Home & Garden

The Kitchen Office Unleashed

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Gone are the cluttered desks and messy spaces that once filled our kitchens. Explore some of the nifty devices and high-tech solutions that are becoming a standard part of our modern kitchens.

Debra Bergstrom keeps important items neatly hidden behind the doors of a thin messaging cabinet mounted on the side of her regular cabinets. She also swapped her old built-in desk for a beverage cooler located outside the main workspace, as seen in top photo.

Debra and John Bergstrom decided a couple of years ago to remodel the original kitchen in their 20-year-old Rockford home.

It really needed an update,” Debra says. “Countertops, appliances, the whole thing. We did everything from the floor up.”

They decided to retire one feature: the built-in desk at the end of the counter. At standard desk height, 30 inches, it was lower than the main countertops (36 inches) and never really served its intended purpose.

“We just never used it,” Debra says. “No one ever sat there. It just collected clutter. The desk was where all the paper ended up.”

Several factors contribute, but designers concur: Once a must-have in kitchen remodels, dedicated desk areas are quickly going the way of harvest-gold appliances.

Doug Trussoni, a certified kitchen designer with Andco Kitchens & Baths, Inc., 540 S. Perryville Road, Rockford, knew what he’d find when he first visited the Bergstroms’ home to talk about a remodel.

“If I go to a house that’s 20 years old, and they want to redo their kitchen, I can almost close one eye and there it is,” he says of the built-in desk. “It’s going to be in the kitchen. It was just part of that incorporation.”

No longer. Trussoni says that out of every 25 kitchens he designs, he might see only one that integrates office space.

“If anything, you’re taking them out,” he says. “Because they become more of a clutter space. People realized, this is just a catch-all.”

<3>No Desk Required

Kitchens remain the home’s nerve center. More than ever, in fact. But home life has changed dramatically in the past 20 to 30 years – typically a kitchen’s lifespan in terms of utility. Most kitchens being remodeled today are older than the Internet, cell phones or any i-device. Where homeowners once wanted kitchen space for a bulky desktop computer and books, today’s untethered devices – laptops, smartphones and, increasingly, tablets – are as mobile as their users.

Bergstrom, for instance, says she still does a lot of cooking and planning in the kitchen, but her iPad replaces the need for a desktop computer, bookshelf and wall calendar. Add to that the idea that not many people are using wall-mounted telephones any more, and suddenly the kitchen office is obsolete.

Diane Feuillerat, owner of Kitchens by Diane, 6346 E. Riverside Blvd., Loves Park, started hearing that refrain about three or four years ago, just as the iPad and similar products were hitting the market and as home Wi-Fi was becoming the norm. And it hasn’t let up.

“Probably once a week I get somebody in here telling me they want to get rid of the desk in their kitchen,” Feuillerat says.

“People want the kitchen to be where everybody gathers,” she says. “They don’t want it to be a desk area where there’s clutter and looking like somebody’s paying bills there.”

Trussoni adds: “The biggest thing that I see when we’re planning is, ‘I just want a place where I can sit down, pull out my laptop and plan a menu. Or research something. I have a home office for the rest of that stuff.”

Also gone from most new designs are those pigeonholes where homeowners supposedly stuffed letters and bills. One of the cabinet companies Feuillerat works with finally started adding doors to cover the pigeonholes.

“Who wants to see all of your bills and envelopes sticking out?” she says. “It’s not that pretty. And people want pretty kitchens now.”

The Bergstroms replaced their kitchen desk with additional counter space, all at the same 36-inch level. A beverage center – a small, stainless steel refrigerator with a glass door – now occupies the under-counter spot once occupied by a desk chair.

That’s typical, kitchen designers say. Homeowners are opting for multipurpose islands and counters, plus all the storage space they can get.

“Just about every kitchen we quote now will have provision for a large pantry,” says John Kruschke, president of Premier Woodwork, Inc., 1522 Seventh St., Rockford. “We’re also doing a lot of large drawers. People like storing their dishes in drawers rather than upper cabinets.”

It’s all about readily available, convenient storage, adds John Knabe, manager of New Leaf Remodeling, 6551 E. Riverside Blvd., Suite 110, Rockford.

“A lot of those desk areas were obviously taking up a lot of space and people don’t want to have to walk down the hallway to get to what they’re using for a pantry now,” Knabe says.

Sometimes, desk areas are being converted to buffet areas, Kruschke adds, maybe with a wine chiller or beverage center built in underneath. The idea is to move beverages from the main refrigerator, in the kitchen’s work area, to a social area with easy access.

Inside Focus

Cabinetry exteriors are becoming simpler in design, too.

“You’re not seeing all the intricate mouldings and things like that,” Knabe says. “It’s simple, Shaker doors. Flat panels.”

In other words, what’s increasingly important to homeowners is not what they see upon entering the kitchen. It’s what they don’t see.

