A hidden television and computer screen ascending from sleek, handmade cabinetry at the touch of a button; LED lighting subtly enhancing artwork and feature walls; comfortable seating zones designed for quiet repose or lively interaction. The idealisation of a 21st-century living room perhaps? Not quite. This is how today's kitchen designers envisage a room that over the past two decades has been transformed from a functional cooking space into the hub of the home.
According to research this month on behalf of UK-based Magnet Kitchens, it is now the room we spend more waking hours in than any other, using the kitchen as a place to cook, dine, work, study and socialise. As a result, the average-sized kitchen has become much bigger - doubling in size within the past two generations. It's also become the room homeowners are really prepared to invest in financially - spending triple the amount on kitchens than on living rooms.
"Kitchens truly have become multi-purpose lifestyle spaces," agrees Daniel Gianni, manager of Spaceworks, a UAE-based company that supplies the prestige Bulthaup kitchens from Germany to a slew of discerning clients in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. "For those clients who have moved into the Garden Villas on the Palm Jumeirah for instance, it has become almost typical for them to want to knock down the surrounding walls and meld the kitchen completely with the living space. In fact one client knocked down all the internal walls from the garage right to the back of the house, which gave them an enormous 15-metre kitchen."
And the cut and thrust of daily family life certainly centres on these huge integrated spaces: "Clients tell me they want to live mostly - and often work as well - in the kitchen. It's also the place they entertain, which would not have happened in this part of the world even a decade ago." Kitchen design has also kept apace of the zeitgeist, according to Gianni: "With all the retractable units that are now available, the functional, food preparation side of the kitchen can be optically hidden away whist the room serves its several other uses."
Leila Garadaghi, an Emirates Hills resident, spent several months transforming her five-bedroom villa to harness the relaxed ambience and aesthetic of her former London home. At its heart lies a stunning, open-plan Siematic kitchen that flows seamlessly into the dining and informal living room: "When I was first looking around at houses in Dubai it struck me how the kitchen is most often in a closed space away from the living area, but that's not what I wanted," explains Garadaghi. "I love to cook and I wanted a kitchen space that was about relaxing and informality. A lot of people may come in here and think 'that's not for me,' but we love it."
While many residents are happy to gut out their existing kitchens to house the perfect food/family zone, others are lucky enough to hit on the perfect space by chance. Mimi Shakashir, a boutique owner, and her family moved from their home in Dubai's Emirates Hills to a rented villa in leafy Umm al Sheif, drawn largely by the flow of rooms in their new villa. The kitchen, unusually for a local build, is a central point in the downstairs space: "It is almost part of the family room, right in the middle of the house and where we naturally gravitate to." It's also the space where the family house a large table that can be split into four pieces for larger gatherings and their casino-style gaming machines, all part of the entertainment for frequent guests who drop by: "Our house is very open and that is a part of life here I really enjoy," says Shakashir.
Some of the world's most prolific designers have enthusiastically embraced this changing function of the kitchen space - albeit to occasionally mixed reviews. Last year, the designer Karim Rashid hooked up with luxury Italian company Scavolini to present the Crystal kitchen, a range of glass-finished cabinetry in hot colours and pop-art shapes. It may be difficult to live with during a migraine (as many critics pointed out) but nonetheless, it certainly serves as a visually stimulating backdrop for a children's play area and is several brave steps away from the minimal, slightly sober vibe that pervades the upper end of industry kitchen cabinetry design.
Philippe Starck may be better known for his iconic kitchen accoutrements for Italian kitchenware company Alessi, but for his recent collaboration with the German manufacturer Warendorf, he really played on the connection between culture and cooking with "The Library", a kitchen design in cherry mahogany and stainless steel that features bookshelves framing a central kitchen unit, complete with a ladder to search for tomes in the higher reaches. Starck's further designs for the company are also focused on the concept that food is only part of the new kitchen story with "Duality", a fully integrated kitchen unit that can be placed in a central living space and accessed from two sides while the "Tower" kitchen consists of a simple table and two compact monoliths that rotate 340 degrees to give the user varied use options.
Although it may be the designer end of the industry that has spearheaded the kitchen-cum-living room revolution, it is the mass market that is interpreting it in its own way - out of financial necessity more often than not.
Interior designer Gillian Lordari scoured eye-wateringly expensive kitchen websites, brochures and magazines for ideas on how to best furnish the living area in her family's small holiday home in Puglia, Italy - but kept costs down by installing a Lindingo kitchen from Ikea, along with a selection of their bookcases and soft furnishings to give the whole space a similar cohesiveness.
"I just had one large room to play with downstairs, and as the house had no kitchen originally, I wasn't bound by any rules as to where it should go so I mixed everything up - workstation, sofas, cabinetry, appliances," she says. "The whole room cost less than €10,000 (Dh51,600) - it's not the best quality, admittedly, but it looks great and for the few times a year we use it, it is perfect - my daughter has even christened the space, 'the kitching room'."
Kitchen gadgetry for the room's traditional purpose has forged ahead, too - but it's often a challenge to keep up clients' wish lists, admits Gianni.
"Clients are asking for new things every day - the latest integrated ice maker, coffee machine teppanyaki, contact grill … often they want things that have only just come onto the market so as a provider you really have to keep on top of things."
Like most of the upper echelons of kitchen design, Bulthaup opts for Gaggenau, Miele or Siemens appliances from the European manufacturers or Wolf or Sub-Zero for North American-market devotees.
"There is far more to kitchens than the product design, the appliances and the furnishings, however," explains Gianni. "The real challenge is getting a good working relationship going with your kitchen planner." He says that in the past five years, there is now "quality, qualified competition" in the local market and that generally, the companies that tend to be ahead of the curve are the German brands that offer superb engineering and the Italian brands that focus on design, "although the Bulthaup is based very near the Italian border, so we like to think we offer the best of both", he says.
One Italian brand recently set up in the UAE is Pedini, which showcased its wares for the first time towards the end of last year within Rono Interiors on Dubai's Sheikh Zayed Road. Keen to point out its celebrity following - Leonardo DiCaprio and the footballer Ronaldo are alleged to be fans of the brand - the company has become famed for its curved cabinets, which seamlessly incorporate a host of lifestyle features within them.
"It took a while before we could find a good distributor and partner in the UAE," admits Simone Genari, Pedini's managing director.
"Our clients love the flexibility of customised kitchens that blend harmoniously into their living space; they want something different from their friends and neighbours and although we work on the concept and design in Italy, our quality - and reputation - depends on how our dealer implements it," he says.
A Pedini kitchen costs upwards of Dh160,000 - "middle to high end," shrugs Genari, "but we feel we have a good ratio between quality and price."
Bulthaup models start from Dh200,000 and have been known to cost up to Dh1 million. For that kind of money, you aren't going to be wanting to move house any time soon.
"It is not the kind of investment you make if you are going to leave it after a year or so but a few of our clients have homes throughout the world and have had a Bulthaup kitchen in each," acknowledges Gianni.
For the rest, there is the new B2 range - an oh-so-cool (and cheaper) Bulthaup kitchen that is completely freestanding so can, according to Gianni, be moved with ease from one house to the next.
"For the society in which we live, which tends to be fairly fluid, this is a kitchen you can invest in then take with you when you move on because it's really not just about kitchens anymore - the planning and skill that go into these rooms are really works of interior architecture."