Our increasingly informal lifestyles are transforming the kitchen from simply a place where we prepare food into the new social hub of the home. And the world's cutting-edge designers are responding. "A lot of it is about how we eat and entertain these days," says the celebrated British chef Jamie Oliver. By "it" he means the evolving design of our kitchens and, in particular, the way that they have increasingly become part of our main living spaces. He is well-placed to comment: in addition to his credentials as a media-friendly chef, restaurateur and campaigner for good food, Oliver has now become a kitchen designer. He recently joined forces with the upmarket German manufacturer Poggenpohl to create state-of-the-art kitchens for Jumeirah Golf Estates' Water development in Dubai.
"The kitchen has become the hub of the home - the social hub, as well as the functional hub," Oliver explains. And kitchen design - not just the colour of the cupboards but the very architectural framework within which the kitchen sits - has responded. Increasingly, the kitchen plays the role of a family room, which may double as a semi-formal dining area, which, in turn, may be part of a larger living space that performs a more sociable and relaxed role and possibly even flows outside into the garden.
So the leading-edge kitchen manufacturers are employing a new breed of architect/designer. Rather than simply "kitchen designers" in the old, narrow sense, these include such stars of the design world as the Argentinian-born architect Alfredo Häberli at Schiffini, Antonio Citterio at Arclinea, Piero Lissoni at Boffi and Alessandro Mendini - a leading light in the Milan-based Memphis design movement - who has designed a kitchen for Alessi (manufactured by Valcucine). In doing so, they have turned conventional thinking on its head.
No longer is the kitchen shut off from the rest of the house; no longer does a cook work with his or her back to the room. According to the architect Claudio Silvestrin, who has worked with the Italian company Minotti, among others, visual openness between the kitchen and the living area is essential, so that social interaction between the cook and his or her friends or family is constant. Johnny Grey, a leading British kitchen designer and architect who has dedicated a considerable amount of time to researching the effects design has on the human brain, say: "It's all about eye contact and encouraging social interaction. That's why central islands have become an essential feature."
As well as incorporating working elements, such as hobs and sinks, which face out into the social part of the room, those islands now come with bar counters or attached tables. The remainder of the functional elements - smaller machines, tools, dishwashers and all that other visually unappealing clutter - are kept discreetly in the background. Antonio Citterio's solution for Arclinea's Lapis et Lignum kitchen is a monumental free-standing island sculpted from bluish-grey marble, behind which everything else is hidden in a run of floor-to-ceiling larch-fronted cupboards.
In the b2 kitchen from the upmarket German manufacturer Bulthaup double doors on the full-height wooden cupboards open to reveal everything you could possibly need to prepare a major dinner (almost Tardis-like in their deceptively large capacity, they are closer to the old idea of a pantry than a conventional kitchen cupboard). When closed, the room is transformed, becoming a beautifully clean space, where only the island unit remains - a stainless steel area that exudes an almost industrial efficiency, yet is beautifully proportioned, almost sculptural.
According to Grey, in all its stylistic glory the modern kitchen has moved backwards in cultural terms, not forwards. "It's the surrogate hearth," he enthuses. "It fulfils a primitive human need to gather around a warm and emotionally engaging space. We are returning to our basic instincts when we create a socialised kitchen that becomes the centre of our home." Yet, we are also in an age where the kitchen, no matter how primordial its role, has never been so technically well-endowed. It must function with all the efficiency of a hi-tech laboratory.
According to Oliver, this matters: "If you buy expensive golf clubs, do you play better? Most likely not. But if you cook in a good kitchen it will definitely make you 10 per cent better. By good, I mean a kitchen that is functional and predictable, as well as having good quality kit in it." So it's not just the latest appliances - great as they may be; it's how they are brought together. "What interested me about the Jumeirah Golf project was the opportunity to design an efficient and functional space that would reflect the changing use of the kitchen," says Oliver. Ergonomics, he adds, will always be the most important factor.
"Appliances should be compact and in one area," says Manfred Junker, the lead designer for Poggenpohl, who worked with Oliver on the Jumeirah Golf Estates. "Having ovens and the dishwasher in a slightly higher position makes operating them much easier. Integrating coffee makers into cabinets minimises the amount of clutter on the worktops." One of Oliver's ingenious solutions is a "breakfast cupboard". Set to one side of the main working area, it opens to reveal all of the tools you need: toaster, coffee-maker, bread board, jars for cereals and so on. Oliver's rationale: there is a lot of stuff you need only for breakfast, you're only half-awake in the morning so you want it to be easy to find everything, and then you don't want to see any of it again until the next morning.
Despite Oliver's insistence that he is not interested in the cosmetic styling of a kitchen ("I'm not going to put my name to something just because it looks nice") aesthetics have never been so important. "One has to move seamlessly from a workspace to an area of relaxation," explains Rainer Ebert, the managing director for SieMatic in the Middle East. And so the high-end manufacturers and designers have been rethinking materials, shapes and finishes.
