AFTER YEARS OF HUNKERING DOWN and spending less on renovations, many homeowners are ready to start giving in to the desire to cook up something new in their kitchens. “During the recession,’’ says Fred Miller, managing director of the Florida-based Home Improvement Research Institute, “a lot of what got cut were bigger-ticket discretionary items. If your water heater went out, you weren’t going to take cold showers, but because some kitchen remodeling can be pretty pricey, many owners decided they could live with their existing kitchens for a year or two.’’
That attitude seems to be softening, with the remodeling industry overall seeing double the growth in 2012 that it did just two years ago, according to research from the National Association of the Remodeling Industry. “Work is starting to ramp back up again,’’ says Miller, “and the biggest reason is pent-up demand.’’
If you’re one of those weighing a fresh look for your kitchen, consider incorporating some of the latest trends.
1. CLEANER, MORE MODERN LINES
Perhaps the biggest change to hit the Northeast in recent years is the simpler, sleeker look coming over from Europe, though, according to Jeff Swanson of Renovation Planning in the South End, “it will always be New England-style contemporary, where it’s not harsh and cold.’’ Designers term this look “transitional’’ — that is, modern but with a classic take.
Among the ways the aesthetic translates is in fewer wall cabinets — usually replaced by open shelving — and less ornamentation, including on cabinet doors, which are now often a simple slab. Proportions are tending toward the masculine, says Amanda LaRose, designer at Divine Kitchens in Wellesley, becoming “squarer, thicker, chunkier, and more architectural.’’ To offset the bolder scale, she adds, finishes such as painted cabinets and marble countertops are “staying more feminine.’’
2. UPDATED LAYOUTS
Open-concept kitchens have been popular for some time, but the older homes that predominate in the Boston area often require an addition to create them. Many homeowners are doing away with that extra expense by eliminating the formal dining room. “People say, ‘We just don’t entertain that way,’ ’’ explains LaRose. “A lot of people knock down the wall to make a larger, grander eat-in-kitchen that they can enjoy every day, as opposed to having a china closet that gets dusted more than actually used.’’
Additionally, the work triangle — with the stove, refrigerator, and sink forming its three points — is no longer the focus of kitchen design. Instead, restaurant-inspired workstations are being set up. There may be a prep area for vegetables near the main sink, a baking station with a pullout cutting board or lift-up mixer in the base cabinets, a sandwich-prep area near the refrigerator, and a bar area with second sink and mini-fridge in the island. “People are so into organization,’’ says Kathy Marshall of K. Marshall Design in Wenham. “I think because life is so crazy.’’
3. DOCKING STATIONS
Beginning in the 1990s, with the rise of home computers, contractors started adding office areas to kitchens in new-construction homes, and the trend soon moved to kitchen renovations. But those office spaces are falling out of favor, because in most homes they quickly became what LaRose calls “the abyss,’’ where bills, receipts, recipes, kids’ school permission slips, and the like got tossed into a pile to be ignored. “Office space is not disappearing’’ from the kitchen, LaRose explains, “but morphing. It’s becoming a message center and docking station. It probably does not have a sit-down desk area like it did, and once you take away the need for sitting, you can now use that space for storage.’’
Charging cords and outlets for hand-held devices that live in a countertop cubbyhole can be hidden with a slide-up door, and upper areas containing pockets for kids’ stuff, personalized mail slots, key hooks, and electronics storage can be masked by doors that close when guests arrive.
4. EXPANDED HARDWARE OPTIONS
For years, the only adornments on well-dressed cabinets were brushed-nickel rod handles. Today that’s changing, with many more materials and styles available. Old-fashioned scallop pulls are becoming popular again; other options include flush hardware that mounts along the top edge of base cabinets. For metals, LaRose says, “it’s become designer’s choice. I don’t think there’s a wicked hot metal right now. It’s really based on the aesthetic of the rest of the space. But a lot of beautiful warmer metals have come back into favor — warmer brasses and burnished, patinaed golds that are just, like, yum. A few years ago you never would have touched anything warm.’’
In keeping with the cleaner lines of the transitional style, some homeowners are selecting no visible cabinet hardware, instead using concealed hinges, finger-pulls that are notched out of the edges of doors, or latches that close magnetically.
