Want a great kitchen? Borrow from the best

 Whether it’s something as simple as a chili cook-off or as high-stakes as the Kentucky Derby, competition and excellence are all about context. The standouts aren’t just good, they have something the other contenders don’t, at least at that given place and time. The same is true for residential design and renovation. You have to see a lot of examples to decide which spaces or projects might land in your winner’s circle, and unless you can tour dozens of homes in your own community, that’s tough to do.

Fortunately, anyone contemplating a new or remodelled kitchen can explore a healthy sampling of design options from the comfort of an armchair, thanks to a generous compilation from Creative Homeowner Press, “Best Signature Kitchens” ($19.95). This book gathers more than 100 examples of new and renovated kitchens from Signature Kitchens and Baths magazine, showcasing each to show how it succeeded for the homeowners involved.

Before diving into the eye candy, however, readers get a primer on four key trends and principles involved in current kitchen design. It’s not as exhaustive or elaborately detailed as an entire tome on the subject might be, but this introductory section does lay the basic groundwork for evaluating the sample kitchens that follow. The lesson here? That there’s probably no such thing at “timeless” design, but these four factors have the power to make or break a kitchen’s longevity:

The great room kitchen:It might be hard to believe nowadays, but kitchens weren’t always the family/social hubs and entertainment venues a lot of homeowners want today. Most were utilitarian back rooms, outfitted with wood- or coal-burning stoves and decidedly crude compared to the aesthetics of a home’s more public spaces. The “great room” concept of opening a kitchen to dining and living spaces is a modern invention that allows more options for entertaining and a less formal lifestyle, but the visual and structural openness also demand some different strategies.

Appliances and other “utility” features need better looks or camouflage, for starters. And some architectural elements formerly reserved for living spaces need to expand into the kitchen to provide for better visual continuity. Also, partition walls and doorways that would have directed traffic flow are often gone, so the transitions between the “rooms” have to be delineated by furniture layout and other elements. Finally, larger spaces can be noisier or otherwise unfriendly if the acoustics aren’t addressed or if smaller sub-spaces or “zones” aren’t established with ceiling changes and furniture groupings.

Sustainable design: Sustainability may be an overused or misunderstood buzzword, but the principle is here to stay when it comes to the environmental footprint of any building. Part of this equation is choosing materials with healthier production histories (reclaimed wood flooring or natural stone countertops, for example) and long life spans. After the kitchen is built, energy usage lands front and centre. Simple but effective measures here can include nixing the use of incandescent light bulbs and installing appliances that have an Energy Star rating for reduced electricity consumption.

Entertainment potential:We’re not talking about venues for wedding receptions, just the versatility that a well-designed modern kitchen can offer when you want to host family and friends. Whether your agenda includes lavish parties or informal get-togethers, your kitchen’s floor plan should be designed to accommodate others. Islands are primary features because they route traffic and provide additional counter top area for food prep, display or casual dining. Appliance needs may change, requiring a larger refrigerator, a dedicated wine cooler or a second dishwasher. Lighting sources should be multiple and diverse so you can have good task lighting when necessary and a softer ambience when that’s appropriate. And be sure to keep surfaces user-friendly — this might mean textured or slip-resistant flooring that’s easy on feet or easy-clean counter tops of either stainless steel or engineered quartz.

Classic design elements: Somewhere there’s a graveyard for kitchen design fads, and no renovation wants to be claimed by the grim reaper that stocks those grounds. Harvest gold and avocado green appliances reside there, nesting among whitewashed oak cabinetry and duck-themed wallpaper borders. Of course you can experiment with fresh and original design elements, and nothing stays “fashionable” forever, but keep good function and classic themes in mind if you want your project to have staying power. Follow the lead of your home’s dominant architectural style, provided it has one, and favour natural materials over synthetic substitutes. If you want to get quirky and bold, do it with accents, paint colours, and furnishings that can be changed out easily when you tire of them.

Once you make your way into the sample kitchens, you’ll be evaluating them with an educated eye. The styles range from “old world” European to Asian to the sleekest contemporary, with enough variety to offer some dreams for every taste palette. Each entry features two colour photographs, a three-dimensional overhead floor plan, and a resource list of the persons and products that made it happen.

If you look through them all, the problem won’t be finding something to inspire your own kitchen project. It will be settling on just one as your favourite.

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