Every designer brings his life experience to his work. But few do it as well or incorporate as much as British kitchen specialist Johnny Grey.
Grey's unconventional kitchens are a radical departure from American ones and feature jazzy colors, original artwork, playful, custom cabinetry best described as "sculptural" and work areas that are carefully tailored to a client's body measurements. He developed his signature style after becoming seriously ill early in his career, he said in a recent interview.
When he was 28, Grey contracted mononucleosis. The disease dogged him for 10 years, causing continuous, debilitating fatigue. After two years he was able to work part time, but he remained exhausted and had constant back pain. Hoping to lessen the pain and build enough stamina to get through the day, Grey began to study the Alexander Technique, an approach to body movement developed more than 100 years ago by an Australian Shakespearean actor named Frederick Alexander to help him overcome stage fright.
The Alexander Technique teaches you to rethink the way you perform everyday tasks so that you do them more efficiently with far less energy, Grey said. The process also helps to reduce muscle tension, often the source of pain, as was the case with his back.
In describing how the technique helped him, Grey said that most of us waste far more body energy than we think. For example, he recalled that when he pantomimed brushing his teeth in a class exercise, "My teacher showed me that I was using my entire body, but I only needed to use my wrist."
Analyzing other tasks that he did everyday, Grey began to rethink the way he prepared food. Zeroing in on even the smallest gestures, he realized that most of the body motions involved in cooking were limited to his forearms and hands. In ergonomic terms, the critical dimension for determining the height of work surfaces was not body height, as he had always thought, but the distance from the floor to the underside of the chef's elbow when it is bent at a right angle. He refers to this distance as the "flexed elbow."
The most demanding task in the kitchen is knifework — the chopping, slicing and dicing. It requires a rapid up and down forearm motion. You can do this most efficiently when the counter height is three to four inches below your flexed elbow, Grey said.
Standing over a cooktop, you make a different motion — stirring or turning with a tool that has a long handle. For this you'll be more comfortable if the cooktop is about five to six inches below your flexed elbow.
For bread or pastry making, you need to get your weight over the rolling pin or the dough you're kneading. For these, the counter should be eight inches below your flexed elbow.
For washing up, Grey said, the actual work surface is the sink bottom, which should be eight to 11 inches below your flexed elbow, while the counter height to either side of the sink need only be two inches below it.
When designing a kitchen, Grey varies counter heights according to the task to be performed at each. But, he said, the flexed elbow measurements are meant to be guidelines, not written in stone. Practicality dictates some flexibility in determining counter heights so different people can work in the same kitchen. But when the height difference between cooks approaches 12 inches, Grey designs the kitchen for the person who does most of the cooking, and adds a second food prep counter to accommodate the other person.
While getting the height of the food preparation area right prevents muscle strain, getting the cooktop height right has other benefits, Grey said. When it is lower, hot oil is less likely to splash in a shorter person's face.
In recent years many American kitchen designers have recommended raising the dishwasher so that a tall person or someone in a wheelchair can use it more easily. Grey concluded that keeping this appliance low made the task of loading and unloading a dishwasher more difficult for everyone, and he likes to raise it 10 to 14 inches.
Grey's experience with the Alexander Technique led him to study how body movement is affected by peripheral vision, which, surprisingly, turns out to be another source of muscle tension. When your eyes sense sharp corners on the edge of your path, they activate a stress response to ensure that you avoid hitting anything. This makes you more tense.
To counteract this and make the time spent in the kitchen more relaxing, Grey developed what he calls "soft geometry." His counters have round edges; his islands and the cabinetry below them are circular or elliptically shaped, while the counters and cabinetry opposite them are often concave. He also likes free-standing, floor-to-ceiling cylinder-shaped cabinets for storing large pots and pans. All these unusual shapes make the space feel more playful, which is also relaxing.
The unusual shapes would seem to require a bigger area for a kitchen, but Grey said the opposite is true. With a concave-shaped kitchen, you can get more cabinets and appliances into a smaller space, while freeing up more floor area so that two or more people can work at the same time.
Zeroing in on specifics, Grey said he vastly prefers end-grain butcher block for a food prep area because the wood is so dense it won't dull knife blades, it won't be scarred by chopping, and it's easy to keep clean. The actual size of a food prep area should be small, only about 18 to 24 inches wide with space on either side for pots or bowls. Grey likes a generously sized island, but he divides it into separate task areas, each with a different height.
American kitchen designers tend to box up everything behind closed cabinet doors, but Grey prefers open storage adjacent to the place where an item is used. He maintains this is more convenient, eliminates unnecessary movement and makes the space feel lived in. He puts plate racks above the dishwasher, open racks below a cooktop for large pots and hooks above it for cooking utensils or smaller pots.
Open storage on the non-working side of an island can have unexpected results, Grey said. As he notes in his “Kitchen Culture,” (Firefly, 2004, $40), your dog may find it a great spot for observing household activity and your children, when they’re very young, may decide it’s a great place for a make-believe den.
For more information on Johnny Grey, visit johnnygrey.com