Johnny Grey: Intelligent Design

Described by The New York Times as “the world’s most influential kitchen designer”, Johnny Grey has been rethinking how kitchens should be put together for 35 years, pulling in everything from the economics of happiness to neuroscience. The forthright and passionate designer talks intuition, islands and individual expression.

In your 35 years, what trends have you seen come and go?

The biggest change has been the growth of the sociable kitchen. It’s gone from being a space for cooking to being a space for living. The kitchen is no longer just about food but sociability, moving the kitchen from a remote part of the house to the forefront.

What is the ethos behind your kitchen design?

The first part is making the architecture work. At the beginning I am interested in a much wider process of getting the overall design right, not just selling pre-engineered cabinets.

How did your research feed into this?

I want to make environments that make you feel good, that foster well-being. I started working with neuroscientists eight years ago – in particular John Zeisel – which validated a lot of the things I’d been doing with emotionally intelligent design. I also wanted to apply the science of happiness to kitchens , which was inspired by Sir Richard Layard’s book, Happiness: Lessons from a New Science. He noted people were happiest between 5-9pm when they are either in the pub or their kitchen. So the question for the kitchen designer is, how do we enhance that? We need to have a central island where the hob is placed so the cook can face the room with a raised height bar for food serving and for leaning against. Visitors can then sit or perch and chat with the cook who can keep eye contact with the entire room. You need also different level work surfaces for small children and secondary work stations and plenty of table space so that lots of different activities can take place simultaneously.

kitchen design

Grey’s kitchens are designed to enhance happiness

So you’re one of the pioneers of central islands and open plan kitchens?

I think about a central island as a one-off response to the needs of the kitchen. I married it up to the idea of soft geometry. When I was studying architecture I learned about peripheral vision. Imagine walking down a tunnel lined with sharp edges – your peripheral vision switches on your fight or flight mechanism and you focus on not getting hurt. If you don’t catch glimpses of sharp edges you’re naturally more relaxed.

kitchen design

Design using ‘soft geometry’ relaxes the senses

Does this level of design work for all kitchens?

In small kitchens design is even more valuable, every millimetre needs to be thought out. You can actually increase the ratio of counter-top space to floor area by using a curved shape because if you follow people’s natural movement you can narrow down the passageways.

kitchen design

“In small kitchens design is even more necessary – every millimetre needs to be thought out”

How does the process work?

The first thing I do with a client is ask them to use their imagination.  When you do that they respond differently and engage with ideas. We then create a design proposal, with three design options from which we pick the best ideas to create the final design.  We review the entrance and exits into the room, marry them up to key elements like the fridge and sink and draw routes. The rule of thumb is you can bend that walking line but you can’t block it. For example we avoid peninsulas – they bully people and stop them forming natural pathways. We want people to move around the kitchen without having to think or preplan.

When looking at putting in a new kitchen, what steps should you take?

The first thing is step back and visualise what the space is telling you – the scale, the location of windows, any architectural features and the use of the rooms immediately adjacent.  Make interventions by all means – move a door, a window, add a skylight, take a wall out. Then establish the ‘sweet spot’. This is the best place in the kitchen to be and it should be awarded to the cook. You want the island in front of you with your back to a wall. The social kitchen then becomes all about eye contact and having a view which produces relaxing hormones.

What are your biggest tips when designing kitchen?

Art and individual expression should play a big role – choose a painting you love, use it as a starting point for a mood board. Britain has a huge reservoir of talented people who went to art school and they’re not expensive. You could get a totally bespoke pattern for £250. Really think about your tiles – we use Alex Zdankowicz who does beautiful work. We also have a blacksmith who makes bespoke door handles, a concrete-worker for very sculptural central islands and so on. I’m prepared to stick my neck out: I don’t think it will look retro or date, it’s a lovely thing to do.

kitchen design

Alex Zdankowicz bespoke tiles

To have bespoke design, cost must be an issue.

I don’t think you can afford not to have good design. Once you have it, everything else becomes much more effective.  You don’t need lots of extra furniture for example. Every now and again the industry gets in a terrible huff and I get rung up by editors and accused of being elitist. I’m sorry but at some point every kitchen has to be designed, even £5,000 IKEA ones. My response has been to set up a degree course to professionalise the industry.

kitchen design

“I don’t think you can afford not to have good design.”

Are there ways of creating a bespoke kitchen on a budget?

The first way thing to do is find a space you can use as a pantry. Perhaps use space under stairs, or from an unnecessary corridor. Then spend your money on a central island and simplify the rest of the cabinetry. Buy freestanding white goods that do not need to be fitted into cabinets. Use existing furniture – your Granny’s old dresser, a vintage wardrobe, anything charming. You will have to build an appliance cabinet for things like ovens and a sink cabinet, but that’s it. I built my first kitchen for £250 using curtain poles. It wasn’t perfect but you should think out of the box. You don’t need units everywhere.

kitchen design

Barbecue kitchen made from painted bricks.

Is lighting important?

Absolutely. It’s not just the quality of the lighting now, it’s the control systems. You can make an evening kitchen as good as a sunlit day kitchen. In open plan kitchens you can do clever things with light, like creating virtual rooms.

kitchen design

A pink-lit Corian dresser creates an interesting night-time effect

Are you using any new products?

We’re currently experimenting with glowing light dressers made of Corian. We’re also looking at lighting to combat SAD (seasonal affective disorder) for winter mornings. Another direction is moveable components where sections of the island rotate out and you can use them for serving or eating and sitting. I’m also working on the three-generational kitchen to suit all ages being able to live in one house. This may involve using rise and fall mechanisms, areas to sit while cooking and preparing, stools that you move around the workspace.

kitchen design

Sections of the central island rotate out according to need

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