Less is More: Minimalism in Kitchens
To be honest, I wasn’t always a big fan of the minimalist aesthetic described by this famous quote. For me, less was less; only more was more. When I started in the kitchen business over 25 years ago, traditional design was the ultimate for stylish interiors. “French Country” and “Tuscan Farmhouse” were the buzzwords of the era. Remember all those carved corbels, table legs, and moldings that were a requisite part of every kitchen? I loved them!
At home, I was the inveterate collector: miniature chairs, candlesticks, snow globes, and gargoyles. (Yes, gargoyles!) But after countless squandered hours spent dusting and cleaning all of my “more”, I became a convert to much more pared-down surroundings. (Having to downsize several years ago forced my hand a bit, but still…) And it appears that I’m not alone. While traditional design remains alive and well, the days of over-the-top decoration have given way to cleaner detailing. And contemporary design, which has long been a mainstay in Europe and major urban centers, is now experiencing a stronger foothold in suburban areas.
“Less is more” was popularized as a phrase by iconic architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in 1947. Although it’s often thought of as the mantra of minimalism, the origins of this movement are usually traced to Bauhaus and Cubist design of the 1920s. However, another important precept of minimalism dates back even further than that: “form follows function” was coined by architect Louis Sullivan in 1896. Sullivan believed that a building’s exterior (or form) should directly relate to the functions that take place within its walls.
Bilotta designer Daniel Popescu has always been a strong proponent of the “form follows function” maxim. For Daniel, any applied details that don’t affect the function of the kitchen should be eliminated. The job of this room is very clear-cut, and it certainly doesn’t need any extraneous moldings or mullion doors to work smoothly and efficiently. The core principle of modernism upended the usual design process: instead of traditional aesthetics and ornamentation taking the lead role in determining form, functional requirements were the driving force. This was design based on logical rationality. When form and function are in balanced harmony, the result is a clean and timeless classic design.
All those carved moldings and corbels I mentioned earlier are a prime example of the way in which unnecessary details can eventually make a design look outdated. Why are Frank Lloyd Wrights’ buildings always so universally beloved? Because their clean, straight lines (New York’s Guggenheim Museum not withstanding) and proportions, consistent with their natural settings, always seem modern and fresh. And Daniel wants to reassure us that you don’t need an all-white kitchen for it to be considered minimalist and modern, since color is not a deciding factor at all.
The belief that all-white is not a necessity for a minimalist kitchen falls right in line with designer Fabrice Garson’s design philosophy; in fact, he frankly finds white-on-white to be boring. He loves a pop of contrasting color to help enliven a space. But visual interest can also be accomplished by mixing white with natural wood, stone, or steel. Introducing color and texture prevent a kitchen from feeling cold, sterile, and unwelcoming. His philosophy is that the pure, clean, thin lines of minimalism should direct attention to a strong focal point, and the viewer’s eye should not be distracted by anything else. Do less so the focus is stronger. In the show-stopping display that he designed for our Mamaroneck showroom, Fabrice employed all of these devices. While much of this kitchen is white, he incorporated natural wood grain on the tall cabinets, marble-patterned countertops, a mixture of stainless steel on the rear of the island, and a dark linen color on the cabinets facing the sink. In addition, the dropped ceiling soffit appears to be an extension of the dining table’s backdrop, and then continues over the island to produce an effective architectural feature in an otherwise undistinguished space.
Fabrice, who cut his teeth on classic traditional kitchens and claims to be able to design them with his eyes closed, makes an important observation about contemporary kitchens: that despite their apparent simplicity, they are actually more complicated from a planning perspective. Traditional design has its basis in adding details and following certain rules (such as symmetry and proportion) and, as such, there’s less risk involved. But when starting a contemporary plan, Fabrice finds it necessary to clear his mind of preconceived rules in order to avoid duplicating an existing idea. Inherent in all this extra planning is a lot of extra risk, but the resulting reward is a one-of-a kind creation.
