Dateline: 2005—The room in a home that everyone gathered in used to be the kitchen, then it was family room, then the great room. Here’s the latest on how and why 2005 has seen an evolution in residential space planning and the creation of an area where (almost) everything takes place.
In today’s busy world, families are more fragmented, busy
and laden with demands from work, school and community involvement
than ever before. Compared to a generation or two ago, we find less
time to simply be together. As this direction gained momentum, families
and home designers found that the old way of formal living—with
formal dining and living rooms, isolated kitchen, butler’s
pantry and separate den or office and family room (also known as
the recreation room or rumpus room just a few years ago)—created
spaces that were not used by all family members on a daily basis.
The great room was the answer and it made sense, but there were
still spaces in a home that were seldom used yet somehow deemed
necessary, such as the formal living and dining rooms, for example.
The result was that the entire house became a McMansion—unwieldy
in scale, vast in size and isolating to all family members.
Many people have discovered that there just is no real need for
spaces that were so often unused, those just for show and demanding
of resources and maintenance. In other words: wasted space.
Perhaps pathfinder credit goes to Sarah Susanka, architect, whose
national best-seller “The Not So Big House” stated that
the ideal home for this new way of life was a modest home where
each room was in use every day. Further, a room that housed kitchen,
dining, relaxation and conversation with places for gatherings as
well as work and study stations made a pleasant environment.
She was quick to add, however, that there are times when a person
needs a place to be alone, so she recommended the “away room”
as a quiet, intimate space for reading, personal conversation or
for individual media time.
Many people had already been on this track, finding that a multi-purpose
room adds another advantage: if the philosophy of “dump the
den, perish the parlor” is adhered to, then more square footage
is available for the gathering space. Plus, the expenses saved by
eliminating unused space means resources can be spent on details
such as beautiful cabinetry, custom finish work, upscale fireplaces,
lighting and, of course, furnishings.
The days of formal family dining may be close to extinction. Surely,
some clients do carry on the tradition, but the majority of Americans,
even in the well-to-do class, are opting more and more for the dining-in
In today’s informal gathering space, sit-down dining areas
demand beautiful tables and chairs and lovely pendant or chandelier
lighting. When the table setting is lovely, no one cares that the
stovetop is close by, within sight even. There is a familiarity
that is comforting and encouraging in dining in or next to the kitchen.
In contrast to the history of the world, today’s cook no longer
needs be isolated and the kitchen no longer poorly equipped. Rather,
the kitchen portion of a home has become a place to be admired and
enjoyed. It’s now sophisticated, gorgeous and shows off equipment
and features that have exacted the lion’s share of the budget.
Cooking in a home’s gathering place is an event that accommodates
all helping hands. Interaction that takes place as the meal is prepared
somehow makes the meal itself more enjoyable. It’s a time
to reconnect to loved ones, to listen to and to share what’s
going on in our individual lives, to problem solve and give encouragement,
and to celebrate successes.
Further, as a society we’ve loosened up and begun to simply
enjoy food from the preparation to the cooking to the serving to
the dining to the cleaning up. If we’re feeling particularly
creative, just pull up a selection of recipes online from any corner
of the world, and try your hand at something new. Computers that
flip up (or down) from under cabinetry or countertops are marketed
by IceBox, and computers now can be found in refrigerator doors
(a new way to leave messages) and even in the microwave.
Cooking with these kinds of exciting high-tech conveniences adds
to the fun when there are guests and becomes part of the family
experience where time together can be productive and enjoyable.
“Stay in touch and stay informed” might be the catchphrase
of today’s residential gathering place.
Features found in homes that make working together a bonding experience
• Increased square footage for all welcomed helpers. Traffic
patterns and workstations are planned so that overcrowding is a
thing of the past.
• A variety of workstations, including two sinks, one often
in the island; a large range plus ovens, warming drawers and microwaves;
a large, strategically placed refrigerator and perhaps refrigerated
drawers; various countertops in various heights that are functional,
durable and handsome; and upscale, furniture-like cabinetry.
