Center Stage

Over the past two decades, much has been written about the Great Room kitchen – a multi-purpose space with the actual cooking center tucked in one corner. Today, however, designers are telling me their clients are looking for a kitchen design that positions the gourmet space in a more central location within the Great Room.

The new trend seems to be about moving the kitchen out of the corner and giving it a center stage treatment. In the drawing featured at left, you can see the kitchen in a corner plan, as compared to the kitchen in the center of the room concept seen below.

In this example, moving the working kitchen into the center of the room resulted in space being available for a semi-private, quieter media room. Although separate, the area is still part of the kitchen because it is visible through the wall opening behind the sink.

A walk-through pantry is adjacent to the kitchen and houses the full-size freezer. Only the fresh food refrigerator is located in the cook’s triangle of work space.

With the inclusion of a well-organized pantry system, wall cabinet storage can be minimized. Replacing wall cabinets with tall cabinets is a good idea. University studies have identified the ideal storage area as the shelf space from the principal user’s knee level to eye level. In traditional base and wall cabinetry, this important storage area is interrupted by the countertop (and little-used backsplash wall space). Normal depth cabinetry or narrow depth storage areas (just make sure the shelf is deeper than 10") provide an ergonomically useful floor-to-ceiling storage area.

A desk for the children’s computer is placed by the back door so that it is private but near enough for a parent to oversee their activities. Another desk type area is “command central.” It is positioned to let the user stay organized while keeping an eye on what is going on with other family members.

Note the added center of activity directly opposite the arched opening into the more formal dining room (or family room?). An attractive refreshment center or butler’s pantry is a possibility. The kitchen refrigerator is enclosed with a wall, providing a space for a family photo gallery or art piece.

Such an arrangement of space may be very appealing to younger families who have very active and very casual lifestyles. They are much different from the career-focused Baby Boomers we have served for years. These Gen Xers have busy work lives as well as active children at home, and a pet or two. They really live together in the cooking/dining/activity space of a Great Room.

The major advantage of moving the kitchen into the center of a large, open Great Room space is that the circular – almost racetrack – traffic pattern allows specific activity centers to flow from one to another, as well as into and out of the cooking space. This is quite different than the kitchen being tied to the grocery entry point and all activity centers then stacked up one after the other beyond the cooking/serving corner area (see drawings above).

The Planning Process

So, how do you begin thinking about planning a kitchen in the middle of the room? This concept might be something you have not tried before. Permit me to share some helpful ways to start the planning process.

  1. Begin by identifying all non-cooking activities the total room must accommodate. Prioritize these activities. Note the equipment (size of flat screen? Two recliners? Sofa/coffee table?) for each area.
  2. Draw the room (completely empty!), listing doors and windows – and where they lead and what the view is. Make sure you have a clear understanding of the construction parameters you must work within. Do you have the option to move a door, change the door swing, combine/add/eliminate windows? Oftentimes, we only focus on the functional kitchen, overlooking the wonderful opportunity we have to improve the entire space by altering the entrances, exits and windows in the room. There may be no possible change – or more than you think. Make sure you ask!
  3. Think about the concept of radial balance, rather than symmetrical or asymmetrical balance. If you begin your planning in a center point of a space, you will find your thinking process is more fluid.
  4. Think in blocks of space: Create dimensioned kitchen work station templates to ground your creative mind in the floor space requirements for these cooking centers:
    • Freezer with counter.
    • Food Preservation: Point-of-use refrigeration or special purpose under-counter refrigeration. Space needed for a standalone refrigerator with landing space. Footage for a large refrigerator/freezer in a pantry, garage or other location.
    • Sink/dishwasher/recycling/drawer bank run of counter and cabinets.
    • Cooktop with storage below/base cabinets each side/wall cabinets each side.
    • Minimum full-size oven combined with microwave/convection units, steam ovens and/or warming drawers. Is it possible to tuck that second oven (only used for Thanksgiving) in an adjacent pantry?
    • Table and chairs with walk-around space behind.
    • Stacked washer and dryer with utility sink vs. side-by-side equipment.
    By creating such templates, you can easily consider possible layouts by moving these “patterns” around. Be prepared – working from the middle of the room out is much more difficult than “stepping” along predetermined wall lengths.
  5. Identify what type of alternative wall cabinet storage you can suggest. Think pantry!

