Redefining the Kitchen’s Focal Point

Most kitchen designers are well-versed in the elements and principles of design and how to apply these aesthetic guidelines when creating a classic kitchen. For this story, we’ll define “classic” as a kitchen that is partially or completely separated from adjacent living spaces.

When planning such a space, designers pinpoint one area of the kitchen and then organize the details of the space to highlight this area.

Mantel hoods or elegant metal sculptural hoods are great focal points in such spaces. Using decorative ceramic or porcelain tile backsplashes coordinating with some type of geometric pattern below or around the hood area is another great way to create a sense of visual excitement and pull the viewer’s eyes toward the highlighted cooking area.

Great Room Focal Point

A different approach should be taken for a kitchen that is part of a multipurpose living area. In these open-plan living environments, the focal point may be the view outside the space, or an adjacent art-filled living area. In these cases, the kitchen needs to be visually interesting, but a space created to play a “supporting role” in the overall area.

In addition to changing how a focal point is identified, designers may find it useful to combine materials, select certain finishes or link different work centers together so they appear to be large or even over-scaled blocks of the kitchen work spaces. This approach to managing space is visually effective for living/cooking/dining communal spaces.

Ventilation equipment can also support this new approach to integrating the kitchen into a grander living area. Interesting new ventilation equipment innovations offer designers functional ways to make the ventilation system “almost disappear.”

One new exhaust engineering system, called “perimetric ventilation,” pulls airborne vapors, steam and heat through small openings along the perimeter (hence the name “perimetric”) of the ventilation system. This system does not require a large canopy holding area, which is an integral part of more traditional hoods.

In addition to this new ventilation system itself, re-engineered downdraft ventilation systems integrated into the cooktop, or downdraft telescoping ventilation systems, have been introduced. There is a renewed demand for such equipment because it can provide effective ventilation without having any wall- or ceiling-mounted overhead appliances required.

Principles of Design 101

When redefining a kitchen’s focal point, a quick review of the elements and principles of design is worthwhile. The NKBA Professional Resource Library volume entitled “Design Principles: Color – Form – Style” has an entire chapter discussing the elements of design. Using the information here, designers can create large room kitchen layouts that focus on the concept of combining lines into various shapes, and by defining space by the forms that are created within a room.

Consider these tips for working with shapes:

The shape of an object has a dramatic impact on the sense of fluidity within the room.

  • A rectangular shape is horizontal in nature – it is easy for everyone to live with.

How to Use in a Kitchen Plan: Utilize the same materials or colors in long horizontal sections of the plan.

  • A square shape can be used as a “standalone” element. A word of caution: repeating square shapes can become stagnant.

How to Use in a Kitchen Plan: Encase (“frame”) a series of functional elements (think of a refrigerator with an oven next to it) with a material that creates a square form. The viewer then does not concentrate on the dissimilar appliances – they “see” the framed form.

  • Diagonal, angled or triangular shapes give an impression of movement – it can dominate a design.
  • Curved or circular shapes are comfortable for the viewer to look at…and live in and around! Repeating curved shapes within the space creates a flowing sense of space.


When designing blocks of shapes, it’s important to remember that the space (the envelope) of the room we are working with impacts how we visually see the shape. The form of an object is determined by its structure, apparent weight and ornamentation. By this we mean that a form is not just the physical shape of an object; rather it is determined by its overall structure and the relationship of this specific shape with others adjacent to it.

Now, if this all sounds a bit confusing, let me share some beautiful examples with you.

Across North America, designers are finding more clients interested in contemporary environments. A contemporary room needs to have personality! The room needs to be rich in detail – but not ornamental detail. The bottom line is that designers create details differently in a contemporary room than in a traditional one.

  • In a traditional space, architectural accoutrements in woodworking details and classic joinery used to create complex door styles can lead to a wonderful Old World feeling.
  • In a contemporary room, the space needs to look crisp and simple, but it also needs to be mystically detailed.

Too often, designers plan a kitchen exactly the same for a traditional aesthetic or a contemporary one – they just choose different door styles. But, the difference between these two styles is not a difference in the door style; rather, it is a difference in how the space is constructed, how it is molded into a vibrant, yet simple and inviting kitchen.

Bigger rooms in which people both cook and live in, as well as the consumer’s interest in simpler contemporary environments, are adding new challenges for kitchen designers.

  • Our first challenge is rethinking how we visually define the shapes of our storage system, leading to more unified forms in kitchens tucked in the corner of a large room.
  • Our second challenge is finding ways to minimize the overall appearance of some of the important appliances specified for the room. In addition to paneling the refrigerator or strategically locating ovens, a focus on new “almost invisible” ventilation systems is a successful strategy.
  • Third, taking a different approach to the design statement the countertop and backsplash makes in more contemporary spaces is important. The splash can blend or match the base or wall units, rather than contrast.
  • Lastly, it’s important to realize that contemporary rooms do not rely on small details to create their personality. Rather, bolder use of shapes in and around the island or other important cabinet sections can make the difference between a rather predictable contemporary space and one that is wonderfully unique.

Of special note, all but two of the kitchens featured in this article are from Canadian designers. These rooms have all been honored in either the NKBA National Design Competition open to all NKBA members, or in the individual NKBA Canadian Chapters’ design competitions. My compliments to all of our Canadian colleagues – beautiful work we can all learn from!

Ellen Cheever, CMKBD, ASID, CAPS is a well-known author, designer, speaker and marketing specialist. A member of the NKBA Hall of Fame, Cheever gained prominence in the industry early on as the author of two design education textbooks. She manages an award-winning design firm, Ellen Cheever & Associates, and has been part of the management team of several major cabinet companies.