Nooks for cooks
Unless you're involved in the design world, you may not have heard of Johnny Grey - but your home may nonetheless bear his stamp. Grey is one of the world's most renowned kitchen designers, a discipline which he describes as under-subscribed and, perhaps, undervalued.
"It's ridiculous really, when you think about it - because the kitchen is the place that most modern households spend most of their time," Grey muses.
He's right. Most of us will do an awful lot more in our kitchen than cook there. There's eating, lounging, doing homework, totting up the bills, watching television, making phone-calls, painting your fingernails, snatching a meal with our families or friends and, of course, there's cooking. All this in a room which most of us will have bought with our houses and given no more thought to than the bathroom suite or the carpet on the stairs. "Functions of rooms have changed so much that if they were to design the concept of a house now, it would probably be very different to the houses any of us live in," Grey surmises. "Interestingly, what we're returning to is something akin to the medieval house where everything is done in one room, centred around the hearth." Grey is now a hugely busy and influential character with workshops and showrooms in Hampshire and San Francisco, commissions coming out his ears, and an extensive range of furniture and three books under his belt: but it was the simple realisation that the function of the kitchen no longer suited its design that launched him on his stellar career.
In 1980, a Sunday newspaper outlined his ideas in a piece entitled "Why this awful fixation with fitted kitchens?" The response was phenomenal - more than 2,000 letters in a week - all echoing his concerns and inquiring after his work. Johnny Grey's business was born.
His ideas hit the mainstream in the mid 1980s when he teamed up with the kitchen designers Smallbone of Devizes to design a range of kitchen furniture. The result was to be imitated and developed throughout the 1990s by numerous other kitchen manufacturers. His dislike of fitted kitchens owes much to his aunt, the famous food writer Elizabeth David, who "absolutely loathed fitted kitchens. She thought they were a marketing scam and she was a fairly ferocious presence." So what exactly is wrong with a fitted kitchen? "In the 1970s, you saw this huge de-humanisation of the kitchen when large German companies started making these fitted kitchens which were designed with ease of production and ease of selling the biggest priorities. Which is fine; you got a cheap kitchen and a fast kitchen but they had nothing to do with design, they were about selling you a product. They came in certain sizes and materials and they were always the same. "Every inch of a kitchen should be used well, because you use it so much, but the fitted kitchen was very inflexible, and back then they were usually made of laminated plastic.
When put together with strip lighting and vinyl floor covering, they were very inhumane spaces." Grey's theory, which was revolutionary at the time, was that kitchens should be made up of free-standing pieces - his aunt Elizabeth's kitchen had three dressers and very few counter-tops. They should also be designed with their real, multiple, and individual purpose in mind, a simple formula which is, even now, rarely put into practice.
Grey is a bit of a fanatic when it comes to kitchens: he speaks about design with a fervour usually seen in those with slightly dubious religious beliefs. After a while his enthusiasm becomes infectious. He points out that most fitted kitchens would have you prepare food and cooking with your back to the rest of the room. Given that this is where you are most likely to be simultaneously supervising children or entertaining friends, would it not be more sensible to move food preparation to a central island? Grey designed such an island for his own home in Sussex, which has four separate sections for food preparation, cooking, serving and a low area for children to work at. With a combination of design flair and pragmatism, he made each section of a material and size to suit and encourage its purpose - the prep section is made of hard maple, while the serving area, which is made of a lacquered wood unsuitable for chopping, was made just a bit too high to work at, discouraging absent-mindedness with the Sabatier. Simple, but it works. Details are all important to Grey - dishwashers should be positioned 14 inches off the floor to avoid that back-straining stretch to the bottom shelf, while sinks should be positioned higher, approximately two inches above your flexed elbow apparently. As for those acres of counter space so often hyped in modern homes - Grey points out that you can only use so much preparation space, roughly an arm's stretch either side of you, leaving the rest to gather clutter.
"My passion is helping people make better use of their space . . . That's particularly relevant now with the huge money people are paying for their houses. You've got this asset - design is about making the most of it . . . but it's also spiritual. A space should make you feel happier, it should have that indefinable X factor."
This is all very well for those who can afford Grey's services - and they don't come cheap - but what about the rest of us, limping along with kitchens that have about as much X factor as a bad episode of the X- Files? "The best idea is not to be too ambitious. You can get by with relatively little counter-space. Spend your money on a good sink, a free-standing stove and a good preparation area. Beg, borrow and steal the rest." He also allows that mass-manufactured kitchens have come a long way and that the "lower end of the market is relatively well served now". If you do have your heart set on a Johnny Grey kitchen, you could always go along to the two-day course he is holding at the Ballymaloe Cookery School in June, where he will give hints on transforming your kitchen. As for Grey himself, he has a busy schedule ahead. There are intriguing plans for a new range of kitchen products in the US. Grey is working with several different companies to develop a cooker which will roast a chicken in 15 minutes and a fridge which you can access from a laptop or Palm Pilot, to find out which ingredients you need for a recipe. It will then order them for you on the Web and for delivery. He is in the midst of designing his first restaurant, the Foxtrot Oscar in Battersea, would like to open a school of kitchen design and then of course, there is the traditional business of designing kitchens.
In Ireland, he has commissions in Westport and Rathmines, and he has a booming business in the US. "I'll tell you an interesting thing about the Americans," Grey says with a grin. "The less they cook, the more they need a kitchen. If all they do is re-heat food, they need a huge kitchen to prove that they can actually cook."
A revised version of Johnny Grey's The Art of Kitchen Design is now available, published by Ward Lock, price £25 in the UK