Simple! Sensible! Sensational!®

March 2004
© 2004 by Bret S. Beall


In previous columns (Senses of Living® and Sensational Living®), I have discussed Kitchen Organization. However, to date I haven’t really touched on theoretical issues of kitchen décor. So, that’s on the agenda for this month.

I originally thought about writing this as a series of “Do’s and Don’ts,” but that seemed way too dogmatic, especially coming from me. So, I’m just going to discuss some general concepts.

Let’s start with a big issue: color! I could rant on and on and on about what has been written regarding the psychology of color, but I won’t (yet). Instead, let’s just consider the issues of lightness and darkness. Some rooms, like a bedroom, are better as dark nests because of their function. Because a kitchen is about living, go for brightness, LOTS of brightness. With regard to color, there are no absolutes, and it all depends on your furniture, your preferences, your adjacent rooms, and other variables. I would generally go for a dilute wash of something, not quite a pastel, but certainly far from pure tones (advice: one of my first apartments had wood paneling in the kitchen; I love paneling, but not in the kitchen. Don’t do it.). My current kitchen is almost pure white, with black highlights and accessories. It’s very 50’s, but even with only a northern exposure, the kitchen is light and bright. (FYI, I also don’t have any window treatments, except for some blinds, and I try to avoid window treatments as much as possible; no country curtains for me!).

My emphasis on brightness brings us to lighting. So many choices! You definitely need task lighting, something that will provide illumination when you wash dishes, chop/prepare food, and do other kitchen “tasks” (hence the name). As an example, I have a small fluorescent fixture above my sink for aid in washing food products, and washing dishes; it also lends light to adjacent counters for helping with food prep. But what about overhead (aka, “ambient”) lighting? I happen to have a very bright overhead fixture that illuminates my kitchen island, that works great. It isn’t decorative; it is functional. Don’t allow your kitschy or decorator tendencies to preclude proper lighting (if you have lots of task lighting, then ambient lighting can be less functional and more decorative … just some stuff to think about). Allow form to follow function!

Now, let’s look at counters. What material should you use? Limestone stains. Granite is expensive. Concrete is also easily stained, but sealing reduces that problem. Formica is an option (sometimes ugly, sometimes attractive). My kitchen island is made of some sort of strange composite that was meant to be a kitchen counter, but that material becomes scratched if I just look at it the wrong way. So, identify your budget, and visit a home improvement store, and make decisions. Oh, and with regard to color, I personally prefer dark counters because they contrast interestingly with the lightness of the kitchen, and usually (but not always) dark counters show soiling less than light countertops.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: counters are for work, not storage. But, since I’m not being dogmatic, let’s just use that as a guideline. If you use particular appliances every day, or “often,” and you have sufficient counter space otherwise, keep your appliances out. But, if you are struggling for space, lose the appliances (I’m a food professional, and even I don’t use some appliances every day, so I can’t imagine many people who do … my coffee pot excepted!). Oh, and for good measure: Do you really need ALL of those appliances? Just asking.

There’s another issue with regard to the use of counters, and that can be broken out as a separate décor element: Avoid clutter! In many ways, kitchens are the heart of the home (or maybe it’s the brain?). Lots of non-cooking goes on in kitchens: Bills are often paid there; homework may be done; kids, companions and spouses leave their important “items” there. Therefore, the kitchen needs to be comfortable to all of its occupants, and to the best of my knowledge, clutter doesn’t make anyone comfortable (unless they have some psychosis). The more items in your field of vision, the more processing your brain has to do, and the less “comfort” you get. Overstimulation is the concept, and anxiety is the result.

Before leaving “kitchen clutter” (as if I could!), let’s consider the effects of leaving cookware out. Specifically, I am referring to those jugs that sit on counters, often next to the stove, with spoons and ladles and perhaps cooking forks. While the main argument I hear is that having utensils within an arm’s reach during cooking is very convenient (and I respect that), and while the second argument is that having kitchen utensils out provides a homey, kitchen-like atmosphere (which I don’t necessarily respect), I want to point out that almost every “jug-cookware-next-to-stove” situation I have encountered is accompanied by grease, food splatters and dust. Not pretty. Since I hate washing utensils unnecessarily, I don’t keep my utensils out.

The same goes for those pot racks that often hang in “chef’s kitchens,” those mega-buck, commercial-grade kitchens often in tacky McMansions that are rarely used by the inhabitants. In a restaurant, the pace is break-neck, and pots and pans MUST be within easy, IMMEDIATE reach (the same goes for the above-mentioned utensils). This is NOT the situation in your home. Most pot racks are eyesores, and dubiously hygienic due to dust, grease, etc. I’ve written previously about stacking pots and pans in cabinets, and for the average home cook, this is adequate. I won’t even begin to go into the notion of the safety of pot rack, but for those who are vertically-enhanced, “head-banging” has a non-musical connotation.

Goodness! I just advised you to put kitchen items into cabinets, but I haven’t even discussed cabinetry yet. There’s a reason for that, but I’ll wait just a bit. Through my life, I have had the full gamut of kitchen cabinets: dark wood, light wood, particle board, plastic-like composite board, painted dark, painted light. In an ideal world, I would probably select light wood with a light oak stain, but that’s just my preference. Another preference is my current kitchen, which is so spacious, so open, so expansive … and has NO KITCHEN CABINETS on the walls. I have two pantries, and cabinets under my kitchen island, but cabinets above waist height. At first I wondered what I would do, but let me assure you: this is great! If you have pantries, consider going cabinet-less.

