2000s Archive

Kitchen Little, Kitchen Big

Originally Published April 2002
When it comes to design, it's not the space that matters, but how you use it.

In the past ten years or so, kitchens have grown ever larger, sprouting televisions and desks, wine cabinets and recycling centers, even sofas and ottomans. The only thing yet to move into the kitchen, it seems, is the bed. To most cooks, this would be only good news. After all, given a choice between a tiny kitchen and a big one, few would opt for less space. But as it turns out, a small kitchen isn't always the disappointment that some might assume. There is great efficiency in being able to make a meal simply by pivoting, with no wasted steps. And though a huge room with two islands, two dishwashers, and two sinks might seem like a cook's dream, there are definite challenges to operating in such a vast arena.

Unlike cramped kitchens, spacious ones often hide their disadvantages even from their owners. It wasn't until she and her husband, Stuart, moved to London for a few years that Anne Scott, a former circuit court judge who lives in Lake Bluff, Illinois, outside Chicago, realized that the kitchen in her own home was not making her a happy cook. The house was built in the 1920s as a summer place for the Swift family, of meatpacking fame, and when the Scotts bought the place, they made few changes, leaving the very large (17 by 23) kitchen pretty much as it was.

To her surprise, Scott found that the much smaller kitchen in London was not only easier to navigate, it was also a cozier and more accessible space. Back in Lake Bluff, her own kitchen suddenly struck her as cold and awkward. She was especially annoyed by the peninsula that jutted out between the two sinks. With stools alongside, it was a convenient place to eat breakfast, but she found that having to constantly walk around it made cooking more difficult. "Once I decided that the peninsula was in the way and had to come out," she says, "I almost dismantled it with my bare hands."

Instead, the Scotts contacted the Lake Forest design firm Soucie Horner, Ltd. As so often happens, the job escalated. Once the offending peninsula had been removed, cabinets with counters were installed on either side of the stove, which was large and powerful but lacked an adjacent landing place to put down a hot pot or to line up ingredients while cooking. On another wall, a warming drawer was added, great for heating up rolls or plates before dinner. Many of the glass cabinet fronts were replaced with solid doors so that those cabinets could be used to conveniently store cans and boxes of food, which generally are not appealing to display. The two sinks-both used in food preparation and for cleanup, and each with a dishwasher alongside-were replaced with deeper ones, to accommodate tall pots and big platters. And a large drawer was outfitted to hold recycling bins. Scott kept her huge commercial refrigerator because she likes the storage it offers. "If I bring home a seven-bone standing rib roast or a case of white wine, it can go in the fridge," she says. Although the Scotts have just one child together, a 17-year-old daughter, Stuart has six other children, so family get-togethers tend to be large.

The Scotts also enjoy entertaining outdoors, and the old kitchen did nothing to make that easier. To get to the terrace, they had to take a roundabout route through the dining room, or through the mudroom and along the outside of the house. For more direct access, they took out a window and a sink in the butler's pantry, adjacent to the kitchen, and put in French doors leading to the terrace. They also opened up the doorway from the butler's pantry to the kitchen, uniting the two spaces and creating a graceful arch.

After all this, says Scott, the kitchen is still not perfect. If she were to renovate again, she says, she would turn all of the base cabinets' shelves into spaces with drawers. Much to Scott's delight, however, an old farmhouse-style table stands across from her main counter and makes for a handy secondary work space as well as a pleasant place for meals.

With these changes in place, Scott has noticed that she feels more relaxed when she entertains. In fact, whether she is in the kitchen to cook or just because she wants to be there, she sees a dramatic improvement in the feeling of the room.

"It's a mood thing," she says. "It's comfy in here." Even without a drastic change to the layout, her kitchen is now far more efficient. "I don't know if it's my attitude or the layout or both," she says, "but everything seems to work better."

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