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The heart of the home

Kitchens play to our senses, adding to the texture of our days as a thread woven into our habits, basic functions and evolving to-do lists. The development of the domestic kitchen in Australia has seen it go from a small, uncomfortable utilitarian room hidden at the back of the house to the open heart of a household, a centralised multipurpose zone where family and friends dwell, create and relax.

“Given how central the kitchen is in modern home design, it’s only natural that they act like a magnet to bring everyone together,” says Anna McMillan of McMillan Design, an interior design studio in Sydney. “As a congregation point, good kitchen design is key.” Good design, in this instance, relates to a seamless fusion of function and aesthetics, creating an environment that is a joy to spend time in. “The kitchen is the showpiece and the workhorse of a home,” says Swedish-born, Sydney-based designer Anna-Carin McNamara of Anna Carin Design Studio. “Like an Ardennes horse, it needs to be able to carry a heavy load while maintaining its elegance.”

Jodi York of Studio York Architects, also in Sydney, reports that the kitchen often forms the backbone of a home’s redesign. ”Nine times out of 10, the conversation with the client starts with an inspiration image that involves the kitchen. These images are often the initial building blocks for the interiors and the architecture as a whole,” she says, revealing that that first meeting with the client usually happens in, you guessed it, their kitchen over a cup of coffee.

Renovating a kitchen is costly, so sticking to what you love and what works for you, your family, your home and your budget will ensure your new kitchen provides happy returns for the long term. “When we design a kitchen, the main consideration is longevity both in material selections and design elements,” says McNamara. “We do our best to stay clear of obvious trends and aim to have it reflect the architecture it sits in and the functions and needs of our clients.”

The introduction of electricity and running water, the invention of the refrigerator and the manufacturing developments of fitted joinery and specialised materials have shaped kitchen layouts over time. The seismic societal shifts brought on by the global pandemic in 2020 are the most recent external force influencing kitchen design.

With restaurants and cafés shuttered during lockdowns and every aspect of life turned inward, kitchens became the focus of each day and the location for meals, work and play. The kitchen was already a hardworking pocket of the home, but COVID pushed its capabilities further and forced it into a multipurpose hub. And now, the focus is on creating zoned kitchens that delineate cooking and socialising areas.

So how do you design a kitchen that enhances everyday living with an inviting balance of form and practicality? Our three interior design experts offer their advice.

Layout

“Ensure you aren’t on top of each other by allowing adequate space in key work zones, and position the fridge so it’s easily accessible,” McMillan advises. “I love the island bench, as it’s a great way to have others in the space without being under the cook’s feet!” Our three design experts agree that a layout incorporating a kitchen island or central kitchen table invites gatherings and conversation. “An island always makes for interaction,” says McNamara. “Being able to chat with family and guests while chopping and stirring is functional and practical.”

A kitchen island can become a work-from-home station, a spot to dine when a separate dining area is not an option or a place to enjoy a wine or coffee. In this instance, says York, “a clever strategy would be to locate the amenity (the sink and cooktop) to the back bench and keep the island clear so that it can be a multipurpose space.”

Materials

Choosing the finishes for a kitchen is as personalised a process as putting together an outfit. “It’s not a one-size-fits-all situation. It depends on how a family uses their space,” York offers. It also depends on how much upkeep the homeowner is willing to embrace, which is a common deciding factor between natural or machine-made materials.

“Natural materials add warmth and texture to a space, and nothing beats them when used well. Unfortunately, they often come with higher care demands, so you have to weigh that up when selecting,” McMillan explains. She suggests engineered stone for a good-looking, durable option. “I find the families I work with are looking for something easy care, and that they don’t have to be precious about, and for that, you can’t beat engineered stone.”

McNamara loves using natural stone, solid stainless steel and brass as they all age with grace and elegance. “But often our clients are concerned about stains and ageing. Porcelain is an alternative that is both heat- and cut-resilient,” she says. Whether you go with natural or machine-made materials, choose the best quality your budget will allow, always work with reputable tradespeople and learn how to appropriately clean and maintain your surfaces to extend their life.

Storage

Maximised storage capacity is a wish list topper for many homeowners undertaking a kitchen renovation or new build. With custom cabinetry, joinery can be fitted to any dimension and expanded to full height, giving you plenty of room to stash cooking paraphernalia and pantry items in cupboards or drawers. In the design phase, careful assessment of what you need to store and what you need to keep accessible will ensure an outcome that works perfectly for you.

When deciding between drawers and cabinets, designers espouse the benefits of deep lower drawers and their ability to keep your kitchen bits and pieces organised and readily on hand. “Drawers allow you to easily access the full depth of the space, rather than losing things at the back of a cupboard,” McMillan explains.