“People are adding all the bells and whistles inside the cabinets,” says Sue Bryant, owner of River Valley Kitchens & Baths, Inc., 5261 Swanson Road, Roscoe. “That’s kind of your key with a good kitchen design is to try to get as much up and off the counters as you can.”
Among those bells and whistles:

• Islands with end drawers that open into additional counter/table space.
• Deeper drawer boxes for dishes, pots and pans, as opposed to deep cabinets you have to rummage through.
• Organizers allowing pots to go one place, lids another.
• Rollout trays for more-convenient storage in low cabinets.
• Drawers with built-in storage for knives or spices.
• Full-height, narrow base cabinets with slide-outs to hold baking utensils, canisters and ingredients.
• Pull-out shelves that lift heavy appliances like mixers to counter level. That’s a sweet dream for cooks tired of hauling out the Kitchenaid, but those with smaller kitchens should be advised that this feature requires an entire, dedicated cabinet.

Soffits – those drop-down boxes between the tops of cabinets and the ceiling – are disappearing. They represent reclaimable space for pantries and other cabinets, Knabe says.

“People are going with tall cabinets to get more storage, and it makes a smaller kitchen seem larger – gives a more vertical feel to it, so you don’t feel so confined,” he says.
Owners of larger kitchens want the same thing, Trussoni says.

“The reason is that so many people now buy bulk, so when they go to a Costco or a Sam’s Club or whatever, they load up,” he says. “And when they do that they need a place to stash it.”

Message in a Cabinet

Remaining kitchen office territory tends to be hidden: a file drawer, for instance; or a stand-up message center, with a whiteboard, key hooks and phone charging space (including outlets) all stashed inside a tall, shallow cabinet at eye level.

“I’m designing several message center areas right now,” Feuillerat says. “It’s just stand up. You don’t sit there – because people didn’t sit there. So you get a lot more storage out of the space if you do cabinets underneath.”

“In one really big house,” she adds, “we did a planning center: a little area she could shut the doors on and was its own little room. Maybe a 7-by-8-foot room with a desk.”

Otherwise, finding kitchen workspace for computers and tablets means just sitting at the island, where everyone wants to sit anyway.

“It’s the serving counter, it’s the food-prep counter, it’s the table, it’s the desk,” Trussoni says.
Power outlets can be built into the sides or, for the James Bond enthusiast, built right into the island countertop as a pop-up power module with standard electrical outlets and USB connections.

Counter Culture

There’s even a psychological component to getting rid of the kitchen desk, Trussoni says. A drop-down area, below counter height, creates uninviting, segregated space – not unlike placing a kid in time-out.

“Here’s the kitchen, all the activity, the family, whatever else, and you’re up against a wall, sitting in your nook,” he says. “And it just doesn’t work. They’re stuck in a spot, but yet their back is turned to the environment. And we all want to be part of the environment.

“So here they are in this little echo-chamber zone, when they could be at the island doing their work and talking to Timmy …”

Another late-20th century holdover – a small TV in the kitchen – doesn’t face extinction, but doesn’t need the dedicated space it once did, either. Flat-screen technology means a TV can mount on a wall, drop down under a cabinet or even be placed in the door of a refrigerator. Sometimes, a laptop computer or tablet serves as the kitchen TV.

Designers also say today’s island work areas tend to face outward into the gathering space – or, as Bryant mentioned, even into an adjacent room with a big-screen TV. Newer, open floor plans often leave no need for a kitchen TV.

Knocking out a wall, say, between a kitchen and family room is a common remodeling preference in the Rockford area, Knabe adds.

“There are still a lot of older homes and older layouts that were more confined spaces,” he says. “We’re opening up those a lot. It creates more flow from one room to another, so you’re not having to carry on a conversation walking around the corner. If one person’s cooking and the other’s working at a table, you can still have a conversation without having to yell through a wall.”

Open spaces can allow for darker woodwork without making the entire space feel dark. Both Knabe and Kruschke say painted cabinets with glaze are popular now. Gray is particularly big, with an assortment of warm tones available, often pairing well with stainless steel appliances.

Stained cabinets, on the other hand, are going dark.

“Darker wood grains are coming back – an espresso finish, especially,” Kruschke says. “And then wood floors that match it. It’s just a new trend. In the ’70s it was all the rage. The golden oak and maple that were popular more recently are not so big now.”

Everything In Its Place

Amid those transitions, desks usually wind up in the home office, where they probably belonged all along.

“People sprawl, and you can’t sprawl at one of these little desks,” Trussoni says. “It’s not meant for that. I can take these spaces now, that used to be desks, and I can turn them into little bistro areas. These bigger kitchens I can say, let’s take that place, put a couple of glass doors in, big drawers like a buffet area. And (clients) say, ‘Yeah, I need that. I want it to look more like furniture.’ So suddenly you create that look.”

Maybe that’s the biggest advantage to homeowners. Freedom to make your workspace wherever you happen to be sitting means more room for anything else you want. Counter space can be expansive, especially on islands. New, concealed storage space abounds, with customized spots for appliances and cooking tools.

After a remodel, where does all the clutter wind up? At the Bergstroms’ house, the new kitchen fostered new habits, too.

“We’ve tried really hard to be better about it,” Debra says. “We still have a little basket for mail, but we make a conscious effort to sort it and then move it to the office.”
And that desk space that disappeared? “I haven’t missed it at all.”

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