Think Outside the Triangle

From work zones to feng shui, our experts weigh in on the latest trends in kitchen design.


Kitchens are being designed with the three different zones in mind more often.

Kitchens are being designed with the three different zones in mind more often.
By: Abigail R Esman
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The work triangle, created to save money on building materials and to make cooks more efficient, has inspired kitchen design since the 1940s. It standardized kitchens by placing the sink, stove and refrigerator at opposite points, allowing cooks to move from storage and cleaning to cooking with a simple step-and-turn. But Lee Stahl, a New York-based designer and owner of The Renovated Home, declares that the concept of the work triangle has become "as outdated as a stove with a pilot light."

Evolving Kitchen Design

As kitchens have grown, says Lee, they have evolved into multipurpose rooms, where family and friends gather to socialize, work and cook together. Consequently, kitchen design is evolving from a triangle into zones, giving several cooks the space to work without bashing elbows.

Jeff Schwartz of Newton, Mass.-based J. Schwartz Design says that changing cabinet styles have encouraged the shift. "With the movement toward less uniform cabinetry and a more freestanding furniture feel," he says, "there is the opportunity for discrete separate zones for prep and cooking, baking and cleanup."



Multiple sinks in a kitchen are very useful for having more than one person helping prepare a meal.

Multiple sinks in a kitchen are very useful for having more than one person helping prepare a meal.

Doubling Up

The kitchen triangle was built around the single cook. Since families are more likely today to share the load, setting up kitchen zones gives everyone a task and a place to do it. For example, Jeff often creates a two-sink arrangement for his clients: one for prep and one for cleanup. "The cleanup sink can be set with the dishwasher in a separate zone," he says, "maybe even within a distinct pantry space."

In a growing trend, homeowners are installing multiple refrigerators: the traditional standup model and one in a bar or island, often in the shape of a drawer. That way, hosts can chat to their guests while mixing a drink or the kids can grab an apple without getting underfoot.

Separating the cooktop and the oven is another option Jeff recommends. Since most people don't bake as often as they use the cooktop, getting the oven out of the way helps better use space. Ovens can, for instance, be either mounted under a counter or in a wall, he says, "away from the action."

Working in Small Spaces

Jeff also offers a variety of inspiring options for nontriangular kitchen zoning in smaller spaces. "A galley works great," he says, "even if only on one wall. The opposite wall can be open to an adjacent living or dining space, or be set up as floor-to-ceiling storage, or as a casual dining space. At each end of the galley, you could have large openings or glass partitions opening up to views, artwork, other living areas or the outdoors: a look that works well with contemporary cabinetry and finishes, or with a mid-century modern aesthetic."

A similar option could be the aptly named "efficiency kitchen," with fridge, sink, countertop and stove in sequence. This set-up allows you basically to pull the carrots from the fridge, wash them, slice them and throw them in the pot to boil, all while barely moving a single step. Talk about efficient.



Islands are nice but having a space the family can sit at that isn't right in the middle of the kitchen is starting to catch on.

Islands are nice but having a space the family can sit at that isn't right in the middle of the kitchen is starting to catch on.


When it comes to islands that anchor cooktops or sinks, Jeff votes against them. "One mistake we often see — and that we have to undo — are islands that block traffic and functional lanes." However, he notes, for a galley configuration, a parallel island can be useful for eating, storage and prep. "There was a time when everyone craved a huge island in a kitchen. Now people are more open to the well-placed peninsula or simply a functional 'U' layout."

Promoting Harmony

In other cultures, the kitchen triangle is considered to create imbalance because it places the cook in a vulnerable position. For example, the principles of feng shui (the Chinese art of bringing harmony to one's life by arranging the environment to promote the flow of life energy, or chi) recommend placing the stove in the center of the room.

Mary Mihaly, a certified feng shui practitioner based in Cleveland, Ohio, says, "When you stand at the stove, you should be in the 'command position,' which, in any room, means that you can see all entrances and most of the room itself." This keeps people from sneaking up on you as you cook, increasing your sense of security and your kitchen's sense of flow. "If it's necessary that the stove be against the wall and the cook's back would be to the room, the 'cure' is to put a mirror or other reflective surface above the stove, so the cook can see the entire room."

When designing your kitchen, consider all of these options, from the traditional triangle and work zones to the harmonious design principles of feng shui. The important thing is to explore the possibilities: to think, not just outside the box, but sometimes outside the triangle.

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