For decades, kitchens have been centered around the work triangle: the relationship between the refrigerator, stove and sink. But while that basic principle still applies, it’s taken on new life in the modern kitchen—one that’s bigger, more open to the rest of the home, and asked to do a whole lot more than just prepare meals. The new golden rule? The zone.
“Kitchens should be set up to feel as intuitively laid out as a supermarket—everything should be corralled into broad categories,” says organizing expert Shira Gill. “Each category should have a clearly designated ‘home’ within the space based on frequency of use, with daily use items set up at arms reach.” That means storage for pots, pans and cooking utensils are clustered near the oven or cooktop; cleaning supplies and garbage bags are stashed under the sink; food storage containers live next to the refrigerator; and daily dishes and glassware cluster near the dishwasher for easy unloading.
It sounds obvious at first—but mapping out a space that truly delivers ease and efficiency takes real planning. When strategizing your kitchen layout, designer Brynn Olson recommends writing down routines and what dishes you make most often, then identifying the appliances that will make your life easier as you do it. “Do you make enough soups and pastas to require a pot filler? Do you steam veggies multiple times a week or reheat leftovers often? If so, a wall unit or in-counter steamer could be the perfect fit for you,” she explains. “Once you have these lists, your layout strategy will come easily.”
Changing architectural practices (though kitchens are getting bigger, open-concept plans give designers two walls, not four, to address a homeowner’s storage needs), endless choice (a host of “essential” new appliances—from sous vides to ice makers—are now competing for space), and an increasing desire to make the kitchen the social hub of the home have combined to make kitchen design a little more complicated. For the pros, unspooling a client’s needs and desires starts with the basics. “I ask, ‘How do you make spaghetti?’ Let’s talk through it,” says designer Arianne Bellizaire. That conversation guides the layout of the space and the way it will function, but also ultimately seeks to unearth how the client wants to feel in the kitchen, too.
Pick Your Priorities
Instead of triangulating the fridge, stove and sink, start thinking in zones: food storage, food prep, cooking and cleaning. For each space, figure out what you need close at hand—whether that’s knives near your prep station, storage containers near the refrigerator for leftovers, or pots and pans near the stove. Proximity is everything. “The range is still the workhorse, and it should be close to the sink so that you don’t ever have something in your hand and aren’t able to wash it,” says designer Kelly Finley of Joy Street Design. (She also recommends pull-out drawers nearby to house cooking utensils so that you can ditch the grease-collecting canister of spatulas, spoons and rubber scrapers on your countertop.) Other adjacencies that pack a punch: a drawer outfitted with a knife tray near your prep station, ample counter space on either side of the cooktop, and spices closest to the prep area—where you actually use them—rather than the stove. And if you do opt for spices by the range, plan carefully: “No one wants to put their head by a spattering pan as they bend down to look for paprika,” cautions Finley.
Streamline Your Storage
For designer Arianne Bellizaire, creating a high-functioning kitchen starts with a client’s grocery run: “When you get your groceries or have them delivered, where do they enter?” she asks. “When you bring the food into the house, do you have a drop zone for all of those bags? From there, where are you storing the food, and do we need a walk-in pantry or a reach-in cabinet pantry?” Her goal: create a seamless transition from the initial landing zone to food storage to prep. Square footage alone may preclude a walk-in pantry in some homes, but you can often achieve the same impact with tall pantry cabinets with pull-out drawers. If you’re still kicking it with vintage cabinetry, you might find it hard to believe, but designers say you can fit everything you’ve got and more into the same footprint with a modern model. “They’re much more efficient and you don’t lose stuff in them,” says Finley, whose Bay Area clients typically don’t have space for a room devoted to storage. “Having a pullout drawer when you’ve only had shelves, or a kidney-shaped lazy susan when you’ve only had a round one—you’re able to take advantage of existing space.” Plus, you’ll find 2 to 3 inches of extra storage in each module by upgrading to frameless cabinetry. In a small kitchen, those little inches can go a long way.
Get in the Zone
Coffee stations, wine centers and entertaining spaces are other examples of new functions we’re bringing into our (larger than ever) kitchens, which are all being given their own spaces to ensure no one’s criss-crossing with the cook. An ancillary mini-fridge or refrigerated drawer for kid-friendly drinks and snacks, for example, keeps them out from underfoot. And, as Jim Dove advises, especially if you’re an entertainer or have kids of different ages, “you can always use an extra oven, whether it’s a steam oven or a microwave convection oven. You can never have too many ovens.”
And even if you don’t have room for, say, a designated baking area, there are ways to carve out small zones for your favorite activities—Finley recently designed a marble-topped baker’s cart that can be rolled out as needed but tucked away when not in use. A “zone” can also be an appliance garage—cabinetry that extends down to your countertop, which conveniently houses the tools you use the most (whether that’s the milk frother or your Vitamix) while keeping them tucked out of view.
Go With the Flow
How a kitchen functions is of paramount importance—but so is how you experience it. “I’m always aware of sight lines, and of how the kitchen connects to a space where someone might be observing the cook, working from home or doing homework,” says Bellizaire. Finley goes to great lengths to ensure a client’s view from the dining table never includes the working parts of the kitchen. (“When you have a dinner party, you don’t want to look back and see the mess you made,” she says.) Traffic flow is also crucial—minimizing the steps between zones and ensuring that they allow for uninterrupted function. In larger kitchens, that might mean duplicating some elements to create comprehensive work areas: an island with a large cleaning sink, for example, and another with a smaller bar sink that’s geared towards socializing. “If there’s a chance for multiple ‘cooks in the kitchen,’ I try to design different stations that don’t overlap so everyone has space to prep, cook and clean,” says designer Alison Giese. But having enough space to flow is important, too. “It’s so important for doors to swing, cabinets to open and counter stools to back up without blocking passageways or hitting something else in the room,” says John McDonald, founder of the online cabinetry company BOXI by Semihandmade. “If you don’t have room for an island in the center of your kitchen with ample clearance all around it, opt for an alternate plan.”
