Be brave and ignore the kitchen

Colin Wong, creative director of Development Direct in Edinburgh, explains how he tackled one very small and one monster project by resisting the temptation to play Tetris with boxes and concentrate on the spatial elements.

Every space, no matter how small, is someone’s home and castle.

It is often tempting sidestep these spaces for the more cavernous ones, but I relish a challenge and believe that the design mind can become complacent and almost robotic. Small spaces challenge the designer in you and force the mind to release fresh creativity with business rationale thrown out the window.

I fondly recall of one such space, where a woman approached me through referral. I’m based in Edinburgh, while she was just down the road in Holland Park! Anyway, here she was, perched elegantly in my studio, saying all the right things to make my design mind click. She took pride in informing me how she’d systematically worked her way through seven London studios, all of whom allegedly didn’t listen and seemed not to care about her small space. Like a well-oiled saleswoman, she popped the question: “I believe you like a design challenge?” She had me hook, line and sinker.

It was soon apparent that the previous designers were faced with a lethal mix of two polar opposites – a small, awkward space coupled with a wish list straight from Sex in the City on heat. I kid you not – there was a range cooker, American fridge-freezer and a wine cooler thrown in for good measure. I soon realised that this client was extremely strong-willed, but I instinctively felt that unless I challenged her, I would be next on her hit list. With a glint in my eye, her wish list was theatrically ripped up, as I softly told her that her space would design itself if only we allowed it to. It would be sinful to stem the room’s full potential with a wish list pulled from glossy journals. Thankfully, this was the tonic required to start afresh.

This space was indeed a challenge, but I realised simply playing Tetris, plonking cabinets here, there and everywhere, wouldn’t be the solution. I extracted one key element from her brief – that her apartment being too small to store all her sentimental belongings. I decided to focus on the door wall as you enter the kitchen. From the hall side, simple cabinetry was painted out to blend in with the hall decor. Then, as you walk through an opening via a sliding glass door, a bank of floor-to-ceiling cabinetry occupies the kitchen side of the wall.

Further lateral thinking helped me realise that the room, albeit small, had great height, so I decided to raise the floor across the whole room by one step. I designed a Mondrian grid system of cubes into this floor, each cube opening to reveal a storage box. A sliding ladder gained access to the high-level storage, while the rest of the kitchen was left calm and minimal. The client absolutely loved it.

In this instance, the solution to the small space was to bridge the gap between architecture and kitchen design by addressing the space itself.

On the other side of the ‘size’ coin, I have landed some monsters in my design life. One such project thudded on to my desk and I could see the excitement in my team, who all wanted a crack at it. I was happy to see that they had all created beautiful kitchens, however the spatial layouts were missing something. In my experience, with larger spaces, it is imperative to look past the actual kitchen to introduce more layers of design.

Here, I had to take off my kitchen design hat and consider the spatial layout in isolation to achieve the desired flow. It’s a little weird putting walls back into an open-plan architectural scheme, but instinctively I felt the need for more depth and interest. I introduced a curved partition to conceal a functional, ‘messy kitchen’. A further trinity of curved, louvred walls were introduced to offer partial separation to the lounge. The kitchen itself was then designed in a timeless manner to sit elegantly against the backdrop of these curves.

Every designer relishes large spaces, as they impose no obstacles. Furniture manufacturers are obviously loving this current trend for larger kitchen spaces and strategically align their marketing to literally brainwash designers and the public to subliminally follow suit. Design originality has taken a hit with a loss of soul and personality in favour of size and kudos.

I surmise that many architects’ plans that land on a designer’s desk stem from the client’s initial interaction with their architect, long before the involvement of a humble kitchen designer. These clients are heavily influenced by kitchen journals and the power of social media, which, in turn, are manipulated by the manufacturers. I believe this process is flawed and hopefully architects can come around to the thinking that by working as a threesome, before plans are set in stone, should lead to more bespoke and considered kitchen spaces.

The days of kitchen design being all about the kitchen are history. The common theme between my tiny London kitchen and this monster project are evident. Both schemes required me to refocus my attention on the overall space instead of the kitchen itself.

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