Then there are books and recipes to be dealt with. I’m not proud that my own culinary library has become a dust magnet, so do what I say, and not what I do, and try to keep your cookbooks on enclosed shelves, and keep them away from the stove (grease sprays all the time, and flies farther than you might imagine). NOTE: I happen to like the look of rows of books on shelves, so consider using glass-enclosed shelves for your books, not closed cabinetry. I’m also not a good one to speak about culling your cookbook collection (don’t ask how many I have), but do ask yourself how often you’ll use those tomes. If you use recipe cards/boxes, keep them out of the way until time to select a recipe; they are usually not too attractive, and don’t need to be displayed. Consider a recipe clip on the wall near the stove/oven to hold the card(s) for easy reference while you are cooking.

Aside from the above-mentioned bookshelves, what about other furniture? As long as one has room for furniture, and it doesn’t crowd or clutter the room, go for it. Some people like a work desk and chair in the kitchen. Others (like me) have a breakfast table and chairs. Still others, with particularly large kitchens that are partitioned, can incorporate an actual sitting area where they can browse cookbooks, or take a break from stewing and simmering, or welcome guests while you are preparing a meal. If you have a “bar” area, you can either bring in chairs or stools for seating, or use it as a work or service area. I’m not a fan of TVs or other distractions in the kitchen, but I do keep a radio there for some background ambience.

Many people use spices racks as part of their kitchen décor (and culinary practice). I am told it is for convenience. It may also be for “tradition.” I don’t buy either explanation, because I cook more than most human beings, and have never used or needed a spice rack. Why? 1) Spice racks collect dust. 2) Spice racks often require the use of purchased dried herbs and spices from the most expensive companies. 3) Fresher dried herbs and spices are usually available in non-bottled containers (like plastic bags) that don’t lend themselves to storage in spice racks. 4) Spice racks expose their contents to light, which negatively impacts their flavor. Since I store my packets of freshly dried herbs and spices in alphabetical order in a box in one of my pantries, and since I can pull out one packet or the entire box any time I want, convenience is not an excuse I can use to support using a spice rack. One new contraption that I think is very cool are the “spice” drawers, which tend to use the expensive jars, but one can also use one’s own glass jars into which one has poured the packets of fresher herbs and spices; these drawers keep the flavorings in the darkness, which is very cool, and they are usually located near the stove. But, these drawers are also more costly than my cardboard box with plastic packets in a pantry.

Should one have art in one’s kitchen? Let’s include all sorts of decorative items as “art,” just for the sake of conversation. Then, let’s consider what kinds of items we are talking about. Do they add “anything” to the environment? Or are they just “filler”? Do they take up counter space, or do they fill an otherwise unusable space? Art is very personal, and some decisions must be made for oneself. However, remember that kitchens need to be clean and hygienic, and the more “stuff” you have in the kitchen, the more that must be cleaned. In my case, I have never had much art in my kitchen. Currently, I found that a little white porcelain Buddha fits perfectly into a black soap dish embedded in the wall above my sink, useless for soap but a great home for this possession of my late mother, and a reminder of her every time I wash my dishes. I also have two food related pastel drawings that I found at a yard sale; I was told that they were originally intended to be illustrations for a cookbook. For a while, I had some winery posters filling empty spaces on my walls, but because of the tiling that goes 6 feet up the walls, I had to tape them in place, and the effect just didn’t please me, so now they are gone; the bare walls are better than taped posters. On top of the radiator I have a couple of unusual ceramic pieces, both beverage-related. The only really incongruous items I have are a collection of pewter and aluminum “pieces” that have no relationship to each except their silvery color; they are arranged in a vignette atop my espresso machine. I didn’t really plan it; it just grew as I acquired additional silvery items while thrifting. I must say that it “works” with the black and white color scheme.

What about plants in the kitchen? Of course! Since I consult on indoor gardening and its many benefits, I believe that plants should be everywhere! The primary caveat is whether you have enough light in your kitchen to support plants. As I wrote above, I have only a northern exposure, and yet my kitchen is bright. Sadly, it isn’t bright enough to support growing plants, even the most tolerant species (well, they would live; they just wouldn’t thrive). Sometimes, I use the window ledge to hold the jars in which I root plant cuttings for propagation, and that lends life and ambience to the kitchen; the cuttings only stay there a few weeks, at a time when they don’t have root systems, and therefore, should stay out of direct or bright diffused light. During that period, they ease out new roots, and thrive until I pot them. Plants in the kitchen are also nice because they clean the air, and kitchen air can be rather unpleasant at times.

My last comment comes from the “What were they thinking?” file. I once had neighbors who kept the cat litter box in their kitchen. This is so wrong on so many levels. First, it’s disgusting to have the litter box near food prep areas (remember, I have cats, so don’t write to me about that misperception). Secondly, they didn’t keep the litter box clean, rendering it even more disgusting. Finally, cats hate doing their business in the open, so not only was this psychologically stressful for the cat, but the situation caused the cat to seek relief elsewhere … my sinuses are hurting just from the memory of being in their home.

As I wrote above, kitchens are the heart of the home. They should be clean, comfortable and convenient. There are no absolute answers, but I hope that the above comments can serve as general guidelines for you to furnish and decorate your kitchen. Let me know if you need any additional help: 773.508.9208 or email me. I look forward to hearing from you.