… And Why the Kitchen Work Triangle Doesn’t Work


More accurately, why the Kitchen Work Triangle doesn’t work … anymore.

Tuesday we talked about how the open kitchen is more than an aesthetic design update – its a re-alignment of the kitchen with today’s manner of living.  Today we’d like to take the opportunity to kill the idea of the Kitchen Work Triangle as a design tool that is out of date and should be out of our thinking process.

What is the Kitchen Work Triangle?

The triangle theory of kitchen designs focuses on three kitchen items – the sink, the fridge, and the stove.  From center points in front of each, it suggests that they should form a triangle with legs no less than 4 feet or more than 9 and that the total of all three legs should be between 13 and 26 feet.  There should be no through traffic within the triangle (galley kitchens are out) and no other obstacles should block up the triangle space.

kitchen triangle

Where Did it Originate?

The Kitchen Work Triangle concept dates from the 1940’s when kitchens were rapidly modernizing and transitioning from a free standing sink, oven and hoosier cupboard with fold out work surface this glimmering pink vision of the American Dream.

pink kitchen

At that time food storage (other than the fridge) was typically in a pantry or even cellar, as the ideal housewife was still considered to have a year’s worth of provisions “put up” on shelves and freezer in deep storage.  The storage space needed for the kitchen itself was less – fewer gadgets and appliances and so the kitchen. And the technology was simpler.  The “ice box” hadn’t entirely lost its modern cache when Triangle came into vogue.

The concept has a strong association with Taylorism, or Scientific Management, also popular at that time which used motion study and other analyses to try to improve efficiency in factory production (and in the home).  While there’s nothing wrong with aiming for personal effectiveness, Taylor’s ideas, when applied to assembly line production, had the effect of treating workers like cogs in a machine … and then of replacing them with machines.

Even stripped of the worker bee association, the work triangle assumes a single cook kitchen (code phrase for “mom only – smelly boys keep out”) that just doesn’t work with today’s kitchen culture.  An effective kitchen needs to make room for multiple cooks and multiple activities.

Technology has changed right along with social dynamics; the kitchen is no longer limited to three key appliances (sink, fridge and stove).  Now the range and oven may be separated, the microwave is often as useful as either.

All of this means that the kitchen work triangle is a pretty dated way to think about home cooking spaces.

So Why is Anyone Still Talking About It?

Oddly, none of this stops the kitchen work triangle from being recommended.  The internet is decidedly divided on whether it is out of date or a cool current idea.  Kohler, for example, has a whole page (complete with many diagrams) demonstrating the idea.  Kitchen design websites explain it as logical and ergonomic without delving into the details of its history and ramifications.

What we use for Kitchen Design instead

There are dozens of factors that contribute to the design of a good kitchen.  For moss we are often beginning with an existing space so choosing to keep at least some of the major appliances in place can cut redesign costs.  Each space has its own conditions of light, adjacencies and owner preference.

Its helpful to frame kitchen design around the different types of kitchen work to be done.  Since moss does a lot of work for commercial kitchens, as well as residential ones, we tend to approach them both in a similar manner; we think about what activities will take place and how the space should be arranged around that.

Here are some of our general kitchen design principles:

  • Rather than leaving a separate room pantry, we like to see dry goods stored in a full height cabinet next to the fridge.
  • A big prep area allows for all the mixing and chopping and should be in easy reach of the compost, the trash and the recycling.
  • The dishwasher should be near the sink and both can be a little apart from the main work area if needed, like a warewash station in a restaurant.
  • Each appliance (fridge, range, oven, dishwasher, sink, etc) needs a near by landing station – somewhere its easy to pivot to on one foot – to set down heavy things in progress.
  • But counter space along the walls with high storage above … is really overrated.  It’s not pleasant to work with your face 12″ from a cabinet face.
  •  Instead there should always be a substantial work area that faces out into the room rather than staring at blank walls or built-ins.  Islands are great for this.

A great kitchen can be a tiny command center for one in a studio or a smooth multi-player work space for the whole family in a house but it should never feel like a dead end.  No mathematical formula or diagram can replace careful forethought about how a kitchen space will actually be used.

What is your favorite kitchen layout and why?