Is Open-Plan Living Out of Fashion?

In America, light, airy kitchen/living rooms are being turned back into separate areas


Picture / New Zealand Herald Photograph by Carolyn Robertson.

Fifteen years ago, on holiday, I walked into an estate agents’ office in the small town of Westport, Connecticut, and asked if we might look at houses. We weren’t ready to move across the pond, I explained, but we would love to see what might be in our price range. Just for fun.

The first house we looked at was on the other side of town, in one of the historic districts. We drove along a leafy, winding road, turning on to a long driveway, cresting over a hill to a pretty colonial house nestled at the bottom.

The entrance hall was small, and dark. The living room off to the right was bland, as was the dining room off to the right. The estate agent pushed a door open, we walked through into a huge open-plan kitchen and living room (known as the family room over in the States), and I fell in love. By the end of the day, we had an accepted offer on the table.

Open-plan designer kitchens have been all the rage for years. New houses and apartment conversions have grown bigger and better each decade. A kitchen trends study from 2014 revealed that half of UK owners will spend up to $43,000 on a dream kitchen, and that dream for most (54 per cent) is an open-plan design, with 63 per cent of us looking to include an island unit.

When once the average kitchen accounted for around 6 per cent of the total square footage of a home, in comparable developments after 2010 the average has now grown to 8 per cent, given the trend for kitchens that incorporate dining rooms and living rooms.

But what’s this? Trend-watchers in Manhattan are reporting an interesting development in kitchen design: more and more people are now saying they no longer want an open-plan kitchen - they want a separate room. Suddenly designers and architects are giving a nod to pre-war design, and the newest residential buildings in the smartest postcodes are presenting separate cooking and entertaining spaces.

I, for one, am cheering on this return of the closed-plan kitchen. Having now lived with open-plan kitchens for 15 years, I have come to realise the fundamental problems first-hand. The first is that guests never move to the living room. Even when it is part of the same room. Whether you have four people squeezed around a kitchen island, or 40, in my experience they will never actually move to the sofas, no matter how much you try to tempt them.

Everything good happens in the kitchen. As an avid cook, I am always in the kitchen. I am not a big television watcher, and as a somewhat introverted writer, I like peace and quiet. My family was horrified at the prospect of an open-plan kitchen-family room with no television, so I agreed to compromise with a large television above the fireplace that was actually disguised as a mirror.

When my children were small, this open-plan living kitchen space was my domain. I banished them from the room if they were too noisy, and kept the television firmly off. But those small, sweet children quickly grew into teenagers, who spent much of the summer lying around on the sofas watching very loud, annoying films.

The dogs hung out in there, too. Duffle the lurcher would tear out the dog door and run in ever-decreasing circles around the lawn, finishing off with a joyful roll in the inexplicable puddle at the bottom of the garden that never seemed to dry up.

She, however, would dry off by rolling around on the white slip-covered sofas. Both dogs chewed the corners of the coffee table, and the sisal rug. The cats scratched the backs of the armchairs so frequently that the chairs appeared to have an uneven fringe. Empty cups of tea were always on the coffee table, usually with a bowl of dried, encrusted cereal kicked underneath a sofa. Giant rucksacks were dropped in the middle of the floor, usually with a pair of trainers somewhere nearby.

From my vantage point behind the kitchen counter, staring out at all this mess, and the mud, and the noise, and the chaos, open-plan living became absolute hell. Nothing could be hidden, and there was nowhere else for them, and their mess, to go.

So we decided to put the house on the market and, a few months later, we found ourselves moving out, and into a pretty old house tucked between Long Island Sound and a tidal creek. The rooms are small, but filled with light, and at the back of the house, is a large kitchen. It is not open-plan. There is just room for a table and chairs, but no room for sofas, armchairs, coffee table or dog beds. There is no television.

I have finally got my kitchen back and, in doing so, have once again found peace in the only room in the house that still feels like mine. We do have a family room. It is on the other side of the house. I wish I could describe it to you, but I never go in there. If I had to guess, I would say it is probably filled with muddy sofas, cat-scratched armchairs, a blaring television, lounging teenagers, and all the missing cereal bowls from the kitchen.

— The Daily Telegraph

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