- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The housing business may be in crisis, but not the design and remodeling of home kitchens.

Could that be because Americans cling to their kitchen — historically “The Warmest Room in the House” as the title of a book by Washington writer Steven Gdula states?

These days, the room centered on the necessities of life is taking over the house — physically, at least, if not always emotionally.

“The kitchen in our residential projects has become the center of the house in the past seven or eight years,” reports Ali Honarkar of the District’s Division 1 Architects. Contemporary design, he says, has been influenced, in part, by the open layout of food preparation areas in certain high-end restaurants, turning them both into places of entertainment.

The custom in his parents’ house of having the kitchen door firmly closed so no one could see inside changed in the 1980s “when the island [style] came into play and walls came down and people would gather around the island.”

Next, the idea of a formal living room disappeared so that now there is one great room, he notes, which, in turn, is influencing the design and use of appliances.

“People are being cautious about their commitment [to remodel],” says Byron Buck, owner of National Capital Kitchens, but even in the current economic climate, he suggests, “If you improve the quality of a kitchen and don’t do it outrageously, you get every penny back.”

Well-thought-out design becomes doubly important in smaller spaces such as those in many older homes, he says.

Mr. Gdula lives in a modern high-ceilinged condo on P Street Northwest that has an open kitchen plan convenient for informal entertaining. Except for one or two details, such as a vertical-metal-slat-covered cupboard that reduces precious counter space, he finds this kitchen the best of the 40 he has known in the 44 years of his peripatetic culinary life that began in college with “two electric burners and a gallon-sized sink.” Appliances are all standard American brands that should help make repairs easier, he notes.

Island designs — he cooks on a gas range built into a pale green granite tabletop — have made the kitchen “a welcoming environment,” reminiscent in some ways of the room he remembers as a child born in a small town in southwestern Pennsylvania, the son of an Eastern European immigrant family. Both his parents cooked, and “dinnertime was family time. Period,” he says.

He feels sure the experience gave him “a strong interest in the convivial aspect of a kitchen,” whatever its size, and “motivation to see what are the elements that make a kitchen such an accessible place.”

Researching and then writing up what he discovered about the past 100 years of American kitchens took him five years. The project also includes a study of how food buying and eating habits evolved and ends with a summary look at the 21st century, pointing out the emergence of the so-called cyber kitchen of tomorrow.

Unlike many interior designers and architects whose livelihoods depend on change, Mr. Gdula finds troubling a tendency to embrace what he calls “a trophy kitchen — remodeling for its own sake” that often ends up not being used by its owners.

This goes against his personal aim in documenting 20th-century trends to see “how they all contributed to making the kitchen a place of discovery, a place for people to put their own mark as well as a place to honor the traditions of our culinary past.”

At the same time, he grew fascinated by high-tech offerings from manufacturers, such as countertops that use electronic sensors to measure ingredients and food portions and a Whirlpool oven called the Polara, which can both thaw and then roast.

The latter, he says, “has been the inspiration behind the projected kitchen of the future where the homeowner can simply dial in from their cell and activate any appliance.”

“Too much technology means too much can go wrong,” he warns.

Ironically, one key trend in contemporary kitchen design uses very complicated technology to make life simple, at least where appliances are concerned. Simultaneously, interior designers say, clients are attracted to the idea of covering up larger appliances, so they look less like a kitchen and more like a living room.

Learning that consumers want to reduce kitchen clutter, Whirlpool last fall initiated the centralpark connection with an electronics hub on the refrigerator door that provides power and support to removable devices like a digital photo frame. Coming next is an IPod speaker dock and recharger with a mute button so that the speaker shuts down when the phone rings.

“The fridge long has been used as a communication device [with photos affixed by magnets]. This takes it to a new level,” says brand director Mark Hamilton.

Cabinets are being done in high-end wood finishes, such as cherry, with sleeker looks. “I want to be creative with kitchens and cabinets,” says Mr. Honarkar, giving high marks to cabinet designs suspended from the ceiling.

“There are fridges with television sets. But clients are worried about who is going to repair them,” says Cindy McClure of Grossmueller’s Design Consultants Inc. in Northwest. “The smartest thing I’ve seen is having a computer on the fridge that keeps track of everything in the kitchen so you can tell when you need something.”

(LG Electronics produces a cable and DVD-ready HDTV 15-inch television on the right-hand door of a fridge, plus a weather and information center and database of recipes on the left.)

Stainless steel is losing favor, she notes, and materials are being upgraded.

“Everybody is going with granite or engineered stones for lower maintenance. People want a more built-in look and have cabinetry more furniture-like. The kitchen is utilitarian but decorative. More money is being spent on larger fridges and multiple ovens. But we still call it a kitchen.”

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