A Kitchen Compass: Regional Directions in Design

We have all likely noticed certain identifying characteristics of style or personality in one region or country as compared to another, whether we're talking people, homes, clothing, or, as we'll look at here, kitchens.

For example, the fact that I have lived in Connecticut over half my life does not seem to remove the sense of the Midwest that people pick up when they spend time with me. Or, another example: If I say a "Cape Cod cottage," I'll bet the images that first come into your mind do not involve much in the way of gold gilt or even chrome and glass, even if that cottage is upwards of 6,000 square feet and its budget unlimited.

If you were asked to design a kitchen for Martha Stewart's Westchester home versus one for the First Family's Texas ranch, it would be an understatement to say that the style would need to be handled very differently.

Design Distinctions
Recently, in the process of judging several national kitchen design competitions, it seemed to me that these regional differences in design were particularly striking, and I had an opportunity to discuss these observations with the other judges. What follows here is an amalgamation of my conversation, which included judges Penny Chin (California) and Ellen Cheever (Delaware), as well as Rita Vest, president of Vest Advertising, and Jan Aufderhar, brand manager for Decor√° Cabinetry.

It's important to acknowledge some "truths" to make this discussion accurate. The projects we were judging were grouped into the eastern, the southern, the midwestern and the western regions of the U.S., certainly not all inclusive but enough to make some observations.

Trends are sort of like our country's politics, starting on the coasts and working their way gradually into the central parts of the country. There are many similarities in the "bones" of the project between the extremes of Manhattan and the California coast - with accessories such as lighting, patterns and fabrics being the difference. Just as for every rule there is an exception, these observations are generalizations and not absolutes. The warm intense colors of the South might easily be seen in the urban kitchen of New York or a loft in Chicago. The cozy cottage style of the Midwest might fit very nicely into a space in New England.
Still, in viewing many projects at one time, we saw consistency within each region - depite each being separated by region for judging. Perhaps these are the details that make the clients of that region most comfortable, and they seem to say something about the typical lifestyle and values of the region.

Regional Influences
Among the themes or details that seemed almost universal, the use of limestone or look-alike porcelain, using multiple sizes of tiles in a "brick walk" type of pattern, dominated the flooring selections. Across the board, continued strong effort was apparent in bringing the outdoors in, with larger and more plentiful windows, and use of natural materials, colors and textures. Each winning project had paid particular attention to lighting, with increased use of decorative pendants, particularly hand-blown glass. There also appeared to be growing use of the synthetic stone or quartz surface materials. Continued use of furniture looks in cabinetry was apparent in every style of kitchen, as was the desire to have some open, glass or otherwise display cabinetry. Probably due in part to their generous size and the lack of walls in the open plans, larger kitchens seemed to include growing use of multiple islands, and the result is an interesting impact on the function of the space - sort of each island as a work station for a particular purpose.

From the West, no surprise; California seemed to show a freedom to combine a greater variety of dissimilar elements, such as Carrera marble with copper relief accent tiles and a faux finish copper hood, as well as an appreciation for unique materials, proven or not. There is a sense of sophistication and "simple but elegant" in some, and, yes, a Tuscan weighty sense in others. The California kitchens also presented a willingness to give up a little function in order to make a stronger design statement. The focal point in these kitchens was often the outdoors. We did not see as strong an Asian or soft contemporary influence in the kitchens as we expected, and Penny's comment was that it is more apparent in furniture, artwork and clothing, showing up in kitchens through the use of exotic woods, finishes and colors.

In the East, spaces continued to give a sense of history and tradition, not always formal, but "like it's always been there." Often the focal point was the hood or hearth. Decorative details included candles and heirloom candlesticks, lighting, columns and ornamentation that bordered on formal in their maintaining of convention. In this case, we saw wood floors along with or in addition to the stone tiles, as well as tiles in traditional patterns. The cabinetry was in shades of white or creamy glazes with light finishes on wood, in combination with dark traditional finishes, and use of wainscoting or bead board and ceiling treatments detailed to strengthen the style.

The Midwest entries seemed to say "sensible and beautiful," and ­- although designers will want to point out the exceptions - conservative. If strong colors were used, they were in paint and decorative details that would be less costly to change, with the main components being more neutral. The attitude was casual and comfortable, sort of "come for pot luck supper and bring a covered dish." True to this thought, the focal point was often the island or the socializing space. These projects demonstrated an uncompromising value for maximizing the function and efficiency of a space. Words such as practical and functional came to mind, but what dominated were phrases like safe, warm and cozy, cottage-like, and lake-living as we reviewed these kitchens.

The southern entries demonstrated gracious living and entertaining - think "Gone with the Wind." Whether it's true or not, the sense was one of everyone sitting down together for evening meals, even dressing for dinner. In keeping with this thought, the focal point was often the table or an island designed to look the part. The colors were more intense, darker woods mixed with multi-step glazes and the use of built-up molding stacks, more formal in many cases. The wall colors are also more intense and the finishes more complex.

As I read through these comments, I am reminded that this is just the tip of the iceberg, and there are many styles and details we have not mentioned here. But, I hope these observations can be useful as food for thought.

Keep in mind that the opportunity to judge design competitions is a wonderful chance to discuss and debate design concepts and trends with fellow professionals and to learn from them. Whether you agree or would debate these observations, I hope they will help you to confirm the design styles and concepts you are using as per your region, or to cross the lines and borrow from those of other regions. And, if invited to judge a design contest, do it!