I Hate the Open-Plan Kitchen—and Amazingly, I’m No Longer the Only One
A few years ago, my husband and I moved into a gorgeous Craftsman-style house in the Pacific Northwest. It was chockablock with original details like dark wood paneling, stained-glass transom windows … and a 100-square-foot, totally enclosed kitchen in a faux country style—think yellow oak cabinets paired with linoleum countertops. And though we found most of the historical elements quite charming, the kitchen needed a complete overhaul.
So we hired an architect who hatched a plan to steal some space from the nearby office area. But he didn’t want to stop there. He also wanted to knock down the wall between the kitchen and the formal dining room, to give us the open-concept kitchen that it seems just about everybody else has these days.
We balked. Lose the cool, old-fashioned swinging door? And the opportunity to leave my kitchen a mess during dinner parties?
Heck no. Because after having grown up in a New York City apartment where public and private spaces were blurred—both bathrooms were en suite, so guests had to traipse through our bedrooms to use the loo—I loved the idea of an older house’s separate rooms. (Remember Julia Child’s famous quip: If you drop something, “you can always pick it up if you’re alone in the kitchen. Who is going to see?”) To me, they aren’t isolated and inconvenient, but rather refined and gracious. Though open kitchens may be all the rage, let me dare to say right here: I’m anti-open kitchen.
For much of domesticated human history—until mid-past century—I wasn’t alone in the enclosed-kitchen camp. Walk into an American home built before the 1950s, and you’ll most likely find the kitchen tucked away in a far-off corner of the main floor. Rarely visited by guests and not a place where the family spent much time, the kitchen was separate and functional, not designed for hanging out.
“The equipment was usually along the periphery,” explains Virginia McAlester, author of “A Field Guide to American Houses,” “meaning that anyone who entered the kitchen was most likely greeted by the cook’s back.” Or they wouldn’t see the cook at all—how often does Lord Crawley visit Mrs. Patmore on “Downton Abbey”?
Only that wasn’t thought of as hugely rude or anything, because most social interaction occurred either in front parlors (for welcoming guests) or in dens (primarily just for family). Not having to touch a hot pan was a sign of status.
These days, the kitchen is the place to entertain, thanks in part to mid-20th-century technology that made appliances fit into the cabinetry, not stand freely and hoard all the free space.
“The kitchen was becoming quieter, cleaner, better organized and easier to work in,” writes Porch.com. “In essence, the kitchen was becoming a source of pride.” These days, you flip on HGTV or pick up a flier for an open house in your neighborhood and chances are they’re heralding an open-concept kitchen. They’re great for wooing guests while cooking, or so goes the current real estate lore.
“Food preparation is central to how we entertain and socialize,” says Erin Gallagher, chief of insights for the Research Institute for Cooking & Kitchen Intelligence. “It’s how we live today.” Nine out of 10 kitchen designers, she says, report that their clients want their living, dining, and cooking spaces to flow together.
There’s a practical reason for their popularity, too. In an age when houses are getting smaller for the first time since 2007 (the median size of a new U.S. home in 2010 was 2,169 square feet, up from 1,525 square feet in 1973 but down from the 2007 peak of 2,277 square feet) and house prices are rising like never before, open kitchens maximize space and minimize cost. In a closed-plan house, there are more doors and walls, more trim and details needed to delineate various rooms. And to build all that requires more tradespeople, like electricians and carpenters.
Consequently, open-plan kitchens have become the new normal. There’s more natural daylight in an open kitchen, too.
And here’s another bitter pill for the fan of the closed-off kitchen to swallow: Open-concept kitchens might help boost a home’s resale value.
“The most common conversation I overhear when showing a property to potential buyers is ‘Is this wall load-bearing? Can we knock it down to open things up?’” says Arthur Jeppe, a principal Realtor® with Read & Jeppe in Newport Beach, CA. “So no matter how gorgeous a home is, it will most likely sell for less if the kitchen is separate.”
OK, so those are compelling reasons, but I remain unconvinced. In part it’s because I find it beyond challenging to turn out culinary masterpieces (or even just a nice meal) while guests are chatting around me in the kitchen, and also because I just don’t believe it’s a good time to “entertain” anyone while I’m wielding a knife and managing fire. Plus, I’m happier when my whole world—especially my living room furniture—doesn’t smell of bacon grease.
As it turns out, others might be starting to see things my way. Hilarious and blasphemous blog posts detailing the difficulties of actually living with open floor plans have started to dot the Internet. (“‘Oh my gosh I dropped the chicken!’ In a perfect world, no one would know. Open floor plan? Well, it’ll be tweeted in minutes.”)
Some architects are seeing an uptick in clients asking for separate kitchens.
“Many of the requests are from older clients, because that’s what they’re used to,” says Timo Lindman, a New York–based residential architect.
But interest is also stemming from sophisticated younger clients rediscovering the value—emotional, if not financial—in drawing a line between public and private space.
“Many properties are designed for a mass market, and in order to appeal to as many people as possible, they include trends like an open-concept kitchen,” says Lindman. “But there’s also a market for interesting, well-thought-out separate spaces. It’s just that they appeal to a group with a more curated aesthetic.”
Tyler Merson, owner of Codfish Park Design in Chatham, NJ, and a former professional chef, is also with me regarding separate kitchens.
“People think they should love open-plan kitchens because they’ve been told to love them,” says Merson, who thinks galley-style kitchens are underrated. “They can be fine for low-impact prep like chopping, but real cooking is messy work and requires a great deal of concentration.” (Man, it feels good to be validated by a professional!)
So could it be a backlash against open-concept kitchens is emerging? Or maybe this is now just one of those things that you have to be either totally for or dead set against. Either way, I’m glad we bucked the trend and kept our separate kitchen. And if you ever come to my house for dinner and experience just how often we set the smoke alarm off, you’ll be glad we did, too.
So which kitchen is right for you? Here are a few concepts to consider as you decide:
What kind of cook you are
If you tend to do takeout or don’t mind your mess being visible, then an open-concept kitchen could work for you. But if you’re into preparing elaborate meals and prefer to concentrate while cooking, then consider a space that’s separate from your home’s main living areas.
Think things through
In most states, changing walls requires building permits—and structural modifications can affect your home’s resale value. So before making plans to knock down an existing wall or rough in another, figure out if your long-term plan includes staying put or needing to appeal to other homebuyers in the future.
It’s easy to be dazzled by professional photos of dream kitchens, but what works well in one space might not in another. Consider your own home’s ceiling height, amount of wall space, windows, and views when creating a plan to fit your kitchen and living space.
Work with someone who sees beyond trends
Some architects value separate kitchen spaces while others think they’re outdated. So if you’re considering closing off your cooking space or shopping for a house that features a closed kitchen, consider working with a builder or Realtor who has an eye for creative elements that make separate spaces feel airy (think a bank of windows, skylights, or glass doors).