5. LESS ‘MATCHY MATCHY’
Maybe a decade ago, a style began to emerge that has by now become practically de rigueur for designers: a kitchen island in materials or colors unlike those found at the room’s perimeter. “I love to mix materials,’’ says LaRose. “To me it gives depth, warmth, and approachability and makes something look nostalgic even though it’s new.’’ But if it’s not done well, this look can be busy and distracting. To keep it clean, Swanson recommends using either cabinetry or countertops different from the rest of the kitchen, but not both. Marshall points out that keeping the island complementary to the perimeter cabinets — say, a pale gray or natural wood to go with a creamy white — can be “less jarring and more peaceful’’ while still giving it the feel of a freestanding piece of furniture.
In its latest iteration, the trend has moved beyond islands to other areas of the kitchen. In the perimeter, for example, top cabinets may be different from base cabinets. Stainless-framed frosted-glass doors might float above the room’s cherry or gray bottom half, or ebony and maple might coexist with Zen-like tranquillity. Less often but on the cutting edge, brightly colored cabinets may stand out in occasional Mondrian-inspired contrast to the rest of the room, or a baking station or prep area may get a distinctive treatment.
Another variation on the theme is making one piece of cabinetry — particularly in the space between kitchen and family room or the eating area in an open floor plan — the so-called standout. “A definite trend is to have a piece that bridges the gap between the two rooms,’’ says Marshall. “It goes back to the concept of having one piece that looks like furniture.’’ Often the standout will be a tall, usually double, cabinet that opens to reveal a wine bar or pantry.
6. VARIED CABINET CHOICES
Cabinets come in a wider array of materials and configurations than ever before. Among the most popular new designs are those with doors that open not with the traditional left or right swing, but by lifting up garage-door-style, by retracting into the sides of the cabinet, by operating as a bi-fold, or even by sliding. All of these options offer increased efficiency for the cook or server. If you use a particular upper cabinet often, for example, you can keep it open while making dinner rather than taking each ingredient out in advance and cluttering up the counter. And if there’s a sliding door under the sink, it gives you access to the trash can until you’re finished preparing food without causing an obstruction to bump your knee on.
Again thanks to the sway of European design, frameless cabinets are sought-after these days. “They actually came over in the late 1950s or early ’60s,’’ says Eileen Kollias of Eileen Kollias Design in Woburn, “but now they’re really taking hold.’’ In frameless design, no narrow strips of wood show at the sides, top, bottom, or between cabinet doors. “It minimizes the lines in the kitchen,’’ says Renovation Planning’s Swanson, “and gives you much freer access to what’s inside.’’
Soft-closing cabinets and drawers are everywhere. “If you have a fight with your spouse and slam a door,’’ jokes Kollias, “it doesn’t slam anymore.’’ Lighted glass-front top cabinets are also finding fans (LED bulbs make the ambient glow more cost-efficient), as are lights inside drawers and base cabinets, often activated by motion sensors when you open them. “Now you can actually see that container of oatmeal that fell off the shelf in the back,’’ says LaRose.
7. THICK OR THIN COUNTERTOPS
There’s not that much change in countertop materials — granite, quartz, and marble still reign supreme — but whatever surface you choose, it’s likely to be either thicker or thinner than the standard 1¼ or 1½ inches you’ve seen in the past. “European cabinets come in varying heights,’’ says Kevin Briggs of KB Design in Reading and Poggenpohl Boston, “so they allow for a lot more freedom of design.’’ Today’s countertops can go as thin as a half inch or as thick as 5 inches. Island countertops are often twice as thick as perimeter ones, and, in very contemporary designs, may extend down the sides of the islands for the sort of boxy, masculine look that LaRose cites. And many countertops are being fitted with built-ins such as a cutting board or a flush-mount composting bucket near the sink.
8. MAXIMIZED SPACE
The trend toward organizing and simple lines is forcing kitchen designers to use every inch of space as efficiently as possible. It starts with the frameless look and extends to pullout drawers in the cabinets that allow the whole 24-inch depth to be used rather than just the front, spacious refrigerated beverage drawers in the island, and pullout spice racks as narrow as 3 inches in what once might have been dead space. “There shouldn’t be any cabinet that’s just a door that opens with a shelf inside anymore,’’ says Kollias, who also favors roll-out storage under banquet seating. “It should all do something.’’
