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Credit: Ana Hard

9 Ways the Pandemic Changed American Kitchen Design

published Oct 2, 2021
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In the early days of quarantine, Atlanta-based interior designer Dana Lynch questioned some predictions as to how the pandemic might influence design. “They were saying that drop zones were going to be so important, where you can come in and decontaminate,” Lynch recalls. Fortunately, the clamor for such spaces seems to have mostly come and gone. But more than a year and a half into our new pandemic reality, it’s clear that home design — especially for kitchens — has changed.

Interior designers and builders across the country say that the future of America’s kitchens appears different than they might have imagined five years ago. Cavernous pantries capable of storing six months’ worth of dried beans were once the realm of doomsday preppers — now they’re mainstream necessities. Blinged-out outdoor kitchens topped wish lists in another era — today they’re reasonable investments for safe entertaining. Designers say there is an emboldened use of color (think: dark greens, moody blues, and rich hues of mustard and cranberry).

Indeed, the American dream home has been reimagined. After so much time at home and the non-stop cooking, homeowners and renters alike are increasingly willing to invest in upgrading their kitchen design. Read on to learn more about what’s been changing in the heart of America’s homes.

1. Upper cabinets started disappearing in a major way.

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Whether it’s the Marie Kondo Effect or simply the outcome of being stuck at home with too much clutter, there’s a desire to have less stuff around. A direct result? The increasing absence of upper kitchen cabinetry. 

“A mentality of purging and simplifying has people asking for less closed storage,” says Rebecca Gibbs, an interior designer based in Abilene, Texas. Getting rid of upper cabinets “allows room for your eyes to breathe a bit and do something just for the prettiness of it rather than the practicality.”

Jason Black, owner of Artisan Signature Homes in Louisville, Kentucky, sees the move away from upper cabinets as part of a larger shift toward furniture-style pieces. “We’re trying to make our kitchens look not necessarily like kitchens anymore,” he says. Instead people are choosing to anchor their designs by installing islands that could easily stand in as, say, a (very large) bedroom dresser. To accommodate these statement pieces, “a lot of our kitchens now are mainly lower cabinetry,” says Black, who explains that in some kitchens open shelving has taken the place of upper cabinetry or the space is left completely empty.

“A mentality of purging and simplifying has people asking for less closed storage.”

Rebecca Gibbs, interior designer, Abilene, TX

The trend may also be driven by parents of young children who, after all this time of uncertain childcare, have had it. Upper cabinets are being replaced by hardworking lower cabinets outfitted with easy-to-access drawers, says Max Humphrey, an interior designer from Portland, Oregon. “That’s where the kids’ stuff is going to be — when it’s dinnertime, they can get their bowl and help unload the dishwasher and put stuff away themselves,” he says.

2. Pantries got way bigger.

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Upper cabinets may be on their way out, but unless you’re actually committed to minimalist living, all that stuff has to go somewhere. Cue the (re)dawning age of the pantry.

“They’re getting to be monstrous,” says Lynch, whose Atlanta-based firm specializes in custom design-to-build homes. The trend is certainly driven in part by a pandemic-era desire to cache a supply of nonperishables for emergencies, but she thinks it’s also influenced by the rise of gadgetry like air fryers, Instant Pots, high-end coffee makers, and more. “Everybody wanted an open concept” before the pandemic, Lynch says.

“Now people are saying ‘Open concept, but I don’t want to see it.’” That might mean designing a pristine, Instagram-ready kitchen and tucking all the hardworking, less-aesthetically pleasing stuff into a souped-up modern-day butler’s pantry.

“Some of the pantries we’re doing now are basically a secondary kitchen,” adds Black. Many of his recent pantry projects include larger secondary fridges, sinks, countertop workspaces, and windows to bring in natural light. “You can go in there and basically prep and leave the mess on the counter, and then the kitchen stays crisp and clean.”

As dynamic as pantries have gotten, Black doesn’t think they’ve reached their peak. “They will continually evolve into something a little bit fancier than what we’re currently seeing,” he explains.

