Open or Closed?

Before my kitchen renovation, I cooked in what felt like a scullery. No, really, it was small and plain and I always felt closed-in.

Before my kitchen renovation, I cooked in what felt like a scullery. No, really, it was small and plain and I always felt closed-in. It was a pan-washing prison! OK, it wasn’t that bad, but I do recall a moment during its renovation when I came home one evening to a completely empty space and it actually seemed better than what was there before. Wow, I thought as my husband and I sat on our large coolers and ate Chinese carryout that night, look how open it is now! The possibilities!

The biggest change was the removal of a row of upper cupboards that blocked the view out from the kitchen. Other major changes were the installation of a larger peninsula topped with a gorgeous piece of shiny black granite, inviting seating along that peninsula, large drawers for storage, and an efficient pantry and spice area.

Once the kitchen opened up, so did many things. Family camaraderie improved, as the peninsula became a favorite spot for homework or catching up with one another, and parties were thrown more often (we now had pretty counters on which to set up appetizers and drinks!). At those parties, it’s now nearly impossible to pry people away from the peninsula and kitchen. Spacious and tidy living and great rooms await, with plenty of seating, but those lonely rooms see nary a guest as pals continue to congregate at kitchen-central.

This phenomenon seems similar to what we’re seeing in restaurants today, where patrons are clamoring to dine on the crowded bar side rather than in the establishments’ more formal dining spaces. People would rather sip and nosh around a crowded kitchen island than sit comfortably on a sofa.

Would they still gather in the kitchen if it were closed off? I doubt it. The closed kitchen was more accommodating for gossiping, or covering up a failed dish, or cooking the way you like rather than having relatives watching from a nearby barstool suggesting you cover the boiling pot of corn, throw a little more coffee into the coffee maker, or add more butter to the mashed potatoes.

I asked a few designers who are featured in this issue about the design of their kitchens and what they prefer, and their responses were intriguing. Tami Kessler, of Tamara Kessler and Associates, lives in Grosse Pointe, and says her kitchen was a complete remodel. “It was originally a small galley-style kitchen that needed magic!” she says. She opened the kitchen using space from a dining room that was next to the kitchen and, voila, a large island was born — big enough for five people.

Kristen Shellenbarger, of Artichoke Interiors, says the kitchen in her Bloomfield Hills home is closed, but not because she wants it that way. The designer is starting a remodel to “correct some items, including opening up a large pass-through from the kitchen to the dining room to help open the kitchen into the main space,” she says. “The kitchen is where all the memories are made and the more flow you can have into that space, the better,” she says. “Everyone loves to be fed and feel invited in a welcoming space.” A well-designed kitchen, she says, adds “harmony.”

Linda Shears, of Linda Shears Designs in Troy, says she’s from a large Italian family and open kitchens with big islands are magnets. “The family can sit and enjoy conversation while one or more of us cooks,” she says.

I’m with these designers, and that’s exactly why I read with interest a story in The Wall Street Journal recently about what’s “fresh” and what’s “finished” in the world of design. Out, the paper states, are open floor plans. People are realizing they actually desire a sense of separation. According to the article, separate kitchens are in because a highly used room deserves four walls, and who wants to see a messy kitchen? Personally, I think I’ll take the mess any day.