    I believe sheetrock-constructed walk-in pantries will continue to grow in popularity in kitchen designs. Why? First, this type of enclosed open storage structure makes it far easier for a busy family with lots of cooks – leading a very casual lifestyle – to be able to find everything.

    In the past, most families had “Mom” as the primary cook. She knew where everything was and could go easily from cabinet to cabinet, opening the doors to retrieve the items stored within. She also made sure everything
    got back where she wanted it to go. For many families today, a walk-in pantry with open shelving may be highly valued because anyone can enter the space and find what they’re looking for, regardless of where the last “cook” placed the item.

    When planning this type of large pantry, I urge you to include a “hostess cart.” Visit John Boos or Enclume’s Web sites ( or for more ideas on this. Any type of cart on castors (which allows you to unload items from the pantry and move them into the primary work surface) is a great enhancement to the space. If you specify locking castors, it also provides extra worktop space.
  6. Use a grid system to “block off” the space you are working with: it‘s much better than simple 1/4" or 1/2" grid paper. Begin by drawing a parameter around the room that is 24" to 30" of space accommodating cabinets or furniture. Next indicate a 36" to 42" walkway. Lastly, divide the center area left and right into 27" deep base/countertop sections, and 6" wall areas. This approach makes it easier to consider all of the possibilities.
  7. Consider different shapes for the center island or one major wall in the room (see drawings on the right).
  8. If at all possible, attach the breakfast/dining/everything table to one of the center kitchen work stations. Although in North America we prefer walk-around/seated-around tables, the European approach of a table attached at the end or back of an island is just as inviting and saves one entire 36" to 42" walkway corridor.

Center Stage Designs

To demonstrate the possible space management success of this approach, let’s take a look at another kitchen that has been designed.

The drawing on Page 36 (at bottom, left) showcases a large L-shaped kitchen (with an island featuring a wraparound counter surface) in the back half of the room. With so much space between the cook and the family and friends area, there might as well have been a wall separating the room.

The center stage kitchen on Page 36 (at bottom, right) offers an alternative solution. A large second kitchen/pantry area is created behind the kitchen after it is “pushed” to the center of the space. This pantry is big enough to incorporate a second refrigerator, as well as a second sink and dishwasher if appropriate. A Thanksgiving turkey oven is also ready and waiting for holiday events! Easily accessible from the back door, as well as the kitchen, it is a functional solution for a busy family.

Smaller Spaces

Is this idea only for big Great Rooms? No! Such an approach is not reserved for large spaces. Great room ideas work for small spaces, too

Consider the plan above. A U-shaped kitchen with a breakfast area and adjacent laundry room is our starting point. The space is then transformed into a combination of pantry storage/laundry area and “walk-around” island living environment (see illustration above). Replacing the windows along the back wall with a cantilevered bay window seat expands the area to include a great spot to sit in on a sunny day.

Note the use of sliding “barn doors” in the pantry area. Large swinging doors are troublesome – anywhere, any time. Pocket doors can be expensive because the entire wall needs to be opened and reframed.

One alternative is sliding doors mounted on the outside of a wall (with concealed or decorative hardware). In this case, the barn doors are installed on the inside of the laundry area, allowing 12" deep storage (with a decorative shelf stretched above the door) to be installed in the kitchen space.

A larger opening into this laundry room has also been suggested because the doors typically stay open during normal family living, only closed when company comes over.

As you begin your search of a solution for a new prospective client, think outside of the box. I know that’s an overused phrase, but as you face your computer screen – or with pencil and paper – try starting in the middle of the room instead of along the edges.

A word of practical advice: In our current “economically challenged” design world, suggest two solutions to the client. Start with a great plan (within budget) of a kitchen attached to the walls. The second plan can be the unexpected “center stage” idea.

Why do the extra work? Although the prospective client might opt for the more traditional kitchen design approach, they may be so impressed with your other ideas they decide to shop no further! The key is not whether they pick the more avant-garde center room solution – the key is they buy you rather than the less professional, less experienced, less creative, dollar-focused competitor who is vying for the client’s business against you. Win the sale with your ideas, not with discounts.