0 Comments and 0 Reactions

British kitchen design icon Johnny Grey: Social kitchens and Creative Partnerships

Johnny Grey

Legendary Kitchen designer Johnny Grey was the star turn at when he addressed an enthusiastic audience at London’s Grand Designs. With his kind permission we reproduce the speech he prepared for the event. We think it contains some important ideas and want to invite the Modenus community to join the debate. Please add your thoughts in the comment area at the end of this post.

We must begin by asking questions. Why are so many people unexcited, simply disinterested in kitchens? Why do so many kitchens still feel alien, shiny plastic, un-cuddly and depressing? After all it is the room they should love the most. Of all rooms the kitchen is often the least expressive room in peoples homes. We need to explain why householders want to change their kitchens as soon as they get the chance.

We know that fewer people are buying kitchens.  Is it because they don’t see what their potential is? Or because they have no money?  Is it no longer a good investment? Or they are bored generally with what they see? Does the industry – if I can call it that- need to be embarrassed? Is it simply a poor service?

Johnny Grey kitchen bath

Bath, England.

What is a kitchen made up of?  I asked, when giving a series of talks in during an Australian, Canadian and New Zealand design tour, professionals to imagine their dream kitchen – with their eyes shut for a minute or two. When I prompted individuals to answer, no one said appliances or cabinets – they said very emotional things like long views, happy conversations, long – and short lunches, warm moments of family life. We know that in the newly expanded kitchens of the last twenty years only 30% of floor space is used for culinary tasks, the rest is used for social activities. Perhaps we should call them social kitchens. Whatever, we are in an historical period when the kitchen is re-inventing itself in front of our eyes.

We take advantage of this by going with the forces of social change, responding to new work habits, cooking and eating trends, ideas about privacy and leisure and enjoyment of the bigger spaces courtesy of central heating and insulation, and the newly appreciated desire for natural light and connection to garden.

Johnny Grey kitchen petersfield

Petersfield, England.

Using furniture as a planning device is at the philosophical core for me. It brings freedom, it’s in tune with people’s traditional idea of furnishing-   the art of placement, of arranging things, of compromise, and of putting things together.  Space around each piece leaves mental space for expression. It creates variation, 3D movement, flexibility, it could be sourced from your parents, acquired from a flea market, or commissioned.  It is not a commercial process that is taking place here – it’s a simple traditional way of furnishing but with an intelligent inner core that most ordinary people get. And this brings rich psychological content, history and culture. It establishes a story. A bit of soul is possible, so necessary at the heart of our home.

How do we entice customers? A revitalized industry will not listen to obvious or in your face wisdom of simplistic customer demand -  but develop creative partnerships – with suppliers, artisans and customers. New organizations like SCDF and SBID already offer networking and support opportunities to bring all sides of industry together. Innovation does not happen by giving people what they have already.  A kitchen designer needs to wear many hats at the same time – to listen, empathize and propose. We want creative partnerships, not sales driven businesses.

Johnny Grey kitchen Dexter

Dexter, USA.

The vehicle for making this happen is the artisan, whom I define as an intelligent maker, a word re-emerging into English back from the Italian origin. It would be an historic first to have an industry that went beyond being sales people for the giants, paid by commission and become a source for multiple artisan skills where design and making merge a lot more than now- from woodworkers, tile makers to painters, combining 3D design skills interior, décor, furniture, lighting design, building and architectural ones too – to help our customers live more comfortably in their walls. My experience is that small companies often innovate best as creativity and motivation have a better chance.

Creative people abound in this country of ours. Our art and design schools train more than can get jobs – why can’t they be employed more in the kitchen industry?

Johnny Grey kitchen Burgundy

Burgundy, France.

How do we get there? We need to set up a multi-disciplined technical, arts and design programme, at a college level. An advanced Kitchen Academy. Actually I can tell you its nearly here. Lynn Jones of The National College of Furniture at Buckingham University, is setting up a course for kitchen design. With your support this could break the mould and turn the UK into a leader in global kitchen design, as with the fashion industry. I can see neuroscience and psychology being taught alongside woodwork, tile-making, ergonomics and soft geometry. How exciting would that be? Who knows, they may even throw in a few lessons on cooking -  something that few kitchen designers do apparently!

You may be surprised to know that the artisan contribution to the kitchen industry is already higher than you think. Of the average spent on a UK kitchen of approx £6500, £3000 goes to the fitters. Shall we call them craftsmen or artisans or maybe designers in waiting?  I am sure we have designers and art school graduates who would like to make things? We have workforce from both sides of the equation waiting for further education.

Johnny Grey kitchen Edinburgh

Edinburgh, Scotland.

I have spent my life thinking about the kitchen as a place, not as cabinets or appliances but as an expression of a new kind of home architecture that responds to our instincts. An exploration of kitchen culture and the pursuit of an art of kitchen design. I have seen massive changes in the kitchen over the last thirty years and its going in the right direction, but it needs to go much further. A newly revitalized industry that collaborates with artisans and education could deliver something a whole lot more civilised.

