Friday, 29 July 2011

At the table or in front of the telly? Oh, ok then...

It’s a sad state of affairs when that’s the typical question that we ask when we have lovingly prepared a meal for our family. So, what’s happened to the dining room? Historically dining rooms were very formal in their style and design, used less frequently than other areas of the home and, in some homes, reserved for special events such as Christmas Day, Easter Sunday (if you’re lucky) and funerals... with the advent of TV and other media that captivate our consciousness and provide a constant distraction, the dining room has diminished in stature as a used space within the home. What a waste.

As a consequence, the traditional concept of the dining room is being challenged - there is a general trend towards people preferring to eat pretty much everywhere else rather than in a dedicated and separate dining room. This is because dining in other areas of the home is deemed less formal, easier and more in tune with modern living. This is driven in part by the following trends;

  • Living spaces are at such a premium (particularly in urban areas) so dining areas are increasingly becoming open plan or linked directly to the kitchen (or worse still, becoming a nether region between the living room and the kitchen - no more than a glorified hallway) 
  • Evening meals are also becoming a more informal affair. Nearly half of Britons now prefer a casual meal with friends or a barbecue to a traditional three course dinner party 
  • The emergence (to saturation point) of celebrity chefs on television has taken the joy out of dinner parties - as a consequence, today's host or hostess is feeling under intense pressure to perform to their exacting standards and to create something that looks just like the pictures in a recipe book or on TV. As a result, the dinner party is becoming a declining pastime with fewer Brits choosing to take on the pressures of entertaining. In fact, over 60% of people (not based on deep analytical findings by the ‘trusted estate agents’) considered it worse than attending an interview or going on a first date 
  • The tradition of gathering round the table as a family also appears to be disappearing, with less than half saying they eat together and most preferring to have their meal in front of the TV instead. From an evolutionary perspective there is an upside - the male of the species has in fact learned to multi-task. They now appear to be able to watch TV and play with their WiiStation 360s at the same time as they eat their dinner 
I personally feel that, irrespective of where your dining table is - in a dedicated dining room, within an open plan kitchen or in the kitchen itself, there is something special about sitting down to eat without the distractions of the TV (particularly when there is nothing on that I want to watch). In order to achieve this you have to make a concerted effort to make the dining room a space where we (and others) all want to spend time. Here are some of my key considerations when thinking about designing the perfect eating area:

