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Smart Kitchens

The hidden elements of kitchen design

The 21st Century kitchen is vastly different from the kitchen of a decade ago. Ironically, what sets these new millennium kitchens apart is a basic design founded on research done 60 years ago at Cornell University.

Written in 1948 by Cornell home economists Mary Kroll Heiner and Rose Steidl, Functional Kitchen Storage had three basic planning principles on the first page. "Build the cabinets to fit the woman. Build the shelves for what you store. Build the kitchen to fit the family." Lose the antiquated language, and these principles are your best starting point.

Kitchen Design for the 21st Century,
a new publication by John Driemen and Nancy Elizabeth Hill, lays out the principles of "work center design," which illustrates a kitchen based on the most efficient layout--five task-related workspaces. Of course kitchen materials have changed, and appliances are a far cry from those of yesteryear. Since more family activities have migrated to the kitchen, five workspaces may not be enough, but the plan still works. You can see it in the second half of the book, which features 20 stunning kitchens that incorporate these basic tenets to a family's unique personal requirements, designed for every kind of budget. These are the elements of "work center design":

Sink Centers

Two sinks are better than one and should be placed as far apart as practical. The larger one is used for cleanup and should be next to the dishwasher. A second sink should be next the cook center and used for food preparation like washing vegetables and filling pots. Three sinks are even better when possible.

Cooking Centers

Driemen and Hill say that one to four cooking centers are the norm, depending on how you like to cook. Home chefs tend to prefer commercial ranges with six or eight burners and one or two ovens. The range can be eliminated by two wall ovens and a cooktop. Split appliances are those with gas surface cooking and electric ovens. Small specialty counter appliances should be located in another part of the kitchen to create another cooking center.

Food Preparation Centers

This may be the most important space-saving decision you can make. Prepping should take place next to a cooking center. The area between these two areas is called the "trench" because it is where the main cook is going to spend the majority of his or her time.


The large refrigerator and freezer should be placed where they are most convenient, especially for foot traffic out of the way of the main cooking area. In addition to the main refrigerator, individual refridgerator drawers can store fresh produce near the prep sink, freezer drawers house frozen foods near the microwave, and beverage coolers and ice makers make it easier to access drinks.

Planning Centers

Around the edge of the kitchen there should be a desk area with a comfortable chair, computer and phone. This is a space where bills can be stored and paid and general organizational duties performed. You can research recipes, answer emails, and the kids can work on their homework.

Snack Centers

This is an area where kids large and small can get beverages out of a refrigerator drawer or cooler and find snacks and microwavable frozen foods out of a freezer drawer. Two good possible locations are where kids can play games or watch TV or near an outside door.


A wetbar is perfect for small gatherings. The counter space is great for mixing drinks and putting together snacks and hors d'oeuvres. A sink, icemaker and small refrigerator may be all you need. Other options include a dishwasher and wine cooler.

According to the authors, there are some hidden elements of design that are rarely written about, but the lack of them will greatly detract from the overall function and appearance of the kitchen.

The first is storage space, which may not be an issue in the large, new kitchens, but if you don't organize the space properly, you'll be running back and forth looking for things. Simply store pots and pans next to the cooking center and glasses near the dishwasher. Be aware that customized storage options can vastly increase the efficiency of the space, and personalizing storage to fit your own quirks can make life much easier.

Pantries are back with a vengeance due to a trend limiting the use of wall cabinets. The walk-in pantry is a closed-off space that is good for additional shelf storage. A butler's pantry will have its own small, open room next to the kitchen. It may only have some storage and counter space. Fancier versions come with a refrigerator, dishwasher, sink and warming drawer. A pullout pantry allows you to see items from both sides of the open pantry.

A kitchen should showcase your personality, according to Driemen and Hill. If you have family knickknacks, travel souvenirs, unique kitchenware or pottery, feel free to proudly display them. Manufacturers offer display units that may be part of storage or cabinetry, with back lights or other custom designs. The display of your favorite items should be "a visual focal point in the room," write the authors. They note that collectibles, like cups or china, can be displayed close to where you use them. Suspended cabinets, over an island or peninsula, make it easy to see collectibles from two rooms.

"A well-lit kitchen must combine three sources of light in an integrated plan," write Driemen and Hill. "In the 21st century, the best plan is one that uses these separate sources to create a layered effect with light." Ambient light should be the first and strongest light source. New kitchens are well-served by having recessed ceiling lights that will evenly light the entire room. Always put ambient lighting on dimmers. The second source of light should be for task lighting, or lights aimed at specific work areas. Islands should have their own light sources. Low-voltage monorail lighting with varying pendant lights is popular for this kind of secondary lighting. Thirdly, install some accent lighting for drama as this will even out the lighting in the room.

Surprisingly, color creates balance and is the most effective tool for integrating a kitchen into the rest of the home, along with fabric and texture. The authors give four suggestions for using this crucial element of color and texture. Their "coloring book" suggestions are:

* Using the same fabric or color scheme in the kitchen and the rooms around it will unify the space.

* If you want white cabinets, put them against a colored wall to create eye-catching interest.

* Painting a small room next to the kitchen a different color will define that room as having a different use.

* Color is subjective. Forget about the old saw that light colors make small rooms seem larger while darker ones hem it in. If a bright color makes you happy, use it.

