Not too long ago, the prophets of doom predicted the demise of the American kitchen. The evidence seemed irrefutable. We dined out several nights a week. We brought takeout food in. And when we "cooked" we zapped diet dinners in the microwave.
But Americans have come home to the hearth in the '90s. The kitchen is back, and it's back bigger than ever. Many of us are cooking again. But even in households where cooking is still a rarity, the kitchen has once more become the hub of the home.
The new kitchen is no longer just a place to cook and eat. It's the epicenter of relaxing, paying bills and doing homework. Even when we entertain, our guests gravitate to what the shelter magazines are calling the new family room.
This new gathering place says a lot about the changes we have made in the way we live. And the kitchen has become even more important than the living room, according to Donna Warner, food and design editor of Metropolitan Home magazine.
"We are less formal but still busy," she says. "We crave comfort, but we also crave individuality. We don't want our kitchens to look like a laboratory or like anyone else's kitchen."
Metropolitan Home's editors took these new desires into consideration and came up with what they dub "the dream kitchen" in their January issue and presented it to the annual convention of the National Association of Homebuilders recently in Atlanta.
Ms. Warner says they rejected the all-white Bauhaus, modernist kitchen and aimed for a sunny room with a feeling of warmth and hand-crafted elements -- from kitchen cabinets that were unfinished and rubbed with a warm gold paint to hardware forged into shapes of monkeys and hares by a Los Angeles artist.
The designers call it an "extended kitchen," a gathering place for family and friends with a harvest country table that also functions as a work island, an old-fashioned pantry and a snack area with a two-burner stove, small sink and microwave.
The challenge of providing the convenience of a professional restaurant stove without the installation hassles and space requirements was solved with the new Monogram component cook top by General Electric. Four burners and a grill are lined up horizontally along a side wall with shelves underneath for pots; the usual unsightly overhead vents are replaced with down-draft vents tucked way behind the units, leaving the area behind the stove free for the view of a garden outside.
Maryland designers agree that the kitchen is becoming the heart of the home.
David Cahlander, a certified kitchen designer who is a local sales representative for cabinet manufacturers, says that people are coming back to a lot of things they got away from during the go-go '80s.
"With a two-family income nobody had time to sit down," he says. "Kitchens became more crisp and more utilitarian. Now kitchens are being designed like family centers where everyone gathers after a party and where kids do their homework."
Typically, he says, clients are asking for a desk or planning area, a snack area where more than one person can gather and open areas where people can put occasional chairs or even couches when there is enough room.
Designing one of these open kitchens with enough room for guests and family to congregate was a key consideration for a modern kitchen in the home of an Owings Mills couple who are both busy physicians. The kitchen was designed by Donna Fisher of Donna Fisher Associates in cooperation with architect Robert McCready and Walker/ Welsh, the cabinetmakers.
The couple wanted what they describe as a high-tech, everything-hidden-in-its-place look rather than a warmer, cluttered look.
"We aren't big cookers, but we are pretty big entertainers," says the female half of the couple, who asked not to be identified. "At our parties, people always ended up in the kitchen, and we wanted to have the kitchen in the central part of the house. We can entertain at the table, and the flow into the den is very good."
Although she says she doesn't spend a lot of time cooking, she does spend a lot of time in the kitchen and wanted the den and the kitchen to appear to be one unit.
"We have small children, and in the old house it seemed like I never saw the children because I was always in the kitchen when I was home. Now I have my space and they have their space."
Interior designer Donna Fisher says the kitchen repeats the architecture of the house's very spare, very contemporary design. The rounded cabinets and room dividers echo the curves prevalent in the rest of the house. The cabinets are white gloss laminate, making white the predominant color. Accents come from the granite counter tops and soft turquoise walls, a repeat of the house's overall color palate of pastels -- turquoise, lavender and gray.
"I think houses should flow," Ms. Fisher says. "Continuity is real important. And the kitchen should echo the rest of the house. That doesn't mean it shouldn't be a separate entity with its own character, but it should be a part of the house. If the house is traditional, the kitchen should be traditional. If country, it should be a country-style kitchen."
