What architects need to know about kitchens (and more): Q&A with Jane Stewart, award-winning Design Director of bespoke specialists Mowlem & Co
Jane, as a multiple award-winning designer, you have over 30 years’ experience in the business of kitchen design and have worked closely over the years with architects, interior designers and developers. What would you say is fundamental to a successful working relationship?
Primarily, what I have learned is to listen. To the client, to the other members of the design team, to specialist contractors, to the space itself… and of course to your own experience and instincts. There is almost always a creative way to marry both the aesthetic wish-list and the functional or structural demands of the project in order to come up with optimum solutions.
Sometimes it’s a simple ‘a-ha’ moment, such as redirecting a few steps on a staircase – or making the most of that structure in terms of ‘invisibly’ incorporating extra storage. At other times, a significant rethink of the entire orientation of the key elements of the space is required. When it comes to style, proper functionality should also be ensured, but it’s often worth exploring the unusual and the surprising in order to come up with something special and unique.
For example, we built a discreet walk-in pantry into the timber that clad and then curved around the end of the staircase and down into the kitchen in one project. In another, a narrow larder was spirited into the side of the carefully book matched ‘wall’ that supported the central staircase that was a key feature of the space.
You can have fun with materials too. It might seem that stainless steel surfaces work best in the professional or the industrial-look kitchen, but we’ve found it also works beautifully in an ‘updated classic’ scheme, when harmonising with certain kinds of stones and certain stains or veneers on the woodwork.
The beauty of a company such as Mowlem and Co, being purely bespoke and having our own highly skilled craftspeople in our own workshop, is in finding the appropriate answer to every challenge.
How did you get into kitchen design?
My background is in interior design, but it’s also in the blood. We’ve got designers in the family including an Oscar-nominated set designer. I served my dues in some highly respected systemised kitchen companies but it was only once joining Mowlem & Co that I was able to push the boundaries of my creative freedom. I have always loved drawing, so it was great to be able to indulge that ability in creating initial room sketches, some of which we have gifted by request to clients for them to frame.
Why does it matter to specialise?
What I love about a specialism in kitchens is the marriage of specific skills and technical understanding with the kind of creativity that enhances people's day-to-day lives. We work so closely with the end-user, we get to know their lifestyle preferences, how they use their kitchens, how the right design will enhance the quality of their home life.
People spend so much time in the kitchen, it's an important space for household cohesion. And there are so many crucial things to get right here – and, forgive me for saying this, but so many ways in which architects working without the help of a specialist can get it wrong!
Of course the space must be beautiful and pleasing and of course the basic functions must be there, but then there’s everything from ensuring appropriate extraction to making sure you’ve got enough room when you’re opening lower cupboards to clear people’s toes (trust me, I have heard of this being a problem that needed correcting) to being able to see properly into the back of each storage space (dark cabinets can be beautiful, but not so much on the inside, unless carefully lit) and making the most of every inch of workable, or store-worthy space. That kind of awareness only comes from specialised knowledge and experience.
There’s also such a vast – and constantly updating – array of amazing appliances out there, but it’s vital to know exactly which one you need for the job and which ones are going to adequately meet the lifestyle and cooking needs of the client, without ending up as wasted space and expense.
What’s more, the organisation of traffic flow, plus the ergonomics and the relationship of various prep/cooking/serving/dining zones to each other, all matter very much to having a happy client at the end of the day. Thinking about how you can watch over or include children while working in the kitchen matters enormously too these days. We even consider how our clients’ pets are accommodated by the design. You don't want to be constantly tripping over a dog bed (we have just built one into a window sill) or food and water bowls (we often create recessed plinths for such things.)
Are we using our kitchens differently now than we were 10 years ago?
Oh very much so, although these things do tend to be cyclical. But the move to open plan has needed careful consideration in terms of how the kitchen works with the rest of the room (although now the trend is toward ‘broken plan’) as is taking into better account issues such as privacy – or when you don’t want to be looking at the messiest bits of the kitchen.
This is also why there’s been a resurgence of the separate utility and/or boot room and especially the walk-in pantry. The latter is particularly important for large shops or deliveries that need ample storage, because it also means that the goods can go straight into that room and be placed on their own worktops while it’s all put away. It also makes stocks easy to see. And these spaces can double as fantastic baking prep rooms.
Even before the pandemic, there was a move to increased working from home remotely, and we have been incorporating study areas into our kitchens for a few years, some disguised behind pocket doors, some as part of the aforementioned ‘broken plan’ schemes. Indeed, hiding away certain other functions – even ‘minor’ ones – has also become popular, so the ‘breakfast cupboard’ has become something of its own little world, as has a hidden wall of AV and entertainment equipment... only to be uncovered again once (home)work is done!
Also, I think recent times have returned us to the notion of seeking 'comfort’ and of the kitchen as the hub of the home. And not least in terms of the revival in home baking, due in part to the popularity of a certain TV programme. Lockdowns have only accelerated and cemented those desires. There was a time when having a really elegant formal space for entertaining was very important – and for many it still is, with a likely return for some of the home cocktail bar – but we are also coming back more and more to the needs of the family coalescing harmoniously around the needs of that all important person... the chef !
How about the relationship of the kitchen to other key areas of the home?
The connection to the outdoors is key. Trends such as the fourth wall opening out completely to the garden is one that will stay, although the way we are using glass is diversifying, for example to using reeded and opaque glass on pantries or other rooms (when you may not want a completely transparent view) and to Crittal windows to add interest or to tone with the architecture of the property. Solar glass will probably be next... maybe even with some super-powered ‘spinach’ enhanced coatings!
We also often design and build shelving for living areas to co-ordinate with the look of the kitchen furniture in open plan spaces. And we are increasingly asked to apply our skills to another ‘essential’ room for many these days – the dressing room. A real must-have for those who can afford them, but these spaces have their own design principles and the kind of customised storage, ergonomic considerations and features that come naturally to a company with our experience and expertise.
The ability to dovetail the entire design, build and fit processes for such specialised spaces, and to project manage all the timings and organise all the sub contractors, utilities and services – plus ensure all the details and finishing touches are just-so – is the key advantage that distinguishes our services.
Q: Can you give me one of your favourite examples of working with Architects?
The ‘Radiance’ kitchen was one of my favourite projects. Working closely with the architect Stephen Fletcher, it was a teamwork moment to incorporate a set of mirror-fronted wall units to reflect the light coming down from the glass panel set into the flooring at ground-floor level, just above the new kitchen. This added so many visual dimensions and so much more light in the renovated basement area.