Ideas for new cabinet configurations

In addition to making a new kitchen function properly, cabinets anchor the overall massing, the color and the style that it communicates

January 29, 2013
A pantry wall at the end of an L-shaped kitchen moved the cook back in the small

A pantry wall at the end of an L-shaped kitchen moved the cook back in the small area closer to the rest of the family.

To say that cabinets are a make-or-break proposition for the success of a remodeled kitchen is a vast understatement. In addition to making a new kitchen function properly, cabinets anchor the overall massing, the color and the style that it communicates. Their importance is also economic. A widely used rule-of-thumb asserts that 60 percent of the cost of new kitchen is tied up in cabinets, drawers, and storage.

It is for these reasons that manufacturers, kitchen designers, and remodelers have put so much energy and emphasis into cabinet creation, design, and specification. Up until a decade ago, there were deep stratifications in quality. Builder-grade “boxes” were a commodity, while better cabinets were the province of only a handful of manufacturers and a host of local cabinetmakers.

Today, overall cabinet quality has improved to a great extent says architect and kitchen designer Mike O’Brien of Change Design LLC in Chicago. Even the most affordable cabinets offer features like soft-close drawers in a range of colors and wood species. “Lately, they only get better,” says O’Brien. “Even basic cabinets now have heavier duty gliders with full extensions. And that is a good trend because people are seeing how much nicer that is.”

So what happens when better quality, larger color selection, and new styles meet the ever-growing trend toward expansive kitchens and great rooms? You get more cabinets used in more ways. Professional Remodeler spoke with O’Brien to review the prevailing design trends.

PROFESSIONAL REMODELER: You say that cooking and preparing meals is even cooler than it was before. How does that impact your use of cabinets in the kitchens you design?

MIKE O’BRIEN: It means that kitchens today are designed for two or three cooks. Or maybe there is one primary cook and there are people who help. So what is important is that there are central elements—specifically pantries and refrigerators—that are accessible to all, but are not in the way of anyone. From there, my primary consideration is to find a design solution that addresses the needs of each person who cooks regularly in the kitchen. And in a broader sense, we have to design for even more people in the kitchen than one or two primary cooks. Homeowners will invite friends over, and they will want to help; therefore, planning refrigeration and pantries in places where people can get what they want without the classic problem of someone having to move for you to open up the door. For me it comes down to solving a problem and then making it look beautiful, and doing it in that order.

One simple concept is to use larger cabinets and larger drawers. You need the ability for people to quickly get in and get out of things without having to step over something else. It is a much better operation if you can open drawers from the side and get what you need while you are standing adjacent to it. So moving away from smaller cabinets and smaller drawers is a way to improve convenience and the amount of storage without increasing the size of the room.

PR: We are seeing a lot of cabinet walls. Why and when would you incorporate a whole wall of cabinets?

O’BRIEN: There are a couple of things at work in this trend.

It is hard to work in a kitchen where there are a lot of cabinets in your workspace all of the time. And if you have an extra countertop along a third wall, what often happens is it becomes a collector of clutter. Storage walls eliminate extra countertops and relieve a lot of pressure. They allow the kitchen to be more open, and it gives you an opportunity to add a block of color.

Second, a cabinet wall also does the job of forcing people to work where they should, by not giving them a place to work away from the action. I designed a kitchen recently where a woman had previously been cooking at the back end of an L-shaped kitchen while everyone else in the family was working at the other end. We designed a pantry wall in her former space, moving her closer to her family. It made her feel like part of the house rather than back in her little work area.

More Drawers, More Pullouts

Remodeler Jim Lex, CR, agrees with O’Brien’s assertion about the need for more and bigger drawers. He also is a believer in adding more pull-out units for garbage, spice racks, and more.

“There is a simple way to increase the storage by more than double,” says Lex, a manager and instructor at Better Homes and Remodeling in Atlanta. “We have done this several times with good results.”

“Typically drawer fronts are 6 inches high and drawer boxes are 3 inches, therefore 50 percent is wasted in height. And typically those same boxes are only 20 inches deep. Remove all drawer boxes and install them in the toe-kick area with flat fronts and pulls located high on the drawer. Build new drawer boxes as tall as possible and 22 inches deep with full extension slides. This allows for complete access of all 22 inches of drawer. Running the cubic volume numbers, this solution provides 5.09 cubic feet of storage with all of the drawer accessible from the top, compared with 2.78 cubic feet in the original configuration.” PR

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