Home Cooking

For decades, designers have quizzed clients about their lifestyles, their needs and wants, and their wish lists. But, now, that may not be enough. Designers may need to be delving even deeper, tapping into their clients' psyches to decipher the emotions behind their clients' behaviors and choices.

Presenters at the NKBA's Masterclass Conference, held in San Francisco in June, offered advice on how to do just that.

"Design is the power to alter," noted Johnny Grey, principal of Johnny Grey Studios in London and San Francisco, CA. "As designers, we need to give pleasure to function."

To that end, designers need to go beyond the basics of feelings. Emotionally intelligent designers understand the reasons why certain things give pleasure. Hard-wired responses, cultural influences and the desire for a personal experience are a few of the reasons, and all will impact kitchen design.

Brain Power

The science of emotions – and the impact the environment has on those emotions – was the topic addressed by John Zeisel, Ph.D., president, Hearthstone Alzheimer Care in Woburn, MA. According to Zeisel, the brain controls a person's behavior, which feeds back to the brain, modifying who that person is. The environment in which that person lives dictates that behavior.

Studies note that architectural design changes our brain and our behavior, reported Zeisel. "That's the power that you have in your hands when you're working with clients," he observed.

"As a designer, you can either meet perceived user needs, or you can understand the user's brain and how the environment affects it, and design for that," said Zeisel.

Neuroscience shows that a positive physical environment has the ability to release endorphins in the brain, he remarked.

According to Zeisel, there are eight characteristics of place that touch the brain. They are where:

  • You feel safe, secure and free.
  • You understand what is expected of you socially.
  • You are able to withdraw on occasion and unwind.
  • You have a destination and enjoy getting there.
  • You have contact with nature.
  • You're supported and comfortable in everything you do.
  • You can celebrate your achievements.
  • You don't have to struggle to understand your surroundings.

Zeisel noted that Hearthstone incorporates these characteristics when designing for people with Alzheimer's disease because, while it's easy to help people stay healthy and functional, it's hard to give them a sense of self. "Good design that's done through their brains and [gets] into their behaviors is a way to give people their selves back, and they'll have a much deeper sense of comfort in the environment."

Zeisel also noted the importance of the hearth, which can be used in the kitchen environment.

"Our designed environment, which is used as a major treatment to reduce the symptoms of Alzheimer's, is based on the concept that the hearth (kitchen) is a hard-wired memory," explained Zeisel. "We use this to calm people. When patients are in the kitchen, they know how to behave – they ask for a cup of coffee. They know where they are when they're there."

He believes this instinctive reaction to the hearth is a hard-wired response in the brain, much like the hard-wired response in birds that fly south for the winter.

Among other hard-wired brain responses Zeisel cited are smiles and frowns; feelings about greenery and trees; response to a mother's touch; music; and hugs. "It's not by chance that when we give each other hugs; those endorphins are working. It's a hard-wired connection," Zeisel emphasized.

By understanding neuroscience and its connection to the environment, Zeisel concluded that designers can reduce stress and many other things that make people sick by the way they design kitchens.

A Room with No Name

Many architects and designers are still designing houses based on a 300- to 400-year-old model, according to Johnny Grey. The concept is based on an old idea, "where women had a series of small rooms to carry out activities," Grey noted. In addition, smaller rooms provided easier heating from fireplaces, a concept that all but vanished with the advent of central heating.

More intuitive designers and architects, however, have embraced the concept of the open kitchen, a room that combines an eating area, cooking space and entertainment/living room all in one. "Today's kitchen was originally three rooms," said Grey. "But now, it's a room whose definition is confused – almost a room with no name."

Several factors precipitated the change in the kitchen, said Grey. "Food calls for company, not servants," he observed, noting that, as society becomes more relaxed, casual socializing is becoming more popular.

Specifically, Grey noted, kitchens are getting bigger socially in the U.S. "Only about 35% of the space is for cooking," he noted.

"Kitchens are focused on emotions, as our brains are hard-wired to these core issues: food, sociability, hearth and light," Grey explained. "These are wonderful things for designers [to begin applying to their designs]."

For emotional engagement, he suggested using concepts that are hard-wired, such as safety, comfort, order, family objects and evidence of handiwork. "They're more than just physical objects," he stressed, and they provide a sense of self to the client.

"Clients are also searching for authenticity," he stressed. "Try to find materials, ideas, and bring something real, something of yourselves, to the design."

One of the design challenges for the open floorplan is that it's a room without walls, he explained. However, the right approach allows for freedom and a very easy flow [by way of] geometry, he added.

He advised using soft geometry in the space to establish natural routes, and to design furniture that doesn't obstruct those routes. "Draw lines between key events and put the furniture somehow in between those lines," he instructed.

