What's Cooking: New Kitchen Products

By staff April 1, 2003

Once upon a time kitchens were purely utilitarian spaces, designed for the hot, steamy work of preparing a meal. Most of the time the woman of the house did that work. And she'd be mortified if guests joined her in the kitchen. Today's home chef is just as likely to be a man, and the cooking couple invites guests to join them with drinks while they create the latest hobby cuisine.

As a result, kitchens have become living spaces with all that connotes. Interior design is more elaborate and thoughtful. Plus, innovative products make preparing the meal efficient and enjoyable. From the floor on up, here are some of the trends.

Natural Flooring

Tiles haven't entirely disappeared but kitchen floors are trending to blend with the rest of the home and wood floors are moving in. Trisha Coats of Kitchens by Design explains. "It used to be that people wouldn't consider wood for wet areas, but now they can, because a wood floor can be finished to protect it from the moisture. For decorative effect we're even mixing woods such as cherry cabinets with a light maple wood floor."

Even more exotic is bamboo. Yes, bamboo. Though it's a grass, a careful and extensive process makes it extremely durable. Laid vertically or horizontally or combined with other materials such as slate, bamboo creates dramatic effects that work well in the more contemporary kitchens.

Cork also appears in contemporary kitchens. Since it's naturally resilient, cork can comfort the cook who's on his or her feet all day. It's also durable, moisture-resistant, and provides a natural thermal and acoustic insulation. For environmentalists, the cork oak tree's ability to regenerate its bark is a bonus. Available in tiles and planks, cork appears in different shades, with a waxed or matte varnish finish.

Counter Points

Imagine a backsplash that glows like a ruby or sapphire. The shimmer comes from glass tiles-virtually unbreakable when installed. The eight-millimeter-thick glass tiles are available in a myriad of jewel-like colors that can be cut and shaped to create varied designs and borders. Best of all, they're a breeze to clean, since the glass is impervious to stains. The newest epoxy grouts create a seal to prevent foreign material from being absorbed.

For a traditional look, stone tops the counters. Coats admits to liking granite but highly recommends Zodiac(r), a quartz product by DuPont. "It has the hardness and look of granite but it's available in light colors that you can't get in granite and it works better for a contemporary look."

Efficient Storage

Innovative cabinetry expands the usable space in a kitchen. Tim Walton of Lube Kitchens says that the Italians, who have small kitchens, know how to use space efficiently. He proudly pulls out a corner cabinet in one imported Italian cabinet and calls it a "magic corner." Opening the door swivels the shelving behind it forward and out, while the corner section moves into reach, permitting full access to the storage.

Another interesting aspect of the Italian cabinetry is its modular construction. In Europe homes are often sold with bare walls, and kitchen cabinets often move with their owners. Though we don't carry our cabinets with us, the modular concept does allow for rearranging.

Another clever trick is an under-sink drawer that wraps around the sink area in a "u" design to use the normally wasted space lost due to the sink depth. The u-shaped storage provides ideal space for cleaning supplies, leaving the section below that for wastebaskets and typical under-sink storage.

Every well-dressed kitchen these days deserves full overlay doors with European hinges. The doors cover the entire cabinet front, eliminating the leftover extra inch between the doors and resulting in a neater impression. Also, the full space inside can be used; cabinet doors, depending on manufacturer, can open 110 degree to 160 degrees.

Ergonomic Design

Searching for the right pot or pan can be a chore when it's in at the back of a bottom cabinet. Drawers that pull out eliminate the worst of the stooping. In addition, Lazy Susans that move items forward for easier access are built into counters. One at DeSears' exhibit is a stylish oval set in a corner. The curved front door opens neatly to reveal two levels of storage; the door swivels back and pops seamlessly back into position.

Above a sink, a cupboard door pops out and up like a mini garage door, providing unencumbered access to the space behind. To avoid muscle strain on the homeowner, once the door opens three to four inches, a hydraulic system pops it up automatically the rest of the way. Closure is just as easy.

Thin is In

Electric glass range tops have gone on a diet. The newest profiles are so narrow in depth that pot and pan drawers fit directly underneath the range, right where they will be used. Walton especially likes the radiant heat units. "A lot of people from up North like gas, but radiant units are probably safer. An element under a piece of glass is a lot different than an open flame that can catch a sleeve."

Thankfully, many of the traditional benefits of gas -quick heating and precision control-are now possible with radiant units. Advances in circuitry have increased dramatically the latitude of temperature control. Units are far more sensitive and provide more precise temperature control. Smaller spiral elements increase resistance so that the units also heat up faster, delivering heat to the top more efficiently.

Opposites Attract: Contemporary and Traditional

It's a toss-up as to whether contemporary or traditional design is winning in the trends. Contemporary is heating up in popularity, but traditional is still the front-runner in all its guises- Mediterranean, Key West, French, Italian, Spanish or American traditional.

"American is half a generation behind Europeans as far as styling is concerned," says Walton. "In Europe, fully two-thirds are contemporary and in America it's the reverse. Most Americans like moldings and traditional looks in cabinetry but now more companies, even domestic, are providing clean- lined, simple looks and they're becoming more popular."

David Thomsen of Cabinet Innovations agrees. "Modern trends, which had sort of disappeared, are coming back...but about two years ago the traditional came back with darker woods. We're using capitals, columns and corbels in a lot of designs, with grapes and shells used as decorative carvings on the ends of islands, on vent hoods."

Detailed crown molding is popular, with two or three different pieces combined to create a detailed, elaborate design and a massive look. And traditional designs in natural wood now feature highlights of black or port red as a thin stain over it.

Alderwood is coming into use for cabinets. The species, already popular in Europe, is virtually impervious to moisture so it almost never changes shape with humidity as do other woods. It also has a high resistance to heat.

David Gruber of Floors by Design notes that kitchens in general are becoming more individualized. "Some want high-gloss contemporary with mirror finishes, others want the natural look of slate and bamboo and some want traditional looks with tumbled stone," he says. One Oriental kitchen created by Floors by Design features an inset of six-inch by 12-inch tumbled travertine marble typical of traditional kitchens set within three-foot by three-foot boxes of a contemporary bamboo pattern.

Industrial-strength Appliances

The trend toward stainless steel appliances- refrigerators, ovens, dishwasher, range hoods, ad infinitum-continues. The industrial look translates to ever-larger units such as massive 36-inch freezer/36-inch refrigerator combinations. The stainless is impervious to much abuse but shows handprints, so it often requires almost daily cleaning. Though many homeowners are choosing stainless steel, the market is still split between stainless steel and appliances with integrated cabinetry fronts that blend with the master design of the kitchen.

Lighting and Accents

Since kitchens are often the hub of the home, these days they're also being accessorized much as the living room or family room would be, with area rugs, lamps, plans, books and other interesting accessory pieces. Coats says, "We try to get a comfortable seating area in the kitchen and an accent cabinet piece that looks like an antique makes it more interesting. In some houses, we've restored terrazzo and used Oriental rugs in the kitchen." Task lighting under cabinets serves a utilitarian need, while area lighting in glass-shelved cabinets and handsome ceiling fixtures-even ornate chandeliers-create a luxurious ambience.

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