The dos and don'ts of kitchen design

We've gone through the House & Garden archives to pull together the ultimate list of what to do – and what not to do – when it comes to designing a kitchen

A tranquil, elegant kitchen in a 17th-century house designed by Rose Uniacke

Like any good recipe, a really good kitchen renovation requires several ingredients. Some are easy to pick up, whilst others require a little more searching. Kitchens may once have been hidden away, reserved as subterranean sculleries, or behind-closed-door hideaways for wives and mothers. But since society's move towards open-plan living in the 1980s the kitchen has increasingly been positioned as ‘the heart of the home’. Interior designer Charlotte Crosland strongly stipulates that "today, kitchens are such a focal point in most homes that they need to not just work functionally but also be a lovely room in which to hang out.”

So, with the kitchen persisting as the beating centre of the action, what do the top interior designers of today believe are the biggest faux pas of kitchen design? Sourced from our favourite designers as well as House & Garden's vast archive on all things kitchens, we've put together the essential list of the best rules to know – and follow! – as you undertake your kitchen renovation.

The kitchen was the biggest project when Sebastian Bergström first moved into his tiny flat in Stockholm.

Simon Bergström

Do: consider your priorities

Interior designer Angelica Squire says that the first thing to do when embarking on a kitchen renovation is to “assess how to make it as practical as possible” whilst Susan Deliss' “first thought for designing a kitchen is to consider function before appearance.” Whatever the size of your kitchen, it is important to consider the spacing and clearances of the objects in the room. Where possible, the ideal countertop space on either side of your refrigerator or cooktop is 38cm. Leave enough space for electric items away from your sink, whilst still putting enough sockets that mean you won't be stuck. Also to be considered are the doors of your appliances, in terms of both size and direction of opening.

Ask yourself a few questions before taking a sledgehammer to the kitchen island: how often do you cook? Are you (or is a certain someone in your household) a messy chef, in need of room to spread out? How do you organise your kitchen – do you prefer open shelving or would you rather plates and crockery be hidden away? Consider how you interact with your kitchen, assessing everything from the size requirements for your refrigerator to your preference for, say, a gas stove over an induction cooktop. If you love the look of an AGA but have a city kitchen where the endless heat will make the room stifling, be careful not to fall too hard for the aesthetics.

Rita Konig has some useful tips for designing a kitchen that is easy to move around in: “I make sure that the dishwasher and bin are on either side of the sink. I like the cutlery drawer to be away from the main action (the stove and the sink) and ideally close to the dining area, so it is easy to access for laying the table without anyone getting in the way of the cook or the person washing up. I also like separating the hob and the oven.”

It is important to dig deep and be truthful in order to make the most of your kitchen renovation. Sebastian Bergström, whose kitchen is featured above, cooks frequently and therefore knew he needed to create a “working kitchen” where “every tool or whatever I need to use is just one step away and I love that,” he says. To help you sift through what matters most to you and do away with superfluous changes, consider speaking with an architect or designer to assist you in planning a purposeful layout.

The kitchen in this basement flat in San Francisco, designed by Hana Mattingly, is airy and exudes the charms of an English countryside cottage.

Bess Friday

Don't: forget to treat it as a space to be lived in

Lucinda Griffiths implores that kitchens – like bathrooms – are rooms, rather than utilitarian addendum, which “will benefit from a fireplace, seating area, soft furnishings and art with picture lights.” A purely utilitarian space feels “cold and unloved”, she says.

Designer Kerri Lipsitz also points out the importance of considering how you will entertain in the kitchen: “Even if you are not what you would consider to be a cook, contemplate how you will use the space for breakfast and drinks with friends. This may mean a breakfast cupboard housing a toaster, coffee machine and all your favourite breakfast accoutrements in one place is a priority to you over a large range cooker. If there is space for an island or worktable, I always suggest keeping this as a clean surface, avoiding putting the hob or sink here. It gives one ample room to prepare food, this is especially lovely when entertaining.”

