Meet the designer striving to build hazard-free kitchens
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Every kitchen has to have a sweet spot,” says Johnny Grey. “And this is it.” The sweet spot in question belongs to a kitchen in Richmond. “The person preparing the food faces into the room and can maintain eye contact with family and friends. This is very important for the production of feel-good endorphins.”
He is standing between the sink and a teardrop-shaped island in an eclectic design of customised curves, handmade tiles, natural woods and stone, along with the odd item made by an aircraft-component manufacturer. Surfaces rest at a perfect 2in below the cook’s elbow. Small appliances are concealed in alcoves, brooms in a corner cupboard.
Grey is an expert in bespoke kitchens — or, as he puts it, “living rooms where you cook” — described by The New York Times in 2014 as “one of the world’s most influential kitchen designers”. An interest in psychology and architecture, grounded in his studies at the Architectural Association, led to a focus on creating “happier, healthier, more creative spaces”.
His bespoke kitchens cost more than £65,000. But a groundbreaking project, on which he has been working for the past five years with the UK government-funded National Innovation Centre for Ageing (Nica) at Newcastle University, brings a social focus to his work: addressing the challenges of an ageing population through kitchen design.
Called the 4 Generational Kitchen, its prototype is due to launch at Nica’s new £50m Helix building HQ in the spring.
The concept is the brainchild of Peter Gore, professor of practice in ageing and vitality at Newcastle University, whom Grey met on the panel of a kitchen-industry conference in 2013. Gore, whose work focuses on enjoying better quality of life for longer, had been deploring the lack of thoughtful design for people with accessibility problems.
“When growing old, your kitchen is key for staying in your own home,” he says. “While kitchens clearly need to be adaptable to the physical limitations of old age, my focus is on designs that stay the distance for emotional rather than purely practical reasons.”
Gore’s words struck a chord with Grey’s own philosophy. The nephew of the late cookery writer Elizabeth David, Grey pioneered the concept of the “unfitted kitchen” of freestanding units for Smallbone of Devizes in the 1980s, and has spoken out against the “clinical and plastic fitted kitchen”. His furniture is based on the flow of movement, creating ergonomic and sociable spaces.
It was in 2001, when he met John Zeisel, a director of the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture, that he found that some of these ideas were backed by science. “Advances in brain imaging were able to demonstrate how factors such as space, light, ceiling height and orientation affect our emotions,” he says.
Building on Gore’s principles, Grey planned his first kitchen for a family in St Ives, in which three generations live, cook and eat together. A long, thin island allows up to six people “to do their own thing” at the same time. Folding seats, swivelling tabletops and surfaces with adjustable heights accommodate all ages.
Contoured oak shelving for books and the family’s collection of archaeological finds, aquatic blue-and-white tiles by Alex Zdanowicz and backlit Corian all add a feeling of warmth. “There has to be a certain amount of homely paraphernalia for an emotionally engaging space in which people feel they belong,” he says.
Almost a quarter of today’s 20-year-olds will live to be 100, says Gore. “The prospect of a 93-year-old and a four-year-old living together and sharing a kitchen as the social hub of the home is very real. How do we enable that? We must provide both safety and sociability; functionality — but also fun.”
Wage stagnation and rising house prices, child-minding and adult care costs are driving the rise of multigenerational living. “Since the crash of 2008, when families were forced to live together for economic reasons, people have discovered it is actually rather a good idea,” says Gore.
A 2017 survey conducted by estate agents Tepilo.com found that 60 per cent of British people would consider living with multiple generations of their family. Fifteen per cent said they would love to. A record 64m people are living in multigenerational households in the US, according to a 2018 Pew Research Center report.
Design is just one element of the 4GK project, however, and the St Ives property lacks the technology to complete the concept. Central to Grey’s plan is a new AI oven developed by Swedish start-up VÄRM, based in Shanghai, for which he is design consultant. With the looks of a 1950s TV set, the inbuilt appliances use preset cooking programmes in such a way that food cannot be burnt.
While Grey concentrates on flexible furniture components and spaces that work for all ages and abilities — such as wheelchair-accessible sinks and child-friendly seats — Gore works on the technical aspects of the project.
“The kitchen has to be safe,” he says, “whether for a small child or an elderly person with dementia. You wouldn’t want either going near a knife drawer. We are working on options that limit access to such a drawer. There are ways the kitchen can detect who is using it.”
Such detection systems also work to turn off a cooker hob left unattended for too long, or automatically cut off the water supply the moment an overflow hits the floor, should a tap be left running accidentally.
“The technology is already there,” says Gore. “My job is to frame the language to configure the technology that regulates the behaviour of the kitchen — when, where and with whom.”
The cost of such a project has yet to be determined. Designed to be adaptable, for use in both social-housing projects and luxury homes, the 4GK concept (and the smaller 2G and 3G versions) has attracted interest from businesses who have seen its potential.
Collaborators include kitchen component and furniture suppliers such as Blum, Symphony Group and Roundhouse Design.
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The growing number of those over 85 (set to double by 2041 and treble by 2066 in the UK) who want to live in their own homes is recognised by Legal & General. The financial services company has contributed £50,000 to the development of the 4GK concept.
In addition, its new £2bn Guild Living project aims to roll out 3,000 homes in 16 retirement communities across the UK over the next five years. These developments will not only incorporate 4GK in the individual apartments, but also create larger “co-kitchens” in each development, in which older people and their friends can come together around food in extended social spaces — “rather like a village hall”, says Grey.
“This is not only an investment opportunity for us, but a chance to change people’s lives for the better,” says Phil Bayliss, CEO of Later Living at L&G. “Cooking and eating is one of our last bastions of independence, and this new kitchen concept is a great example of how design can help us to age happily, in the comfort of home.”
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