oak country kitchen

In the 1980’s we loved our ‘country-style kitchens’.

Typically, this is a kitchen with heavily moulded cupboards and wooden knobs, wood trimmed formica worktops and latticed glass cabinets. It is normally, accompanied by a farmhouse table and chairs. And, on the floor, terracotta tiles and tiled splashbacks (with fruit, or salt and pepper motifs).

It is: a study of oak and pine veneer, in various shades of ochre to brown.


And…. it is now the first thing people want to replace when they buy a new home.

Neither vintage or shabby chic, it just looks dull, tired, worn and ubiquitous. We want to disassociate ourselves with this look and what it might say about us.

A country-kitchen was once somebody’s idea of a dream kitchen. It was the much hailed replacement for older kitchens that were a mish-mash of suspended boxy cupboards, upright freestanding units, open wooden shelving. We embraced the hygiene, the order and styling. It was a kitchen designed to fit. A kitchen that would last us for years.

1980's country kitchen in oak with cooker

Right across suburbia the country-style kitchen became popular because it gave the house an authentic ‘timeless’ quality. The patina of the wood grain, its solidity and weight added depth and gave it presence. 

Designed as a ‘fitted’ kitchen it answered all our storage needs, fully integrating brand new technology such as microwave ovens. Our free-standing fridges  and freezers and bins all but disappeared, disguised behind cupboards. So much so that bewildered visitors had to guess the system, and what might lie behind each door. 

1980's kitchen and window

Time passes, fashions change. We look for something different, something newer, slicker and more contemporary. The country kitchen died a death: slowly, but inevitably.

We live differently now.

A kitchen today is seen as the heart of the home and designed to be a focus of family life.

We want a kitchen that has freestanding islands, granite worktops, shiny, smooth easy to clean surfaces, integrated units, sofas, TV’s, separate utility rooms and fabulous full-height glazing opening up to the garden. 

modern kitchen with island

Kitchen design has become a science, and a multi-million pound industry.

There is so much more thought and consideration given into what people want, what they do, what they store and how they actually use the space. We expect drawers to slide and glide smoothly, and soundlessly. The cupboards should open in different ways – not just sideways. Every surface needs to be easily cleaned and taps must provide multi water flow combinations – not just on and off.  

At the top end kitchen design uses highly sophisticated design inputs  and ergonomics to develop and improve functionality. But, even at the lower ( more affordable) end, kitchens use new materials and smart technology, because people have high expectations and demand bespoke gadgetry.

Estate agents know that a beautiful kitchen can be what sells a house.

We want our new kitchens to be on-trend and  modern, not passé. We want the very latest technology and ideas, and most of all, a kitchen that will be admired. We want it to be special–  because we want to feel special when using it.

Cooking has become much more of a social and family experience.

And so, the kitchen has emerged from a dark space at the back of the house to become the focus of family living. It has to incorporate children’s play areas and space for entertaining. We want a walk-through, open plan, light and airy space. Even in apartments, we have finally learned to embrace open kitchens within a loft/studio experience.

It is now acceptable to entertain guests in the kitchen – rather than a formal dining room.

An open plan designed space allows the host/hostess to be part of the action, conversation and craic. The only downside: the clean, minimalistic lines mean everything is on show which means it is not so easy to hide the panic, chaos and mess of cooking.

Frankfurt kitchen 1926 mock-up

We have Margarete Shütte-Lihotzky(1897-2000)  an Austrian  architect to thank for what is generally considered to be one of the first fitted kitchens: the Frankfurt Kitchen. In 1926 this social housing kitchen design project was  designed to be a functional, rationalised approach to space. It was a revolution in design, developed through observational studies based on how women actually worked in kitchen space.

Produced at a time when Germany suffered extreme housing shortages the applied innovation reflects an objective approach to solving problems, through ergonomically designed space. However, trained as an architect, Shutte-Lihotzky dutifully acknowledged:

I’d never run a household before designing the Frankfurt Kitchen, I’d never cooked, and had no idea about cooking’

Built specifically to lower construction costs, but also to create ‘ less work’ for the occupants, around 10,000 apartments were built with these mass-produced kitchens. Designed to be used by only one person at a time, there were criticisms that it isolated women. Also, the observational studies were considered to be overly rational, focusing on time and motion activity, rather than holistic ‘experience’. 

Kitchens are an expensive outlay. It is a big decision to rip out a kitchen so, instead, most of us will give our country kitchens a cosmetic facelift. Cupboard doors will be painted, or re-placed, and we introduce trendy new handles and new work-surfaces. It looks different, it looks better; it is essentially the same kitchen re-styled.

We want our kitchens to be comfortable but we also want what other people have. Or, at least we don’t want to feel we are the only ones who don’t have what everyone else has.

We turn to websites such as Houzzand Pinterestto find out what else is out there. Although it might just be as a fantasy, or a wishlist, this stimulates our desire to confront what we want (what we really, really want). It gets us thinking: how we could make it happen and how much it would cost.

In this respect, anyone who has ever bought and thought about a new kitchen has effectively engaged with Design Thinking:

Empathy: the ‘vaguely browsing’ stage, researching online and visits to friends’ new kitchens….considering what’s wrong with what you already have and how that could be  rectified.

Define: thinking more constructively about what you want, perhaps even dropping into a kitchen design showroom to explore options.

Ideate: working out with a designer exactly what you want, what will fit, what you can afford…exploring ideas big and small

Prototype: working with a designed layout, trying out different work surfaces, thinking about white goods and equipment, storage, sockets and lighting.

Testing: finalising decisions. Thinking about handles, colour and materials, flooring and lighting. How high? How wide? Finishes, details and how the kitchen works with the rest of the room.

In the end …. you get the kitchen that you want because you invest your time in thinking through the decision-making and problem-solving. Once you deal with the logistics, the project management, the upheaval and the makeshift meals – it will all be worth it.

You will finally have the kitchen of your dreams.

Nuala Rooney

I am designer, educator and researcher developing creative and holistic human-centred insights within the social/spatial sphere.

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