Exploring the three biggest developments in modern design

Anyone who's ever planned a kitchen will emphasize one thing above all others: it has to be functional. But designing a kitchen isn't the same as designing an engine; no one notices the engine until it stops working. Judging from the looks of today's multipurpose kitchens, there's a lot going on right on the surface. We polled experts from Australia to New York to find the future of kitchen design and discovered three distinct trends: the evolution of the country look,the emergence of the craftsman style and the power of Europe's modular model.

country style

1. Put character into a modern room. Buy moldings from Home Depot (800-430-3376) or have a contractor design them. Or plaster and scumble the walls, then add aged wood beams.

2. Buy equipment that recalls the past. A wood-burning hearth from Housecraft (800-338-OVEN) is the latest accoutrement. Go for a vintage range or one that looks vintage. Install a big porcelain or copper sink or an apron-front sink made of vitrified china with a wall-mounted faucet (Waterworks; 800-899-6757). Disguise high-tech equipment with armoire facades or wood panels. Refrigerator and dishwasher manufacturers, including Sub-Zero (800-222-7820), KitchenAid (800-422-1230) and Miele (609-419-9898), are helping the cause by hiding control panels inside doors.

3. Add furniture. Early American farmhouse kitchens didn't have built-in counters with cabinets below and above. (That's an invention of space-starved 20th-century cooks.) Follow the historic example and use pieces of furniture in the kitchen, such as a pie safe for dishes or a wooden table for a work surface instead of an island.

4. Focus on your floors. Reclaim old paving stones or buy French limestones from Paris Ceramics (212-644-2782).

5. Create an herbarium. Some designers will add a glass room off the kitchen so that cooks can grow fresh basil for their pesto! It's the Nineties reinvention of the kitchen garden.

craftsman style

The hand-built kitchen--quirky, individualized and inviting--reaches its apex in the hands of two designers: England's Johnny Grey and San Francisco's Fu-Tung Cheng.

1. Hire artisans to create custom furniture. Try wood cupboards with inlaid designs, a checkerboard trim or abstract accents. Don't be afraid of unusual shapes such as a trapezoid island or a half-moon cabinet door. Your materials should never limit you: British designer Johnny Grey (415-701-7701, San Francisco office) employs artisans who use steam to bend wood.

2. Go for rounded shapes. Choose drum-shaped cabinets and a circular peninsula, to improve traffic flow, as Grey does. Think about how often you've had to walk around (or accidentally walked into) pointy corners.

3. Use counters of different heights. Everything in your kitchen needn't fit below a standard counter height. Raise the dishwasher off the floor to make loading easier. Tuck the microwave under a tall counter. Set the height of each part of your kitchen to suit the person who will use it the most.

4. Experiment with color. Avoid the white-and-stainless-steel look and use color to set yourself apart. Chartreuse cabinets are daring, but even painted trim can make a statement.

5. Play with materials. Use many different materials in a single kitchen--concrete, wood, granite, plaster or even a pressed cement called Fireslate (800-523-5902).

6. Use a custom hood. California designer Fu-Tung Cheng (510-849-3272) is so committed to hoods that he started a business designing them. Some of his most beautiful are made of curved stainless steel and plaster.

7. Create open shelves. Mount shallow shelves to create a mini-gallery, as Cheng does, and remove the doors from cabinets to display dishes, pots and books.

the modern look

Stainless-steel appliances, inspired by restaurant designs, have defined the dream kitchen of the decade. But now, food lovers are ready to move on, adapting to new technologies, sensibilities and lifestyles.

The Sleek Kitchen
When you decide to merge your kitchen with your living room and dining area, you have two choices. You can let the kitchen look like a kitchen, meaning you can see the appliances, the chef--and the mess. Or you can keep as much hidden as possible. The kitchen designed by Australia's Engelen Moore (011-61-2-9380-4099), is a perfect example of this latter aesthetic. To reproduce it:

1. Eschew walls. The open plan means that the cook is never isolated from family and friends when working in the kitchen.

2. Focus on integration. Make the equipment invisible. Use an island to conceal a dishwasher, sinks with a garbage disposal, a trash bin, pots and pans in storage drawers and power outlets in the lip at the back. The opposite "working wall" can disguise a refrigerator, a pantry, appliances, plates and laundry machines.

3. Use a single color. Uniform surfaces in a uniform color keep the room looking streamlined and simple--and not like a kitchen at all.

What's Next in Kitchen Design?
What haven't we seen in America that's popular abroad? The answer: kitchens made up of freestanding pieces of furniture from such European manufacturers as Bulthaup, SieMatic and Ikea. In these "unfitted" kitchens, cabinets have inset stovetops or sinks, such as one by the Italian company Culti. Until full lines from some of these manufacturers are available in the United States (pieces with built-in appliances are still awaiting government approval because of differences in European and American wiring), here's how you can adapt their principles:

1. Go for mobility. Buy modular pieces on wheels that enable you to rearrange your kitchen as your needs change. Instead of sinking money into storage units and cupboards you can't take with you, acquire pieces that you can bring to a new house.

2. Take the Lego approach. Rather than installing one large set of cabinets, for instance, go for several small ones. That way you can add or eliminate units if your storage needs change or you want to upgrade. The modular units that are popular in Europe are a kind of sophisticated Legos.

3. Forget what kitchens "should" look like. In Europe, consumers want pieces that are handsome and durable enough to work in any room of the house. Units that look good from the back as well as from the front are desirable, especially for loft dwellers.

    By Angie Spensieri and Sonali Rao