Monday, August 15, 2005

Beating the Kitchen to Death

I warned you this room is important. Two days of me harping on it is the least worship it deserves.

Back when people were carpeting their kitchens and watching Mary Tyler Moore feed Rhoda in her apartment, there was a fetish for “Galley Kitchens.” It was the love child of the house as “a machine for living” approach to home design. If you ask me, that was simply assuming human beings were robots, and deliberately making things ugly as proof that they were more “useful.”
Well, galley kitchens were awful, and I don’t want to sit in a bean bag chair and eat fondue, with Rhoda, thanks, anyway.

Some things aren’t simple. Kitchens are complicated. People are not all identical. Simple, identical rules for kitchen design are unlikely to make even a large minority of people happy. And unfortunately, kitchen design help mostly consists of a clerk helping you to ram as many kitchen cabinets as will fit in the area you’ve got for a kitchen, and little else. And I’ve already told you- you have too many cabinets, and not enough pantry.

The idea that fewer steps between the three main work stations in the kitchen- the sink, the stove, and the refrigerator- makes the kitchen more efficient drove a design flurry of really small kitchens for a while. Then people got tired of smashing their shin on the dishwasher when they tried to get between it and the opposite counter, dodging around the refrigerator door to unload more than one item to a staging area at a time, holding five bowls of ingredients while manning the skillet because there wasn’t enough counter between the sink and the stove, or the stove and the frig, or both, and realizing that not only was their efficient kitchen too small, the designer forgot two main work areas completely: mixing, and serving.

The iron triangle of kitchen design was 21 feet total between sink, stove, and refrigerator. Period. They taught me nothing else about kitchen design at architecture school. And I ignore that, so perhaps a refund is in order. I won’t hold my breath.

As houses stated to get much bigger, and the kitchen could afford more elbow room, the idea of that 21 feet made for some really strange layouts, with a logjam in one corner, and yards of undifferentiated counters and cabinets all over the rest of the room.

Here’s what I’ve learned, watching lots of people struggle with, or enjoy, their kitchens:
-Forget the old triangle, it’s: sink, stove, microwave, refrigerator, preparation.

-The sink usually has a strainer next to it. Make a little doll that looks like your kitchen designer and shove pins in it if they claim that area counts towards counter space. Ditto any counter used to eat at. Ditto counter that gets appliances on it. If there’s stuff on it all the time, you can’t use it. You’re going to need lots of space at waist level to cook things, and you won’t find it under the dish drainer.

-If you plant the preparation area in the middle, the old triangle can expand. Take stuff out of the refrigerator, and you can place it on the prep area for use at the sink or stove. You usually do that anyway. Put the cabinet with glasses near the refrigerator, not the sink, and you’ll keep a lot of civilians out of the food preparation loop. They drink things out of the refrigerator now. Putting the glasses next to the tapwater is so, well, pre-Evian.

-The microwave has little to do with the stove. Give it its own place, as we discussed before, with room nearby, and you’ll be glad you did. Defrosted food from the microwave generally needs to be prepared further, and having it right over the stove, above eye level for many people, makes no sense. Put it in the island or something, don’t make me tell you again.

-If the counter’s not stone, put a patch of stone in whatever you’ve got for the counter, in the prep area. Good for making pastry, and double extra good for putting a hot thing from the stove, sink, or microwave down without delay, and skip looking for something to protect the counter from the heat, failing and burning yourself.

In this modern world, where we’re expected to pick over our trash like raccoons, the old paradigm of a little barrel under the sink for everything trashlike won’t cut it any more. Make easy-to-use segregated bins for however many types of trash and recyclables you need to sort, and sort them before they go in, not (ugh) after. Spend ten cents on your kitchen cabinetry and all the rest of your money on the hardware that makes the drawers and doors and slide in/out stuff work for the trash, because you’ll wear that out faster than any other thing in the kitchen, and curse the blasted thing more than any other thing that fails.

Remember the kitchen isn’t just being used for food preparation anymore. Don’t count any area that’s being used for something else domestic as food prep areas, or you’ll end up with olive oil on your kid’s homework, or butter on your television. The kitchen’s bigger because it’s not just a kitchen anymore.

-Drawers are too rare in the kitchen. In general, drawers inside cabinet doors should just be drawers. Use really nice ball bearing slides for the drawers, rated for 100 pounds, and you’ll enjoy the smooth feel of the drawer action instead of the banging around of the cabinets doors you get trying to pull out a drawer inside a cabinet with cheap nylon runners.

-If you must have wood countertops, or freestanding wood furniture instead of an island or counter, bless you, but remember to put them in the prep area, and enjoy the rich grain and color. Put it anywhere near the sink or the stove only if you enjoy the rich patina and invigorating colorations of scorch marks and mildew.

If you don’t want to make it too big, put every one of the work nodes no more than ten feet from the central work node, the preparation area. Using that arithmetic, nothing is more than twenty feet from everything else.

Set aside a place to hide in there, even if it’s just a little niche, to talk on the phone.

What’s for dinner?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good idea putting the microwave in the island.