How is COVID-19 Influencing Design?

A new study from the NKBA suggests that it is going to lead to substantial change.

How to get crumbs in your keyboard
How to get crumbs in your keyboard.

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The National Kitchen and Bath Association has just released its 2021 Design Trends Research, which goes beyond the trendy questions about what style cabinets are popular (a more modern, organic feel this year!) but also digs into how the COVID-19 pandemic is changing the way people think about design. This is a subject we have discussed on Treehugger before (and one that I lectured about at a recent conference in Portugal at 49:00 on this video). The National Kitchen and Bath Association (NKBA) interviewed more than 700 designers, architects, dealers, and specialists to come up with their research. Bill Darcy, the CEO of NKBA, noted that there is an increased focus on the role (and size) of the kitchen:

“The kitchen has long been the heart of the home. But especially during the pandemic, it has emerged as the most prominent, multitasking room as well. We see this continuing with more open-space concepts, an extension into multi-season outdoor living spaces, larger kitchen island hubs and increased functionality and storage to allow homeowners to cook, eat, work, home-school and play, all in the same vicinity.”

I have argued the exact opposite, suggesting that "kitchens should be more like hospital rooms than living spaces. You don't want these people hanging around where all the food is, leaving their stuff all over the counters and touching everything." But the pandemic has made me reconsider; families are doing more cooking together.

Stock photo of woman eating and working
More ways to get crumbs in your keyboard. 10,000 hours/Getty Images

I was about to throw in the towel completely when I saw a quote from one designer calling for "areas in the kitchen to plug in a laptop and Zoom etc." and "more functional kitchen geared towards having areas to 'plug in.'” I keep thinking that somewhere, you have to draw a line, that a prep surface is not a desk, that you don't mom and dad and kids all zooming from the kitchen counters, that this is dangerously unsanitary and not very productive for working, either. But many people don't have a choice, which is probably why the most popular item in kitchen technology is "a dedicated area for mobile device/laptop charging/viewing."

Fortunately, the survey shows that people are thinking less about fancy country kitchens and Shaker-style doors, and more about how you actually use the kitchen. They want "more emphasis on easy-to-clean surfaces" and "easy-to-clean products such as slab front drawers, and simple or no crown moldings." As well as "cleanable, adaptable spaces. If the kitchen is also the work and learning zone, it needs to be adaptable." Materials are chosen for ease of maintenance (goodbye granite; hello, quartz) or antibacterial (cork, bamboo).

Everyone seems to agree that there is the need for a lot more storage, "larger pantry areas, increased size of refrigeration and freezer appliances for increased quantities" – enough to store a week's worth of food so that there are fewer trips to the store. So much for our thesis that small fridges make good cities. It's no wonder that there are 117,570 Instagram posts tagged #pantryorganization.

People are tearing down walls to open the kitchen to other areas, turning them into working from home/ schoolwork areas. Kitchen islands are becoming kitchen continents as dining room tables and kitchen tables disappear into them.

Certain features in homes that I have thought would be important seem to be not in demand, such as enhanced mudrooms, and the least popular and influential idea on their entire list, "move away from open floor plans to accommodate working/school at home." In other words, the consensus among design professionals goes counter to just about everything I suggested in Home Design Lessons from the Coronavirus. It's embarrassing.

There are some trends that I can get behind; induction ranges are catching up in popularity, just behind gas now. Ventilation hoods are "becoming more decorative and a focal point in the kitchen" although there is no word about whether they actually work. In fact, I am surprised that designers and specifiers are paying so little attention to ventilation, which rated relatively low in importance to designers. It came second-last in the list of "interesting new products."

I have been complaining all year about how the doctors have not been listening to the building scientists, but clearly, the architects and interior designers aren't either. A properly engineered and installed kitchen exhaust hood is critical for indoor air quality, and good ventilation is essential in dealing with COVID-19. It should have a higher priority. Designers complain "Let's change the color. Let's change the shape. Let's give it that 'WOW' factor."

I complain "let's make it work. Let's get rid of PM2.5 and NO2 and all that pollution." But compared to the over 700 designers who were part of this survey, I have been wrong about everything else; perhaps I am wrong about this too.

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