From a fondness for Formica in the 1970s and Aga aspirations in the 1980s to the latest high-tech, multifunctional cookspaces, kitchen trends have always reflected social and cultural movements.
In the 1970s, “kitchen designer” was a profession that had yet to be
invented. Kitchens were smaller than they are today and were often positioned at the back of the house. Most were intended for just one person to work in, with cabinets along the walls and perhaps a window near the sink. British firm Wrighton produced typical, if fancy, kitchens, coating its units in colourful plastic finishes. If there was room for a table, it was likely to be a small and not very solid one. The electric kettle took off, toasters popped, and hot pots and fondue sets brought convenience and even glamour to cooking. Dinner parties still took place in the dining room, not the kitchen, though.
All that changed when the ideal of the farmhouse kitchen – the model for many contemporary cookspaces – took hold in the 1980s. A large wooden table that could be used for entertaining was a key feature, and Agas soared in popularity. Smallbone built its business around aspirational country-house style, and the barriers between the functional kitchen and more sociable areas began to break down. The kitchen became the new living room, a fluid space in which all kinds of activities could happen – from watching television to relaxing on the sofa – with cooking taking place in a designated “culinary zone”. A central island that contained an oven and areas for chopping and pan storage became essential, as it put the cook back in the heart of the room. Instead of working opposite a wall, he or she could enjoy face-to-face conversations and watch over children playing or doing homework.
As well as the Smallbone fantasy, the 1980s brought high-tech German luxury thanks to brands such as Bulthaup and Poggenpohl. Luxury-appliance companies such as Gaggenau and Miele superseded homely British Cannon cookers. Toasters went from dowdy to Dualit, while super-wide American Sub-Zero fridges became popular.
The 1990s saw the arrival of bigger and better kitchen spaces in more homes. Alongside Smallbone, Mark Wilkinson offered elaborate wooden units and central islands. Chalon enjoyed success with a pared-back, distressed version of the unfitted cooking space and, for flashier tastes, chandeliers were introduced to kitchens. Fridges were given retro styling in a choice of pretty colours by Smeg – the kitchen equivalent of the revamped Mini and Beetle cars. Most significantly, though, from the 1980s onwards, the majority of women began to work outside of the home, allowing them less time to devote to meal preparation. Cooking therefore moved from being an everyday activity practised by a solitary woman to a self-conscious – and optional – ‘lifestyle’ performance inspired by celebrity chefs.
During the 2000s, the kitchen industry – which had barely existed when I started out in the 1970s – mushroomed. Suddenly, there were kitchen companies on every high street, with low-cost offerings from Ikea and building suppliers improving in quality and style. Cooking became established as a spectacle and recreation activity, rather than a humdrum daily routine, and the number of cooks in the average family increased. Many of my male clients began to develop an interest in cooking: cue Gaggia espresso machines, “appliance garages” (kitchen compartments designed for housing small electrical gadgets) and comprehensive knife collections by the likes of Global Knives.
Kitchen life has become a great deal more fragmented and complicated in the past 40 years, but also, I think, much more fun. The seeming contradiction of peoplebuying larger kitchens but doing less cooking is explained by our changing needs: today, we seek not just food, but also comfort, warmth, an emotional connection and a sense of togetherness from this most hardworking of rooms. The parlour has died, the dining room is on life support and – despite the advent of large-screen televisions – even the sitting room has failed to satisfy as an all-purpose family space. Gone are the days when people sat together watching the same programme or reading books in company. We live in a speeded-up, spontaneous culture of media meshing, Spotify, grazing and drinking at random times. The new, flexible kitchen is the ideal zone for all of these activities.
Kitchen design has evolved along with our requirements. Part of the rationale for the fitted kitchen was efficiency and hygiene; these things still matter, but can be achieved without acres of shiny plastic surface that always requires wiping. Powerful extractor fans remove cooking smells in new, multipurpose spaces. Meanwhile, dedicated work surfaces – restricted in size but carefully shaped – can be an efficient aid to orderly cooking: depending on their intended use, these can be made from a range of materials that include stone, timber, concrete, stainless steel and composites such as Corian. The key to modern kitchen planning, though, is the central island, which brings a number of food-related activities into the middle of the room, making for a more sociable environment. The modern island is multilevel, with zones for cooking and preparation and a raised-height foodbar for serving and snacking.
Changes in cooking habits have implications for kitchen design, too. Spearheaded by Alice Waters in California, the slow-food movement -which embraces the use of fresh ingredients that can be prepared properly, but not laboriously, at home – could do away with the need for microwaves. Another rising trend is for breadmaking and pickling, also known as home fermentation. To reflect this development, kitchens will need to include cooler areas for storing earthenware jars and containers, as well as more surfaces for kneading bread.
Future trends are notoriously difficult to get right. Past predictions – flying cars, food in pill form – are wide enough of the mark to serve as warnings. Nonetheless, I think we can expect more nostalgia in kitchen design: a growth in popularity, for example, of midcentury-modern furniture styles. Some Italian manufacturers have already tapped in to the trend for steampunk – an aesthetic that blends form with function, blurring the division between the utilitarian and the decorative.
I am also working on ideas for the “4G” (four- generation) kitchen of the future. Designed around the needs of multiple generations sharing the same home, this offers a potential solution to the dual challenge of caring for elderly relatives and supporting younger family members who cannot afford to buy their own properties in an era of high housing costs. We will increasingly have to factor the needs of an ageing population in to our designs: older people tend to prefer to sit down while they prepare a meal, so I am looking at developing improved mechanisms for adjusting the height of work surfaces. Alongside this research, I am investigating the use of new materials created by recycling and the feasibility of cookers and ovens controlled by apps. I find catering for these kinds of cultural changes the most exciting design challenge of all.