4G kitchen design – Johnny Grey’s top tips

Renowned kitchen designer Johnny Grey spells out why multigenerational kitchens have become so important and how best to create a layout that will work for all users

People are living longer and we are all, thanks to Covid, spending longer in our kitchens, which have become a multifunctional social hub for all generations of the family.

Renowned kitchen designer Johnny Grey considers the subject so important that he recently did a presentation on the Hettich Xperience­days platform to share his views on multigenerational – or 4G – kitchen design.

Grey has been working for the past three years on a research project with the National Innovation Centre for Ageing at Newcastle University to design a multigenerational kitchen, which is now on display at its premises in the centre of Newcastle.

Grey points out that people are now demanding more of their kitchens than ever before. He says: “As an industry, we have to improve the skills with which we interpret behaviour when planning spaces to give us, simply, more pleasure, more function and more safety. The new kitchen is a room where we literally have to plan for everything, all the time. I believe that is the holy grail of home design.”

But Grey believes our kitchen designs need to be more human-centric – “kinder”, as he puts it.

“No one has a perfect body and we all suffer from disabilities from time to time, but we adapt and we com­­pensate. So our design job is to provide the opportunity and ergonomic support in order to do this. And we can, but we need to lead people to this by creating beautiful, touchable and appealing objects with the appropriate technology and with functional furniture. Safer, kinder and more functional spaces where we can linger for longer.”

Johnny Grey
Johnny Grey

He adds: “For example, places where people can perch, not necessarily sit, to encourage a short-term conversation, which makes people feel welcome.”

But Grey believes we are not there yet: “We have come a long way, but I think we can go a lot further. The newly liberated gender-, disability- and age-friendly kitchen is upon us, but the design hasn’t really caught up. Children should be welcome and it should be a safe place, and so should older people be welcome, and it should be a safe place for them too.”

And at the heart of the 4G social kitchen should be an element of well-being. Grey points to the work of the ‘Face­book prof­­­­­­essor’ Robin Dun­­­­­­­­bar, whose paper Breaking Bread explores the con­­­cept of ‘social eating’: “Social eating brings communities together and of course individuals are part of communities, and regularly eating meals alone was the biggest single pathway to a shorter life.

“In a multigenerational kitchen, we have got an enticing prospect of creating spaces where we can spend more time together cooking and eating. And cooking is the one craft that everyone can learn and take easy pleasure in. And from doing things beyond cooking – planning trips and looking at our computers. Sharing our devices rather than being on our own.”

The answer is in our hands, says Grey, pointing out that research has shown that people are happiest in the evening when they would most likely be in their kitchens: “As designers, we have the best opportunity of almost any profession. We have a room that people occupy when they are potentially at their happiest, so we have a respon­sibility and ability to make sure we use this golden time to make people happy.”

Long thin islands create more space

He points to historical evidence that shows multi­generational living is in fact the norm: “The nuclear family [a couple and their children] is something that western societies have done only in the past 100 years or so. Research shows that 66 million Americans, that’s one-in-four, live in a multigenerational way. In the UK, the figure is 2m.

“Aviva [Insurance] asked people if they would like to live in a multi­generational way if they could find the property that worked for them, and 65% of respondents said they would.”

But it is not as easy in the UK as in America, as Grey confirms: “One of the problems in the UK is that there simply aren’t the houses available. So we are going to have to do a lot of conversion work, and there is real opportunity here for designers to bring in multigenerational kitchens.”

Hard-wired needs
One of the key elements of the 4G kitchen came out when Grey worked with neuroscientist John Sisam, who referred to certain ‘hard-wired needs’.

As Grey explains: “One is people’s faces – we need eye contact. Food smells are another and they change our mood. Likewise long views. So having a window with a long view is important. We also need to have some safety and ideally there should be a table that at least occasionally might get some sunlight on it. These are feel-good factors that we can employ.

“So if you are designing a multi­generational kitchen, you have to design it so that the main task can be carried out in the middle of the room. You want eye contact with people. You can’t have a conversation with people when they are behind your head.”

For the past three years, Grey has been working on a research project to develop a multigenerational kitchen with Britain’s National Innovation Centre for Ageing at Newcastle University – and that is now on display at its new premises in the centre of Newcastle.

Grey reveals how they concluded that designing a 4G kitchen was partly about “unbundling prejudice about ageing and disability” but also discovering “how we can facilitate four or five people being able to be in the same space and use it effectively”.

One of his main discoveries during the course of that project was: “Having a long, thin central island is absolutely crucial to accommodating multiple different uses, as well as having work surfaces that can rise and fall for a variety of different activities. They should be different shapes and sizes. And so there is a whole table that rises and falls and the shelf in the front offers something like a breakfast bar, or a bar that you can lean against for a drink, and even add swing-out side stools.”

Perching places encourage people to linger

Grey also likes the idea of including a Quooker tap, “because a Quooker tap is a permanent invitation to make a cup of tea or coffee and it is a great welcoming opportunity for getting people to come into the kitchen and hang around”.

If we are to make better multigene­rational kitchens, what top tips can Grey offers designers?

Grey advises:“It’s very simple. We need more space. Space for two or three people to enjoy doing different things at the same time without running into each other. If you’re working from home, you can’t be doing it on a central island, where you are right next to somebody that’s cooking.

“Using less cabinetry is a way of creating a sense of more space, corners left free and also separate storage, such as in a walk-in pantry.

“Distributed surfaces or tables also form a key part of my vision for the future multigenerational kitchen.”

Acknowledging that designers in the UK are going to have to work with small spaces a lot of the time, Grey suggests: “The core way that I manage to design sociability into small spaces is through a circular peninsula.

Eye contact
“This is a way of getting eye contact as much as you can. Often you can’t get it fully, but you can get it partially, so that people who are preparing and cooking face into the room. Approximate sizes I look at are between 1m and 1.2m and the bigger dimension gives you the opportunity for having a raised-height shelf.”

But if you have a bigger space to work with, Grey suggests a long, thin central island. He adds: “This is an extremely good way of inviting four or five people to use the kitchen, often in different ways. Having a narrow dimension isn’t necessarily a problem, particularly if you’ve got a laptop. If you are preparing food, you don’t need to have the depth that a lot of big, square and rectangular islands have. I just don’t think they are necessary. You can make the space work for you better by having it long and thin.”

As part of a research programme Grey has been carrying out over the past three years, he has worked with the Royal Society for the Arts in London on a student design challenge, centred around social eating and its effects on mental health.
A thousand students from around the world took part. Findings include:
• The offer of food or a spot for dishes that have just been made, which celebrates the cook;
• Provide displays for all types of things in the kitchen. There is nothing wrong with having things out;
Grey adds: “I am slightly anti this whole experience of trying to minimise or de-clutter kitchens. I don’t mean that they need to be over-cluttered, but there is pleasure in seeing the things we surround ourselves with.”
• And finally, the other social aspect that is so badly missing is perching places. We need to find a way of inviting people to feel comfortable in their kitchens. Grey says perching places can be provided by swing-out stools, and are important because we want people to spend more time there.

Reflecting on their social functio­nality, Grey concludes: “Kitchens need to be more like a pub and less like an operating theatre.”

Johnny Grey’s top 4G design tips
• A long, thin central island
• [For small spaces] A circular peninsula
• Work surfaces that rise and fall
• Perching places – swing-out stools
• Fewer cabinets
• Leave corners free
• Walk-in pantry for storage
• Distributed surfaces or tables

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