The Kitchen Maximized

Jan Weimer is a kitchen designer and author of "Kitchen Redos, Revamps, Remodels + Replacements without Murder, Suicide or Divorce" (William Morrow, 1997).

Imagine a blueprint of your dream kitchen. For a Modernist, it might feature stark white Corian counters with stainless steel Sub-Zero appliances. For a traditionalist, perhaps an enamel and polished brass La Cornue range with gas burners, plate warmers and a barbecue grill. Surround-sound speakers might softly pipe Act I of “La Traviata,” or blare a Laker game from your 50-inch plasma TV. If you can imagine it, it can be built—for a price.

Universal principles for designing a functional kitchen are unvarying, whether the space is large or small, completely gutted, partially renovated or simply ready to be reorganized. In the following pages, we offer ideas for those on an unlimited budget and homeowners planning a modest remodel. And for those of us in rental units, there are ways to personalize a space, making it more efficient without sending your landlord over the edge.

In each scenario, you should first assess what you like and don’t like about your current kitchen. Ask yourself these questions: How do you shop? What do you cook? Is the room used for something other than meal preparation? What would the dog say?

Think about how you prepare food, or have food prepared for you. Who will you be serving? There’s the takeout-eaten-in-front-of-the-open-fridge scenario, and then there’s the entire family Thanksgiving feast. Focus on priorities. Design for your lifestyle. Your real lifestyle.

A few basics apply. Take the time-honored “triangle” blueprint. The kitchen triangle — the imaginary lines connecting the stove, sink and refrigerator — historically has been the means to translate individual needs into kitchen design. When today’s larger kitchens with multiple cooks are added to the formula, an efficient layout resembles a Frank Lloyd Wright-style open aesthetic. It’s what interior designer Nick Berman calls “tangency of functions.”

A well-designed kitchen flows like an automobile assembly line, with the cook on an ergonomic conveyor belt that moves from one activity to the next without backtracking. This allows the cook to move efficiently from the food storage area (refrigerator and pantry) to a sink and prep station to the stove to the space where food is put on a plate and served.

Assign cleanup activities to the side of the sink opposite the prep area or to a sink near the eating area. Regardless of budget, the bigger each sink basin, the better. Each zone in your personalized triangle requires an adequate surface where you can place prep bowls and plates, and an area where the cook can comfortably chop and mix. A counter height that measures 6 inches below an elbow bent at 90 degrees is ideal.

Finally, plan down to the last light switch before starting construction to avoid hasty decisions and costly change orders. In each case, go for the best you can afford, keeping in mind that today “people spend about 70% of their budget on appliances and 30% on cabinets,” says Will Farasat, showroom manager of Bay Cities Kitchens and Appliances. “Ten years ago, the numbers were reversed.”

The Dream Kitchen

For wine lovers D’Lynda and Craig Kaplan, the first priority in the kitchen of their Brentwood home, which the couple since has sold to his parents, was an 8-by-4-foot under-the-counter wine refrigeration unit for 300 bottles. “Our cabinetmaker built it framed by four wood and glass doors, and we just love it,” D’Lynda says.

Bathed in natural light, the 17-by-22-square-foot kitchen features backlighted glass cabinet doors framed in dark-stained oak and stainless steel Viking appliances. Pale oak floors provide contrast, and CaesarStone countertops lighten the richness of the cabinets.

But rooms like this don’t come cheap. A luxury kitchen with the latest appliances and electronics can cost from $100,000 to the reported $500,000 spent on the White House kitchen during the tenure of George and Barbara Bush.

Peek inside one of these grand kitchens, and you’ll find a trophy stove or cooktop awarded the focal position. At $28,000, La Cornue’s range is the biggest trophy of all. Fans of the hefty faux-pro look favor the stainless steel Viking or Wolf, with their powerful gas burners. Devotees of the sleek, streamlined Euro-style prefer Miele and Gaggenau, with their individual hobs, griddles, grills, deep fryers and steamers.

Infrared oven broilers sear food and seal in juices, unlike the common underpowered electric rods. Convection is considered de rigueur, though most people neither know what it is nor how to use it. Never mind. Of late, home chefs in the know are switching allegiance to the Miele steam oven—an obvious favorite with the health-conscious Southern California consumer.

Other must-have oven gadgets include commercial charbroilers, salamanders, rotisseries, multiple warming drawers and a wok. A faucet mounted at each end of the stove top provides an immediate water source. A powerful ventilation system completes the lineup.

In our dream scenario, cabinets are custom-built from rich or exotic woods with exquisite millwork. Instead of the classic police-style lineup, we find free-standing pieces of fine furniture. Drawers, individually tailored to contain specific contents, replace doors with shelves. Cabinets are built extra-deep for appliance storage, and the bottoms of upper cabinets conceal lighting and plug strips to keep the backsplash inviolate.

Granite, soapstone and kiln-fired French lava are sculpted into countertops, while hipper homes prefer concrete slabs and colorful engineered quartz.

And what dream kitchen would be without a Sub-Zero refrigerator and freezer?

Nearby we imagine two quiet Miele dishwashers, the Fisher & Paykel dishwasher drawers or the commercial Champion two-minute dish machines flanking the sink. One of these, may be added to the butler’s pantry or bar area, with another sink to accommodate multiple cooks.