Indeed, a Roland Park family who live in a 1920s house asked kitchen designer Trish Houck of Kitchen Concepts in Ellicott City to design a new kitchen compatible with their old house.
"I wanted a 1990 kitchen, but I wanted it to look like the 1920s," the homeowner said. "I wanted an old-world look. I wanted the cabinets to look old but different from anything else. And I wanted it to work for a lot of entertaining. We do everything from small dinner parties with pasta and veal and homemade bread to make-your-own-pizza parties and events for 150 that we have catered."
Some things were given, according to Ms. Houck. The commercial Vulcan stove had to stay. The clients wanted an eat-in kitchen so space had to be found for a table and chairs. The refrigerator was hidden inside a closet and too far away from the stove. And the kitchen had to provide room for two cooks -- the housekeeper and the woman of the house -- to prepare food at the same time without bumping into each other.
The design solution began with advice from builder Paul Lidard of Lidco Construction. The design involved removing a wall to incorporate the porch and closet area into the kitchen space, and integrate different ceiling heights. Mr. Lidard determined that support beams weren't needed to do the job.
Then came the design itself -- a homey, warm look with see-through kitchen cupboards, a removable armoire that functioned as a pantry, and an island where one cook could wash vegetables or the woman of the house could practice her flower arranging. The new refrigerator is the popular Sub Zero brand with panels that blend into the cabinets for a built-in look. Even the microwave is hidden behind a door.
All of these elements are typical, but what makes this kitchen special is the custom-designed and custom-carved cabinets done in limed oak with a streaked peach and white painted finish. Kingswood, a small company with a handful of artisans, produced the compatible pieces with blending but not identical inlaid carving.
And, like the Metropolitan Home magazine kitchen, in which craft is an important element, the Roland Park clients wanted a kitchen where they could display the items they have collected -- from the wrought-iron gate top they found in France that was transformed into a light fixture to pottery and dishes from their various other travels.
Designer Trish Houck says that the 1990s have brought a desire for the "unkitchen look" -- a room that is functional and pretty at the same time.
"Whether the person is a cook or not, the kitchen becomes a place where the family gathers," she says. "It still needs to be warm and inviting and bring back those memories of childhood that we miss."
Hot kitchen trends
The way we live in the '90s has changed the way we want our kitchens to look and function.
Joan Eisenberg, a certified kitchen designer with JME Consulting Inc. in Baltimore County, and Ellen Scheever, educational director with the National Kitchen and Bath Association, offered the following summary of what's hot and what people are asking for:
*Green movement -- Renewed environmental consciousness has made an impact in kitchen design. Trash compactors are fading and cabinet manufacturers are offering built-in recycling bins for temporary storage. Larger holding bins are left for the garage or carport.
*Unfitted kitchens -- The kitchen has become a room to "decorate" like any other room. The built-in look is giving way to a collection of furniture -- from armoires as pantries to sideboards and open cupboards. Art and collectibles are at home here as well as in the living room.
*Back to white -- The neutral white look is popular once again for everything from appliances to cabinets. These days the color of the counter tops -- often made of granite, stone or faux stone such as Corian -- may dictate the colors of accessories used in the kitchen.
*Hot water dispensers -- Even more instant than the microwave, this ultimate convenience is the answer for the family that boils water more than two to three times a day to make coffee, tea, hot chocolate, instant soups or instant cereals.
*Special needs for cooks -- Clients are asking for specific areas where they can do specialized cooking without hassle -- from canning to baking and pasta making.
*Multiple cooks -- Kitchen planning has changed because we have changed. Couples cook together. Latchkey children use the microwave after school. Two people may need to reheat food at the same time. So designs today may have more than one sink, two microwaves, multiple ovens.
*Open kitchens -- These days the cook doesn't want to be isolated during meal preparation and cleanup; these may be the few precious hours busy families can share. Kitchens often are open to the family room or TV room and may require less noisy dishwashers and exhaust fans.