"Particularly, you should use furniture that doesn't have sharp corners in the center of the room," Grey added. "The subliminal effect actually has quite an impact on the way people move through a space."

He advised that designers think of furniture as a tool, not just as something aesthetic. "It's actually going to help you move about the space. It's going to become the architecture," he stated.

He noted that 100 years ago, kitchens didn't have joined up cabinetry. "The unfitted kitchen is made for furniture. It's a spiritual idea in many ways, to do the space in a way that feels like a furnished room," Grey asserted.

"I think that's something that's a real emotional need for people," he continued. "They don't want a room that's made in a factory and delivered and installed in one day. They want to feel at home."

Grey also believes it's key to design the space using ergonomic principles. "Design a space in which people can relax in an open floor space," he stated. "Define areas, develop perching places, use view points. Develop dedicated work areas, where users are familiar with everything. [Remember], familiarity is vital under pressure."

Finally, when employing emotionally intelligent design, Grey recommended talking with clients about finishes that become more personal with age. "Natural materials give you an easy way to do that because, as they age, they add beauty… [and] respect."

Design for All

When it comes to kitchens, understanding the needs of people with disabilities can lead to freedom when designing for all, according to Roberto Lucci, partner in Lucci Orlandini Design in Italy.

Lucci noted that, in Europe, the kitchen is an empty room that has to be furnished by the occupant. "In Italy, consumers will buy a kitchen the way they would buy a washing machine or a refrigerator. This offers great opportunities for kitchen manufacturers."

One of those manufacturers, Snaidero, decided to tackle the needs of people with disabilities when creating a kitchen, and commissioned Lucci and his partner, Paolo Orlandini, to design it.

"When it comes to kitchen design, people with disabilities share many of the same needs – such as safety – as traditional users," reported Lucci. And, he added, the kitchen for people with disabilities is also often used by other people, so it needs to meet everyone's expectations. "In addition, there are so many different types of disabilities that [we had to] conceive an easily customized product," he continued.

The result of their work – the Skyline-Lab kitchen – offers some distinctive differences from traditional kitchens that meet the physical, and emotional, needs of people with disabilities.

For instance, all of the wall cabinets were eliminated, replaced in storage capacity by deeper floor cabinets and full-extension dish drawers. Carousels under and above the countertops add storage and allow use of areas difficult to reach from, say, a wheelchair, noted Lucci.

"Wrap-around countertops minimize the necessary movement to reach the whole countertop surface," continued Lucci. The curved countertop provides a better relationship to the body because "there are no straight lines on the human body," he stressed.

Instead of a deep bowl sink, which a person in a wheelchair would hit, a shallow sink is included.

A sliding board under the oven door was suggested by a nurse, reported Lucci. "It allows the user to place hot food on a support, so he/she doesn't have to lift any weight," he explained.

At the start of the design process for this kitchen, Lucci and Orlandini believed they were designing for people with disabilities. But it became clear that the same kitchen could be used for all. Thus, the duo modified it, turning it from the Skyline-Lab kitchen into the Skyline kitchen for the average consumer, said Lucci.

"Designing for people with disabilities has given us the chance to do more innovative design for everybody," stressed Lucci. "It's an advantage to consider the physical and emotional needs of people with disabilities, and then from that proceed to Universal Design."

Material Effect

"We're manipulated by our emotions and our personalities," asserted Fu-Tung Cheng, principal of Cheng Design in Berkeley, CA and KBDN columnist. "When you work with materials, they give off certain emotions." He feels that is what helps people connect to them.

Designers can take different functions and put them together "in a way that's unique, in a way that delights the person using it," he explained. "As a result, every time the client uses it, it evokes something special."

Cheng stressed that putting different finishes on boxes is not what style is. "It comes from this idea of what evolves creatively from personal vision. If you're going to be creative in your own work, you have to find your own style," he stressed. "Do that by finding something that delights you."

Cheng is renowned for his creative use of concrete in his kitchen designs. "I use it because it recognizes one of those primary emotions," he explained. "It has an appeal as something of substance in today's veneer culture. Concrete is a material I can manipulate, [in which] I can find expression."

Though concrete is his main material of choice, Cheng encouraged the use of other natural materials, often in combination. "As long as you create a harmonious composition, don't be afraid to mix various elements – wood, concrete, stainless, slate. All of these together can make a natural composition. They can all work in harmony as they do in nature."

Natural materials can be used expressively if designers tap into what it is that people like emotionally about them, Cheng explained. "It could be because people want to deal with something that is a little out of the box… the ubiquitous cabinet box. It dictates so much of what we're doing in kitchen design. It's a necessity. We live in little boxes, we install boxes and we put slabs on those boxes."

