As interior designers, one of our favorite past times is watching other designer’s projects play out. It’s true—we all have our favorite HGTV programs. (Mine happens to be Love It or List It.) However, every time I turn on a design show, I am almost guaranteed to hear my least favorite buzzword in the industry: “open-concept kitchen.” The open-concept kitchen layout offers the optimistic promise of sightlines, seamless entertaining, and becoming the heart of the home. Unfortunately, more often than not, open kitchens bring the unwanted stress of constant cleaning and what I call “housework performance.” The kitchen island has become a stage for the 50s housewife figure to make her return—cooking and cleaning for all to see and never finding a moment to rest.
While open-concept kitchens can be beautiful, there is something to be said for being able to close a door and hide away the mess. Closed kitchen layouts bring increased functionality, practicality, and, most importantly, freedom from 24/7 housework. Our Austin interior designers and I agree, there is a case to be made to bring back the closed kitchen layout. While closed-plan and galley kitchens date back long before the days of shiny appliance ads, they offer four excellent benefits for modern living. You heard it here first. Closed kitchen layouts are the way of the future. After all, everything old is new again!
The Galley Kitchen is the Most Functional Closed Kitchen Floor Plan—So What is It Exactly?
A closed kitchen layout is separated from the rest of the home by walls and preferably a door that can be shut. The galley kitchen layout is by far the most functional closed kitchen floor plan. Galley kitchens feature two parallel banks of cabinets, counters, and appliances with a walkway down the middle. This layout maximizes space to offer increased storage, an efficient work triangle, and a smaller footprint that keeps necessary appliances close at hand. There’s a reason why they put galley kitchens on ships—meals get cooked faster in them! Who wouldn’t want to cut down the time they spend cooking when it’s so much more fun to dine?
The History of Closed-plan Galley Kitchens
Closed-plan galley kitchens were embraced early on in home design for their fantastic functionality. They were so popular that in 1926 Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky and Ernst May designed the Frankfurt Kitchen, a mass-produced galley kitchen unit that could easily be installed in the home. Over 10,000 units were installed, and it became the most influential kitchen of the period. While the Frankfurt Kitchen was functional, it also pushed a goal to free women from household burdens. Schütte-Lihotzky explained that the kitchen “was to be used quickly and efficiently to prepare meals and wash up, after which the housewife would be free to return to her own social, occupational, or leisurely pursuits.”
However, as building technologies evolved, central air conditioning, fire-resistant materials, and attractive appliances opened the door for the kitchen to move front and center in the home. In the 1950s, kitchens started to become more open concept. However, tearing down the walls of the kitchen helped to build the walls of domestic imprisonment.
The Tyranny of the Open-concept Kitchen
The 1950s brought the rise of the American suburbs and a new way of life. Families traded in cramped city quarters for backyards, shiny new appliances, and new modern floor plans that featured some of the first open-concept kitchens. What was once a room of function hidden from guests was now the entertaining domain of the 50s housewife figure. The home’s central hub effectively shifted from the living room, a place of connection and relaxation, to the kitchen, a place of work and chores. The part-time job of the housewife was now a 24/7 gig of “housework performance.” The stress of cooking, cleaning, and clutter attempted to hide away behind a shaky facade of pastel appliances and Jello molds.
Over 50 years later, homeowners are still falling victim to the false promise of the open-concept kitchen. The tyrannical reign of stainless steel refrigerators, six-burner ranges, and marble islands haunt us as we shuffle to the toaster to heat up our frozen waffles. While we spend thousands on appliances for our open-concept kitchen showpieces, the reality is that few people want to host cooking performances. Instead, most families would benefit from closed kitchen layouts where small countertop appliances and the occasional cereal box could find their perfect hideaway.
4 Benefits of Closed Kitchen Layouts and Why We Should Bring Them Back
1. Galley Kitchens Place Function First
Closed-concept galley kitchens provide more walls for cabinet storage, shorter distances between major appliances, and an effective workflow. Why run circles around an island when you could cook delicious meals in half the time?
2. Closed Kitchens Save Space and Money
Open kitchens have to be beautiful and functional. Closed kitchens just have to be functional. Designing closed-plan kitchens in smaller spaces allows the home design budget to be allocated to the places that really matter—those rooms that give the reward of relaxation. Spending less in the kitchen means that more money can be invested in the living room or an outdoor patio escape.
3. Separate Kitchens are Cleaner and Safer
Should your kids really be doing homework on the kitchen island that houses your gas range? Closed kitchen layouts are safer and cleaner than open-concept kitchens because they can be better ventilated and contained. Simply close the door, and the noises, smells, and clutter of meal preparation disappear as guests congregate in the living room.
4. Closed-plan Kitchens Reframe the Home Hierarchy
Open-concept kitchens are often referred to as the central hub of the home. Why would you want the hub of the home to be the room that has the most chores associated with it? Small kitchen designs reframe the home hierarchy, allowing living, dining, and patio spaces to become the main hubs for family life. Finally, we can congregate without being interrupted by the smell of burning chicken or the clamor of pots and pans!
The Feminist Argument for Closed-plan Kitchens
It’s no secret that the domestic chores of cooking and cleaning the kitchen have traditionally fallen on women. The open-concept kitchen is innately anti-feminist because it makes the entire main living area a place of work. How are women supposed to get out of the kitchen when it has its grips in the living room? In the 1910s, one feminist architect wanted to take the kitchen out of the home entirely. Alice Constance Austin was a self-taught architect from California known for her kitchen-less home designs for Job Harriman’s Llano Del Rio socialist commune. In the community plan, kitchens were centralized and treated as infrastructure. Food would be delivered to home dining patios, eliminating the chore of cooking altogether. While the commune never took off, Austin’s idea was trendy at the time. Who wouldn’t want to abolish household chores? While it seems unlikely that kitchens will leave the home entirely, smaller closed kitchens do help speed up the task of cooking and take the pressure of “housework performance” off women. It turns out that closed-plan kitchens can actually be quite liberating.
The Case for Embracing “Old-fashioned” Interior Design Styles
The trend of ripping down walls and opening the kitchen up as a central hub has in many cases led to impractical designs that require us to perform the chores of cooking and cleaning 24/7. Smells, noise, and clutter infiltrate the rooms that are meant to be relaxing when there are no walls to contain them in the kitchen. In the case for closed kitchen layouts, I want to challenge homeowners and my fellow designers to reimagine the heart of the home. Should the heart be a room of constant work or a relaxing place to unwind? Personally, I’d like to shut the door on the mess I made in the kitchen and watch Love It or List It in peace. What we need from our homes goes beyond trends. Everything can be reimagined, and that’s why everything old is new.
Amity Worrel is an award-winning interior designer based in Austin, Texas. She has worked on high-end interior design projects for celebrities and tastemakers in NYC, LA, and the Bahamas. In 2008, Amity decided to bring her passion for diverse design back to her hometown of Austin. Her spaces pull from timeless design concepts ranging from coastal contemporary to cozy cottage to Austin eclectic. Emotional connections, functional flow, and a touch of humor remain central to every interior design scheme. Her work has been published in national and local publications, including The Wall Street Journal, House Beautiful, HGTV Magazine, Better Homes and Gardens, and Austin Home. In her free time, she loves perusing estate sales and diving into design history. Learn more about Amity.