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Hot in the Kitchen

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The latest kitchen styles merge the best of past and present

Story by Kurt Cyr

If there is a new or remodeled kitchen in your future, there are two words which you should keep in mind: unfitted and integration.

At first glance, they appear to be polar opposite terms when describing the most popular room in the house. But that is only at first blush. What will unfold is none other than a miraculous synergy of technology, form and function that will forever change the way you approach the design of your log home kitchen.

For several years, these have been the buzzwords of the very high-end design professional elite. A fervent attempt has been made to capture the casually assembled air of the farmhouse kitchen in the wake of the industrialization of the residential kitchen. The commercial range is no longer the bastion of the professional chef. It has long since left the restaurant kitchen and has landed smack in the middle of the cul de sacs of America. Now therein lies the challenge. Just how do you reconcile all that professional cooking technology with the desire for down-home charm? The answer: unfitted and integration.

Let’s look at just what unfitted means in terms of kitchen design by first taking a glance back at the evolution of the modern kitchen. Since the turn of the century (the one before this one!), the kitchen has been continually streamlined for ease and efficiency. The Hoosier cabinet, with its zinc work surface, gave way to the more modern, freestanding enamel-topped units of the 1920s. These evolved into the built-in cabinets that we know today. What passes as the norm in kitchen design has remained relatively unchanged for the past 50 years. That is until now.

An unfitted kitchen means a utilitarian space that is furnished. The concept behind the unfitted kitchen is to make the space appear to be a random collection of individual pieces each designed for a specific purpose yet coordinated as a unified whole. The hallmarks are attention to detail and a sense of mobility. This sense of mobility is heightened by the use of feet or legs elevating work units off the floor and giving them a greater sense of impermanence. This creates the impression of furniture that can be moved on a whim.

This way of redesigning kitchens has cast the hardworking island in a whole different light. Because of its unattached location, the island was the first to feel the effects of this trend of unfitting the American kitchen. The island should coordinate with, but not match, the rest of the cabinetry. Instead of wood, it could be stainless steel.

The countertop should add an accent color and texture to the space. If the counters are stone or tile, the island should be topped with butcher block or stainless steel. A smooth surface is best. Because of its uniqueness to the rest of the kitchen, the island’s surface height can be adjusted for individual proportions as well. I prefer to raise mine to a very workable 38 inches. But your height may vary. The island should be set apart from the rest of the cabinetry by finishing it with a contrasting stain or paint. What may look like a run-of-the-mill, marble-topped farmhouse table is really the epicenter of food preparation and a very well-engineered workstation.

Though easy-care surfaces continue to reign supreme in the kitchen, application of materials has evolved through the years. Engineered surfaces are constantly being improved. Plastic laminate has given way to solid surfaces that imitate natural materials and can withstand heat. Though these technological innovations continually have improved, the backlash seeking natural materials has been a result. Contrast is your greatest ally. When using different surfacing materials on the perimeter and island, make sure they are different enough. Case in point: If you opt for a manmade, engineered material that looks like granite on the countertops, then use tile, butcher block or stainless steel on the island.

As much as there is a trend toward an unfitted quality about the cabinetry, work surfaces and countertops are becoming sleeker than ever. Gone are the days of elaborate edge details with odd detailing and curvaceous bullnoses. Counter edging is blunt and to the point. A flat, 1 1/2-inch face with softened corners is the preferred edge. This no-nonsense approach is particularly refreshing, allowing a continuity throughout the space while the cabinetry becomes more elaborately detailed.

This same reserved quality is showing up in backsplashes. Smooth, slightly reflective full-height splashes are the perfect foil for the unfitted kitchen. There are two approaches to backsplashes: contrast or coordinate. Both options are subtle. Using the same material as the countertop provides a seamless united scheme. This sleek approach is only matched by a slight variation of material. Softly brushed stainless steel, sandblasted glass or mirror are alternatives now proving fashionable. Mirror may recall sleek 1970s chocolate brown interiors, but the mirror of today is much more subtle. Hazy, etched and aged mirror now is finding favor as a relatively inexpensive alternative for backsplashes. With a spritz of window cleaner and a wipe, they sparkle anew, adding further dimension to your countertop space.

Stainless steel is the finish of the moment for appliances and with good reason. Its softly rugged, industrial look is a pleasant contrast to the more homey kitchens. My own private notion is that stainless steel soon will be edged out by copper-clad appliances-real copper, not coppertone. The material itself will afford the home owner varying degrees of richness. Copper will patina and darken to a rich brown; if left dry to oxidize with moisture it will turn green. Or, consider scouring it with lemon and salt to maintain its brilliant, warm shine.


Part Two

The other buzzword in the world of kitchens is integration. This futuristic-sounding word is just that. Technology has come full-circle, allowing us up-to-minute convenience, yet giving us the look that Laura Ingalls Wilder would feel right at home in. There is now the freedom to design a state-of-the-art kitchen that would be at home in a 1900s house: refrigerators that masquerade as armoires, dishwashers that appear to be deep drawers. All the mechanics are hidden discreetly from view so that we can create whatever flights of fancy we care to in our very modern kitchens.

Integration of appliances is a designer’s dream. The joy of this new development is that the appliance’s unsightly control panel is hidden away but within easy reach, contributing to a more authentic look-whether it’s white-washed, bead-board panels or even a simpler effect. The key to integration is in the pull. Before integrated appliances, there was always that factory-designed, and not wholly appropriate, handle. Now, with integrated appliances, not only is the appliance’s face an option for the home owner to decide, but also the handle. Dishwashers can be opened with a slight tug on a vintage finger pull, while the refrigerator handle doesn’t need to be much more than a small pewter cabinet knob.

And refrigerators aren’t just upright beasts anymore. Your entire refrigeration needs can be supplied below counter height with a series of cooling and freezing drawers. This has virtually eliminated the need for this vertical space-gobbling appliance. An understated, waist-height galley can supply all the needs and wants of a weekend gourmand. With all the technology at hand, the full-functioning kitchen can be disguised in whatever guise deemed appropriate.

Whether it has to do with uncertainty from the turn of the millennium, a yearning for the past or just plain boredom, the way forward in contemporary kitchen design is to look back to history and to a simpler time.ʉۢ

Interior designer Kurt Cyr writes from Toluca Lake, California, and is the author of Centerpieces Through
the Year.