Grey Matters

PSYCHOLOGY OF THE KITCHEN

This is a draft for an article commissioned by Country Life for their March 21st  2012 edition. The news section features a link with the edited version along with a practical checklist.

I used to think designing a kitchen was all about aesthetics, ergonomics and craftsmanship. Now it is about something else less tangible which amounts to understanding what kind of environments make people feel happiest at home: a move from the outer world inwards.

The secret to a really effective kitchen is a compact cooking zone, as this allows enough space to available to fulfill the room’s expanded role as a ‘living’ space. Focusing on the room’s culinary effectiveness is no longer enough. A space once dedicated exclusively to cooking, clearing up and food storage is now a heavily-used social area that is also an emotional sanctuary, with an umbilical cord to the garden. During the last expansion we pulled down walls, now we add fold-back doors to bring nature in. Most communal life talks place in the kitchen: conversations round the table, prep, using laptops, dumping books and toys, listening to music and the radio, perching, cooking, snacking, polishing shoes, charging phones, mending bicycles and doing the ironing. Slowly we are expanding outdoors too.

The multiple-platform character of the kitchen makes it fall close to what sociologist Ray Oldenburgh calls the ‘Third Space’, an indeterminate public setting for active, joined-up lives like pubs or coffee bars. Key social trends in families with both partners working result in time at home together becoming limited. As many children have long school hours leisure time is highly scheduled for all, indicating that every house needs a genuine, flexible common room where encounters can be turned into effective exchanges and a host of different activities can be accommodated.

I believe the real drivers of home design are our hard-wired needs, our instincts, and it is time for these to be properly recognized. Richard Wrangham’s book Catching Fire tells how our brains became human-sized through the nutritional benefits of cooked food, freeing early humans from spending all their time searching for food and eating it. Cooking promoted sociability as collaborative households were more successful at maximizing food resources. We know that the brain is elastic and grows when acquiring new skills. It is as if the impact of social trends accumulates in the brain’s synapses. Our behaviour at home, how we work, live and use our leisure time, ultimately becomes incorporated into the structure of our brains. The design of new-style expanded kitchens is in tune with these developments.

Psychology, neuroscience and ergonomics overlap in the complex processes of putting a kitchen environment together. Decisions about shapes, materials, choices of décor rub together with practical considerations on counter heights, floor surfaces or whether to align a sink cabinet with a window. Which do you satisfy, the urge for a view that could mean a smaller sink or a reduced size draining board? Do you find space for an antique dresser or a desk and sacrifice having a sofa. Can you squeeze in a painting not another wall cupboard? Emotion is regularly pitched against function. These might seem trivial dilemmas but there is urgency about creating a relaxing ambience as contemporary life is full of anxiety. A large part of the news that streams into our homes is made up of environmental and economic disaster, war, poverty, over-population and violence. Anything we can do to offset this, to calm ourselves and shore up a sense of well-being must be done.

Domestic spaces, and the design of them, play a real role in our day-to-day happiness. Design and décor might appear trivial compared with the emotional maturity that family relationships demand. However, a well-run household is a space in which to live at ease in the natural rhythms of daily life. We cannot escape the psychological impact of how a room looks and feels. Our brains constantly pick up visual clues even without wanting to. Colours for example have an emotional quotient: think of the different effects on mood of red and blue, yellow and green. And of course every object contains a story, older things perhaps the most evocative. Berkeley professor Clare Cooper Marcus investigates the hold that our past and present dwellings exert on us in her book House as Mirror of Self (1995). Many people she interviewed found their homes uncomfortable for reasons that had nothing to do with ordinary issues about design or privacy. Marcus writes that ‘we unconsciously reproduce aspects of our childhood homes as adults, our surroundings somehow tethered to this core’, adding that someone ‘may rent a house that is completely inappropriate for his needs, without being aware his childhood home is still reverberating in his unconscious’.

In the eighties when I developed the Unfitted Kitchen, the kitchen made with furniture, the response from many people was one of relief that you could furnish the kitchen again like any other room. Units around walls were not the dominant feature anymore. Ownership returned to the user and cooking was no longer the main function of the space. As Karen Fisher, editor of Cosmopolitan, said a few years back, ‘home decoration is the most personal path to self expression, next to making love’.

We rely on ‘home’, a resonant word whose shaded meanings each of us generate from our childhood memories for our sense of belonging and rootedness. As the epitome of home, the kitchen is often represented in fairy tales and folk tales, in those cottages and castles we connect with emotionally. The animals in The Wind in the Willows have wonderful kitchens. This is Badger’s:

The floor was well-worn red brick, and on the wide hearth burnt a fire of logs, between two attractive chimney-corners tucked away in the wall, well out of any suspicion of draught. A couple of high-backed settles, facing each other on either side of the fire, gave further sitting accommodations for the sociably disposed. In the middle of the room stood a long table of plain boards placed on trestles, with benches down each side. At one end of it, where an arm-chair stood pushed back, were spread the remains of the Badger’s plain but ample supper. Rows of spotless plates winked from the shelves of the dresser at the far end of the room, and from the rafters overhead hung hams, bundles of dried herbs, nets of onions, and baskets of eggs. It seemed a place where heroes could fitly feast after victory, where weary harvesters could line up in scores along the table and keep their Harvest Home with mirth and song, or where two or three friends of simple tastes could sit about as they pleased and eat and smoke and talk in comfort and contentment. The ruddy brick floor smiled up at the smoky ceiling; the oaken settles, shiny with long wear, exchanged cheerful glances with each other; plates on the dresser grinned at pots on the shelf, and the merry firelight flickered and played over everything without distinction.

As many of us live in pre-built houses we have to be ingenious in creating our new kitchen spaces. With new-build though we can move fastest towards the home of the future, the ‘kitchen centric’ house. This depends on developers offering improved designs and homeowners recognising how much the design of their homes can be enhanced. The good news is that today we are far more aware of the hidden forces behind our conscious choices than were previous generations, so we can take our psychological needs more fully into account when designing this pivotal room.

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