Qualified Remodeler

Redefining the Pantry for Today’s Home

“The walk-in pantry, whether built with open shelves or cabinetry, is getting a lot of attention in today’s homes.”

For a very long time, we have been acknowledging the kitchen as the heart of the home and the social center of home life, and the great room/open plan as the dominant approach to home design. Lifestyle and responding design and product trends are impacting the function and layout of kitchens. 

One result of this is an expanding need for back-up storage and work space. This is redefining the role of the pantry in ways worthy of a closer look, so what follows is a discussion of this evolution.

Trends Impacting Pantry Design 

The popular catch-phrase, “health is the new wealth,” is an indicator of our focus on healthy mind, body and soul. As if to prove the trends impacting how we live and design, I just received a CNN news blast entitled, “how decluttering your kitchen can help you lose weight and eat healthy.” 

Our food must be fresh and local, and our storage directed at improved preservation as well as clean air and surfaces, leading to more and better appliances and other components of the kitchen. The term “biophilic design” is growing in popularity, referring to our need for a connection to nature, most times directly through increased amounts of windows and doors or glass walls, and open designs, other times through use of natural or minimally processed materials, and even through the addition of living green walls in the space. We appreciate what technology can do for us, which is resulting in kitchens full of small and built-in appliances, but we also look for solutions to our tech fatigue and, in fact, have a design directive from the Danish – hygge – which loosely translates to coziness in an experience, in our case the kitchen. 

Whether boomer or millennial, elder or younger, we enjoy the kitchen as that social hub, and as an architect that I work with has said, the kitchen is a social space where sometimes we even cook. Social and nutritional aspects of health are contributing to more meals at home, and with boomers loving to entertain and millennials looking for an instant social network, the community created by eating together is increasing our need for storage related to entertaining at a variety of levels. 

Multiple cooks and a variety of activities in the kitchen are driving us to flexible and duplicate work stations, translating to multiples of certain fixtures and appliances. A respect for the physical differences of our many cooks and kitchen visitors directs us to keep important storage within reach of most. These trends have an obvious impact on the balance of work surface, storage and appliances in the kitchen proper. 

Our attraction to simplified living is driving the trend toward cleaner, simplified design lines. In most new construction and often in remodeling, a common layout to demonstrate this cleaner design is one wall of base cabinetry, with windows or open shelves above, a long rectangular island and a second wall, sometimes making an L-shape, made up of all tall cabinetry/appliances. This open plan is aesthetically pleasing and still, it impacts overall storage, particularly at the point of use. 

Responsive Pantry Design Trends

The debate between pantry cabinetry and walk-in, stick-built space is no longer a black and white, either/or choice. Traditionally, the decision was dictated by budget of dollars and space, but today there are many factors influencing this choice. A discussion of cabinetry for pantry storage must include a nod to the amazing lighting and accessorization available to bring more storage safely within the reach of most of us – quite a feat in the reduced amount of space available. 

The tall pantry with pull-out individual shelves is probably the most flexible storage, as each shelf operates independently of the others, and they can be adjusted in height as needs change. When the tall cabinet can be approached from either side, a pull-out pantry can be effective, too, bringing storage from the depth of the cabinet to within reach. The use of the uppermost storage in a tall cabinet can be effective for most cooks when used as tray storage. Often, a combination that includes pull-out storage behind doors above base drawers can be the most aesthetically pleasing, as it can reinforce the strong horizontal line common in today’s designs. 

The trend toward two islands in a kitchen can be a great solution for the needed work surface and storage given up to open plans. In this case, cabinetry again meets the pantry needs, with traditional roll-out storage as well as growing options for moving parts that allow the storage to move to the cook, or to convert for multiple uses. Finally, the use of corner spaces for storage would not be accessible without the accessories available in cabinetry.

The walk-in pantry, whether built with open shelves or cabinetry, is getting a lot of attention in today’s homes. Spaces adjacent to the kitchen can often be reconfigured to create this much-needed storage and work area. The simplest of designs includes adjustable open shelving above and below a work and staging surface, with depth of shelves determined by space available, appropriate clearances and dimensions of items to be stored. This is one space where using the storage available to the ceiling makes sense, mainly for those items not used regularly, and with provision for safe access.

From this basic storage closet, pantries have expanded in design and function. As more people gather in the kitchen to socialize, some aspects of the main kitchen can be located in the pantry, separated visually from the entertaining space. Passage to the pantry may be open or it may be through a decorative door. Lighting and hardware can be used to define the spaces. 

This pantry may include a second or side prep area, a storage zone including refrigeration or freezer or a clean-up zone. It may include workspaces, sinks, small and large appliances positioned to be used in place and sometimes cabinetry to complement the kitchen design. 

While this concept may seem a bit indulgent, in fact, the combination of open plans, reduced wall cabinets and increased appliances has so reduced storage and work surface in the kitchen proper that these design concepts are driven by a need for function, not luxury.

The traditional butler’s pantry may include sink, dishwasher and tableware storage, creating a separate or second clean-up and serving center. In this space, a beverage center is sometimes included, making it easier to separate entertaining from food prep. Often this space is finished with bold, contrasting materials to complement the kitchen proper and transition to the entertaining space.

The purpose and function of the pantry in today’s home design has expanded to everything from back-up storage to secondary prep space, and it is more integral to the function of the kitchen than ever before. Hopefully, this exploratory discussion has us, as designers, recognizing that we have an opportunity – even a responsibility – to expand our efforts in this direction. ▪

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