Q: The old home we recently bought has a large kitchen and dining room. We're planning to combine those two spaces and redesign the kitchen. I'm worried, however, that, because of its size, the room combination will have an institutional look, regardless of what cabinetry and equipment we install. Can you give some advice on how to make the space workable and comfortable?
A: You've already shown a certain talent for interior design by suggesting that larger won't automatically be better. But don't worry: There are plenty of ways to avoid that institutional look.
Let's begin with this photo of a kitchen that was redone by Lyn Peterson and Kristiina Ratia of Motif Designs. They transformed an institutional-size space into a truly spectacular and practical setting.
The walls between the pantry and the kitchen were taken down, making the space even larger. To create a human scale, the room had to be divided in some fashion. Peninsulas of cabinets and counter tops would be the standard solution in such a situation. However, the designers chose to do something unexpected and even more effective. They placed the cabinetry and counters along the walls, while adding dividers of white-painted wooden trellising with see-through glass inserts. That kept the space visually intact, even as it produced distinct and comfortable work areas.
You could take a similar approach in order to preserve the open, spacious appearance of your kitchen-dining room combination. A change in flooring, for example, will help delineate functional differences without introducing strict boundaries. Contrasting ceiling configurations -- beams in one area and a flat, dropped ceiling in the other, for example -- will produce the same effect.
It's difficult to give a room a totally uncluttered look when more than one kind of activity is being performed in it. So, don't even try to make your cabinets seem slick or completely orderly. Instead of hiding all your everyday items behind doors, consider installing some open shelving that can accommodate lots of useful objects.
The choice of colors and materials will affect the appearance of the room. In this model, the color scheme is blue and white, with an unusual gray cabinetry helping to extend the airy feeling from floor to ceiling. A neutral background will never date the kitchen, while allowing the addition of bright, colorful accents. These should be limited to the chairs, woodwork, curtains and accessories -- all of which can be readily replaced or redone without disturbing the basic design.
Adequate lighting for the work surfaces will do a great deal to make the kitchen area more comfortable. Most ceiling lights will cast shadows on the counter tops, so add some under-cabinet fluorescent lighting as balance. Overall illumination of the eating area as well as the kitchen is very important. I recommend incandescent light bulbs for that purpose.
I further suggest you use a combination of lighting techniques so that some parts of the space can be brightly lit while others are left dimmer. That's one simple but vital way of ensuring that the room doesn't look like part of an impersonal institution.