We must begin by asking questions. Why are so many people unexcited, even disinterested in kitchens? Why do so many kitchens still feel alien, full of uncuddly, depressing, shiny plastic? Of all rooms in the house, the kitchen is often the least expressive room. We need to explain why householders want to change their kitchens as soon as they get the chance. After all, the kitchen is the room they should love the most.
We know that fewer people are buying kitchens. Is it because they don’t see the potential of these spaces? Or because they have no money? Is it no longer a good investment? Or they are bored with what they see? Should the industry – if I can call it that – be embarrassed? Is it simply poor service?
What makes up a kitchen? When giving a series of talks in Australia, Canada and New Zealand, I asked professionals to shut their eyes for a few moments and imagine their dream kitchen. When I prompted them to answer, no one said appliances or cabinets – they mentioned very emotional things such as long views, happy conversations, long lunches, warm moments of family life. In the last 20 years, the space in kitchens has expanded, but only 30% of floor space is used for culinary tasks. The rest is used for social activities. Perhaps we should call them SOCIAL kitchens. Regardless, we are in an historical period when the kitchen is re-inventing itself in front of our eyes.
We take advantage of this by going with the forces of social change, responding to new working habits, cooking and eating trends, evolving ideas about privacy and leisure and enjoyment of the bigger spaces courtesy of central heating and insulation, and the newly appreciated desire for natural light and connection to the garden.
Using furniture as a planning device is at the philosophical core for me. It brings freedom. It tunes into people’s traditional idea of furnishing – the art of placement, arranging things, compromising, and of putting things together. Space around each piece leaves mental space for expression. It creates variation, 3D movement, flexibility. These items might be sourced from your parents, acquired from a flea market, or commissioned. It is not a commercial process that is taking place here; it’s a simple, traditional way of furnishing but one that has an intelligent inner core to which most ordinary people can relate. And this brings rich psychological content, history and culture. It establishes a story. A bit of soul is possible, so necessary at the heart of our home.
How do we entice customers? A revitalized industry will not listen to obvious or in-your-face wisdom of simplistic customer demand, but rather develop creative partnerships with suppliers, artisans and customers. New organizations like the South Coast Design Forum and the Society of British Interior Design already offer networking and support opportunities to bring all sides of industry together. Innovation does not happen by giving people what they have already. A kitchen designer needs to wear many hats at the same time – to listen, empathize and propose. We want creative partnerships, not sales driven businesses.
The vehicle for making this happen is the artisan, whom I define as an intelligent maker, a word re-emerging into English back from the Italian origin. It would be an historic first to have an industry that went beyond being sales people for the giants paid by commission and become a source for multiple artisan skills where design and making merge a lot more than now - including woodworkers, tile makers to painters, combining 3D design skills, interior, décor, furniture, lighting design, building and architectural ones too – to help our customers live more comfortably in their walls. My experience is that small companies often innovate best as creativity and motivation have a better chance. Creative people abound in this country of ours. Our art and design schools train more than can get jobs – why can’t they be employed more in the kitchen industry?
How do we get there? We need to set up a multi-disciplined technical, arts and design programme, at a college level. An advanced Kitchen Academy. Actually, I can tell you its nearly here. Lynn Jones of the National School of Furniture at Bucks New University is setting up a course for kitchen design. With your support this could break the mould and turn the UK into a leader in global kitchen design, as has been the case with the fashion industry. I can see neuroscience and psychology being taught alongside woodworking, tile-making, ergonomics and soft geometry. How exciting would that be?. Who knows, they may even throw in a few lessons on cooking – something that few kitchen designers do apparently!
You may be surprised to know that the artisan contribution to the kitchen industry is already higher than you think. Of the average spend on a UK kitchen of approximately £6500, £3000 goes to the fitters. Shall we call them craftsmen or artisans or maybe designers in waiting? I am sure we have designers and art school graduates who would like to make things? We have workforce from both sides of the equation waiting for further education.
I have spent my life thinking about the kitchen as a place, not as cabinets or appliances but as an expression of a new kind of home architecture that responds to our instincts. An exploration of kitchen culture and the pursuit of an art of kitchen design. I have seen massive changes in the kitchen over the last thirty years and its going in the right direction, but it needs to go much further. A newly revitalized industry that collaborates with artisans and education could deliver something a whole lot more civilised.