Baseball, white picket fences and apple pie – historically emblematic of American culture (apple pie’s Dutch origins notwithstanding), along with one other element: the nuclear family.
The concept of the family as a two-parents-with-children household has its roots in the early 20th century and saw the height of its cultural popularity in the postwar era. Gleaming Rockwellian visions of the suburbs tended to feature mom spending her days cooking, dad coming home at 5:30 p.m. and little Johnny and Susie playing with the dog in the yard.
While there’s certainly nothing wrong with this family structure, American culture has, at its best, grown to accept and embrace that not every family can or should be the Cleavers of “Leave It to Beaver” fame. From single-parent households to multigenerational living situations, LGBTQ+ parents to contented “DINK” (dual income, no kids) couples, the American family is now a mutable and endlessly, joyously diverse concept.
So how does this translate to residential design? If the kitchen is the heart of the home and the bath is the sanctuary, how might those spaces look and function differently to suit different family structures? KBDN asked designers to weigh in with their experiences.
Privacy and Participation
Based out of Montclair, NJ, Tracey Stephens often finds herself designing for families living in multigenerational situations – in particular clients whose parents have moved in with them, or who have jointly decided to live together. According to Stephens, these arrangements often take place “in a large house that had extra rooms that we just sort of repurposed,” pointing to an example of a home in which she added a door to the hallway leading to the rooms to create a small private living suite. “We upgraded the bathroom with universal design type of plumbing and grab bars and such and included a sitting room and a bedroom.”
Stephens makes it clear that the families in question are not living as separate housemates, but as a cohesive unit, all of whom “participate in the daily life of the family.”
As such, designing for multigenerational households does not mean just creating a space for grandparents away from the rest of the family, but can often mean retrofitting the existing space to account for not just grandparents, but their children and their children’s children. She likes, in particular, to make sure the spaces are kid-friendly to encourage interactions between all three generations in the home and to foster independence early on for little ones.
“In the kitchen, there’s typically a drawer or someplace for the kids lower in the base cabinets for their plates and cups, which encourages independence for them to get their own things and set the table,” she notes. “Or, there’s a snack drawer, so they can get their own snacks.” Additionally, she ensures that pop-up mixers and other accessories are easy to access for young chefs learning grandma and grandpa’s kitchen secrets.
In addition to her multigenerational family clients, Stephens also has experience designing for couples for whom a rigidly defined “his-and-hers” bathroom simply wouldn’t be accurate or welcome. “I’ve worked with same-gender couples, and…I am really not in favor of gendered design – masculine or feminine,” she asserts, adding that “I have found that individual design [taste] is not based on gender, or age or generation.”
This has translated to her designs for the very young, as well – when creating designs for kids’ baths, she tries to think beyond pink and blue to create an aesthetic that everyone can enjoy.
For Michal Brison, managing principal of MBB Design Studio, her southern California location is a big influence on the spaces she is called upon to create. The Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) laws in California make garage conversions and other small units a popular ask, especially for extended families living together.
“We found that our clients are asking for more versatility with their homes, whether it be guest rooms that serve as home offices or gyms. So they need a portion of a garage converted or built on an addition to accommodate that, whether those are detached or attached to the house.”
For Brison’s clients, it’s all about creating versatile spaces and maximizing the available square footage. She points to one Santa Monica project – “It’s quite a large home, about 5,000 square feet in the main house. And it used to have just a two-car detached garage that is accessible from an alley. We’re building a two-bedroom ADU to be attached to the garage and built on top to serve both as a pool house, a guest house and a mother-in-law suite for the homeowner.”
Another Calabasas project features a partial conversion of a three-car garage to a second floor ADU to serve as a two-
bedroom guest suite for the homeowner’s family that visits from out of state for long periods of time. “And eventually both those homeowners are thinking they will retire and their kids will take over the house or a caretaker can live there while they share a facility with their grown children. So everybody’s on the same grounds, the same single-family residence, but that’s expanded to accommodate more than one household.”
When discussing the uses of ADUs with her clients, Brison has to take a fairly careful approach – especially where aging and mobility needs are concerned – but many people are refreshingly frank. “Some people are comfortable talking about it freely and making it clear that it’s something they’re thinking about – they think about all the worst possible scenarios and make sure they accommodate for that as best they can when they’re planning a major project for their home,” she comments. “And we’ve seen clients bring their family members to be a part of that conversation.”
Owner of Santa Monica-based Sarah Barnard Design, designer Sarah Barnard, WELL AP + LEED AP, practices awareness of the changing family in all her designs.
“The idea of the family unit has evolved and expanded, and many people have a very personal relationship with the concept of family, which is often reflected throughout the home space,” she says. “Family-focused living can include a more flexible and multi-generational home space, homes that embrace friends as a family through a focus on hosting, entertaining and creating an emotionally open home. Sometimes it may look like a more pet-friendly home or focusing on privacy, with more opportunities for independence and individualized design.”
In order to create a welcoming and open design practice, she makes inclusive language and practices an intentional and consistent part of her business.
“Many common design terms can be rooted in language derived from harmful histories,” she points out. “Part of design is ensuring comfort, and if the language around design is inclusive, it can help establish an environment of trust. Researching language and adopting inclusive language practices can help create an environment where people feel comfortable being vulnerable and sharing details of their lifestyle that can be crucial to designing a space that suits their needs. Trust between a client and a designer can help to effectively strategize a space that will meet their habits and emotional needs.”
So what are the key ingredients to creating inclusive designs? “It may sound counterintuitive, but a big part of inclusivity is specificity,” she says. “Having autonomy over space is crucial for creating a space of comfort and offering an opportunity for each person to create an environment that’s supportive of their needs, which will look different for everyone.”
In particular, “Creating opportunities for individuals to control movement and physical comfort through modular or adjustable workspace setups, with autonomy over lighting and temperature, can all make a significant difference in comfort and wellbeing.”
All Together Now
Megan Siason, founder of Orange County firm m studio Interior Design, has another take on the difference between the family of yesterday and now. “Reflecting on the residential design of the 50s and the ‘traditional American family,’ the home felt as if it were intentionally geared towards the comfort of the individual, rather than the family as a whole,” she remarks.
“Of the homes I’ve remodeled that were originally built in this era or prior, the spaces were always compartmentalized and closed off…especially the kitchen,” she notes. “The kitchens, just large enough to fit a refrigerator, stove and sink, were separated from the living spaces so the cook of the house – most often the wife, a nanny or ladies of the family – was not interrupted by the festivities happening in the adjacent, and also separated, common areas. Similarly, other rooms of the home, including the dining and living spaces, were cozier and sectioned off.”
According to Siason, her clientele since 2009 has represented a diverse sampling of modern family structures, including multigenerational households, the DINK contingent, working professionals with children and families with “fur babies.”
The needs of these different families change based on what their day-to-day looks like, she says. For professional childless couples, for example, “With both partners being busy working professionals, their needs are geared toward efficiency, and often entertainment.”
Siason, like Brison, also sees many requests for ADUs and additions to house extended families. “Especially seen in most Asian-American cultures, more and more room additions and ADUs have been requested to accommodate needed space for three generations to be under one roof,” she points out. “This allows grandparents to be close to family as they age and help watch grandchildren.”
Intriguingly, what all of Siason’s clients have in common is a need that seems to define what sets the modern family apart – connection. “An underlying commonality in the variety of the clients I serve includes more open, spacious layouts to ensure inclusivity of everyone in the household and their activities, hobbies, etc.,” she says. “There’s a greater sense of ‘togetherness’ that lacked in years prior with segregated spaces.” ▪