Looking at our ideal sink ledge, it’s as crowded as the popcorn counter at the Grove movie theater. At your fingertips are instant hot and cold water faucets, a filtration system, a disposal switch and a pull-up lever that opens and shuts the drain without putting a hand in the dirty water.

Many larger luxury kitchens feature utility closets, home offices, walk-in pantries, a bar with ice maker, wine refrigerator and humidor. A grand fireplace or wood-burning pizza oven glows in front of lounge chairs, opening to the family room beyond.

For techies, Samsung offers wired, Internet-ready refrigerators that have computers and product bar code scanners embedded in the door. Scanning an item’s bar code generates a shopping list that can be sent online to a local grocery store, which will deliver your groceries. High-speed ovens feature a combination of light, infrared and microwave technology. The remote-controlled TMIO Internet-connected refrigerated oven keeps food cold until the user sends a command via the Internet or cellphone that tells it to begin cooking. Rather than pheasants under glass, the modern kitchen flaunts computers and built-in entertainment centers. The sky’s the limit.

The Remodel

People hoping to pay a bit less, or to undertake a partial renovation, have options. If appliances are being replaced, allot most of the budget to simplifying food preparation. Purchase a gas cooktop with six sturdy rectangular burners that go from simmer to 15,000 BTUs.

You can achieve the look of an expensive built-in refrigerator by building a frame around a free-standing unit. If two sink locations are not feasible, place two basins side by side and mount a faucet with a pullout spray on each. Or swap two small basins for one larger unit that provides more flexibility.

A paint job does wonders for walls and cabinets. Refinish cabinets, replace just their doors or drawers or distress them further to celebrate their beat-up look. When buying new cabinets, select ready-made stock with the least-expensive door style. “Buy Canadian,” suggests kitchen designer Don Silvers. “You save 25% to start with.”

Landscape architect Russ Cletta bought online restaurant-quality stainless steel for the kitchen in his 1945 Venice bungalow. “I bought work tables and workstations, and it was much quicker and less expensive than building cabinets.”

Similarly, real estate developer Ron Gonen achieved a luxury look for very little by choosing Ikea cabinets with contemporary steel fronts. “I didn’t change the kitchen’s layout because I didn’t want to spend money moving plumbing and electrical lines,” he says. “I saved a lot pulling up the vinyl tile and bleaching and refinishing the Douglas fir floors underneath. It was a lot of work though.”

Less labor-intensive fixes include swapping out accessories. “New … handles do a lot to zip up a space,” suggests interior designer Lori Erenberg. “And changing the counter is equivalent to an instant face-lift.” At $10 to $17 a square foot, laminate is the kindest cut. By comparison, granite slab is $50 to $100 a square foot, although granite tile is less expensive.

Finding sufficient storage seems to be the most common problem, yet it is the easiest to fix. What cookware do you really need? You probably can do without three-quarters of what you own. Assign the remaining batterie de cuisine a space closest to where it is used. As Berman says, “you don’t want to be schlepping it to and from the pantry.” Organize with innumerable storage aids, from knife racks to pantry shelves, all of which can be added to old cabinets.

“It’s all about verticals and using every inch,” says Christopher Lowell, who hosts a home improvement show on the Discovery Channel. “Put in floor-to-ceiling shelving and fill it with matching baskets, or place a shelf all around the kitchen at the 7-foot mark,” he suggests.

The Rental

Unless you take designer Nick Berman’s tongue-in-cheek advice to “get rich and move,” transformation is more challenging in a rental, but it can be done with a little creativity.

“The best thing you can do to a rental kitchen is to add personality,” says cooking teacher Jean Brady. “Get a Pasquini espresso machine, a Dualit toaster or an antique malt maker. Display cookbooks, and collections of vintage food containers [and] baskets from your travels that bring an element of design.”

“I love the pot rack that hangs over the range,” says Liesel Reinisch, who lives in a Hancock Park apartment. “It saves space, adds warmth and is from the house I grew up in.”

In his mid-Wilshire apartment, Mark Buettell installed a baker’s rack to free up counter space. “I keep my appliances and wines on the shelves, and also use it to display my antique washboard, a 4-foot industrial bakery whisk and other found objects,” he says. “I also painted cabinets and walls Provençal yellow to give the kitchen a south of France feeling. If my landlord hates it, I’ll just repaint when I leave. This is my home and I want to enjoy it while I’m here.”

Perhaps the biggest challenge of apartment living is lack of space. “You may be able to get the landlord to create pockets or alcoves in the wall between studs for storing spices,” says Silvers, “and a rolling butcher-block table will help.” Augment work surfaces by outfitting a drawer with a removable cutting board, and store gadgets underneath.

Lighting can be fixed by “adding decorative fixtures, track lights and under-cabinet lights that come with cords and plugs that you can take with you,” says David Steinitz, owner of F.I.R.E. L.T.D.

No matter whether you’re gutting your kitchen or just refurbishing it, “you’re cramming in a lot of function,” says Berman. “Make sure it is warm and inviting.” Add your own “thumbprint” to the space.