And while the kitchen is a “more functional space by nature,” says interior designer Hana Mattingly, this does not mean that the space “needn't be just as beautiful and filled with objects that bring you joy.” Rita Konig agrees that no kitchen is an island, instructing that we “bring our own style to the party: hang art, choose patterned tiles and interesting pendant lights rather than spots, hang wallpaper and leave space for furniture." And again, mixing and matching will help to achieve this vision: “There are plenty of opportunities to grab back some personality while creating a slick, modern kitchen.” Patrick Williams echoes this sentiment: "we would never fill our living rooms with pieces from the same shop. So why not the same for kitchens?”

Do: have your drawings ready before you put on your hard hat

“You do not want to be designing your kitchen as you go through construction,” says interior designer Lilse McKenna. It is much better to have a thoughtful plan of action, with completed drawings and lists to hand ahead of demolition. Being unprepared ahead of your renovation (or by rushing into the process too quickly), will only “add time and provide excuses for delays to all parties involved,” says Lilse.

The kitchen at a house Flora decorated for her cousin Clemmie Fraser neatly combines new and old

Do: mix and match

Whilst it may be tempting to create a fully unified scheme, Anna Haines posits a resistance against everything matching: “Don't feel that every finish in your house has to match. It is often better if they don’t. A hierarchy of finishes works well if one is the focal point and others complement it. Steer away from anything too shiny - an aged, brushed or satin brass finish tends to sit together quite nicely, as do the warmer undertones of nickel.”

Designer Flora Soames mirrors that belief in terms of objects and decoration: “For me, a kitchen is a great place to mix old and new – your cherished teapot and Kilner jars of cereal or much-loved mugs collected over the years alongside something a little sleeker. A streamlined and chic kitchen can be achieved through a myriad of complementary finishes and the wonderful world of fittings – playful handles, statement lighting and a mix of the expected and unexpected.”

In the emerald green kitchen of Sarah Vanrenen's London house, appliance and cabinet clearances were thoughtfully considered, as was the counter space, especially by the sink.

Tim Beddow

Do: let the light in

Whether natural light or cleverly positioned lamps and overheads, lighting shouldn't be an afterthought in a kitchen scheme. Particularly as kitchens often have to function both as a place of careful creation (or sloppy stirring, depending on your signature style) where visibility is paramount, and as an enjoyable socialising or entertaining space where dim lighting may be preferable.

“Think of a lighting scheme as a recipe or painting: it requires different ingredients and layers,” says lighting designer Sanjit Bahra. Sanjit prefers to use “directional downlights (ones that tilt and swivel), which can be angled towards work surfaces or onto cabinet doors. Unlike fixed downlights, these give you the flexibility to fine-tune where the light goes and keep it out of your eyes.” If you have a traditional kitchen with panelling, Sanjit says that “arcs of light from recessed downlights” are best. For more contemporary kitchens, “cleaner” lighting is a better option, such as “recessed lines of striplight that make a more up-to-date statement.”

Alistair Hendy used unorthodox and refreshingly different swing arm wall lights in his restored Tudor house in Hastings

Don't: use only freestanding or fitted furniture

Aldridge & Supple insist that a delicate balance between freestanding and fitted furniture should also be struck: “don't install too much built-in joinery.” Instead, they believe one should “take joy in finding unique, reasonably priced antique storage solutions. Discovering a lovely old sideboard to use in your kitchen is often a cost-saving solution and a lifetime piece that you can take with you.”

“Don’t have a totally fitted kitchen,” agrees designer Gavin Houghton. “Put all the ready-made cupboards below the work surface then add freestanding antique or vintage cupboards, dressers, or chests of drawers. It makes the space feel like a charming room."

Do: think sustainably

Refilling your kitchen supplies is not only a sustainable move but a decorative one. Leanne Kilroy refills her jars and pots from her local refillable shop, Kilo, and notes that her keen social media following loves the aesthetic: “I think people find it very pleasing to see everything lined up perfectly. The supermarket at the end of the road constantly has empty shelves, but Kilo has everything we need."

