If you’ve ever been involved in designing or building a new kitchen in the past 20 years, you’ve probably heard the terms ‘unfitted kitchens’ or ‘kitchen workstations’ or simply ‘kitchen furniture’. These terms don’t refer to a dinette set, but rather to a completely different way of organizing a kitchen by using a few specially designed pieces of furniture instead of installing continuous lines of cabinetry and counter tops. For some people, a ‘furnished’ kitchen is an intriguing idea, but others might say “Why bother fixing something that ain’t broke?”
Sometimes we get so caught up in accepting how things are that we don’t take any time to question whether we are going in the right direction. Technology has a way of pushing us forward, but sometimes we need to take a break to discover what form of progress is the most appropriate. For example, when electricity first came to New York City, there were layers of power lines attached to all the buildings and power poles everywhere. If we look at the old pictures of Manhattan we can’t believe how ugly it all was, but to most of the New Yorkers of the period, they never even noticed the chaos. It took someone with just a bit of foresight to realize that burying all the power lines underground was a better way to go.
Kitchen design that uses cabinetry has evolved into the universally accepted method to create a kitchen. But in the last 20 years, designers started to ask the question, “Is cabinetry really the ‘best’ way for all design situations?” To answer this question, we must first discover the reason ‘Why’ changing from cabinetry to something else would be beneficial. Hopefully, by illustrating how kitchen design has evolved, you will begin to discover why unfitted kitchen furniture can be a great alternative to designing kitchens with cabinetry.
In the days before electricity and piped in natural gas changed everything in our lives, family kitchens in modestly sized homes were large but simply appointed rooms. They contained a solid fuel heat source for cooking (a fireplace or a coal or wood stove) and a built-in sink, with or without running water. Everything else was a piece of furniture. The icebox was elegantly made of wood, as were the central dining/work table, cupboards, pie safes and pantries. The family kitchen was the central work/social place of the home too where family members, sometimes in the company of friends performed most domestic chores and socialized with each other.
Electricity and gas brought many time saving devices into the kitchen, as well as many inventions that pulled us away from the kitchen. Due to the innovations in the kitchen, fewer people were needed to prepare meals, so the kitchen lost a lot of its social importance and became a smaller, super-efficient working room. Built-in cabinetry, previously delegated only to Butler’s pantries in larger homes, now became the best way to shrink the kitchen into an efficient work space. With more leisure time, socializing was delegated to the living areas of the house, because the kitchen was too small.
Now, current planning has opened up the kitchen to incorporate the social rooms again. New homes almost always have a breakfast/family room completely in view of the kitchen. The Great Room concept is simply a large social room with a kitchen in it. Walls between the kitchen and other rooms are being torn down in older homes in the effort to create multi-task, live-in kitchens. We have actually gone full circle, in a little over 100 years, by creating a modern version of a pre-electricity social/working kitchen.
Why has this happened? There are too many reasons to list here, but they all seem to relate to time. With the development of the 2 career families and the single head-of-household families, there isn’t enough time in the day to dedicate a lot of it to cooking. Again, innovations (i.e., microwaves, pre-prepared and frozen foods) have allowed us to spend less time cooking during the work week. And when we are cooking, we don’t want to miss anything that is going on around us. On weekends, we may relax in the kitchen/family room by watching TV or even entertaining friends by cooking elaborate meals.
But typically, the kitchen portion of the great room still looks like and is organized like the super efficient, work-only kitchen mentioned above. It is lined with horizontal bands of cabinetry and counter tops that are interrupted only by exposed hi-tech appliances. Designers promote this ‘laboratory’ look because it is easy to design and it truly is the only kitchen design concept that most people understand. Most kitchen layouts are created by drawing a line 2 feet out from every wall (to indicate cabinetry) and then if there is room, an island (the bigger, the better) is drawn to act as a buffer between the kitchen and family room. The room’s personality is determined by the design of the back splash, and it depends on the color uniformity of the cabinetry and appliances to hold the design theme of the room intact.
On the other hand, the family room, or the social area of the great room is designed in a completely different way. Typically, a beautiful empty room is created and then it is furnished. Instead of lining all the walls with horizontal bands of built-ins (and there are exceptions to this i.e. Frank Lloyd Wright’s prairie homes where EVERYTHING about the house is oriented horizontally) the wall spaces are interrupted with vertical elements like windows and doors or focal points such as a fireplaces. The walls of the room are separated into vertical segments instead of continuous horizontal bands. At blank wall areas and in the middle of the room, eclectic pieces of furniture create seating arrangements, while the wall-hung artwork and sculptural collectibles on display determine the room’s personality. But the wall, floor and ceiling colors and textures permeate between all of these vertical elements acting as the ‘glue’ that holds the whole design theme together.
So the question is, why not create a multi-task, live-in modern open-plan kitchen/family room by furnishing it rather than installing cabinetry? That’s what English designer Johnny Grey thought when he coined the term ‘unfitted kitchens’ for the kitchen furniture he designed for Smallbone back in the mid 1980’s. Why not blend the kitchen into the family room using vertical instead of horizontal design? Why must half of the room look like a sterile laboratory, while the other half of the room is filled with the personal touches that bring you comfort?
When designing with unfitted furniture, spaces must be created between each piece that allow the 3-D character (3-D in that furniture is made with at least 3 finished sides) of each piece to be appreciated. These spaces are most important as they allow the design theme of the adjacent room to continue uninterrupted into the kitchen. The spaces allow the wall, ceiling and floor coverings (the architectural finishes) to instantly meld the kitchen and family room into one homogeneous space in a way that is impossible to do with horizontally designed cabinetry. The spaces define the room’s personality and allow the furniture to become more eclectic as well, emulating the same design techniques used in the design of the family room. No longer must the kitchen have just one color of wood, or one door style or one countertop material. The spaces allow all of these elements to change more readily. For a clear example, think of an open-plan log home where all the interior walls are exposed logs. An unfitted furnished kitchen allows the logs to be seen between each piece, which helps to unify the open-plan room whereas a horizontally designed cabinetry filled kitchen covers up all the logs. In an open-plan loft design where the kitchen is always seen, a furnished kitchen can blend seamlessly into the other casual seating groupings by allowing all the architectural finishes to meander between all the pieces and hold everything together.
There are a few simple design rules to consider when designing the individual pieces of furniture, but that is a topic for another time. There are even other reasons ‘Why’ to use unfitted furniture instead of cabinetry, such as using it to emulate a certain style or period like the pre-electricity styled kitchen. But it is in today’s open-plan kitchen where unfitted furniture can make its most universal impact. Will it ever replace cabinetry? Absolutely not, but for anyone who is involved in designing a kitchen project, properly designed furniture may be the most appropriate design concept to use, one that is well worth the bother!