Last year, Dodie Williams set about remodeling the galley kitchen in her 1956 Oak Forest home. Wanting to open up the space, she tore down the wall between her kitchen and living room and put in a countertop of glittering granite and a bar-top of planed, glossy maple.
Then, always unable to reach the upper cabinets in her old kitchen, the barely five-foot Williams did away with them, installing in their stead antique luggage racks from an old train car; they now house decorative platters. And once she had completed the room with big pullout drawers boasting plenty of storage space underneath the counter, her kitchen instantly felt lighter, despite the darker tones of the custom cherry cabinets.
Stylish people the world over will tell you less is more—that’s even true, it turns out, when it comes to kitchens. After years of manifest destiny–style expansion, with overzealous homeowners turning tiny kitchens into massive showrooms of space and size, kitchen design has gone back to basics, making the most of what you have. Or, as design consultant Pamela O’Brien puts it, “not necessarily bigger, but better.”
Drawer storage in lieu of cabinets is more popular than ever, and not just among those with tiny kitchens. “You don’t want to be on your hands and knees getting into the backs of cabinets,” says O’Brien. Equally popular: those “soft-close” drawers and cabinets that won’t allow you to slam them—no matter how hard your kids may try.
Of course, opening up the kitchen to the rest of the house remains as important as ever, but there’s more to it than just knocking down walls. O’Brien’s clients at her firm, Pamela Hope Designs, want “really well-thought-out kitchens—often with great appliances—that really address their specific, personal needs.”
When Sharon Stinson and her husband Greg recently remodeled the kitchen in their 1920 Heights bungalow, Sharon vowed she would have “nothing cookie-cutter.” With a nod to their house’s history, the couple bought white melamine cabinets from IKEA, then customized them with crystal knobs surrounded by clean white beadboard. “I didn’t want it to look like a new kitchen in the suburbs,” she said.
Hardly retro, though, are the Stinsons’ gleaming new stainless steel stove and French door refrigerator, matte black granite counters, open shelving flanking the sink, or unobstructed view of their cozy living room from the large, party-friendly breakfast bar. The kitchen transitions seamlessly from modern to mid-century, all pulled together by a vintage pendant lamp above the sink.
Stinson admits she was nervous about the white cabinets. But O’Brien says her choice was a good one, despite a trend toward colors like espresso. “It’s never wrong to have pretty white cabinets,” says the consultant. In fact, what she calls “the French kitchen,” with shades of black, gray, and white, is making a huge comeback.
“People have really moved away from Mediterranean-style kitchens with lots of brick and fake plaster and bronze hardware,” she says. These days, it’s all about sleekness and simplicity—and, of course, stainless steel appliances, which aren’t going anywhere any time soon either.
Neither is granite, which ages well, is easy to maintain, and is less expensive than ever. More unusual granite is being quarried these days, too, which leads to ever more interesting colors and variations, such as the mottled black, gray, and dark green granite in Williams’s kitchen.
Also important is what O’Brien calls a “beverage center,” whether a simple wine refrigerator with storage nearby for wine glasses, or something more elaborate—for instance the two mini-fridges concealed by custom cabinetry in Williams’s kitchen. They store her husband’s extensive craft beer collection. In addition to a wine refrigerator, there is what might be termed the kitchen’s coup de grâce: a pull-out pantry of four deep shelves, each stocked with various spirits—including over 60 bottles of whiskey. “I promise we’re not alcoholics!” Williams jokes.
The other must-have is a big, beefy gas range, which has flat-out replaced the electric stove (including those tough-to-maintain induction cooktops) as the cooktop of choice. Stinson bought hers during a sale on Samsung appliances that also netted her an inexpensive matching dishwasher and refrigerator.
Meanwhile, Williams’s four-burner Wolf range with griddle was a purchase she’d wanted to make for 20 years, its cherry-red knobs and imposing presence making it as much a centerpiece in the kitchen as her beverage center. It’s not your typical kitchen, Williams admits, but it’s hers. And because she and her husband plan on living in their home until well past retirement age, she felt the freedom to do what most of O’Brien’s clients are also doing: build a kitchen that will suit their personal needs without worrying about recouping their investment. “They want to stay in their homes,” says O’Brien. “They want to age in place.”
Williams agrees: “We’re going to be here,” she laughs, “until Beck, our daughter, puts us in a home.”