  • Table: The main table of the home can be the focus for a whole range of activities, from family meals and celebratory dinners to hobbies, homework or general household admin. Your choice of table will depend on how much you use it, where it is located and what you use it for. A multi-functional table, especially one in the kitchen (where it is also likely to act as a culinary workstation and, in my recent experience, a chewing post for puppies), needs to be sturdy, resilient and accommodating.
  • However, if the table is going to be exclusively used for dining then aesthetics can prevail (Woo Hoo from a design perspective). The choice between; traditional and modern; wood, glass, metal, marble or plastic; round, oval, square or rectangular, is otherwise a matter of personal taste and style (and, obviously, available space).
  • A round table works best for informal dinners. However, if you frequently seat more then six, avoid large circles as they will take up far more space (with a lot of wasted table space) and it’s harder to converse across the table - something you may want to do if you are sitting beside the most boring person in the room.
  • Whatever shape you choose and, as obvious as it may seem, you need to check that there’s enough space to pull out the chairs and to move around the table comfortably. In many homes the dining table is left unused because you have to move stuff around to either gain access to it, or to create enough room for all the chairs. Why bother?
  • Chairs: You have the choice between rustic, contemporary or antique (or, put more simply, old and new). Other choices you will need to make include the scale (dimensions), colour, upholstery material and degree of comfort. Comfort is probably one of the most important considerations - if you ever do get round to hosting that dinner party (and overcome the intimidation created by the celebrity chefs) then people may be at the table for over two hours (not including ‘comfort breaks’). My husband has a great measure of dining room chair comfort - whether or not he has successfully fallen asleep at the table by the time dessert is served.
  • When considering size and dimensions always check that the seats and the legs fit easily under the table. Measure your dining table and figure out how wide and high the chairs should be to fit under it easily (both for dining, but also when not in use). Also make sure that you leave some space either side - you don’t want your dining guests to be wedged in like sardines. Avoid buying chairs that are less than 50cm wide as they won’t be wide enough for sitting comfortably (more so by the end of the meal if you have done a good job in the kitchen). Also think about the shape of your table. If it is round or oval the space underneath may be limited so (again), make sure all the chairs can be pushed under easily when it is not in use. As a practical guide, allow around 60cm of tabletop for each person at a rectangular table and about 75cm for a circular table.
  • If you want to add a splash of cool contemporary to the dining area, really think about options for your dining chairs; you could opt for a fifties classic such as Arne Jacobsen’s ant chairs in bent plywood or Ero Saarinen’s moulded fiberglass ‘Tulip chair’. The least expensive choice (and one that I absolutely love) is a collection of old non-matching chairs from a junk shop or auction room. These can be stripped back to bare wood and finished with wax or painted in the same colour to create a sense of unity. Old and new pieces can look really good together as long as you follow a few simple rules. Contrasting styles work best when the surroundings are understated... so, think plain walls and plain floors. Link different aged items using the texture and colour of upholstery fabrics.
  • Lighting: Lighting is critically important for setting the right mood in the dining room. Hanging a pendant low over the dining table literally puts the table (and unfortunately for some, your food) in the spotlight. But make sure that it isn’t too low - you don’t want dinner guests ducking under the light to speak to one another, banging their heads or, when tipsy, thinking that a UFO is landing.
  • Lighting is also a key feature, especially in open plan areas where you are trying to delineate between the cooking, living and eating areas. For instance, in the kitchen you will require sharp directional lighting for food preparation. However, in the dining room the lighting should be soft and atmospheric. So, in the kitchen you may use spotlights but in the dining area you may want to complement this with a pendant (as described earlier). This helps create a distinctive space and an atmosphere of intimacy, quite different from the surrounding area.

Below are a few examples of eating areas that I love - you will probably notice that I haven’t focused on statement objects and artwork in the dining room as part of this article, but you can see from the images below that they can also have a huge impact...

(Image from Danish Magazine Rum)

(Image from Plastolux via The Diversion Project)
(Image from LLoyd Ralph Design - James Tse Photography)

(Image from Style Files)

So, what’s the measure of success? Well, if you can drag your clan away from the multitude of distractions that are part of our everyday life to eat a meal round the table then you are doing something right from a design perspective. If you can’t, you can always order out for pizza and join them round the telly...

Friday, 22 July 2011

The Bathroom - The Ultimate Haven...

If kitchens are the social hub of the home then bathrooms are definitely the ultimate haven where you can relax (and luxuriate in the bath if you are female or sit on the toilet and read magazines if you are a bloke). Bathrooms are where we (females) pamper ourselves and should be a place where we want to spend time (unless your bloke has just been in there). 

In today’s society, where we all lead busy and stressful lives, bathrooms have become the only place where peace and quiet can prevail (the lock on the door helps in this respect). A well-designed bathroom can also change the entire feel of your home (and if you believe the ‘trusted estate agents’, it can also add considerable value). To realise this and create a sanctuary from everyday life you need to give careful consideration to each aspect of the room; the type of basin (wall hung vs. counter top vs. pedestal), the toilet (close coupled vs. wall hung vs. back to wall), the bath (free standing vs. built in), and the shower (corner vs. quadrant vs. recessed vs. shower over bath)... and once you have done all that hard work you also need to think about the finishes for the floor and walls (which should complement and bring out the best in your sanitary ware).

Just like with the kitchen, spatial planning of the bathroom is critical... and not just because it’s typically one of the smallest rooms in your home, but also because unlike the kitchen (where the majority of appliances are rectangular), bathroom furniture comes in a variety of shapes and sizes - this in itself adds a significant layer of complexity to spatial planning and what you can realistically achieve within the space. 

