While philosophers ponder the age-old chicken-or-the-egg conundrum, there is a similar dilemma that has raged across the design world for years: Which comes first, form or function?
Observing the evolution of the home over the past few decades (even centuries) reveals a dynamic play between form as a priority vs. function. Kitchens were initially a service station for house staff, then became “the woman’s place,” and now pulsate as the heart of the home.
These functions have transformed dramatically over the years, but only recently have we started witnessing a reaction in homes’ forms. Residential design is no longer a boxy conglomeration of small dark rooms disconnected by hinged doors; kitchens are no longer shoved to the back and closed off to all interaction. Welcome to the dawn of a new age: the multifunctional open-concept home of today’s family.
Whether you are renovating existing structure or building new, architects fully recognize the need for space that is designed for movement and flow. There are still rules and important elemental guidelines — you do not want to just delete all of the walls on your first floor. But by being selective in the design, materials and professionals you work with, you can easily achieve a space that does not merely react to, but anticipates, your bustling lifestyle.
Usually in the first 10 or 20 minutes of meeting prospective clients, I ask how they define their kitchen — how is it used as a room in their home?
For a select few, the kitchen is simply a place where meals are prepped two or three times a day. For probably 95 percent of homeowners, though, it is the nucleus of the home, a core concentration where homework, entertaining, cooking, bills and all of those “big” conversations take place for a family.
The kitchen is a shared space connecting friends, family and guests, all equally drawn to and united by the scent, sight, taste of delicious food. Its magnetism is undeniable — just observe any dinner party, where it doesn’t matter how spacious or inviting your living room 10 feet away may be; everyone naturally gravitates to the kitchen. So how do we design a single room to accommodate all the multifunctional activities of a household?
Architects have an arsenal of tools to design you a beautiful form that satisfies modern-day functions. I always listen intently to homeowners’ answers about the use of their kitchen to better inform my designs, at both large (wall placement) and small (storage solution) scales.
The large scale revolves around the open floor plan, but there’s more to it than most homeowners realize. Taking down all of the walls on a floor eliminates the “boxed in” feeling, but it also eliminates all architectural definition to the space.
For proper flow throughout a home, it is important to address the distinct functions of independent spaces — otherwise you won’t have a multifunctional space, you’ll just have an open hodgepodge that knows no boundaries (as they say, without order, there is chaos).
Architectural definition does not mean you are back at square one, with walls closing you in; there are much more elegant solutions. Consider an open doorway whose width is that of the entire room: The home still has its open concept, but a high header and 12 inches of wall distinguish the kitchen and eat-in area from the family room (which also grants a natural break for different wall paint in each space).
The most important advice I can give for informing the small-scale dynamic in a space is to be honest with your designer.
Open-concept homes are a two-way mirror: While it allows the host to look out, it also allows everyone else to look in. This means being upfront about your cooking and cleaning style will help inform your architect to present more relevant design options.
If you admit to the disorganized piles of mail that explode across your counters like invading paper armies, we can easily solve that by adding a mail drop-off station (which I usually pair with an electronics charging station) designed in letter slots, a pull-out trash can and filing drawers that all blend seamlessly with your kitchen cabinetry.
If we know you want an open space but are prone to piles of dirty dishes, there are plenty of work-arounds: How about a two-tier sink island so there is limited line of sight to last night’s dirty cookware?
If you have four rambunctiously loud children constantly zooming around, your designer can specify materials and details that will mitigate slips, bruises and bouncing sounds.
Honesty with your architect is key to creating a strong working relationship and delivering an equally beautiful and function space in your home.
Stephanie Brick is senior designer at Sustainable Design Group in Gaithersburg, Md.