-Doh and artwork… the list goes on.
The main point, though, of a kitchen is food production — it is the engine room of the house and, as such, needs to work effectively. With this, it is the primary social space of a house — and thus, in part, the kitchen needs to act as a stage set for the communal social theatre of food preparation and sharing.
Any kitchen that is built-in and faces away from the room often gets my thumbs down. I like to cook, wash up and prepare food while looking into a room, not away from it. With this, I crave generosity of surfaces in kitchens — even if it is an illusion.
My own kitchen cost £1,000 which was all we had left over at the end of the build, and we put a kitchen in knowing it could be upgraded at any time. It is effectively a single island that is a modest 3×1.1m, where cooking, food preparation and washing up takes place. It looks into the room, and is deep enough for people to sit and linger around it.
It is positioned next to two large sliding doors so that there is a sense of cooking outside on sunny days, and behind the kitchen is a wall of cupboards that conceal fridges, food and crockery storage. And it is made from off-the-peg, cheap products that have been subtly customised, such as standard wood block worktops, doubled up so as to be extra chunky and with the awful bullnoses taken off.
‘High End’ Kitchens
This layout and principle is one I’ve used a good deal in the past, because it works so well. Even in the most expensive kitchen I’ve done, at Starfall Farm, which was an embarrassingly high £3,500, we used a layout not dissimilar to this.
The difference at Starfall, however, was that the worktop was 90mm-thick, in-situ cast concrete, which is my favourite worktop material as it has such a subtle and rich colour that gets better with age. We tendered the worktop, and the lowest price we had was £18,000. So, we instead had a small local builder make the shuttering for the top, mix and pour the concrete with all the correct apertures for electrics, taps, sink and stove, for £1,100.
I popped in on my way home from the office to trowel the concrete as it was going off, and in my mind the finished result was far better than an elaborately polished £18,000 worktop, and embodies the spirit of potential for the homemade alternative.
The cast-concrete top – measuring approximately 4×1.1m – was then infilled with deep plywood drawers and cupboards. Behind this, there’s a full-height wall of purpose-built plywood cupboards with all the kitchen paraphernalia. The kitchen is beautiful, cost effective and robust — it can’t and won’t fall apart and won’t ever need updating. There’s all sorts of variants of this — we are currently doing a 7m-long, freestanding, free-form one for a house in Norfolk.
The Open Kitchen
My other favourite typology of a kitchen is the ‘open’ kitchen where everything is displayed — one where there are no cupboards at all. Since when did we all assume that everything needs to be hidden away? Plates, crockery, pans and jars are all nice to look at, so why not display them — much like we did for generations before the last 30 or 40 years.
Again, there’s all sorts of variants of this — one of the first kitchens we did had lacquered turquoise and lime green panels behind the crockery, which looked fantastic, and no one could believe the kitchen didn’t cost £25,000.
I’ve seen white-painted concrete blocks as worktop supports which look great too, and we’ve often just used chunky, sawn timber for the top with simple open shelves above and below for all the gubbins, with big hooks for all the pans. The best kitchens are very lived in, and not concealing everything behind closed doors contributes well to the atmosphere of conviviality.
I’ve seen a lot of improvised kitchens like this over the years, and I love that they often debunk the myth that we need lots of expensive and cumbersome chipboard carcassing to hide all the interesting and beautiful stuff. The best one of all that I’ve seen used is scaffolding poles for the structure and timber off-cuts for the shelves.
The Freestanding Pod Kitchen
Finally, however, my absolute favourite kitchen is the freestanding pod, where everything is contained in one single bit of furniture, and works best when colourful and quirky. I have seen a few that are movable, which is a great way to make smaller spaces more flexible as they can be pushed out of the way when not in use, or alternatively pulled centre stage.
If there’s a couple of golden rules though, and you’re forced to use standard cupboards, at least make some part of it non-standard, be it doubling up the worktop top edge, or making it a little deeper, or not having over-counter cupboards — anything, where possible, to avoid defaulting to the norm and the expected.
Kitchen Design Top Tips:
- Built-in units often mean you are facing the walls while working, so intead, bring preparation areas away from the walls so that you are facing into the room. An island could be one way to achieve this.
- You don’t have to spend a lot of money —cheap off-the-peg units can be customised to suit your design and needs.> Look at cheap and commonly found building materials in another way. Plywood can make beautiful cupboards and cast-concrete lends itself well to worktops.
- Be proud of your dinnerware — if something looks good, why hide it away in costly cupboards?
- Embrace the versatility of freestanding kitchen furniture.