How to Design a Kitchen, Part One

In addition to spending the last thirteen years suffering over work on this house, my day job often involves kitchen remodels for both residences and commercial kitchens. So I pretty much bathe in a pool of kitchen design. I think about it a lot, and I especially think about how to try to make it work better.

So I have opinions, a lot of opinions, about kitchen design and the various articles I see or get forwarded about how to design a kitchen. And now I am going to tell you (some of) them. This got super long so I'm breaking it up into a few pieces.

First of all, let's start with this article: 5 Things We Can Learn About Setting Up a Kitchen From This Diagram. I'm kind of a sucker for design theory about workspaces, so I checked it out.

It shows an infographic of some of the places where work happens in a kitchen, and sort of leads into the current understanding that the "work triangle" (which I have already said is just old science) is not that accurate. OK, fine. But then it follows it up by saying: "1. Divide your kitchen into five zones."


I get that those are the zones in that infographic. But those zones are just a way of talking about how space is used, not a prescription for designing a kitchen. There is no one-kitchen-fits-all design, and there is no prescriptive way to design a kitchen. You do not start by dividing your kitchen into zones.


I work for a lot of different kinds of people. Some of them, like me, have a cooking background and are the power-users of their kitchen. They will use every burner on their 8-burner range. They have kitchen tools and they use them. But plenty of them hardly ever cook at home because they work at companies that provide them with 2-3 meals a day. Some of them refer to themselves as "microwave power-users." Some of them are the kind of people who don't notice the oven in their stove is broken for two years after buying their house.

In between, there are ordinary people who cook a few meals a week and mostly use their kitchen as a gathering place for the family and friends. There's a wide spectrum of people and a large number of uses for a kitchen.

So you start, not by arbitrarily dividing your kitchen into those specific zones, but by taking those zones as a starting point and looking at the kinds of things that happen in your kitchen (or that you want to have happen).

As an example, I will use our kitchen as a model, since I'm not violating any client confidentiality there.

What we want to do in the kitchen:
  1. Cook (both stovetop and baking) most of our meals, plus our food preservation and pantry management cooking
  2. Clean up the area where we cook
  3. Prep food for cooking, which can be chopping vegetables for stir fry or filling cake molds or doing some more elaborate pastry work that needs a lot of horizontal space
  4. Store the cookware we use every day
  5. Entertain friends casually or just hang out while the other one works
What we do not want to do in the kitchen:
  1. Store food (we have learned that we really like having a pantry for food storage, including having the fridge in there)
  2. Make coffee or other hot beverages (it uses up counter space and we'd like to be able to close it away)
  3. Store cookware we use infrequently (let's put it up high and out of the way)
  4. Wash dishes (takes up space that could be used for cooking things)
  5. Store dishes, especially fine china (we have nice wedding china that we use regularly, but there's no reason to store that in the kitchen, and it's no big deal to walk from the pantry to the kitchen with dishes for dinner)

Now, you could make the argument that the pantry is just part of the kitchen, but I would disagree with you. In part because it's a separate room (two of them, in fact). But also because we had the room to put those functions in the kitchen and we chose not to, because they would get in our way. We did not say, "these are the five zones we need in our kitchen" and then try to force all these things to happen in one room that grew to cover several rooms. We said, "these are the things we want to do in the kitchen, AND THESE are the things we want to do in the pantries." There are other things we've offloaded to the dining room or even the basement. We thought about how we wanted to live and we designed the rooms to fit that.

If you were to look at our design for the kitchen in the context of these "rules," it would be missing two of the five zones, and have only half of one zone, while the rest are spread all over the back of the house. Lots os people have at least two cooking zones in their homes: one in the kitchen, and one in their back yard where they barbecue. If that zone thing were even remotely a good starting place, we would have a mess of a kitchen design. And sure, check in with me in a few years and I'll let you know, but I do not feel like we're making any major compromises in our design right now. (There is one minor compromise which is that I would like to have a brass porthole right by the stove and I think the Planning Department would not care for that, but I can live with that and just silently curse them in my head while also admitting that I will probably be over that idea in a year or so, anyway.)

So every kitchen remodel should start with observing yourself and your kitchen and working out what functions you want and need, rather than you adapting five zones some designer who doesn't know you came up with. Then you decide where those functions go. Maybe it makes sense for you to have two cleanup zones (we often design this at work, so there's one for cooking and one for dishes), or you need room for two parallel but different morning routines. Or you need a nice big space to make elaborate toast creations in your fancy new built-in toaster. You look at YOUR LIFE, and that is where you start your kitchen design.

posted by ayse on 07/23/15