This book is filled with dramatic photographs of new kitchens from across the country. Both homeowners and designers talk about how they were able to find solutions to functional and aesthetic issues in the making of a modern dream kitchen. Helpful advice is featured with each example, like taking small, unusable, leftover spaces and turning them into display areas. If you're left-handed, plan the countertop and appliance placement to suit you. Integrate a cubbyhole for each family member into the planning center. It will help keep things organized.

Of course, if you want to go green, the thing to do is to work with what you already have. Slap some paint on the old cabinets, change the hardware and get some energy- efficient appliances. Try to use the least amount of equipment possible, and microwave rather than turning on the oven whenever possible. Buy recycled materials for countertops, and keep it local.


The concept of the "smart" kitchen has been evolving for years. By now we should have robots cooking and cleaning for us or kitchens that prepare entire meals at the touch of a button.

Technology hasn't come that far yet, but recent advancements have produced some fascinating kitchen appliances and electronics that are smarter and faster than ever before.

Multi-tasking has been made even easier with the advent of the Icebox, a compact computer center that can be installed underneath a kitchen cabinet with a flip screen or as a simple counter model. The Icebox has a remote desktop that happily brings all of your work into the kitchen. Send emails, run Excel spreadsheets or work on your MBA assignments as you whip together gourmet dinners. Don't worry about getting flour or spaghetti sauce all over the keyboard. Just rinse it in the sink--it's washable, wireless and has a touch screen.

Add a video camera to it and you can spy on any room, check the backyard and see who's at the front door. Take a break and watch TV on the flat LCD screen, listen to the radio or pop in a DVD or CD. You never have to leave the kitchen.

One high-tech kitchen helper that has been in development for the past five years and may soon be a must-have for every kitchen is the KitchenAttendant. This device keeps track of all of the food in your kitchen, when it expires, finds coupons for your next shopping trip and builds shopping lists with special requirements for every member of the family. Just hand over your store card to the cashier and the bar codes will be transferred over to your KitchenAttendant. When you are finished with a product, just scan the bar code into the device, and it keeps track of what you need. It also knows the nutritional value of the products you bought and can calculate the nutritional value of recipes. How can it do that? It is programmed with the nutrition information of over 300,000 food items and can quickly offer you a recipe that can be made with everything you have left in your kitchen and expiration dates, even meals with special dietary requirements. The touch screen can also teach you new recipes with downloadable videos that walk you step by step through preparing the meal.

If you like wine with your meal, consider investing in a Provina Wine Pod, and make four or five cases of wine at a time without the hassle of growing your own vineyard. Just buy some frozen grapes from Provina and have the Provina Winepod ferment, press and age the grapes. Information about the wine-in-progress transmits wirelessly to your computer. It even tells you how to make different kinds of wine and monitors the process step by step. It's wine made-to-order right at home.

Want a home-cooked meal when you get home from a hard day? Just pop one into your TMIO Connect to Intelligent Oven, and it will keep your food refrigerated until you call it on your cell phone or use the internet to see cooking instructions and the oven settings. Just let it know the temperature and cooking time, and it's good to go. When you get home, just transfer the piping hot meal from oven to table. Another alternative to home-cooked meals in minutes is the TurboChef Speedcook double wall oven that cooks meals 15 times faster than your regular oven without affecting taste or nutrition.

Smart new refrigerators not only keep food preserved, but many new versions come with TV screens, DVD players, radios, recipe finders, voice messaging systems, weather centers and forecasters, inventory managers, calendars, alarm clocks (for people who sleep in the kitchen) and photo centers.

Tired of filling all those pots with water just to cook? Get a cook sink. It works just like any other sink, but it cooks, too. It's very useful for slow-cooking, steaming vegetables and boiling pasta. It's an excellent way to eliminate the drudgery of using all those pots and pans. If you're tired of washing dishes, why not eat out of the sink?

In the not-so- distant future, these inventions may seem quaint and obsolete. Who knows? Maybe just preparing a simple meal with basic cooking tools may come back into fashion.
--Marilyn Soltis


The options for kitchen materials continue to expand. Mixing and matching materials from floor to countertop to backsplash to wall treatments adds interest and character to the room. Here are just a few choices in countertops and flooring:


* Stainless steel countertops are not only fashionable and professional, but are also hygienic and heatproof.
* Wood countertops are classic and while they may require maintenance, they age well.

* Granite's popularity is due not only to its rich appearance, but also due to the fact that it is waterproof, heatproof, almost stain-proof and extremely difficult to scratch or chip.

* Marble countertops can be easily stained by substances like alcohol and lemon juice.

* Slate counters are sturdy and resistant to heat. They are also less expensive than most other stone countertops.

* Composite counters are manufactured with materials made up of natural minerals and acrylic resins. They are waterproof, stain-resistant and very hardwearing.

*Tile countertops are strong, but the grout is easily stained.

* Don't forget the lowly laminate counter for its versatility, attractive styles, strength and reasonable price.


* Wood and tile are commonly used for kitchen floors and present attractive and practical variations.

* Stone floors come in granite, sandstone, marble, limestone, slate and travertine.

* Linoleum is back and even fashionable.
Architects and interior designers love to use rubber floors.

* Cork is comfortable and easy to care for.

* Aluminum or steel sheet metal tiles look industrial, but can be hard on feet.

* Concrete floors can add some interest to the room and can be treated in many ways.

Published: August 07, 2007
Issue: Fall 2007