Kitchen Confidential?

There’s no secret to a cool kitchen. Just get what you like and get help when you need it. Oh, and don’t forget the touch screen.

In some ways, today’s kitchens aren’t that different from those a decade ago. Already the great room was coming on strong, stainless steel had a stronghold on appliances, and granite was everywhere. Things aren’t that different today except that appliances can look (and operate) a lot like an iPad, and you can cook with magnetism and steam if you want to. Keep reading to find out what’s in, what’s out and how to get exactly what you want when you build or remodel. 

Dialing It Down a Touch

Appliances haven’t had dials in decades, but even the standard digital displays are giving way to the touch screens made popular by smart phones and tablet computers, says Rian Cain, VP of sales and marketing for American Furniture, TV and Appliance. No longer limited to high-end or luxury models, touch screens have begun showing up at more price points in the past five years, and Cain expects to see even more thanks to user comfort levels with the technology.

iDishwasher? 

Not exactly, but the design of the pioneering smart phone and tablet is reaching beyond personal electronics and into the kitchen. It’s showing up now as glossy white and black appliance finishes to rival stainless steel, which has been the mid-to-high-end vanguard for some years now. American’s Cain says stainless steel is still by far the most popular choice, but the updated sleek white or black appliances appeal to homeowners who want a hip and modern look for their kitchens. 

Smaller Packages

Dream Kitchens’ Keven Schmidt says clients are continuing to scale back a bit on kitchen footprints in order to invest more in the space by using higher-quality finishes, tailored interior storage systems, built-in seating areas, and other custom features. Innovative cabinet storage, designed specifically to accommodate a family’s kitchen use and belongings, can dramatically improve the function and efficiency of a kitchen without adding square footage to the footprint. In some cases it can even allow homeowners to cut back on cabinetry to make their kitchen feel open and more spacious—even when it isn’t. It’s about building smarter, not building bigger, says the owner of the whole-house, full-service remodeling and construction company. Schmidt also says it allows clients to avoid costly additions and to save on energy expenses since they aren’t heating and cooling bigger houses. Good things, indeed.

Ditch the Desk

Most experts agree that the kitchen desk is done. It has been replaced with phone-charging stations or electronics docking stations, says Dondi Szombatfalvy, lead designer with Bella Domicile, a custom cabinet retailer and interior remodeling company. Tablets, laptops and mobile phones allow homeowners to tend to the business of the household from just about anywhere in the house. We still need flexible storage space for sorting mail and organizing paperwork, but it is unlikely to be a dedicated desk since no one sits at one anymore. “Desks in kitchens aren’t popular anymore,” Szombatfalvy says, “but we still need to accommodate functions like sorting mail. We just may not want it to look like that happens in that space.”

Greater Rooms

Kitchens open to great rooms are, well, great, but it takes more than knocking down a wall or two to make it all come together. It isn’t hard to coordinate things, says Ganser Company marketing director Jocelyn Dornfeld, but it does take some thought. That might mean sacrificing a favorite chair or accent in the great room because it clashes with the finishes in the kitchen. “It’s the same as coordinating an outfit,” Dornfeld says. “You wouldn’t wear plaid pants with a Hawaiian shirt.”

Dornfeld recommends spreading coordinating accent pieces throughout the two rooms, using the same hardware and flooring throughout, or selecting complementary paint colors to unify the space. 

Coordinating trim is another option, says Marling Homeworks designer Jenny Schuchardt. Homeowners can repeat furniture styles and wood species, too, to tie the rooms together, says Kelly Hofmeister, manager of west-side furniture retailer Woodworks.

Szombatfalvy says homeowners who are staging their remodeling should at least plan for both spaces at the same time even if they expect to complete the work over a matter of years. Homeowners, then, consider and select trim, flooring, windows and any other elements as well as more major things such as wall placement or furniture arrangement all at once. This allows them to plan stages with greater efficiency and economy, and it helps ensure that decisions you make to optimize the kitchen won’t limit your options down the road. 

The Sound and the Fury

While it is nice to eliminate barriers between the kitchen and the great room to create unrestricted traffic patterns, not everything needs to flow freely throughout the space. In particular, kitchens are noisy with clattering pans and whirring exhaust fans. It’s helpful to consider ways to contain kitchen sounds so they don’t interfere with television speakers or even just regular conversation, says Amanda Funk, a designer with full-service remodeling and construction company JG Development.

“Open space is still key, but people are beginning to understand that while communication between the family room and living room is important, those two spaces ultimately have different primary uses,” Funk says. “We are starting to see partial walls between spaces and layouts where only a portion of the kitchen is exposed to the family [or] great room. Furniture, area rugs and flexible integrated audio controls also help to reduce unwanted echo and ensure better control for the users.”