• Specialized lighting from clear work lighting to lower wattage
mood and dining lighting. A variety of lighting types gives greater
flexibility to the workspaces beyond food preparation. The beauty
of designer lighting turns the kitchen into a work of art itself—from
dimmable overhead downlighting to directed canister lighting, exciting
pendant lighting and undercounter lighting—one room can have
• Pantries for food and cabinetry for beautiful place settings
add to the elegance of today’s kitchen. Many upscale rooms
have an adjoining butler’s pantry, always convenient and sometimes
doorless, where serving dishes and place settings are stashed and
where often can be found a second refrigerator, a second or third
sink and a second dishwasher. This augments the ease of accommodating
larger gatherings without visually overburdening the kitchen.
• Media and computer technology.
WORK @ HOME
Today’s gathering place or hub must have at least one computer
desk—some even incorporate a portion of the room as a home
office. There are several major advantages to merging the home office
into the kitchen. For example, work or projects can proceed while
the soup is simmering. When family members come and go they can
greet each other and touch base about schedules and events. The
open proximity of a computer helps parents monitor what sites the
children (and adults) visit and gives them the opportunity to protect
their children (and loved ones) against unwanted solicitations and
The computer can be a connector to family, friends and the outside
world. The No. 1 hobby in America is gardening, but the No. 2 hobby
is genealogy and family history, connecting families by learning
about our roots. This can take place right in the room the immediate
family gathers. Of course, family finances, calendars, meal planning,
banking, investing and e-mail are all a part of the computer station.
A remarkable development in these beautiful gathering spaces is
that they are stages for great events. These rooms can, and often
do, accommodate family events: welcoming a new baby, celebrating
graduations and religious open houses, hosting weddings, informal
receptions, business functions, family reunions or other social
When the kitchen space is beautiful, the dining space gracious for
sit-down dining or buffet serving, and the seating arrangements
welcoming and comfortable, it is no wonder these rooms are where
everyone wants to be. The simple rule is: when people meet, we like
to eat, and when we eat, we enjoy one another’s company more.
DECORATING THE HOME’S HUB
These multi-functional rooms need to be furnished with more durability
than other spaces in the home because of the heavier use the furniture,
flooring, cabinetry and fixtures receive. In some cases, the use
may rival nonresidential settings where durability standards are
set much higher.
Fabrics should hold up beautifully under repeated abrasion on upholstered
furniture and be easily cleaned.
Crypton, the company that created Super Fabric, a fabric that offers
stain, bacteria, odor and moisture protection, published the results
of a survey revealing how designers specify fabric for high-use
nonresidential settings. These ideas may form guidelines for furnishing
the home’s gathering place:
• 61 percent of designers surveyed reported they use darker
colors to hide wear and tear in hotels.
• 63 percent said their clients request stain-resistant fabric.
• 65 percent see a trend in altering designs because of pets
• 69 percent say the worst hotel guests are smokers followed
by kids (20 percent) and dogs (11 percent).
• 70 percent are asked to create hospitality designs that
accommodate dogs and kids.
• 90 percent of designers would use lighter, brighter colors
if they had a stain-resistant fabric. Most designers consider the
worst problem stains to be wine and ink. (Source: Crypton postcare
mailing to designers, February, 2004; www.cryptonfabric.com.)
As this area is the one room in a home that draws everybody, it
may be wise to consider the ages, interests and capabilities of
those who will use it, the type of spills and abuse the furniture
may receive as well as the possibility of staining by beloved pets.
Look for materials that will withstand foot traffic—hard flooring
and high durability in carpeting (perhaps nonresidential) and area
rugs. Area rugs that are multi-colored and patterned often hide
foot traffic and spills. They are easier to clean because they hide
soil better. A patterned carpet also lasts longer because it hides
the wear as well as the soiling.
Wall coverings and window treatments are especially important features
because they often are the link between what used to be disconnected
spaces. Now the continuity of theme, color scheme and wall treatment
and fabric make the room a single space, bringing the elements together
in ways they make sense. An elegant treatment over the kitchen sink
is perfectly appropriate if the same or a similar treatment is used
in the dining area and the conversation or media area of the room.
Be unafraid to suggest that the client indulge in the furnishing
of this room. It is, after all, where they will spend most of their
waking hours at home. It surely should be the most well-equipped,
the most beautiful and the most enjoyable room in the house!
Karla J. Nielson, Allied ASID, WCAA, is assistant professor of
design at Brigham Young University. She has authored several books
including Window Treatments, Understanding Fabrics and Interiors:
An Introduction, 3rd Ed. Nielson is a regular correspondent for Draperies
& Window Coverings addressing the areas of fashion, education