The SL, a recent addition to SieMatic's Beaux Arts range, is a smoothly efficient, minimalist ensemble of wood and stainless steel, with combined workspaces, islands, a computerised smart board (which is the technical 'brain' of the home) and not a drawer or cupboard handle in sight. Poggenpohl's Porsche Design kitchen P7340 has also banished drawer handles, appliance buttons, knobs and any other protrusion that might threaten its clean styling. Even more minimalist is Claudio Silvestrin's award-winning 'terre' kitchen for the upmarket Italian manufacturer Minotti. The almost monolithic design boasts taps and a hob that are virtually invisible.
In contrast, Mark Wilkinson, an award-winning British designer, remains unconvinced of the merits of minimalism. Like Grey, he prefers a lived-in ambience - and describes his own kitchen as "very informal, very human". Wilkinson's recently launched Shan Gara kitchen incorporates handcrafted oriental panels into the design. "I designed Shan Gara around a thought that it should be simple to be very busy in the kitchen - enjoying the company of guests while, say, preparing a dinner party," he explains. "I encompassed the oriental-style sliding panels, to create mini-rooms within the kitchen."
Silvestrin says that his terre design, despite its extreme modernity, also harks back to another era. "I imagined an object which, useful and functional, presents itself with the same strength as nature: solid, timeless and abstract," he says. "Cooking on a porphyry worktop which is 28 million years old makes me feel reverent and fortunate at the same time," he adds. The use of rarer materials and the inventive use of familiar ones - none of which would raise an eyebrow in conventional living spaces - is a recurring feature in the new top-end kitchens.
For the new duemilleotto range for Boffi, Piero Lissoni has used weather-beaten wood reclaimed from old Alpine chalets and tiles made by traditional artisans in southern Italy who employ almost-forgotten techniques, combining both with brushed stainless steel and Corian. Showstoppers at Eurocucina at this year's Milan Furniture Fair included the concept kitchen designed by Alfredo Häberli for Schiffini, which had cupboard doors coated in copper powder and etched with a 3D surface pattern.
Also at the show, Valcucine's Vitrum kitchen was made almost entirely from glass. Matt, gloss or painted, it was cut, etched and curved to create an amazing sense of lightness. Santambroglio Milano also used glass (a "sandwich" of two 15mm-thick layers) for cupboard fronts and even work surfaces, which made its kitchen appear almost to float. Junker describes Poggenpohl's P7340 as "one of a kind". "We used high-gloss surfaces to bring brilliance and depth to a room," he says. "Homeliness is created with exclusive woods and textured surfaces. Glass and aluminium are used for refinement and accentuation."
Within today's sociable kitchen-living areas lighting plays an increasingly important role. Spots, LEDs, fibre optics and Perspex panelling are all being used to create ambience or make design statements. Arclinea has turned the Kizoqu tap (part of its new Lapis et Lignum range) into a focal point: the water is lit by LED, which changes colour according to its temperature. In the Oliver kitchens, Poggenpohl has used backlit semi-opaque glass along the entire back wall, between countertop and cupboards. The light can be increased to illuminate the area while working and dimmed to a soft glow when socialising takes over.
A term that is heard with increasing regularity in today's kitchen circles is "design art". Grey says that it describes "something that is functional art. You can use it every day, it's entirely practical but it's also art in its own right." He cites as an example a central island that he is currently building, which has been inspired by classic car parts. "It's a wonderful structure made of steel and glass, and when it's completed it's going to be fantastic."
Soft geometry - or the use of curves rather than corners - is appearing more and more. "I believe we are hard-wired to appreciate soft shapes," says Grey, who jokingly adds that it is part of his lifelong mission to eliminate corners. "Research shows that humans are more relaxed when surrounded by soft shapes, while being around sharp objects can make us feel more challenged and on edge." Grey's designs stem from many forms of inspiration: "I was watching the new Narnia film recently - and there was a scene set inside a tree trunk house. The entire set was curved and rounded. It produced a wonderfully safe and cosy effect - rather like a womb, I suppose."
One example of where Grey has put his love of curves into practice is an almost circular kitchen in a barn conversion in southern England. The steel central island curves through almost 200 degrees. Behind it, arranged around a curving back wall, are free-standing floor-to-ceiling wooden cupboards. Pedini's Dune kitchen is a sinuously curving island; made up of modular units holding sinks, cooking hob, cutting surfaces and extractor fan, it can be worked at from both sides.
For his Alessi kitchen, Alessandro Mendini has harnessed what he calls "the poetry of the curved line", using a longer, more sweeping curve for an island that is every bit as functional as the strictly geometric units offered by so many others. But whether curved or straight, minimalist, funky or farmhouse traditional, the point is, as Ebert of SieMatic, explains: "When you design a kitchen, you aren't just making a piece of furniture. Instead, you are creating an entire living space - an environment that has many functions which should last for at least 15 years."
Or, as Wilkinson puts it: "The individual needs of everybody who will occupy the space must always be considered first, at the drawing board stage. That is what the kitchen designer must deliver."