3. Removable wallpaper and other temporary decor options have grown enormously.

In recent years, the technology behind temporary design elements — including removable wallpaper, peel-and-stick backsplashes, and stick-on flooring — has improved by leaps and bounds.

“There are awesome peel-and-stick options now,” says Humphrey. “If you don’t have the dream backsplash in your rental kitchen, try peel-and-stick vinyl,” he says, noting options like West Elm’s peel-and-stick subway tile. “Even within one brand, the stuff you bought a year ago has probably since changed because the technology, printing process, and materials keep improving,” he says.

“Most of us aren’t renovating our kitchens — we’re doing little upgrades,” Humphrey says. “So the more stuff that’s available to help us, the better.” These temporary options have proven to be great stop-gaps for people who can’t or don’t want to renovate but don’t want to look at eyesores anymore. The popularity of temporary decor isn’t just anecdotal, either: Industry reports chart the removable wallpaper market, for example, to show considerable growth between 2020 and 2030.

Credit: Ana Hard

4. Kitchens began multiplying.

One kitchen is the right number in most homes, but Lynch says she’s increasingly fielding requests for second and even third kitchens. Why would a home need so many kitchens, you might ask? Families want a second kitchen in the basement for the kids, outfitted with everything — refrigerator, dishwasher, kitchen island, and countertops — minus the cooktop. Other clients desire an additional kitchen in the main bedroom to accommodate cocktail hour.

“They want a built-in coffee maker, so they need a fridge for their cream,” Lynch says. “They also want to be able to make cocktails there, so we’ll do a fridge with a freezer drawer that has ice in it. And, then the question becomes, ‘Are you going to drag the dishes into the kitchen, wash them, and then bring them all the way back here? Then, they’re like, ‘Let’s throw a dishwasher in there, too.’”

Such arrangements are extravagant, no question, but Lynch notes there may be a more practical reason behind the trend. “I don’t know if you had anybody who got sick in your family, but we did,” she says. Quarantining infected people away from healthy household members under a single roof is nearly impossible — unless you have extra food prep areas. “With a little kitchen in the primary bedroom, they can be pretty self-sufficient.”

5. Imperfections started being celebrated.

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What do dinged-up wood countertops, worn brass fixtures, and marble with patina have in common? They’re all things that Americans are increasingly gravitating toward. “I think people have less fear of patina and wear,” says Gibbs, adding that materials that look lived-in often feel more authentic.

The sentiment is shared by Kelsey McGregor of Kelsey Leigh Design Co. in Edmond, Oklahoma. “We have seen that people are loving all things European, which incorporate things that add character, charm, and history to a home,” she says.

People want “features that show their home wasn’t just built yesterday,” McGregor adds, like un-lacquered brass, oil-rubbed bronze, and weathered terra-cotta tiles. There’s a practical upside, too: Embracing the inevitability of wear and tear is more realistic for families whose kitchens have recently seen more action than anticipated.

6. Breakfast nooks began taking the place of dining rooms.

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Humphrey tries to talk his clients out of adding formal dining rooms, but sometimes it takes convincing. “I’m like, ‘Really, where do you eat dinner? Tell me the truth, not where you think you’re going to eat,’” he says, adding that people ultimately admit that they eat at their kitchen island or some sort of small breakfast table. Because more people are accepting this fact, we’re seeing a trend of oversized breakfast nooks.

Today’s breakfast nooks are full-on spaces in their own right. They’re not just corners with off-the-shelf tables. Humphrey says most store-bought breakfast nook tables are actually a “bizarre size, because nobody was really planning on the breakfast area being this utilized.” So people are going the custom route with bespoke tables and even built-in banquettes. Yes, custom work is generally more expensive, but Humphrey believes it’s worthwhile to sink real money into the space. “I always tell clients: ‘Let’s invest in these things that you use every day.'”

