Counter Culture: Milan Style

Held in Milan, Italy this past April, EuroCucina, the International Kitchen Furniture Exhibition, provided attendees with a wide array of product and design ideas sure to spark creativity and get the design juices flowing – particularly in the countertop and island arena. Both aesthetic and functional innovations were on display, some of which showcased the traditional island in a completely new light.

Anyone who enjoys European design will appreciate this author’s reaction – that this was an enormous wealth of inspiration and fresh impressions for our efforts in designing the spaces we spend our time developing for our clients.

Of the many design concepts that were evident, it seems that the opportunity to develop our treatment of countertops is most worthy of discussion. Counter culture, Milan style, showcased quite a few ideas that might be viewed as revolutionary here in the U.S., with unique detailing and functional integration that could translate well to kitchen design here.

Let’s look at what’s trending in Europe when it comes to countertops and islands.

 

The Need

We all seem to have a genetic craving for counter space in the kitchen, a “more is better” DNA, and, as a designer and a cook, I am right there with this demand. It seems particularly true in the case of islands, which have grown in size and scope as our kitchens have grown and opened up.

Unfortunately, sometimes these giant islands can lose proper proportion, or scale. In fact, there are islands being designed that have been referred to as being “big enough to be a landing pad for jets.” Although the islands on display at EuroCucina were mammoth in size, counter detailing was evident that eliminated these concerns beautifully.

In addition, it seems that designers have come to rely more on the materials selected to create interest on our counters and not on the design details. In fact, when researching counter design, almost all of the findings center around materials. While the materials at this show were noteworthy, they were more muted, matte finishes – quieter colors and neutrals, for the most part. It was through design details and the interface of materials that these islands seemed to incorporate appropriate mass and scale, drawing the eye and improving both function and aesthetics.

Some of the detailing that we incorporate in our counter designs here in the U.S. was taken in new directions at EuroCucina, which clearly offers some exciting new directions or opportunities in design development for us as kitchen designers.

 

The Concepts

The first design concept repeatedly in evidence at the show was the use of layering. One section of an island counter might be at standard height; then, a section might have another surface layered on top of the initial surface, making it somewhat higher, creating a change in color, texture and mass.

This second section might be layered on top of the initial counter, or it might be a thicker material butt-joined to the initial surface, all adding interest and changing the proportion of the island. Often this second section of material was also cantilevered beyond one end and/or the back of the island to create an overhang, also changing the composition.

From a design standpoint, the effect offered a lovely way to bring the island to a more human dimension. From a functional standpoint, not only did it continue to provide vast amounts of counter surface, it subtly did so at varied heights. And, in some cases, it created the opportunity for work spaces for the seated cook – perfect for Universal Design applications.

The cantilevered tops were engineering feats that had me standing on my head to photograph the bottom sides, as some were extending as far as four feet and more. Along with those previously mentioned on top of standard height counters, these extensions were sometimes built into the cabinetry at 30 inches high and extended to become a table, or at 18 inches to become a bench, sometimes with a return to the floor at the far end for support.

A number of them were movable, many mechanically so, sliding to cover a sink or cooktop, or pivoting to change from a snack bar to a full table and back to a snack bar. The results were similar in that they created the sense of the island as a system, with purpose and better balance, scale and proportion than we sometimes see.

There were a number of design practices that seemed more common in these spaces, including the use of a wide range of thicknesses of counters, from as little as three millimeters to as much as six inches, almost always with back-beveling, both on the counters and on the edge of the doors, whether thick or thin. This created a channel that further enhanced the sense of mass on the island tops and strengthened the horizontal line.

Many of the counters, both on islands and against walls, had extra depth, about six inches, with an incredible array of accessories for “mise en place,” or storage of all sorts of items, from dish drying racks to knife blocks to canisters and more. All of these were at point of use, and the design was very flexible, as the accessories could be easily moved. These accessories were placed flush with the counter height or about six inches above counter height, and pocketed down behind the base cabinetry.

Among the interesting finishes were many muted tones and matte finishes and wire-brushed woods. Technology was seamlessly incorporated into the counters, whether in the form of cooking elements, single or multiple, as well as controls, smooth and flush with the surface – albeit not always perfectly done.

Additionally, there were a slew of modular charging and electrical outlets that could be placed along plug moldings or popped up in the counters, or seen through the glass counter. Some of these were already available, while some were still just in the design concept stage. But all of these details helped to make the counter surfaces critical to the function of the space.

While I believe that kitchen and bath designers in the U.S. design to an incredible standard in terms of function and safety, as well as appearance, we come at it from a different perspective than do European designers. EuroCucina provided a unique opportunity to be exposed to design from a different angle, and kitchen designers are likely to find some of the ideas creatively stimulating.

 

Mary Jo Peterson is an award-winning designer whose work has earned national recognition including induction into the NKBA Hall of Fame and recognition as the NAHB CAPS Educator of the year for 2014. She is certified in kitchen, bath, aging-in-place, and active adult housing design with 25 years’ experience. Peterson is also president of her CT-based design firm, Mary Jo Peterson, Inc. She has authored multiple books on the subject of Universal Design and is a frequent national speaker and educator. She has developed and taught courses on sustainability in kitchen/bath design and outdoor kitchen design. Peterson has been instrumental in the development of the original and current versions of the Certified Aging in Place (CAPS) courses for the NAHB as well as their Universal Design/Build course. Current editions of her books, Kitchen Planning and Bath Planning, have been published by Wiley for the NKBA, as part of their professional resource library.

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