Why an Open Kitchen is More than A Design Update


Kitchen renovations are one of the most common home improvement projects, and a renewed kitchen forms a focal point of nearly every moss project.  Our first move, figure out how to open it up to the other spaces in the home – make it more interconnected.   For moss, an open kitchen isn’t just an aesthetic choice, it’s a alignment of the house with the way a modern family lives.

Here’s why moss always suggests our design clients consider an open plan kitchen.

erie loft kitchen

The Kitchen Through Time

Kitchens have advanced  from a simple open hearth in a common area in early American homes (where it was not unheard of for a women in long skirts to catch fire from unprotected flames) to the mid-nineteenth century female command center – a space apart dedicated to cooking.  This efficient work place of women was forward progress from the unsanitary and unsafe glorified open hearth style cooking, certainly.  However, it also cut off the space from other family activities, and reinforced the concept of gendered home spaces.

For the next hundred years kitchen technology changed but the format of a separate kitchen space did not.  Wood fired stoves were replaced with electric or gas ovens and ranges, modern plumbing and refrigeration became normal and then standard but the kitchen stayed firmly the domain of the house-bound housewife.  Factory motion study standards were applied to cooking (see the Kitchen Work Triangle) but little joy was included in the process

This time capsule kitchen full of then state-of-the-art GE equipment, found by furniture maker Nathan Chandler, makes NO bones about the fact that it is the domain of the lady of the house.

1962 kitchen

This strongly gendered and enclosed concept of a kitchen doesn’t serve the American family well anymore.  Even in households where someone temporarily or permanently stays home, the kitchen is no longer considered the singular domain of one family member.  Consider an open kitchen a blow for feminism!

Modern technology (good vent hoods, well insulated ovens and the advent of the microwave) makes the kitchen less likely to overheat the rest of the house or fill it with noxious cooking smells.

At the same time, cooking in general has become a less messy undertaking.  We rarely process ingredients from scratch: chicken comes pre-plucked (and possibly pre-roasted) from the market, soup stock comes in powder or can form and vegetables are shorn of extraneous leaves and dirt before they come into the kitchen.

These changes free the kitchen up to be smoothly integrated into the house as a whole.

west loop loft kitchen

Without either the logistical and social need to separate the kitchen, it is a natural design improvement to open it up to other living spaces.

How an Open Kitchen gets used

Design magazines tend to show off new and remodeled buildings starkly empty and their kitchens as expanses of bare counter in order to demonstrate the uncluttered aesthetic.  Our own press photos are often guilty of the same un-populated quality). These views are sleek and often beautiful but they don’t really show the function of an open kitchen – which is to be a work and social space for the people who live in it.  Without the work (or the people) a modern open plan kitchen easily becomes a punch line as it is in this favorite post of mine from the blog Unhappy Hipsters which pairs snotty captions with images of (usually lovely) modernist buildings – this one was featured in Dwell in 2010.

unhappy hipsters kitchen

What’s important to remember about an open kitchen is that it is designed to be used.

Unlike a galley or command-center kitchen, with an island organization lends itself to multiple users who can circulate around a common work space, share supplies, and make eye contact with each other.  The cook (or cooks) aren’t cut off from activities elsewhere in the space and anyone can wander into the kitchen and help themselves to a cutting board or the refrigerator without interrupting the flow.

moss HQ kitchen

The open kitchen at moss HQ is a perfect example of this.  Flooded with natural light and situated against the back wall of the largely open loft space, it centers on a large island.  During coffee breaks or lunch time chats, the moss team circulates around the space, eating, chatting and preparing food.  We face inwards across the island or turn away toward the fridge or storage cabinets to snag an ingredient.  At other times the counter serves as a meeting table to stretch out a large drawings or share a laptop screen.

Why NOT an open kitchen?

All good design is particular and … not every person desires an open plan kitchen.  Last year, a NYTimes piece profiled the (by their own admission small) demographic of home seekers who are looking for a closed off kitchen.  Their reasons were varied.  Some cited nostalgia for home styles of their grandparents’ generation, others like to undertake big and messy cooking projects without interfering with the rest of the house.

Unsurprisingly, many of the arguments made for a closed kitchen sounded pretty gender normative.  A (male) real estate agent commented, “Some people don’t want to watch the hostess chop up carrots.”  A young professional woman cited her grandmother’s advice for entertaining; “‘“When I have people over, I like to feel I’m coming to a party. I like to take off my apron, put on lipstick, and step into a separate space.”’

There are some valid concerns with too much openness.  This Houzz article debates the pros and cons of various kitchen styles and concludes that some people will always feel more comfortable having a door to close off their dirty dishes.  Fair enough.  But an alternate solution is to embrace the process of cooking and cleaning as something that can be done collaboratively, while connected to the whole house … and not to leave a pile of dishes in the sink.

melrose house kitchen

Don’t confuse bad design with a bad idea.

One complaint lodged against open plan kitchens in the Times commentary is that a kitchen tucked into the side of a cavernous great room feels barren and un-differentiated.  This can be a problem in an under-baked design but when done well, an open plan kitchen is both connected to and distinct from other living spaces.

There are many ways to differentiate and yet include the kitchen in a larger floor plan without walls.  Changes in ceiling height, or floor level, different material treatments or light levels are all important ways to make the kitchen space distinct and comfortable.

carmen avenue kitchen and living area

So … make your life more collaborative, strike a blow for feminism and work an open kitchen design into your home.  What are you waiting for?