The butler’s pantry

A desire to minimise kitchen clutter and separate the “work” and “social” zones has manifested in a renewed interest in the butler’s pantry. As the name suggests, the concept harks back to the 19th century when it was the domain of butlers or kitchen staff in wealthier households. The separate space facilitates meal preparation and additional storage for ingredients, serving ware and appliances, all behind a closed door, leaving the “main” kitchen relatively clutter-free.

“The truth is there is always mess in the kitchen, and some people want the open, visible kitchen to be an appealing space,” says York. However, you don’t need to build a whole new room to conceal the messy elements of a kitchen. “When space is tight, an alternative to a separate butler’s pantry is an appliance cupboard that allows you to stash away “messy” appliances out of sight while still having them on hand and ready to use,” says McMillan, referring to toasters, coffee machines, kettles and the like.

Lighting

Just as you need the correct light levels for tasks like reading or applying make-up, functional lighting in the kitchen is essential for food preparation and cooking. “Light up the benchtop,” McNamara states. “It seems so obvious, but so often downlights are placed in the centre of a kitchen only to light up the floor.” Choose undercabinet lighting or directional wall or ceiling lights to give you sufficient levels of focused task lighting.

When it comes to kitchens that double as a location for hanging out and eating, lighting that provides soft overall illumination is key for an inviting atmosphere. A central ceiling light, pendants over an island or decorative lamps on a bench or adjacent table will help you achieve this. “I like to have the lights on separate switches so you can control and layer the lighting for different moods and tasks,” McMillan says.

Did you know how you light your kitchen at night can impact the quality of your sleep? Avoiding exposure to bright artificial lighting in the hours before bedtime can help wind you down for the evening. “When you finish cooking at night, turn down the lights,” McNamara proposes. “This not only creates a beautiful ambience but switching to dim lighting allows your body to start producing melatonin, which is important as you get ready for sleep.”

Seating

It’s a simple fact that a comfy chair will entice someone to linger longer, while a hard, unforgiving style will have people leaving the room before the kettle boils. While many beautiful chair and stool designs are available, practicality and comfort must guide your buying decisions.

York proposes trying before you buy and sitting in a few styles to properly assess their comfort. If purchasing chairs or stools online, check the returns policy to ensure you can return or exchange them if they don’t match your needs.

A bar stool with a back can provide comfortable support, but a backless style can tuck underneath a bench and give a streamlined look in a tight space. Upholstered and padded styles add softness but aren’t always the easiest to keep clean in a household with kids or pets. “Beware of choosing stools that spin if you have young children!” McMillan cautions.

For maximum comfort, McNamara proposes choosing a seat material with a bit of give, such as buttery tan leather, woven cord or rattan. “I often select
a stackable design so that they can be stored elsewhere until needed, freeing up the space,” she adds.

Adding personality

“My favourite way to inject some personality into a kitchen design is with the splashback. From handmade tiles to a gorgeous natural stone, there are plenty of options these days,” says McMillan. Adding texture to the splashback is a go-to design move by York, who says she uses the benchtop material to guide the selection of the splashback finish to ensure a cohesive look.

A cohesive kitchen will radiate a feeling of calm, but a play on contrast can also create something wonderful. McNamara’s signature design style involves mixing and matching eras and looks, creating unique spaces that reflect the homeowner’s lifestyle and personal history. For example, an antique timber French farmhouse
table in a rich walnut tone enlivens a contemporary kitchen replete with sleek handleless cabinetry and dark marble splashback. Old and new come together in a completely unexpected combination that sings with personality and charm. Adding in family heirlooms and loved artworks and decor elements will only strengthen your connection to the space.

Quick refreshes

You can update your kitchen without gutting it entirely by instigating a few minor changes. “The biggest and most cost-effective update you can make to your existing kitchen is changing your cabinetry handles,” says McMillan.

McNamara calls the handles and pulls “the jewellery of the kitchen” and agrees that they can direct the area’s look and feel. “We used to have access to only chrome and stainless-steel styles, but now there’s leather, marble, brass and so on,” she says.

In addition to replacing the hardware, York suggests respraying the cabinet doors to inject fresh colour, saying, “It’s surprising the difference these minor changes can make on the presented era and style of a space.” Changing your light fittings will also give your kitchen new energy. “Adding a fabulous feature light over an island bench can quickly transform a previously tired and dated space,” McMillan notes.

Jessica Bellef

Jessica Bellef

Jessica Bellef is a Sydney-based author and freelance interior stylist. Find her at jessicabellef.com or on Instagram @jessicabellef.

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