Not too long ago, the prophets of doom predicted the demise of the American kitchen. The evidence seemed irrefutable. We dined out several nights a week. We brought takeout food in. And when we "cooked" we zapped diet dinners in the microwave.
But Americans have come home to the hearth in the '90s. The kitchen is back, and it's back bigger than ever. Many of us are cooking again. But even in households where cooking is still a rarity, the kitchen has once more become the hub of the home.
The new kitchen is no longer just a place to cook and eat. It's the epicenter of relaxing, paying bills and doing homework. Even when we entertain, our guests gravitate to what the shelter magazines are calling the new family room.
This new gathering place says a lot about the changes we have made in the way we live. And the kitchen has become even more important than the living room, according to Donna Warner, food and design editor of Metropolitan Home magazine.
"We are less formal but still busy," she says. "We crave comfort, but we also crave individuality. We don't want our kitchens to look like a laboratory or like anyone else's kitchen."
Metropolitan Home's editors took these new desires into consideration and came up with what they dub "the dream kitchen" in their January issue and presented it to the annual convention of the National Association of Homebuilders recently in Atlanta.
Ms. Warner says they rejected the all-white Bauhaus, modernist kitchen and aimed for a sunny room with a feeling of warmth and hand-crafted elements -- from kitchen cabinets that were unfinished and rubbed with a warm gold paint to hardware forged into shapes of monkeys and hares by a Los Angeles artist.
The designers call it an "extended kitchen," a gathering place for family and friends with a harvest country table that also functions as a work island, an old-fashioned pantry and a snack area with a two-burner stove, small sink and microwave.
The challenge of providing the convenience of a professional restaurant stove without the installation hassles and space requirements was solved with the new Monogram component cook top by General Electric. Four burners and a grill are lined up horizontally along a side wall with shelves underneath for pots; the usual unsightly overhead vents are replaced with down-draft vents tucked way behind the units, leaving the area behind the stove free for the view of a garden outside.
Maryland designers agree that the kitchen is becoming the heart of the home.
David Cahlander, a certified kitchen designer who is a local sales representative for cabinet manufacturers, says that people are coming back to a lot of things they got away from during the go-go '80s.
"With a two-family income nobody had time to sit down," he says. "Kitchens became more crisp and more utilitarian. Now kitchens are being designed like family centers where everyone gathers after a party and where kids do their homework."
Typically, he says, clients are asking for a desk or planning area, a snack area where more than one person can gather and open areas where people can put occasional chairs or even couches when there is enough room.
Designing one of these open kitchens with enough room for guests and family to congregate was a key consideration for a modern kitchen in the home of an Owings Mills couple who are both busy physicians. The kitchen was designed by Donna Fisher of Donna Fisher Associates in cooperation with architect Robert McCready and Walker/ Welsh, the cabinetmakers.
The couple wanted what they describe as a high-tech, everything-hidden-in-its-place look rather than a warmer, cluttered look.
"We aren't big cookers, but we are pretty big entertainers," says the female half of the couple, who asked not to be identified. "At our parties, people always ended up in the kitchen, and we wanted to have the kitchen in the central part of the house. We can entertain at the table, and the flow into the den is very good."
Although she says she doesn't spend a lot of time cooking, she does spend a lot of time in the kitchen and wanted the den and the kitchen to appear to be one unit.
"We have small children, and in the old house it seemed like I never saw the children because I was always in the kitchen when I was home. Now I have my space and they have their space."
Interior designer Donna Fisher says the kitchen repeats the architecture of the house's very spare, very contemporary design. The rounded cabinets and room dividers echo the curves prevalent in the rest of the house. The cabinets are white gloss laminate, making white the predominant color. Accents come from the granite counter tops and soft turquoise walls, a repeat of the house's overall color palate of pastels -- turquoise, lavender and gray.