Smart Tips for the Ergonomic Kitchen

Get expert advice on the right counter height, the best flooring and where to put your appliances.

Bend. Stretch. Twist, turn, duck, reach.

No, this isn't boot camp. This is you, making dinner. And if you're a woman, you may be doing all this wearing high heels on a ceramic tile floor.


Fortunately, designers and architects are paying more attention to the science of ergonomics, or creating rooms that are designed to encourage productivity, efficiency and comfort. By coupling ergonomically designed appliances and fixtures with careful planning, working in your kitchen can become a pleasure, not a pain.

Customize Counters

Counters are important considerations, says New York architect Oreste Drapaca, author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Designing Your Own Home (Alpha/Penguin, 2007). Drapaca recommends customizing counter heights, rather than forcing your body to adapt to standardized sizes (unless you happen to be the right height for them anyway). Consider installing two or more counters at varying heights — a lower one (34 to 38 inches tall) for food preparation, like slicing and stirring and another at bar height (44 to 46 inches) to hold foods ready for serving, or items you are not currently using, like the bowl of melted chocolate that needs to cool before you add it to the egg whites. When choosing custom sizes, Drapaca says, a good rule is to consider the height of the countertop in relation to the height of your elbow. When a kitchen acts as a social center, guests or family members can also gather at the bar — which can go as high as 48 inches — and chat with the cook comfortably, rather than perching atop a dishwasher or leaning against the fridge.

Give Floors Some "Bounce"

Even floors count, says Drapaca. In place of terra cotta, stone or ceramic tile, Drapaca recommends using "bouncy" materials like wood, rubber and especially cork, which are easier on feet and legs. Alternatively, you can try placing mats or small rag rugs (with non-slip padding) in strategic areas — say, by counter, stove and sink.

Go for Drawers, Not Doors

Drapaca also recommends cabinets with large drawers for plates, cookware and small appliances, allowing you to see and retrieve the contents without having to duck under a counter or crawl into the cabinet to find what you need.

Drawers also appeal to Los Angeles actress-turned-designer Jenna Levenstein. "I have two dish drawers in my kitchen," she says, "one on each side of the sink. You don't have to bend all the way down — you just pop the drawer open." However, when it comes to refrigerators, Levenstein prefers side-by-side models to drawer types, which, she says, "force unnecessary bending." But whatever drawer units you select, go for the ones with self-closing glides.

"Flip" Over Cabinets

When developing your design, Levenstein also recommends rehearsing the way you'll use your cabinets to make sure the doors open properly. "If they're placed to open the wrong way, it adds a lot of ducking and double maneuvers," she says. Drapaca suggests another option: European-style cabinets in which the door flips up, rather than to the side.

Storage, Outlets and Seating

As with most things, details count. Lazy Susans and multi-tiered storage racks save leaning deeply into an upper cabinet, says Drapaca, as do shelving and other storage options installed on the inside of cabinet doors.

Think, too, of the placement of electrical outlets: Levenstein particularly favors what she calls her "secret outlets," which she hides "everywhere!" she says. "I design my upper cabinets to extend about 3 inches down past the bottom frame. That way I can run a channel of outlets all the way across the bottom of my upper cabinets, and you can't see them. But any time you need to plug something in, you just reach up and plug it in, from wherever you are standing — no need to lug appliances around. These are especially great on islands — and when you are getting a recipe off your laptop."

Levenstein is also a big advocate of that old standby, the classic kitchen stool. "Always have one handy," she says. "I like to design ample, open space to house one, or preferably, two stools. It looks sharp, as well. The stool should have a cross-bar so you have someplace to rest your feet. You can sit down while mixing or doing any kind of food preparation." An added bonus, Levenstein notes, is that "when most people sit on a stool, they sit balanced, and practice better posture."

Design for Lefties

Left-handers will also want to pay attention to things like stove placement. If you tend to hang utensils on the wall, situate the stove so the wall is to your left, making it easy to grab your spatula. Dishwashers should also be placed to the left, rather than to the right side of the sink.

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