But, Cheng said, this provides a chance to remake those shapes and forms. "High-end clients want customization, something unique," he stressed. "They want something that's been made, that comes from the human spirit, rather than something that's been mass-produced. They're craving handiwork, a sense of expression."

By working with materials that can be manipulated and customized, Cheng stressed that designers can bring in a level of detail and function, of craftsmanship, that people appreciate.

The Right Light

When it comes to creating the right mood and environment, many designers feel it's all about the lighting. Natural daylight is the main source, but what about when the sun goes down?

Randall Whitehead, principal of Randall Whitehead Lighting Inc. in San Francisco, discussed light layering with four different types of light sources: task, accent, ambient and decorative.

Task lighting "in the kitchen would be the undercabinet lighting and the lighting at the work center and in the pantry," Whitehead explained.

To highlight objects, accent lighting is the answer. "It creates depth and dimension; it's usually your recessed adjustable fixture or track lighting," he indicated.

"Decorative lighting includes chandeliers and wall sconces," he continued. "I like to think of them more as architectural jewelry."

According to Whitehead, ambient lighting is the one that's most important, and it's the one that gets left out almost all of the time. "Think about a glowing fire and that sort of wash of illumination," he remarked. "That's what ambient light does for a space."

Lighting of the kitchen space has been changing in the past few years, one reason being that kitchens overall have been changing. "In the past four or five years, the kitchen has been a sort of casual area for entertaining," said Whitehead. "Now, it's getting dressed up a little bit more than before, and that's due, in part, to the romance of light returning."

Pendants are returning to the kitchen, he noted, but in multiples rather than as single fixtures. The new way of hanging them is much closer to the ceiling "so that they relate to a ceiling detail," observed Whitehead. This difference allows the island or table to be moved around in the space, since the light no longer dictates its placement.

However, changes in lighting are more than ambient. Whitehead predicted LEDs will be a significant in the next two years, because "pretty much all incandescent lights are going to be available in an LED source."

He further asserted that their popularity will spike, especially for accent lighting, once designers see the newer versions that give off a blue/white light and last about 100,000 hours.

In addition, as regulations require more fluorescent lighting, designers are going to investigate the options available to them. Fluorescents are also changing, now available in colors besides the cool white of years past, he added.

Emotional Connections

As head of design with Electrolux Group in Sweden, Sean Carney believes his firm and others like it don't just deliver a service. "People feel an emotional connection with products," he stressed.

The founder of Electrolux, who began selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door more than 100 years ago, was able to connect with customers on a one-to-one basis. He made adjustments to his products, which grew to include refrigerators and other appliances, according to customer complaints and requests.

"But these were very functional needs," reported Carney. "As the appliance industry grew, the company started to recognize that people wanted to go beyond functionality. They wanted to have things that appealed on another level. And kitchens were places where you'd spend money."

Determining how to appeal to clients – and exactly who they are – is key for Electrolux, and should be for designers. "We try to build empathy, an understanding of the users," he stated.

For instance, the firm sends reps into consumers' homes, "to understand how they're living, cooking, washing and cleaning," he said.

Part of that process includes understanding the consumers' everyday lives. "We talk about food and food preparation, and the joy of food and the diversity of food," he noted. "It's about an expression of yourself and your labor.

"Vacuum cleaners aren't just about keeping a clean house," he continued. "It's about having a pleasant living environment." Water purification and refrigeration convey similar ideas. "It's not just about keeping your food and water fresh. It's about an expression of yourself within that kitchen environment," he reported.

To understand consumers better, Carney recommended going beyond asking them what they want. "They're only able to work within the frame of reference that they have, which is quite limited," he stated. "So, you have to dig down to find the fundamental human truth about how the target user really thinks, feels or acts."

One of the techniques used by Electrolux is to get people to tell them all of their problems with their existing kitchen. "Asking them what they hate about their current kitchens will give you more insight," he asserted. "After you [gain] insight into what they're thinking, you can improve their quality of life."

Carney noted designers have an opportunity, within a kitchen environment, to deliver experiences. "When you touch that piece of wood or stroke that piece of polished concrete, it's a tactile experience and reaction," he said. "The trigger that has on the mind is quality, [upon which] we can start to build."

"When you get these things right, when you appeal to people on something other than a functional level, people start to talk about it, tell stories. And, it's these stories that have a powerful effect on selling your studio and selling your products," he concluded.

Indeed, in the end, each presenter asserted that, as materials and room designs continue to change, designers will need to recognize the drivers and emotions behind those trends. Through emotionally intelligent design, they can provide healthy, happy, well-designed, livable and stylish spaces.