  • When planning the bathroom think about the positioning of the bath first - it’s the biggest piece of furniture in the bathroom and, as a consequence, options for locating it may be more restricted (and in turn drive what you do elsewhere) 
  • Another very important consideration is the throne... always aim to position the WC so that it isn’t the first thing that you see when entering the bathroom (if it is a more persuasive argument, imagine you don’t have a lock on the door and conjure up an image of what you would see if you walked in at the wrong time...) and also position it as far away from the bath as possible 
  • One of the additional restrictions that will have an impact on the spatial planning of your bathroom and, more specifically, the position of your WC will be the draining and plumbing arrangements. In simple terms, the WC needs to be located near the soil stacks, which tend to be located on external walls (so in some homes this may drive the entire layout of the bathroom, bath included) 
  • Basins should ideally be positioned where there is natural light for activities such as shaving (men) and application of makeup (women, but also some men...). Don’t underestimate the superior quality of natural light in a bathroom mirror when compared to artificial light - it may be cruel, but at least it’s honest... 
  • If you have space limitations, you may have to sacrifice the double basin that you have always dreamed of (theory being one for me and one for the messy one, or the other way around...), but it will be worthwhile as it is always better to allow space for your furniture to breathe then to try to cram it all in! 
  • If you are lucky enough to have a large bathroom you will have much more flexibility around the design and be able to come up with a more impactful layout and emphasise some of the key features of the room more effectively (obviously harder to clean, but more impactful nevertheless) - for instance, a large freestanding bath with lots of space around it to breathe will be a real centerpiece and it will allow you to really appreciate the space and freedom while you luxuriate in the bath (unless of course someone is using the toilet at the same time). 

Above all else, when designing your bathroom there are a couple of fundamental questions that you need to address;

  • Is your bathroom going to be a traditional style or modern contemporary? This decision in itself will be highly influenced by the overarching style of your home and the design of your other rooms. Whatever style you choose, it should be one that you enjoy and one that complements the style of your home (it is worth bearing in mind that some people spend as much time in the bathroom as they do in their bedroom... just a thought worth bearing in mind) - it is a significant investment and refitting usually involves a great deal of inconvenience and cost! 
  • Another key question will be bath or shower, or both? In order to keep our ‘trusted estate agents’ in a happy place make sure that you keep at least one bath somewhere within your home (preferably in a bathroom). Ultimately, actually having a bath or a shower is very much a personal choice, but if you can have both in your home you definitely should! Showering is certainly more environmentally friendly - it uses less water and fewer resources to heat the water. That said, although bathing uses more water (this only being the case if you have a bath alone - maybe your bloke will join you after he is finished on the toilet), there are times when a shower just won’t do - bathing is perfect after long runs (with ice if you are hard enough) or after a hard day at work and, being honest, it is also essential for small children...
  • Finally, make sure there is plenty of storage in your bathroom as you will use it; we all need somewhere to store spare loo roll and other toiletries, particularly those little things that you don’t want guests to see. That said, if your home is anything like mine, some forms of clutter in a bathroom are unavoidable (particularly if you don’t tidy up...) - this includes; toothbrushes, makeup, beauty products, make up removal stuff and perfume (which all tend to pile up around the basin). An effective way to deal with all this clutter is to invest in built in storage around the basin (where it all inevitably ends up). Deep, easily accessible drawers will give you somewhere to put all your stuff, reduce clutter and make your bathroom feel more spacious 

You should never underestimate the hidden power your bathroom has in terms of influencing the overarching look and feel of your home. Your bathroom should be a haven where you can relax and either enjoy an invigorating shower or a relaxing soak by candlelight after a hard day at work! Or, being more blunt, somewhere to have a comfortable read when you are sitting on the toilet...