And the nook has become the most-used area of the kitchen. These casual, daily dining areas provide a more private space than the kitchen island. For that reason, they’re being used for Zoom calls, art projects, game nights, and more. Of course, they’re also being used for mealtime — allowing families to connect and enjoy a dinner together without the formality of a dining room and without hunching over an island.

Credit: Ana Hard

7. Outdoor spaces became cooking spaces.

Black says he’s seen an uptick in people asking for easy access to the outdoors from their kitchens. The reason is simple: In quarantine times, backyards became the safest place to entertain guests at home. With doors to the backyard, hosts can easily bring out snacks and drinks. While patio doors have certainly been a thing for decades, lots of homeowners who didn’t have them started coveting them.

In addition, people are asking for some fairly involved outdoor cooking setups. It used to be that a simple grill and countertop area was enough, but outdoor kitchens are getting more extreme, including requests for pizza ovens, built-in grills, and top-of-the-line entertainment areas. (In non-built-in-pizza-oven news: The Ooni pizza oven saw an increase in sales by 150 percent last summer and was constantly selling out!)

“We’ve had to use every inch of our homes. These spaces that were either afterthoughts or the last thing you spend money on are now prioritized.”

Max Humphrey, interior designer, Portland, OR

“Now, there’s a cooktop range and sink and refrigerators, and not just, like, a single beverage fridge,” says Humphrey of projects he’s overseen. Outdoor kitchens are also being outfitted for three-season use with enclosed areas, heaters, air conditioners, and fans. Humphrey doesn’t see the demand for next-level outdoor kitchens going away anytime soon. “We’ve had to use every inch of our homes,” he says of the months spent at home. “The spaces that were either afterthoughts or the last things you spend money on are now prioritized.”

8. Finally, the all-white kitchen has faded away.

Credit: Ana Hard

Humphrey hasn’t designed an all-white kitchen in years, and he’s all for it. “My clients want to get as bold as they can in their kitchens without going in a direction that they’ll get sick of,” he says. “I’m seeing a lot of dark cabinetry — dark blues, dark grays, dark greens, and maybe some interesting tiles as well.” As for the future? He envisions kitchens draped in mustard yellow and pale pink. “People aren’t as afraid anymore with color.”

Los Angeles-based interior designer Peter Dunham is also executing more adventurous kitchens for his clients as of late. “We’re doing a few bold kitchens right now where the cabinets and the walls match,” he says, explaining that this tactic washes the room in color. (Colored tiles are also big, he continues. Buh-bye, white subway tiles!)

Hues of cranberry, burgundy, and lilac are about to have a big moment, predicts McGregor: “We designers are moving on to the next thing, [but] still grounding those colors as neutrals by modifying the hues by keeping them gray heavy.”

What’s behind this newfound fearlessness around color? Humphrey thinks some areas’ white-hot real estate market could be to thank. “It used to be that your realtor would be like, ‘You need to take down the wallpaper and paint everything white.’ Now, the housing market is so hot, you could paint your kitchen hot pink. You’re going to sell your house no matter what.” Meaning: People are feeling more free to do what they want!

9. Open floor plans got more and more closed off.

Families are, once again, recognizing the value of privacy. “The traditional open floor plan has the kitchen completely wide open to the rest of the house,” says Black, who feels more people will move away from that concept.

“Controlling noise and conversations is harder to do in those wide-open floor plans,” Black continues — especially if someone is conducting a virtual meeting in the living room while another family member is trying to have a conversation over dinner. “Having the kitchen segregated off a little bit more makes for better living and happier homeowners,” he says.

Will pandemic-era trends still be here in a decade? Some likely won’t. “In 10 or 15 years, people will look back and be like, ‘Wow, that was such a weird time,’” predicts Lynch. Other trends might have more staying power. “People seem to know how they live now, more than they ever used to,” says Humphrey. “They’re designing around the way that they live, not the way they think they’re going to live.”

Which of these trends do you think will stick around? Discuss in the comments below!