Kitchen Design Ideas: An Interview With Johnny Grey

Johnny Grey is a unique and one of the most influential kitchen designers in the world. He has been heralded as “The World’s Best Kitchen Designer” by Metropolitan Home magazine and “The Kitchen Designer’s Designer” by the British publication Home and Gardens.

Inspired by his aunt, the late cookery writer Elizabeth David, he sees the kitchen as much more than a room in which to prepare meals; it represents the sociable heart of the modern home and is the inspiration for his books and original ideas about homes of the future.

What changes in kitchen design have you seen over the past decade?

Our latest progression in kitchen design incorporates brain research, which is revealing how — in emotional terms — we work. We look at how the brain is affected by space, by all the various “hard-wired” needs of humans.

Earlier this year I gave a talk in Winchester, England, at a conference titled “Space, Architecture and the Brain.” I attempt to apply the ideas from conferences such as this to increase the sense of wellbeing in the home. We term this type of design “Active Living Spaces.”

How would this new type of design, Active Living Spaces, relate to kitchen design?

First, you realize that the kitchen is not really a room, but rather a zone within a large living space. It’s gone much further than when we were talking about “The Sociable Kitchen” 10 years ago. Now we incorporate new technologies, such as Pet Scans, to look at the architecture of the brain as it relates to kitchen design.

I have been working with this concept of the kitchen melding itself right into the fabric of everyday life within the home. For example, I now try to incorporate a standing or buffet bar area, or what I call a food bar, in kitchens for dining. As with my family, many people stand while they eat today, and people have changed the way in which they eat, particularly at lunch times. It’s almost like serving ourselves.

This is what I think is the biggest change in central island design: We’ve taken this desire of people to eat as they choose, while standing; right into the home’s kitchen design. Therefore we serve a small variety of food that each person enjoys and, instead of losing the comfort of dining formally in a dining room or more casually at, say, a dinette table, we still keep the family together for eating. However, today, people often eat while standing. It works quite well, actually. I think the most important thing is to eat together, not necessarily to be seated at a table.

In what other ways is the concept of The Sociable Kitchen expanding?

Kitchen design now embraces air circulation, natural lighting and cabinetry, rather like the arts and crafts movement did. Also kitchen design is merging much more with the outside. People now see the garden as a part of the kitchen. I often advise clients to have a small garden within the kitchen itself, or in the area immediately outside the kitchen.

How important is social interaction in the kitchen?

What is very clear to me is that when you are prepping or cooking you should face into the room. Any kitchen that does not have that is, in my opinion, disobeying the core laws of human emotional needs.

A lot of our work now is about sight lines, about getting people, through kitchen design, to face each other in the room. Not so much the washing up, because that, in a way, you want a little wall space to put dishwashers and cupboards.

However, the cooking part of the process should be done facing into the room. I always try to do that, to start when designing a kitchen, from the spatial point of view. So, start with the space and don’t think about the cabinets until you have some of the basic ideas right.

The next most important thing I feel is access to gardens, some way if possible, or to access the outside. This can be done via a door, window or balcony for both view and natural light. Then you come back to make the cabinetry work around these several key elements of the space.

How do you marry this type of design with the existing architecture?

The art of that is to get the hard-wired needs we have for space, light and sociability right first, view across to the table is very important too, view into the room for feelings of security. Then I address the other things. The psychological elements, for me, create a kitchen that is almost a furnished room, as other spaces in the home are. We incorporate the remainder of the home’s design into the kitchen design to reduce the separation between the rooms in terms of design.

When we design we want a sense of things being loose, people not feeling too crammed in. People are inclined to feel claustrophobic in small spaces, so the trick is to create the illusion of space. For example, not having all high-leveled cabinets stacked along the walls, to leave some space between the cabinets or the top of the cabinetry. Or, perhaps, not building the cabinetry all the way up into the corners and using the ceiling to relieve the eye.

And, equally important, is organizing the storage, you can basically get rid of a lot of stuff by using a large pantry, or even a small pantry, that takes the pressure off of the cabinetry for storage purposes.

Can you discuss the needs of the smaller kitchen?

The first way to design when working with smaller spaces is by trying to absorb storage consciousness into the architecture, as cabinetry is more expensive than basically kicking out the inside of pantries. In other words, letting the architecture take as much of the strain for storage as possible.

The second thing is designing with less furniture and designing more carefully. The third thing is to use what I call soft geometry, to which people really respond, rather than hard-edged surfaces such as simply designing with the rectilinear shapes of the countertops and the rectilinear nature of the cabinetry itself.

How do you feel about the somewhat outmoded concept of the kitchen triangle regarding traffic flow?

There about thirteen things that you need to get right in a kitchen: eye contact, natural light, positions of the dishwashers and refrigerators, the place where you chop, where you wash up, where the table is, where the broiler is, etcetera, why would it just be three things; where the sink is, the oven and the refrigerator? I think we can thankfully put that concept to rest now.

How does color impact the kitchen?

Color is a very personal thing. Getting the exact shade right, giving a custom service to color, is something large manufacturers don’t do. It’s only the small boutique type of kitchen designers who give color its due.

I have a total dislike of cabinetry that is not hand-painted or hand-finished. I think that sprayed color nearly always is impossible to repair. I much prefer the low-tech means of painting or finishing by hand. I believe as human beings we are more comfortable with hand finishes, that they are more livable. With these hand techniques the kitchen designer can respond to the actual architectural nature of the site.

Do you have a few tips on how to cut costs when designing their kitchens?

Have free-standing refrigerators and free-standing ranges then you don’t need to cover them up with expensive cabinetry. Having the appliances free standing is a good thing when they break down, they are much easier to access for repair.

I think it’s great to have some things hanging, a simple hanging bar, almost as in a wardrobe or closet, perhaps what is called butcher’s hooks for pots and pans.

Shelves are great also. They remove all the fussing about how you are not supposed to see anything and hide it all behind closed doors. Obviously you put the hideous things behind doors, but don’t forget to leave the nice things out. It is a kitchen, after all; it is a place for food and the vessels that store food. Why not display them?

To a certain extent people seem to be ashamed of the objects in the kitchen and keep wanting to hide everything in drawers or cabinetry. This is especially true when it comes to the tools of the kitchen, such as stainless steel tools, which are a terribly good value now, but why hide them? It is also a time saver in the sense that these tools get washed up regularly and as display they are easier to put away.

We also tend to use things more that we can see readily. Things that are hidden behind cupboard doors are not used as much. For example individuals who have a great collection of pottery should not hide these objects in the cabinetry, but display them.

To learn more about Johnny Grey’s design philosophy, visit

Mark McCauley, ASID, a designer in the Chicago area, frequently writes for

Keep Reading