Below are a few examples of bathrooms that I love…

(Image from Modulnova)
(Image from Modulnova)
(Image from Modulnova)

Thursday, 14 July 2011

A well designed kitchen...

Right, no need for an introduction this week - you’re all pretty familiar with this series of articles so let’s cut to the chase... It’s a fact - people tend to gravitate towards the kitchen when you throw a party (because that’s where the booze and the food is...). But it’s also worth recognising that the kitchen is where much of the drama surrounding everyday life tends to take place in your home - it’s not just a space for cooking and eating (although these things can be dramas in themselves, particularly if you are a terrible cook or have very young children). Kitchens have become the social hubs of our homes. A place for social gatherings (I had a wine tasting party in my kitchen last night), chatting and having coffee with friends and family, playing with our children and animals, doing homework (and music practice - although soundproofing may be required...) and where household admin gets sorted (or left in a really big pile for months and months and months, or maybe that’s just me...).

Before we get to the expensive bit, it is worth recognising that to enable all of these activities and to be able to accommodate the workspace that these things demand, a large and practical family kitchen table is an absolute must! At a minimum, the kitchen table is a place where everyone can sit down and eat together, but it also acts as the essential gathering place for the family to complete many of the activities listed above.

Beyond the table, kitchens are one of the major areas of expenditure in the home. Even the most basic kitchen storage costs money... surface and finishes can also be very expensive and that’s before you consider the question of investment in appliances and equipment. So, irrespective of your level of culinary expertise or your interest in cooking (and expensive stuff doesn’t automatically make you a Michelin star chef), it needs very careful planning ...and being perfectly honest, effective planning matters much more than size when it comes to creating a functional and workable kitchen space. That said, you can obviously do much more if you have a huge kitchen space, but I remember having a very functional kitchen in my first home in London - a titchy one bedroom flat in Maida Vale!

The ‘work triangle’ concept was developed in the 1950s and established the ideal position for the cooker (hot area), the fridge (cold area) and sink unit (wet area). It provides guidance on the optimal distance between these three points so that work is carried out not only efficiently but also as comfortably as possible. The recommended overall distance on adding up the three sides of the triangle is 6m with no two points being less that 90cm apart.

The basic principle of the ‘work triangle’ applies to most kitchens irrespective of size. The application of the ‘work triangle’ results in a number of basic kitchen layouts:

  1. Single Line - arranging everything along one wall, you will need at least 3m of wall space. This works well in narrow and restricted spaces (think flats and studio areas) 
  2. L-Shaped Layouts - arranged on two flanking walls, or one of the arms of the L can act as a spatial divider in an open-plan area 
  3. U-Shaped Layouts - offers the maximum amount of storage and working space 
  4. Gallery Layouts - with cupboards on the facing wall, which also suits narrow and confined spaces 
  5. Island Layouts - ideal for inclusive, sociable kitchens. Some of the main kitchen functions are located on the central workstation 

A good way to create additional space for a large family oriented kitchen is to absorb adjacent rooms or areas into the kitchen (such as the dining room or a utility space) or extend a short way into the garden, either to the side (the famous ‘side return’) or to the rear, or both if you are lucky enough to have sufficient outdoor space!

If you are fortunate enough to already have a generous family kitchen it means your children (and other family members) are more likely to congregate in this space and, as a consequence, they become more familiar with routine domestic tasks (most of which take place in the kitchen) - they may even be persuaded to help with food preparation and washing up (but perhaps I am being overly optimistic in this respect...). This being the case, it is worth bearing in mind that the kitchen is a family space and should be designed as such - I doubt you are trying to recreate the type of industrial kitchen space that you would find in a restaurant (although these are quite popular in modern apartments and bachelor pads, even if seldom used to their full potential)... so, while practicality and usability is an absolute must, this principle applies equally to everyone who will be using the space and must also reflect all the things you plan to do in your kitchen.

Stating the obvious, but it is also a good idea to locate the kitchen where you have easy access to outside (this is often the case anyway) - this means that on fine days, even the most basic of activities that are usually completed in the kitchen can spill into the outdoors - this includes but is not restricted to; food preparation, cooking (BBQs) and eating.

