Kitchen Design Secrets From 4 Top Designers

During a recent AD PRO panel presented by Gaggenau, designers shared their strategies for keeping kitchens lively, social, and functional
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A Nicole Hollis–designed kitchen in a Sausalito home features neat, modern cabinetry and Gaggenau appliances.Photo: Douglas Friedman

At this point, the image is a cliché: The living room at a party is fastidiously dressed with flowers and food, yet the guests can’t tear themselves away from the kitchen or the frantic host stirring over the stove, who tries to gracefully shoo them to the other room. 

But maybe we’ve been thinking about this conundrum all wrong, says AD100 designer Nicole Hollis. “You can’t keep everyone out of the kitchen,” she acknowledged in a recent AD PRO virtual panel hosted by Gaggenau titled “Compliments to the Chef: Kitchen Design for Ultimate Entertaining.” The solution, she suggests, is in the layout: A showcase kitchen in the front, and a working one in the back.

Hollis’s idea was one trend among several discussed during the panel, which also included the architect Chet Callahan and interior designers César Giraldo and Laurie Haefele. Sam Cochran, AD’s global features director, moderated the conversation that covered topics ranging from the appliances designers are specifying now to the hotly debated decline of the open-plan layout (a phenomenon that Haefele described as “overstated”).

Callahan noted that with the easing of Covid restrictions, many of his clients are excited to entertain friends at home for the first time in ages. “They just want to have the party of the year,” he said. But not everyone approaches hosting the same way. “There are different types of entertainers,” he explained. “There’s the butterfly who wants to mingle among the guests and always keep their hands busy. And then there’s the performer who wants to be center stage.” A kitchen can be the ideal setting for both, and it can be designed in a way that accommodates guests too.

“Everybody wants to be where the action is,” Callahan said. One suggestion he makes is reserving the center island for a more social activity, like prepping, rather than the stove. Haefele pointed out the popularity of culinary shows to make the point that “everybody’s so interested in learning tips from other people prepping and cooking.”

Haefele acknowledges that most of the kitchens she works on are on the larger side, but that doesn’t mean that those with smaller flats are doomed to a dreary space. Hollis’s San Francisco home, for instance, features an integrated dining room, living room, and kitchen, and implements the “hidden kitchen” strategy in spite of its relatively compact size. “Our idea was, when entertaining, we could close the doors to this ‘back kitchen’ and hide the ovens and appliances, and just have a blank wall behind us,” she said, adding that pocket doors help to cover clutter.

When appliances will be on display, however, César Giraldo emphasizes to clients that selecting the right units is key. “An appliance package dictates the design of the kitchen—it’s critical,” he said. On that note, steam ovens seem to be having a moment, as they offer a healthy and more visually appealing alternative to microwaves. Hollis also adores her Gaggenau convection oven: “It has a camera, so you can watch on your phone what’s happening in your oven.” (Dinner and a show!)

Callahan emphasized that flexibility is another important factor to consider when selecting appliances. “Gaggenau has induction cooktops that are very flexible,” he pointed out. Their 400 Series line features one large cooking surface, so home chefs can work with the cookware they want, where they want it.

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Ventilation, of course, is a key part of the equation in kitchen design. Though windows—especially ones overlooking a beautiful natural setting—remain one feature designers love, a ventilation hood can also be a showstopper in the right hands. “If you have to have a hood—if you’re not in a high-ceiling or open space—making a feature of the hood is part of the fun,” Hollis said. “We’ll commission a metal worker to do a cast bronze shroud around the hood, or maybe copper,” she explained, positing that those designs can make an architectural statement, and even a decorative one too.

From the conversation, this much was clear: Large or small, tricked-out or simple, the kitchen is one of the most joyful, social spaces in the home—now, perhaps, more than ever. Relaying this more sentimental side, Haefele summed it up eloquently: “Decor of course is important,” she said, “but I really think it’s about who you’re with, and being together with your loved ones and family.”