oak country kitchen

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

This is typically a kitchen with heavily moulded cupboards and wooden knobs, wood trimmed formica worktops and latticed glass cabinets.

To complete the look 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 in oak and pine veneer, in various shades of ochre to burnt umber.

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

That it because it is neither vintage or shabby chic. It just looks dull, tired, worn and ubiquitous.

A design look that has had its day.

1980's country kitchen in oak with cooker

Once someone’s dream kitchen, this was a kitchen designed to order and a style suited to family life.

Across suburbia the country-style kitchen became very popular. It gave a house an authentic ‘timeless’ quality. The patina of the wood grain, solidity and weight added depth and 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 integrated 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.

Today, a kitchen today is seen as the heart of the home. It is designed to be the focus of family life.

We want a ‘dream kitchen’ with an island, granite worktops, shiny, smooth easy to clean surfaces and fully integrated units.

The kitchen is no longer a space just to cook, it is also a place for leisure.

In the kitchen we now have sofas, TV’s, separated utility rooms and a visual connection to the space outside.

modern kitchen with island

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

This a designed space with the utmost 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 still use new materials and smart technology.

That is because people have high expectations for the kitchens 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 with all the very latest technology. But, more than just how it looks, we also want to enjoy the space and to feel good when we use it – because everything works well.

The kitchen has become a more social space.

It has emerged from being 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.

In apartments, we have finally learned to embrace open kitchens within a loft/studio experience.

The rise in the open plan kitchen is the death of the formal dining room.

But, it means the cook can be part of the conversation – rather than hidden away.

The only downside is that with everything on show it is not so easy to hide the panic, chaos and mess of cooking.

Frankfurt kitchen 1926 mock-up

The Frankfurt Kitchen is generally considered to be one of the first fitted kitchens.

For this, we have to thank the Austrian architect  Margarete Shütte-Lihotzky(1897-2000).

In 1926 this social housing kitchen design project was  designed to be a functional, rationalised approach to space. Developed through observational studies based on how women actually worked in kitchen space, it was a revolution in design.

Produced at a time when Germany suffered housing shortages this innovation reflects an objective approach to solving real problems as an ergonomically designed space.

Around 10,000 apartments were built with these mass-produced kitchens.

The Frankfurt Kitchen was built specifically to lower construction costs and also to create ‘ less work’ for the occupants.

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 a holistic ‘experience’. 

A new kitchens is an expensive outlay.

Instead, most of us will opt to give our country kitchens a cosmetic facelift. Cupboard doors will be painted, or re-placed. We introduce trendy new handles and new work-surfaces.

It looks different, but it is essentially the same kitchen re-styled.

Design Thinking

Anyone who has put in a new kitchen has effectively engaged with Design Thinking:

Empathy: The ‘vaguely browsing’ stage. Researching online and visiting friends’ new kitchens. This stage is about 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 see and explore different options.

Ideate: Working out with a designer exactly what you want, what will fit, what you can afford. Expanding ideas big and small to reach a compromise – of sorts.

Prototype: Working towards 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 space.

In the end you get the kitchen that you want only because you are prepared to invest your time in thinking it through. You make decisions and confront problems.

Once you deal with the logistics, the project management, the upheaval and the makeshift meals – it will all be worthwhile.

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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