Below are a few examples of kitchens that I love...

(Image from Architecturaldigest photo by Robert Rufino)
(Image from For My Home by Jami Goldsmith)
(Image from Style Files)
As I said, kitchens can be expensive, but they are one of the most frequently used and abused spaces in your home. It’s also worth bearing in mind that spending as much as you can on storage (good quality hinges and handles, etc.), workspace (stone if possible) and finishes (good quality tiles and paints) can extend the lifetime of your kitchen. I am sure that the ‘trusted estate agents’ would agree that a well designed kitchen can disproportionately increase the value of your home...

Thursday, 7 July 2011

The Smallest Room...

As part of the continuing ‘beautifying your home both inside and out’ series, I thought I would focus this week on the downstairs cloakroom (or, being a bit more blunt, the toilet under the stairs) - it’s a fairly short blog this week, but that’s because it’s a fairly small room. That said, for me this is a room that often receives much less attention than it deserves. So, why does such a small space merit more of your tender loving care (or design flair)? Well, firstly, it is often the WC in your home that is used by guests, which for most people is a good reason in itself to spruce it up a bit (and to make it consistent with the design standards you set elsewhere in your home). Secondly, when you actually think about it you will probably find that this is a toilet that is used fairly frequently by you and your family (based on the fairly simple assumption that deeply ingrained laziness sets in when watching telly and the downstairs ‘loo’ is usually quite close to the living room). Thirdly (and most importantly from a design perspective), because these are typically very small rooms, it is one of the few spaces in your home where you can be really bold and indulgent (without having to spend an absolute fortune - to be honest, in many homes you could probably get away with using a tin of paint for an Airfix model to decorate the cloakroom...) - ‘bold and indulgent’ doesn’t mean being ‘gimmicky’ and buying the best or most quirky toilet and sink in the world ever, but you can be much more extravagant in your colour choices and in the finishes you use (without adversely impacting the overall look and feel of your home). If you can successfully make visiting a cupboard under the stairs a memorable experience (obviously for the right reasons), then you have got your design just right... When thinking about colour schemes it is worth bearing in mind that the cloakroom is typically a space that people may visit frequently but don’t necessarily spend a lot of time in (and it is quite small relative to other rooms in your home) - as a consequence you can get away with either very dark or very bright colours - don’t be scared to go with something that you may consider to be a bit experimental - I have seen some fabulous all black or grey cloakrooms, but equally, I’ve seen a few painted in really bright colours. And just in case you were wondering, both colour schemes worked very well.

(Image from Clockrooms4U)
As I mentioned above, it is also a space where you can be a bit more indulgent without spending a fortune - what I mean by this is that it is usually such a small space that you can use high end wall coverings that you wouldn’t be able to afford in most other rooms because it would be prohibitively expensive - so, think fabulous textured tiles, stone cladding (not like the 1970s) or super luxurious wall coverings.

In addition, a well proportioned mirror (or mirrors) is always a must in a WC, but do take time to consider different ways of using their reflective properties to give the perception that the space is larger than it actually is - for example, think about creating an infinity room (may not be ideal if it is configured directly facing your toilet - there are some things you only want to see once, if ever...). Also, don’t overlook the impact of built in joinery; consider incorporating alcoves for candles (or other objects) above your WC - as well as giving more definition and contrast to the wall, it’s a great way of using dead space (and alcoves are relatively simple to put in place if the workings of your toilet are incorporated behind a false wall).

Finally, if your space is very limited, consider using slimline toilets and corner basins (widely available and surprisingly functional) - both will save space and help create a compact cloakroom suite that still feels somewhat spacious.

Whatever you decide to do with your downstairs ‘loo’, be bold, make a statement and have some fun!

Friday, 1 July 2011

Lighting up your life...