Make Space for Connection
The kitchen has truly become the heart of the home—and a new function that’s just as important as cooking is the socializing that’s taking place there. “Clients say, ‘I want to connect with my kids while they’re doing homework,’ or, ‘I want to talk to my spouse as I’m preparing dinner,’” says Bellizaire. Sometimes, designers are tasked with creating a social space within the kitchen itself; in other cases, the kitchen opens to an adjacent family room or sitting area. Either way, that quest for connection can pose some interesting design challenges. Do you want to face the window when you’re standing at your sink, or would you prefer to face the sitting area and the TV? (If it’s the latter, the plumbing needs to be in an island.) When you are cooking, are you OK with your back being to the room, which means the range can be on the wall, or do you want to be looking at your family or guests? “When I’m having those conversations, I’m including the experience, not just the function,” says Bellizaire. “For example, if the client loves to entertain and to be part of the action, where I put the prep space is going to be driven by how they like to experience the cooking.”
Wash up Wisely
Scrape, rinse, drop—it’s the cleanup formula that necessitates that the dishwasher and a pull-out trash flank the sink. (It’s so universal that some designers will do it twice: “When we design kitchens with two sinks, we often add a secondary trash and dishwasher location, as well,” says designer Heidi Lachapelle.) Even in the wash zone, there’s plenty of room for customization and maximized efficiency. “If you have an ‘I cook, you clean’ partnership, then I’m looking at the cleaning person to say, ‘Are you right-handed or left-handed?” says Bellizaire. “If you’re right-handed, I’m putting the garbage drawer on the left and the dishwasher on your right when you’re at the sink. I’m also putting plates, cups and bowls near the dishwasher so you’re not walking to get to where you store those items.”
Consider What’s Behind Closed Doors
“Most people believe that to get the most out of their kitchen, they need it to be filled with as many cabinets as possible,” says Giese. In practice, designers say more cabinets doesn’t necessarily mean a more functional kitchen—what really matters is what kind of storage you have. “You won’t want to lift a KitchenAid mixer from the depths of a deep cabinet, or from way above your head,” adds Giese. “Keeping everyday items at about eye level makes life more simple in the kitchen.”
Instead of going the more is more route when it comes to storage, Lachapelle itemizes the contents of her clients’ kitchens, then designs so that everything has a home. “We label where everything belongs in the plans—silverware, cutting boards, spices, you name it,” she says. “The first step to having a well-organized kitchen is a roadmap for putting things away. If there’s a place for everything, then it’s easier to keep clean.” (One thing she always makes room for: vertical storage. “It’s often overlooked,” she says, “but it’s important to have space for a broom or vacuum, aprons—and a step stool if you’ve got cabinetry to the ceiling!”)
Oversized items like bulky appliances, roasting pans and sheet trays can be among the most difficult to store. But with Lachapelle’s carefully measured model, each has a custom-sized home that’s been customized to meet the clients’ needs. If there’s room, Gill recommends an appliance closet with a charging station; Olson encourages clients to tuck all countertop appliances behind doors for a clean look. “That’s the importance of a designated pantry,” says Lachapelle. “We always encourage this when working on new construction homes, as it helps the overall balance of a kitchen. We are able to create a beautiful design moment while keeping all the clutter tucked away and organized in an adjacent location.”
Even if a walk-in pantry isn’t in the cards, using more drawers than doors will deliver more usable space. “There are a ton of great kitchen accessories that you can put into your cabinetry to give you such a better experience—everything from the way you organize your utensils to peg systems for bowls and plates, which we use to store in drawers at our house,” says Bellizaire. “The big key to me is, if you’re going to pay for the cabinetry, use every inch of it! Accessories help you do that.” Simple upgrades like drawer dividers can transform the way you use your space; similarly, the right vertical dividers for baking trays or serving platters can be a storage game-changer. Finley, who hates the look of most knife blocks on the countertop, advocates for bamboo trays to store knives in drawers in the food prep zone. “I often tell folks there is a difference between cabinet space and useful storage,” says Danny Soos, co-founder of made-to-order cabinetry brand FORM Kitchens. “If the budget allows, you can configure the cabinetry to make the most of the space available—and to make the kitchen more intuitive to use, too.”
Just make sure it’s a premeditated purchase: “One of the most common mistakes we see people make is rushing out to buy organizing products before taking the time to take inventory of the items they are trying to contain and measuring their space based on the categories of those items,” says Ashley Murphy, the co-founder of the NEAT Method.
Sometimes, it’s the smallest fixes that can have the most dramatic impact—like finding a sensible place to stash your paper towels. “If our client’s sink is on the perimeter of the kitchen and upper cabinets are right next to the sink, we like to keep the underside of the closest cabinet open and place paper towels inside so that there is easy access,” says Olson. “If our client’s sink is on an island, we often build a cubby on the face of the island’s millwork just next to the sink so no one has to open cabinets with wet hands to get to the paper towels.”
The best designers won’t overlook even the most underrated of spaces: “Make sure to go through and edit the items under your kitchen sink,” advises Murphy. “We often find that clients have items stored under there that they have not used in years or that can be moved to another area of the home like a linen closet or laundry room.” That way, you can use every square inch of your kitchen space for the necessities.
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