A modern kitchen incorporating granite slabs as island supports and a featured wall behind lighted glass shelving.

by Patricia Cove

It used to be that kitchens were near the bottom of the list when it came to the most important rooms in the home. They were so insignificant, in fact, that they were relegated to the basement, if they were inside the home at all. Stoves and ovens were large blocks of cast iron, and sinks were often just tin barrels.

By the early 1900s, though, most houses had running water, and the advent of gas ranges meant that slaving over fires with hot wood or coal stoves was over. Sinks were mounted to the wall, sometimes with drainboards attached, and prep surfaces consisted of individual pieces of free-standing furniture, usually a cabinet, pie safe or worktable. The built-in cabinets that we use today were still many years off. It was not until the 1930s that the kitchen began to take on its modern shape, having its roots in the German school known as the Bauhaus. Combined with the decrease in the use of domestic help and an increase in middle-class women spending more time in their kitchens, the room’s design began to focus more on efficiency.

Built-in cabinetry with locations based on function, continuous counter surfaces and the introduction of the “work triangle” made ease of food preparation a top priority. Industrial age innovations like countertop built-in blenders and waffle makers gave the kitchens a Jetsons-like vibe. Although some of these features did not stand the test of time, the overall layout certainly paved the way for the kitchen design of today.

Since then, we have seen the age of the linoleum floor, color schemes of pink and green, followed closely by avocado and harvest gold, the popularity of laminate countertops and the insurgence of burner-free glass top cooking surfaces. The dawn of the 21st century saw the popularity of granite as an important countertop and back splash material, and stainless steel replaced ivory or painted appliances.

A traditional kitchen with painted, raised panel cabinetry, “furniture” legs, crown mouldings, bracket supports and the ever-popular Delft tiles.

But the most significant change occurred as a result of the sought-after open space floor plan that was being incorporated into residential architecture at the time. These plans allowed the kitchen to become larger and integrated into adjoining spaces, which made for crowd entertaining in a more informal, laid-back atmosphere. (Some years ago, there was a movement afoot that questioned the loss of walls … but that is a topic for another column.)

These kitchens that were now visible from many spaces within the home demanded the highest quality cabinetry, with chic styling, sleek hardware and designer appliances that could make other homeowners green with envy. Cabinetry manufacturers also began to realize that these open-style kitchens did not have to be ultra-sleek, but also needed to appeal to the traditional buyer as well as the modernist.

A wide range of cabinetry styles and materials became available specifically to create the “traditional” kitchen, resplendent with raised panels, deep crown mouldings, decorative hardware and delft tiles, addressing the need for a traditional setting combined with state-of-the-art function. At the same time, the modernist was selecting flat front cabinets, mixing colors and a variety of new materials, polished nickel hardware, porcelain flooring and fully integrated appliances. A multi-functional island, often having different heights that serve those varying functions, is now incorporated into almost all new and renovated kitchens. And a variety of unique design concepts, like transitional decorative panels, can be applied to the fronts of refrigerators, dishwashers and wine coolers, and provide the modern kitchen with just a hint of pattern.

But whatever your style, color choice or design, every kitchen is unique to the homeowner, becoming not just a place to prepare food, but also to enjoy family, friends or just the pastime of cooking.

Come see a variety of kitchens and how they are integrated into the homes and lifestyles of today by taking the Harvest Kitchen Tour, sponsored by Meals on Wheels, on Nov. 2. I’ll see you on the tour and will be able to answer all kinds of questions about kitchen design. Ask anyone where to find me!

Patricia Cove is Principal of Architectural Interiors and Design in Chestnut Hill, and can be reached through her website.