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The Design Story

The Changing Nature of the Kitchen

Mark Elmore, Head of Industrial Design at Fisher & Paykel Appliances, has been designing kitchen appliances for decades. He is particularly interested in the physical and architectural changes that have occurred, and in the sociological and psychological ways in which kitchens have changed over the years.

Mark Elmore
Mark Elmore
Head of Industrial Design at Fisher & Paykel Appliances.

The kitchen has not only evolved but it has also moved. No longer a place for one person at the back of the house or, in some cases, in the basement of the house, it has gradually moved forward to occupy the centre of the home. As well as this literal move, it has also changed in function. Not just the place where food is prepared and cooked, it is now also the place where food is stored. The kitchen has gained more functions: we use it as an office, we use it as a meeting place for the family, we use it to engage with the children, we use it to entertain, we use it to communicate social status. And sometimes we even prepare food in it - but even that is changing.

Cooking is a collaborative act

We are What we Eat

The range of things we cook in the kitchen has changed: sometimes we just want to heat up some leftovers or takeaways; other times we want to create gastronomic feasts to impress others. This range of cooking - from fast food to slow food and back again - affects the way in which we must design kitchens and the appliances that go in them. There is also a trend towards more fresh-food cooking but often this is paradoxical - as the interest in locally grown, organically grown foods increases, so does the interest in international foods. Our palates are much more global; we eat foods from around the world, cooked in authentic utensils with authentic ingredients. This paradoxical situation provides designers with opportunities to innovate and develop multiple right answers - after all, there is not one size that fits all. We are also eating more healthily - or at least trying to do so. This will have an impact on how we design spaces for different foodstuffs to take into account their requirements for storage, handling and preparation. Design trends have brought elements of the professional kitchen into the domestic kitchen but some of the design parameters can be quite different. The professional kitchen is often simple, built around reliability and efficiency of use, whereas the domestic kitchen has to be quite flexible, doing many things well. In the professional kitchen, it is the chef that is the master, whereas in the home kitchen, the technology sometimes has to work harder to make us look good. The amateur at home can have little knowledge and, with more children engaging with food, health and diet, the technology needs to be simple, obvious and suitable for small, large and elderly hands. It's not just about physical ergonomics but also about cognitive ergonomics - it's about how appliances make us feel. Domestic appliances are required to be multidisciplinary, not only performing multiple functions but also working with different people with differing skills. But we still want the same levels of control and precision. The appliances don't have the rigour or scale of working of the professional items, but they must be intuitive to use and have the capacity to flex and improvise.

The Design Story

Outside the Triangle

I am sure everyone is familiar with the concept of the 'work triangle' in kitchen design - it was based on working between the key components of the hob/oven, the fridge and the sink. It was based on an efficient time-and-motion study - based on a production-line metaphor. This all seems to be a bit, well, efficient. A bit of a task: something we had to do as quickly as possible and get out. And there was usually only one person doing it at a time - certainly at home. But now we create, we experiment. The kitchen is now our metaphorical 'shed' where we tinker, perhaps making it up as we go along, perhaps following a recipe. We have heard that in some countries there are even personal trainers who will come in and work with the cooks. People are also coming into the kitchen - "you will always find me in the kitchen at parties". And now, rather than just sitting there and watching the theatre unfold, the visitor is picking up the knife and joining in. They are picking up the wooden spoon and giving the pot a stir. It is now a team effort. Cooking is a collaborative act. This means not only that kitchens are growing bigger but also that we have to rethink the concept of the working triangle. As appliance manufacturers, we have had a look at what we can do to respond to these trends. We have started to separate the components. Now it is possible to have a CoolDrawer for drinks by the dining table, perhaps a DishDrawer for crockery by the sink and one for glasses by the bar. The design concept is now about distributed appliances - allowing us to configure the kitchen to suit the way we work and live. Where do we want the vegetables, where do we want the utensils, where do we want the freezer? As kitchens evolve to be more like lounge spaces, the technology is becoming more embedded. Kitchen cabinets are looking more like furniture placed in the centre of a room and we need to make sure that our appliances integrate seamlessly. This has given kitchen designers much more freedom - after all, why don't we design the kitchen around the way that we create? And we all do work differently and we work with other people.

The Design Story

Kitchen Life

The kitchen has come out of the closet and its role in everyday life has increased dramatically over the decades. Children are being encouraged to take a greater interest in what they eat. We are all living longer. The users of the kitchen are now multiple and of considerably different abilities, both cognitively and physically. The usability of the kitchen has become a major challenge - design for everyone is not as simple as it sounds. We carry out a great deal of ethnographic research working with real people, observing how they work and how they live with the various design aspects of the kitchen, the appliances, the cupboards. This is not only ergonomic work - i.e. looking at body dimensions - but also looking at the psychological and sociological aspects of how the different components work together. We use this information to help us design better appliances and also to share design trends with kitchen designers.

For example, we have noticed that people live out of drawers. It makes sense that what we use most is placed at waist height in a kitchen; after all this is where our hands are. We have all had the experience, whether we're conscious of it or not, that if something is used less frequently we place it in the third drawer down. We are finding that people are opting to place the DishDrawers side by side in their kitchen cabinets rather than one above the other as they find it hard to bend down to access the lower drawer. This simple insight encouraged us to keep pursuing our thinking around the distributed kitchen. What if all our drawers could be appliances, each with a different function: one for washing, one for cooling and another set to pantry mode to keep dry foods at the desired temperature? With increased social activity in, and more prominence of, the kitchen, design aesthetics have become more important. The kitchen is no longer hidden away - in fact, it is the room on which we spend the most money and so expectations for quality are noticeably higher. We demand better quality and better-looking finishes. This means that we have to make sure that everything we design can be easily maintained and cleaned, always looks good and promises a much easier relationship.

The kitchen of even 20 years ago was a very different beast. The kitchen of today has an enormous amount of technology behind it and its components are starting to look more like furniture, becoming better designed for creative use rather than for tasks. The kitchen of today not only has to look good, it also has to make us look good. It has to fit into our increasingly more complex, integrated and multi-faceted lifestyles. It has to be the place for storage and the place for preparation - from weekday convenience to weekend gourmet. It has to be the place to play with the kids, the home office, the place where we hold family meetings, the place in which we entertain. The kitchen is a fundamental member of the family.

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