Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Living well in small spaces requires thinking big. That is particularly true when it comes to designing kitchens, where the size of most major appliances is a primary concern. Yet new products on the market make possible new approaches to the problem of figuratively having your cake while baking it.

Designers and developers point to an ongoing trend toward living small — the ubiquitous condos, lofts and row houses found in most urban areas — where renovating or remodeling kitchens poses the challenge of making maximum use of minimal space. Innovative technology helps, too.

Cooktops, ovens, dishwaters, refrigerators, coffee machines: Designers are taking a fresh look at the main features in one of the key rooms in any dwelling.

One irony is that the trend is occurring simultaneously with the push for larger homes in the suburbs, the so-called McMansions. Yet jumbo homes often come with smaller kitchens in guest quarters, entertainment centers or pool houses.

“There are two different kinds of things going on,” says Christine Engel, executive producer of the HGTV series “Kitchen Trends.” “One is supersize me — the popularity of professional-style ranges in particular. And for people who have small spaces, there are a lot of great new ideas to get all that [same] function without taking up as much space. It is happening slowly. There are new cooktops, for instance, that are slimmer and [still] have five burners instead of four.

“In my own tiny kitchen, the best thing I did was put in a deeper-than-usual porcelain sink,” she says. The decision to install the deeper, narrower sink relieved her of having to give up valuable counter space.

Ms. Engel credits the German manufacturer Miele with introducing 18- and 23-inch-wide dishwashers and says many familiar American brands, such as Whirlpool, Kenmore and General Electric, have begun to follow suit if only by producing so-called compact appliances.

General Electric makes a 27-inch electric range that has three burners and a self-cleaning oven, notes kitchen designer Dee David of Falls Church, who has managed by artful use of space to include an undersize washer-dryer in her home kitchen. The room is just 8 feet by 14 feet, but has a standard-size refrigerator and stove.

Standard-size dishwashers, oven ranges and refrigerators measure 30 inches across and deep at a minimum, but the definition of standard is expanding. Some designers say standard now is 36 inches. By contrast, one of the latest refrigerators measures 18 inches wide and deep and 80 inches high. It’s from Liebherr, a German manufacturer. A second Liebherr model is 24 inches wide and deep and also 80 inches high. (Standard refrigerator height generally is around 70 inches.)

What these so-called European-size products lack in width is made up in height and an interior with vertical components that have a great deal of versatility. Both Liebherr fridges have a sectioned bottom freezer with removable drawers, for instance.

It soon will be possible to buy the Liebherr fridge with paneling that will hide the stainless-steel exterior, according to Joe Hilferty of Foremost Appliances. A number of companies already have come up with dishwashers that have the controls recessed in the upper half of the door. Cabinetry gives a uniform look that creates the illusion of larger space.

Following the current pattern of adapting popular professional appliances for home use, both Miele and German manufacturer Gaggenau are making cooktops in varied sizes. Gaggenau’s Vario 400 Series cooktop is an especially versatile line meant to appeal to consumers fond of Asian cooking methods. Modular versions — so-called mix-and-match appliances — can be had in 12 and 15 inches.

“The kitchen is the center of daily life. Consumers want a place where they can spend time and have sharp design with high quality that will last,” says Jennifer O’Flanagan, speaking on behalf of Gaggenau.

“We are seeing more European-size appliances on the market,” confirms Ann Unal, president of the local chapter of the National Kitchen and Bath Association, a nonprofit organization representing all parts of the kitchen and bath industry. “It’s been a big thing in dishwashers for years, for [such products’] lower water consumption, quiet and energy efficiency.” The demand, too, is for diversity and “anything that leads to a healthier cooking style,” she says. The American firm Sub-Zero has produced modular appliances for years, she notes.

The public can see most of the above products at Foremost Appliances’ showrooms in Chantilly and the Washington Design Center’s Kitchen, Bath and Building Design Center, 300 D St. SW. The very latest upscale appliances have price tags to match, but proponents claim advanced engineering helps reduce monthly utility bills.

“The way we store the food in the freezer is unique; using compartments instead of open space is a very energy-efficient means to better preserve the food because you don’t open up the whole freezer,” says Larry Feldman, senior vice president for Albany-based Almo Specialty Products, which handles Liebherr.

“What is unique is the three separate cooling compartments and compressors. Another unique thing is a freezer section with superfrost that can drop a temperature down to as low as 26 degrees for flash-freezing foods, regarded as a better and safer method.”

Author Denise Sullivan Medved of Annandale has made a career of catering to people concerned with coping in small kitchens. She self-published her first two books, the latest title being “The Bachelor’s Tiny Kitchen,” a combination of entertaining tips and recipes. “When I began research in 2001, there was nothing focused on the tiny kitchen. Publishers thought it was a stupid idea. Suddenly people have caught on. I now have an agent and we are pitching a series of books,” she says.

“A tiny kitchen isn’t only physical space but a frame of mind. It implies a more carefree attitude. The tiny kitchen is in its infancy right now. Dwellings where you find these kitchens aren’t going away. It’s a huge untapped market.”

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