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Expert Advice: An Architect’s 15 Essential Tips for Designing the Kitchen

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Expert Advice: An Architect’s 15 Essential Tips for Designing the Kitchen

March 9, 2018

With more than 50 kitchen projects under his belt, Jerome Buttrick of Buttrick Projects (formerly Buttrick Wong Architects) is a veteran of kitchen design. One of those designs was for Julie’s Mill Valley, California, kitchen, which serves as an ongoing testament to his thoughtfulness on how to create a meaningful space in what has become the hub of the modern home. We asked him to share his insights:

A kitchen with cathedral ceilings and shiplap paneling in San Francisco&#8
Above: A kitchen with cathedral ceilings and shiplap paneling in San Francisco’s Filbert Cottages, reenvisioned by Buttrick; see On the Market: The Historic Filbert Cottages in San Francisco’s Russian Hill for a look.

Remodelista: What’s your approach to kitchen design?
Jerome Buttrick: Kitchens are really the soul of the house and are for more than just cooking but also for congregating, so they need to be put in the context of the home’s public spaces or the adjacent spaces. In a lot of older houses, the kitchen tends to be isolated and often small. Today, people want a kitchen that incorporates both a workspace and a casual space for dining or even working.

Julie&#8
Above: Julie’s Mill Valley kitchen, designed by Buttrick, has display niches built into the under-counter cabinets. Photograph by Matthew Williams for Remodelista.

RM: What are people looking for in a kitchen?
JB: They want an efficient workspace, they always want storage, and, even if they don’t immediately realize it, they want some basic parameters to separate the wine-drinking guests from the action in the kitchen.

RM: How do you create a kitchen that incorporates both a workspace and a casual hanging-out space?
BW: An island is the standard way to do this or a breakfast table nearby, but it depends on the particularities of the layout. It can also be done by creating a little breakfast area in the kitchen with built-in casual seating for a living-room-like feel. The two spaces need to be fused together so they don’t look as if they are imposed on one other.

RM: The kitchen triangle?
JB: I think less in terms of the traditional triangle layout and more in terms of creating a work area that goes from fridge to sink to stove, with several paces between. This is an ergonomic question, and a kitchen is not a success unless you have solved this. The fridge and the sink need to be linked, but the cooking section can be a little more isolated or independent.

RM: Favorite countertop material?
JB: There’s no perfect countertop; I like organic materials and I am a lover of Carrara marble, the whiter the better. I am not troubled by patina, but you have to seal Carrara with Porous Plus by Miracle. I also like concrete surfaces by Concreteworks in Oakland, California.

A window was added to let light into this pre-war kitchen in San Francisco; a shade acts as a scrim between the owners and their neighbors.
Above: A window was added to let light into this pre-war kitchen in San Francisco; a shade acts as a scrim between the owners and their neighbors.

RM: Upper cabinets: yes or no?
JB: Upper cabinets are practical; you can make the cabinet fronts solid and uniform or create a sense of openness with glass fronts. Glass-fronted cabinets create depth and make the kitchen feel more spacious. If you go with this option, you need to think about the glasses and plates inside—there needs to be visual coordination. You can put in obscure (frosted or ridged) glass, but that only goes so far—the Disney mugs will still be visible. I often recommend sets of Crate & Barrel or Heath Ceramics dinnerware for a simple look.

RM: Other key elements?
JB: An exterior space is a big bonus; it’s nice if you can add a deck and create a place to eat outside or have a barbecue.

RM: Kitchen hoods?
JB: If a hood is in the field of vision, it has to be taken seriously, otherwise it will be a visual distraction. We tend to custom design our hoods with simple lines.

RM: Microwave wrangling?
JB: They are unsightly and need to be considered early in the planning decision. They can be accommodated in a pullout shelf or behind an island. Miele makes an attractive in-wall Speed Oven that serves as a second oven and microwave.

In this Indoor/Outdoor Kitchen, Buttrick created a custom stainless drain board behind the sink, which frees up the area on either side. The marble recessed backsplash is built into the raised walnut counter that sits six inches taller than the marble counter, concealing the work area from guests but still making it visually gratifying for guests on the other side.
Above: In this Indoor/Outdoor Kitchen, Buttrick created a custom stainless drain board behind the sink, which frees up the area on either side. The marble recessed backsplash is built into the raised walnut counter that sits six inches taller than the marble counter, concealing the work area from guests but still making it visually gratifying for guests on the other side.

RM: How do you help clients choose materials?
JB: We gather all the samples early on and look at them together as a set, creating a materials mood board. We revisit it several times over the course of the design (if the materials don’t look good as a set, they won’t look good in a larger context).

RM: Storage solutions?
JB: People like tall pullout storage drawers as they store a lot. There is no perfect solution for corners, but on one project we put a trash barrel in a corner with access from outside the building for removal. I like a stainless pan under the sink so when it drips (it will at some point), the water is contained.

In Julie&#8
Above: In Julie’s Mill Valley kitchen, Buttrick separated kitchen from dining with a maple plywood shelf.

RM: The best piece of advice for someone designing a kitchen?
JB: Come up with a budget. There are a lot of line items, and if money is tight, then splurge on what is most important. You need cabinets and a fridge, but if you cook a lot, go for the Wolf Range or go for the best you can afford.

RM: Desirable design elements in a kitchen?
JB: Light! There is a real benefit to a sink with a view. It’s really pleasant when that can happen. If not, then face the sink to the people that might convene with you.

RM: Your ideal kitchen?
JB: Kitchens are fundamentally about cooking, so I suppose my ideal would be a place where the process of making is enjoyable: a view and natural light; plenty of countertop space to work on, nice things to cook and work with, a few friends always on call, laughter, music—and a big sink. For it all to really work, the kitchen would need to be part of an ensemble of spaces that would include an equally wonderful dining area.

For more insights into kitchen design, check out our Architect Is In post with Jerome Buttrick. In need of countertop materials? See Remodeling 101: A Primer on Kitchen Countertops.

And more expert advice in the kitchen:

N.B.: This post is an update; the original story ran on April 6, 2013.

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