James Cleary is a Brooklyn-based architect who has designed many residential buildings throughout NYC
Over the last century, the design of the kitchen has changed dramatically. Once a service space relegated to the back of the house, today we use kitchens as everything from offices to entertainment spaces to cozy nooks for respite—the kitchen has very much become the heart of the modern home. So what do architects think about when designing this ever-important space? We caught up with Brooklyn-based residential architect James Cleary, of James Cleary Architecture, to talk about how he approaches kitchen design when planning his residential works. Here, James explains the challenges of creating a “sociable kitchen”, how details such as appliances and materials can transform how we experience our kitchens, and what he envisions the kitchen of the future to look like (flying robots, anyone?!). Keep reading to learn more!
INHABITAT: Your firm’s work is made up primarily of homes—what made you decide to go down the path of residential design?
James Cleary: While we enjoy doing both commercial and residential work, when I’m designing a home for a client who plans to spend the next two decades living and raising their families in the space we’ve designed, the stakes are higher and it’s extremely satisfying when we come up with the perfect design solution.
Residential work is also challenging because the perfect solution for one client is a terrible solution for the next, so as an architect, with each residential commission we’re always trying to set aside our preconceived notions and approach the project with fresh eyes.
JCA‘s Park Slope Brownstone kitchen
INHABITAT: What types of things do you consider when designing a kitchen for a home?
James: The most important thing is to work with the homeowner so that we both get a true understanding of what their needs are. This sounds simple, but any client’s initial vision is often heavily influenced by the kitchen they have, the kitchen they grew up with, or by some snap judgement about their new space (“the counter will have to go on that side”) that became set in stone before the project has even started.
So at the outset, I’m not trying to design a kitchen like the one in their grandmother’s house, or like the one in the magazine article they cut out. I’m trying to understand what it is about that kitchen or photo that they like, and then work to incorporate those underlying principles into their new kitchen.
Even when we’re presenting our first design concepts to clients, our sketches aren’t intended as solutions to the problem at hand, they’re a tool to better define the problem at hand by generating feedback that puts the client’s needs and desires into a clearer light.
Fisher & Paykel Chef’s Kitchen
INHABITAT:Do you think the role of the kitchen in a home has changed a lot since you started designing? What changes in kitchen design have you seen over the past decade?
James: In the past 10 years, I think that we’ve seen the tail end of a transition in kitchens that started about 70 years ago. In that time, kitchens have gone from being a service space to a social space on par with the living room. 30 years ago, people generally would not have had their dinner party guests join them in the kitchen while the meal was being prepared, but today it would seem odd not to gather there. With this change in status there’s been a parallel physical change—opening the kitchen up to the living and dining spaces—to the point today where these three ‘rooms’ frequently all share one space.
Too often, this openness can becomes an excuse for poor design, with the kitchen seemingly just thrown in the corner of the larger space. In JCA‘s projects, I’m always trying to create subtle —a change in materials, or in ceiling height—that allows living/dining/kitchen to share one space, but to still each have distinct identities that dovetail together seamlessly.
INHABITAT: How do you feel about the somewhat outmoded concept of the kitchen triangle regarding traffic flow?
James: The kitchen triangle is shorthand for an important consideration—that an architect or designer has to give thought not just to how the kitchen looks, but to how it will be used. But adhering to the triangle doesn’t mean that a kitchen will be well designed any more than keeping your hands at 10 and 2 on the steering wheel means you’re a good driver.
The triangle was really conceived to prevent appliances from being spaced too far apart. This makes perfect sense when designing in the suburbs, where kitchens today are 2 to 4 times the size of an urban kitchen.
Much of my work is in New York City, where we have the opposite problem of determining how close together the cooking appliances can be before the kitchen’s functionality is compromised, and the challenge of how can we tweak our design to squeeze out a critical extra 6″ of counter length?
Fisher & Paykel range
INHABITAT: What considerations do you give to the appliances and fixtures you choose or recommend?
James: Like everything else in our work, we balance quality, performance, and cost, and we always visit stores and showrooms with the clients so that they can touch and feel their range, refrigerator, etc. in person. It’s one thing to see a photo of a range and read the specs, but another to feel how solidly the door feels, how big the oven is, and how easily (or not) the oven racks slide in and out.
INHABITAT: We love the kitchen details in the Pacific Street Trio kitchens. Particularly how the prep area has a cutout that opens up to the stairs. What’s the story behind that bit of design?
James: The Pacific Street project was designed on spec for a developer, with three and four bedroom apartments who’s buyers would likely have children in the house. I imagined the future homeowners preparing dinner with one child tucking themselves into the nook between the countertop and the underside of the stair talking to mom or dad (my four-year old loves to sit on the counter while we prepare dinner), and another sitting on the stairs reading Harry Potter.
JCA’s Pacific Street Trio kitchen
Creating the opening between the stair and kitchen has the added benefit of making the kitchen feel larger, and last but not least, from a visual standpoint, I loved the look of the diagonal of the concrete stair and the zig-zagging walnut tread edges framed by the countertop and the blackened steel and white lacquered kitchen cabinets.
INHABITAT: What role does the kitchen play in your own home?
James: We live in a wonderful pre-war apartment in Prospect Heights with our two young sons, but have to live with the smallest of galley kitchens, and have had to come up with some unique solutions to make use of every square inch of available space. While this is frustrating domestically, professionally, I know I design better kitchens for having lived with such a small one at home.
Fisher & Paykel DishDrawers
INHABITAT: What do you imagine as the kitchen of the future?
James: Other than flying robots who’ll prepare our food and deliver it to the dining table? I think that three things will happen: We’ll see more widespread use of integrated appliances whose faces match the kitchen cabinets. Appliance innovations that tend today to seen more in high end kitchens—like microwave drawers and under-counter refrigerator/freezer drawers—will become commonplace and more affordable. And storage solutions that make every inch of the cabinets—from the toe kick space to a dead inside corner —will be more widely used.
All of these will allow designers to have more flexibility in tailoring our clients kitchens to their needs, particularly for projects where space is at a premium.
Fisher & Paykel has been designing products since 1934 and has grown into a global company operating in 50 countries and manufacturing in the USA, Mexico, Italy, Thailand and New Zealand. Our design heritage is founded on a pioneering spirit and a culture of curiosity that has challenged conventional appliance design to consistently deliver products tailored to human needs.