Using antique furniture in your kitchen is also environmentally preferable to kitting out your kitchen with box-fresh joinery. Henrietta von Stockhausen employs a broad and sustainable mindset when thinking about her kitchen decoration: “Antique vases or even garden urns can become beautiful lights; antique bookcases or secretaires can become TV cabinets or even fridge housings; old shop counters make wonderful kitchen islands, and carpets can become special wall-hangings to transform vast empty wall spaces.” She also advises that “when you're looking for new things, always look at environmentally conscious products and traditional making methods. Make wise choices, consider air miles, and try to stay local by supporting the many amazing craftsmen, makers and artisans in your region.”

Don't: overlook storage

Practicality and aesthetics should both be considered when planning for kitchen storage. Tamsin Saunders encourages foresight in the design phase: "Think about how you are going to use things and think about access as well as storage. Hide all the kitchen appliances. Most of them are not attractive and they take up so much space. I like to keep the worktops free for the things I want to see and the work I want to do." Emma Sims-Hilditch similarly like to create spaces “where the clutter of life is hidden away, and the room is a calm and tranquil space. Think about how to hide your iPads and phones – we always add a power drawer to our kitchen designs, the charger cables are neatly fixed inside the drawer.”

Curtain expert Chris Tebay encourages introducing curtains as an attractive storage-hiding solution: “Curtains are making more and more regular appearances all over interiors these days, not just on windows. Consider curtains instead of cabinet doors in your kitchen, for example.”

Aldridge & Supple get specific about the placement of storage, believing that high-level built-in cabinets should be avoided where possible in kitchens, as they are “heavy in a room and can be overpowering.” "Stick to low-level where you can", they suggest.

The kitchen in Patrick's former flat in London, with no extractor fan in sight

Do: avoid flash-in-the-pan trends

Trends come and go, but kitchens shouldn't. As such, design your kitchen to work for the foreseeable future. Paint colours can be changed, and so can freestanding furniture, but worktops and finishes should be selected because they work with your entire scheme. As Tara Craig points out, kitchens are "fundamental elements of a house and perhaps the most structurally traumatic to change, so should be in keeping so as not to age." “Don’t pick a colour just because everyone else has already got it! Navy kitchen ring any bells?!" interior design consultant Lucinda Griffiths exclaims.

Just because everyone has a pink kitchen or exposed shelving, doesn't mean it will work for you and your future self. And just because you've repeatedly seen something, it doesn't mean you need it, as Patrick Willilams of Berdoulat reminds us. “Don't feel you have to have an extractor hood in your kitchen. I have yet to see an extractor hood that I like the look of," he states. "If you need to extract the smell of something you are cooking, then maybe you shouldn't be eating it! An open sash window is a brilliantly efficient, inexpensive, and beautiful extractor fan.” So, rather than following flash-in-the-pan trends or frequently used kitchen tropes, think about what's right for you and your home's design vernacular.

Do: pay attention to your material choices

As Sarah Vanrenen details in her dos and don'ts of decorating, “do consider ironmongery: choosing the wrong ironmongery and handles can make or break a house so always add some budget for these small, but important accent”. “Worktops and hardware especially can make a huge difference to the look of a kitchen,” says interior designer Jessica Buckley, “and can be a more limited investment than units.”

This same logic applies to all the materials you choose in the kitchen, from countertops to cabinetry. It is important to see beyond aesthetics and prioritise your cooking style; for example, marble is a porous material, making it sensitive to certain liquids. Consider whether you want your kitchen to be a glossy, shiny, immaculate space, or if you are happy for the surfaces to acquire a little character and patina.

While we're on the subject of materials, don't forget the kitchen floor! Classic options include wood, tiles, and stone, but retro options like linoleum are having a moment again, and the industrial feel of concrete is also becoming popular. "Never skimp on the quality of a kitchen floor!" advises Katie Glaister of K&H Design. "A beautiful floor will harmonise and ground the overall scheme," says Anna Haines. "If you're looking for a timber floor I would advise buying quality and sustainable boards. Solid Floor have an extensive range of elegant timber and parquet floors, and experienced fitters who understand the particularities of all floors."

99 stylish kitchen ideas from the world’s best interior designers
Gallery99 Photos
View Gallery