Wear Your Tool Belt

Even if you’re just replacing an appliance, do a little homework before you head out to a big-box store to buy a new refrigerator. At the very least, measure all the dimension of the space for the appliance, and consider clearances for nearby drawers and doors. It seems all too obvious, but mistakes happen all too often, Dornfeld says, because people buy before they measure. 

Sometimes stores will accept returns due to sizing errors, but they don’t always and then homeowners are stuck with a dilemma: negotiate a second appliance with the retailer or make changes in the kitchen to accommodate the too-large fridge. In either case, Dornfeld says, things end up costing more than they should.

Dornfeld says designers can help even with appliance purchases. They can review manufacturer specifications and your current kitchen to make sure that you don’t have to open the dishwasher to get into a certain drawer or that the refrigerator door will open all the way. Many retailers have a designer on site to help you make the right selection. Yes, it takes a little more time up front, but it’s still better than buying two refrigerators to replace one.

It’s All the Rage in Europe

European styles and trends have long been inspirations for the American market. And if it’s big in Europe, we tend to think that means it’s automatically cool, cutting-edge, hip—you get the point. For whatever reason, some things take a little longer to take root on this side of the pond. One of those things is induction cooking. It’s been around for a while, and fans like it because water boils in the blink of an eye. Cooking times are slashed. It sounds like heaven on earth for time-strapped families. Foodies also appreciate the control of gas married to the easy maintenance of electric cook tops.

Induction works by heating pots directly (via an electric current) rather than transferring heat from a cooking surface to the pot or pan. That means the cook surface never gets as hot as the pan itself, which can reduce the risk of burns—another plus for families with small children. The only hitch is that cookware must be ferromagnetic, so copper or copper-bottom pots and pans won’t work. The good news is that a lot of people already have cookware that will work. Cain and other kitchen professionals agree that induction is finally catching on stateside. You can see the magic for yourself; American has regular demonstrations of induction and other new appliances and technologies.

Set in Stone

Granite is still the top choice for kitchen remodels. Both durable and beautiful, granite also commands quite a price tag. For more budget-conscious remodels, consider granite tiles. Wisconsin Granite & Tile offers the option as a way to harness the heat resistance and general appearance of granite without the price tag. 

Quartz is a close second to granite for countertop choices, says master certified kitchen designer Denise Quade. Made from ground stone and resins, quartz can have a more uniform appearance than granite. Manufacturers can also tint it or incorporate glass and other materials. 

It’s Steamy in Here

Steam ovens are starting to catch on, Quade says, now that Wolf has entered the market. The steam ovens cook using steam generated from a water reservoir. They can cut cooking time and help retain more nutrients in vegetables, plus they eliminate the need for added fats when cooking meats. Homeowners tend to use them in addition to regular ovens, American’s Cain says, although some eliminate their microwaves when they add a steam oven.

Don’t Forget the Furniture

Who hasn’t heard about the benefits of built-in storage? Bookshelves add focal points and interest to rooms, while closet and cabinet systems enhance organization, which makes life better overall. Just don’t take it too far, Funk says. “We have seen over the past years such a focus on the positives of built-in storage that people are forgetting that good quality furniture pieces can be just as useful as an additional closet or built-in unit,” Funk says. “Furniture pieces add dimension to a room, demonstrate character unique to the current owner, and provide more long-term flexibility.”

Woodworks Hofmeister adds that furnishings help with noise control and avoid echoey spaces. “There is definitely a huge difference between uncluttered and empty,” she says. “You need surfaces in a room on which to place lamps and a few well-chosen accessories to personalize and warm a space.”

Kitchens Unplugged

First we lost the dials. Are switches next? Dream Kitchens’ Schmidt says the wireless technology that pumps your iPod playlist into every room in the house is also handy for lighting. You can turn on the lights before you get home, and you can turn them off bedside rather than traipsing back to the kitchen at midnight to see if you switched off the overhead fixture. “Most everything can be tied to an iPhone or an iPad,” Schmidt says. 

Think Outside the (Big) Box

Big box stores aren’t an inherent evil, but they usually aren’t places of wild inspiration or, unfortunately, great service. Schuchardt says clients also benefit from the expertise that trained and certified designers provide. Designers will obviously design spaces. They also help narrow choices, save money and avoid mistakes. They can determine and explain the differences between similar appliance, cabinetry or hardware options, and they can lead clients to innovative products or styles that might be new to the area. 

Dornfeld says Ganser’s designers like to push clients to take a few calculated risks so that their spaces are truly unique. Quade, too, likes coming up with out-of-the-box solutions to client wishes. She recently crafted a way to mask a refrigerator and pantry in mirrored cabinetry that looked like a large armoire. It’s not a look for everyone—but that’s the point. Each particular client gets exactly what he or she wants and not just what is on the showroom floor. 

-Jennifer Garrett

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