As part of the continuing ‘beautifying your home both inside and out’ series, I thought I would focus this week on lighting within the living room - or, perhaps more appropriately, ‘lighting up your life, one energy efficient bulb at a time’. For me lighting is absolutely critical within an interior space as it has an impact on both the atmosphere and mood, as well as influencing the practical usability of the space. Lighting, whether natural or artificial, should never be an afterthought - it is absolutely at the heart of the design process. The type of interior lighting fixture, placement in the room and level of light all have a substantial impact on the overall appearance of the space and should be considered at the same time as other elements of the design, both to complement and to emphasise features. I’m not sure what the ‘trusted estate agents’ would say on this topic (no statistics readily available), but have you noticed that when you are selling your home the first thing they do, either when taking pictures for the brochure or showing to prospective buyers, is open the curtains and turn on all the lights...

(Image from House to Home)
Above all else, make sure that you consider natural light (and how you can capitalise on it) first as it creates a warm and inviting atmosphere and, more practically, also saves you from unnecessary costs (electricity isn’t getting any cheaper...). In simple terms, artificial light should be an addition to the natural light in the room - as usual, I am stating the obvious, but there are so many examples of where artificial lighting actually competes with the natural light in the room.

Lighting for spaces such as living rooms and bedrooms can actually be more challenging than lighting for task areas such as the kitchen and bathrooms. This is simply because the lighting needs to be flexible enough to accommodate the variety of different activities that take place in these rooms. So, when considering the lighting for a living space it is important that you take the time to think properly about the activities that take place in the room (a bit like when you are buying the sofa). Living rooms are often used in many different ways. They may be a space for children to play (although lighting isn’t a priority when we are talking WiiStation 360), a place for entertaining (both parties and more intimate events) or somewhere to switch off and relax. Given that these are, broadly speaking, the primary categories of activity for most living spaces, the lighting you choose should consider all of these requirements and accommodate a combination of general, task, accent and decorative lighting. Each type of lighting has a particular aim and can really change the feel of a room.

  • General Lighting: Essential for any room - its primary purpose is not just to be the main source of light, it should aim to fill the volume of the room with a consistent glow of light (and complemented by a combination of accent, task and decorative lighting).
  • Accent: Accent lighting defines a space or object; the focus is the object that is being illuminated, not the source of light itself. Living rooms are where accent lighting really comes into its own. It is used to highlight art displays, structural elements within a space, display areas and objects of interest.
  • Task: Allows us to fulfill a specific function or activity effectively and safely - a good example is reading areas. It can be provided simply and effectively by either floor or table lamps, or even wall-mounted lamps (but probably with separate switches).
  • Decorative: or ‘architectural jewellery’ are the glamorous luminaries such a chandeliers, wall sconces or very grand table lamps that make an impact in a space. In short, they are the lighting equivalent of Bling.

It is the combination and layering of these four basic lighting principles that provides the key to successful lighting design.

(Image from Find Me Furniture)

Here are my top tips to consider when considering the lighting in your living room:

  • Instead of using one central light, aim to use plenty of different light sources to create pools of light; this will create a more interesting effect. Two or three table lamps placed around the perimeter on tables, shelves or furniture will give the room a more spacious feeling as the light radiates inwards.
  • Placing lights at different levels in the room will add warmth and atmosphere to a room. This can be achieved by using a combination of up lighters, table lamps and standard lamps. 
  • Floor and table lights are good options for ambient light and using freestanding lights gives flexibility if you want to redecorate or rearrange furniture. If you do choose fixed lighting, it is best to align it to permanent features, such as fireplaces and alcoves than to something that may be moved or replaced at a later date. 
  • To make your living space seem larger, continue the atmosphere outside by lighting gardens, shrubbery and water features that are visible from the windows in the room. 
    These rules apply to all living spaces so have a look around your home and consider whether you are currently using all four types of lighting to maximum effect. If not, consider how you could add a layer of lighting to improve the mood and atmosphere of the room and maybe you can ‘light up your life’ just a little bit more.
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