This concept of the deceptive difficulty in executing a minimalist design is echoed by Laura Capogrosso, who’s the manager of Bilotta’s drafting and engineering department, and a first-time contributor to our blog. By way of example, Laura points to a kitchen she engineered for senior designer Paula Greer (who just so happens to be her sister). At first glance, you might assume that the biggest challenge in achieving this bold yet clean design was successfully mixing all the materials, textures, and finishes. But from an engineering standpoint, the front-and-center beauty of this room took a back seat to the behind-the-scenes issues that needed to be addressed. One of the most distinctive aspects of this kitchen is the horizontal grain pattern. When doing this, it’s important that all drawers, doors, and panels be grain-matched across the entire elevation to create a seamless look.
The owners of this home had a long list of must-have appliances, which presented its own set of issues. Keeping the appliance fronts flush with adjacent cabinet fronts, as well as maintaining consistent spacing between appliance and cabinetry doors, is not an easy task: thicknesses of appliance and cabinet doors are all different, and all require different offsets, clearances, and tolerances. Another consideration is that a contemporary design with multiple finishes needs to be thought out very carefully. For instance, in a traditional kitchen with a wood floor and wood cabinets, the more elaborate door style would usually be sufficient to distinguish between the two surfaces. But with a wood veneer slab door like you see in this kitchen, the two richly stained, flat planes juxtaposed against each other would most likely appear too darkly monochromatic. However, using an aluminum toe kick plate not only separates the two surfaces, but it creates the illusion that the base cabinets are floating. Since the room and the island are very long, and the 7’-9” ceiling height is lower than usual, the floating effect helps provide balance to the space. Balance: are you sensing a theme here?
Senior designer RitaLuisa Garces believes there’s good reason to differentiate between “minimalism” and the “less is more” design philosophy. For her client’s loft project, Rita was charged with creating a kitchen design that would serve as a backdrop not only for the entire living space for which it opened up to, but more importantly, for their extensive museum-quality art collection. Not only is the door style a simple slab, but the handles are integrated into the door and drawer fronts so that there’s virtually nothing visible other than the cooking essentials.
The exuberantly colored artwork takes center stage, which was perfect for her client’s home and design requirements. Rita aptly describes the implementation of minimalism as a dance: not going too far in any direction, where the viewer is neither distracted nor left feeling cold, like they’re sitting in a bad kitchen showroom display. (Which you’ll never find in any Bilotta location!) And once again, the golden rule is “balance”: clean lines, with no visual noise.
Ever the non-conformist, designer David Arnoff didn’t just want to discuss minimalist design; he wanted to explain the practical legacy of the earliest European contemporary kitchens. Those European kitchens were (and still are) notoriously tiny. Americans seeing one for the first time are usually shocked by the small appliances and relatively few cabinets. But the cabinets they do have are often loaded with the latest in convenient accessories meant to maximize storage. So, all those snazzy interior fittings we all love (like by-pass doors, toe kick drawers and step stools, pull-out pantries, and LeMans corner swing-outs) were probably initially found in space-challenged contemporary European kitchens.
Aside from the short history lesson, David also reiterates another of our common themes here: that the clean lines and lack of superfluous decoration are what actually provide the “detail” of the design. But, like Fabrice, he loves incorporating some contrasting accents within a mostly neutral space. Instead of adding detail to cabinetry and trim (especially in smaller kitchens lacking architectural significance), David will often design an interesting shape for the island, then repeat that shape in a dropped ceiling soffit over the island to reinforce that element and distract from an uninteresting room envelope. In one kitchen, he even traced the edges of the soffit with LED lights, creating a dramatic structural feature in the room. That was definitely a case of the simple cabinetry allowing the outline of the island and ceiling to shine.
So, in case you’ve been contemplating a new minimalist kitchen but weren’t sure how to get started, we’re hoping you now know a little “more” about doing “less”.
This post was written by senior designer, Paulette Gambacorta. Paulette has been designing kitchens with Bilotta for over 25 years.