9. STATE-OF-THE-ART APPLIANCES
To amateur chefs and busy home cooks, beautiful designs are nice but will always play second fiddle to appliances. For them, we’ve saved the best for last:
> Built-in Espresso Machines Your mother’s white-plastic Mr. Coffee just doesn’t cut it anymore. The latest machines, plumbed right into the water source, are pricey but give the family barista steamed milk, espresso, latte, cappuccino, hot chocolate, and, oh yeah, freshly ground coffee at the touch of a button.
> New Finishes “Stainless is still king,’’ says Briggs. “No question about that.’’ But there are more options than ever in appliance colors, so if you’re looking to make a statement, you’ll have no shortage of choices, particularly at higher price points. Several manufacturers are making matte black appliances, which fit well with contemporary design. Sleek glass appliances are making inroads, with Whirlpool’s White Ice and Black Ice versions, out this summer starting at $599, being touted as “the new stainless’’ by websites, including proudgreenhome.com. Rubbed bronze appliances are also available, notably from Jenn-Air, and would work well alongside the newer copper sinks and warmer hardware metals.
Another option is a finish that hides the appliance. The concept of cabinet-matching panels on refrigerators and dishwashers is familiar, but today the look has become even more streamlined. The German kitchen manufacturer Poggenpohl, for example, has “panels that match the cabinetry in such a smooth, flat line that it’s really hard to tell the appliances are even there,’’ according to Briggs.
Finally, enameled appliances come in a huge variety of colors, though the best-known manufacturer of vibrant stoves, Aga, is quite pricey; a slightly more cost-effective line (fridges start at $1,695) comes from Big Chill, a Boulder company that sells not only retro colors from creamy buttercup to vivid orange, but also period-perfect ’50s design.
> Double Ovens Wall-mounted double ovens have been common for decades, but now something new has hit the big-box stores: Check out the double ovens that look just like standard ranges, but have a second oven instead of a bottom drawer for pots and pans. This appliance offers flexibility — you can cook two dishes at once using different temperatures — and energy efficiency, since, for a smaller meal, you can use only the more compact unit. A double oven is two or three times the price of a standard model, but if you plan to stay in your house long-term, it could be worth the investment. Many such ranges, even at the lower end, have a fifth, middle burner and a griddle attachment.
> Warming Drawers These are not a new idea, but with the emphasis on ease and efficiency, they’re becoming increasingly popular. They can proof your dough and crisp your pizza, and they now have timers, so those dinner-party rolls will no longer be forgotten.
> Steam Ovens A must for serious home chefs, steam ovens use steam instead of dry heat to cook foods and can make everything from shrimp to vegetables to super-moist cakes; some, including Miele’s, can brown as well. In many kitchens, they’re replacing microwaves, since steam ovens don’t dry out foods the way microwaves often do. Marshall says she’s a huge fan of the steam oven but adds that, at a cost of around $3,000 for a built-in, “it’s the first thing to go when people find out the price realities.’’
> Infrared Broilers Many of today’s higher-end ovens include infrared broilers, which use less energy than traditional broilers and require little or no preheating. “The element is hidden inside the oven’s construction,’’ says Kollias, “so if you’re cooking a steak on it, it won’t catch fire like it might have in the old days.’’
> Induction Cooktops Like frameless cabinets, induction cooking has been around longer than you might have thought; it was introduced to the general public by Frigidaire in the 1950s. Rather than a burning ring or red-hot coils on the stove’s surface, induction uses electromagnetism to heat pans directly. “If your pan is half off the area,’’ explains Kollias, “that half won’t cook.’’ The easy-to-clean solid surface stays cool to the touch and, according to Consumer Reports, requires as little as half as much time as a standard range to cook food.
It’s the cooktop Kollias has been waiting for. “I’m like the shoemaker with holes in his shoes,’’ says the designer. “My kitchen has been needing renovation for five years. I’m buying all my pans now in stainless steel so they’ll work with my new induction range. I’m very, very excited to have my dream kitchen!’’