Johnny Grey.
May 2011, London.

Illustrated kitchen are all by Johnny Grey.

  • http://www.modenus.com Veronika Miller

    Great discussion starter Johnny, hope we can get you to comment on a few posts that will undoubtedly land here or on our Twitter stream. Your design and your vision of kitchen design to me has always been one of the most passionate in the industry and yes, while sleek and cool also had it’s moment it’s time to re-think our approach and have some fun with arranging pieces not to maximise every inch to maximise the interest.
    I’m also interested in taking this into a realm of UK vs US design, since the US has yet to fully embrace the cool modernist look that is so prevalent in most British and European kitchens. We’re still very focused on truly fitted, often “old world” inspired kitchen design with few manufacturers breaking the mold by creating “furniture for the kitchen” instead. One notable exception is Susan Serra @susanserrackd with her new line Bornholm Kitchen. 

  • Anonymous


    good designer will keep a watchful eye on installation and indeed, how
    the cabinets and other elements are made but I’m not sure how combining the
    three into an artisan Jack or Jill of all trades would work when it comes to
    working out the fee. Will designers take an installer’s hourly rate?  Will clients pay a designer’s fee for
    installation? We value different skills differently and people pay accordingly.
    Beautiful kitchens, by the way!

  • http://thekitchendesigner.tumblr.com/ Susan Serra, CKD, CAPS

    Thank you, Veronika, for the mention. Must there be one way, one philosophy, of what constitutes the “ideal” in kitchen design theory? The ideal, to me, is not that there be a particular kitchen design philosophy in terms of the creation of the room itself (whether or not artisans and others are involved in the process) but, that clients begin to take the initiative as well as contribute ample quality time to finding the kitchen design philosophy that is the best fit for them. 
    There are many tools online and offline from which one can learn, essentially, more about oneself and one’s proclivities toward an ideal (personal) kitchen theory prior to finding a kitchen design professional, even in fairly simple, general, ways, to then be communicated to designers. It works both ways, responsibilities on each side, and I’ve been a strong advocate of this concept and have written about the responsibilities of the client, which (should) begin prior to he/she picking up the phone to reach out to designers or sending off an email. Otherwise, clients may (depending on the designer) be unduly influenced by a designer’s own point of view if they have not been seriously introspective in regard to their family’s particular needs, desires, and lifestyle issues. THAT is a tragedy.

    So, the “ideal’ to me is not so much that the kitchen space be treated as a true living space (ironically, my new collection is centered around that concept; therefore, I am a designer for a niche market, I would say) but that the client does their work on the front end to sort of start from scratch to find out who they are, who they want to be, and need to be in their next kitchen….and why. 

    The client must allow time (a month, perhaps) to interview designers who are truly interested in their project, who are open minded and who have an awareness of the differences between “yes-ing” the client, pushing the client and productively introducing new concepts to the client, which is an ongoing obligation of the designer. And, most importantly, to frequently “double check” that the client truly believes in the vision he/she is communicating to the designer. It’s about communication, and communication takes effort, and time.The ideal is that there is a synergistic match of designer and client. If that means that the client has an IKEA kitchen with equal size base cabinets and upper cabinets and they feel comfortable with this design for whatever reason (sense of order/max storage/design aesthetic)….good.While speaking about designer’s sales motivations and design philosophies is an entirely different topic, and a lengthy one, with some very good points raised by Johnny, I truly believe if clients begin the process by delving deeply into their families’ needs, desires, lifestyles, cooking habits, and more, they will take a very big step toward the execution of a kitchen that is a joy to live and work in. It starts there. THAT’S my ideal start to the process.

  • Anonymous

    A good designer will keep a watchful eye on installation and indeed, how the cabinets and other
    elements are made but I’m not sure how combining the three into an artisan Jack
    or Jill of all trades would work when it comes to working out the fee. Will
    designers take an installer’s hourly rate?  Will clients pay a designer’s fee for installation? We value
    different skills differently and people pay accordingly.

    Beautiful kitchens, by the way!

  • http://twitter.com/cupboards Nick @ Cupboards

    Susan really nailed the topic in her comment- “Ideal” is all in the eye of the beholder and it’s up to the client to choose a designer wisely and for designers to be eager to provide homeowners with a space that is more in tune with the homeowner rather than adding a signature to a home a designer will never live.

  • http://www.frithrugs.co.uk oriental rugs

    Nice article.All the design are awesome but i like the design of USA and England Its great. The designers’ sales inspiration and design viewpoint is an entirely different topic. Overall point being client to have the kitchen they feel most comfortable in as long as they have fully participated in the process.Keep sharing.

  • Anonymous

    beautiful article


Sign In to Modenus

Sign in or register to save favorite items, create a portfolio, or apply to become a Modenus trade pro!

Already have a Modenus account?  Sign in here:

  1. Forgot your password?

Don't have a Modenus account?  Create one using any of these:


Forgot your password?  We'll email you instructions on how to reset it:

  1. Return to sign in

Password reset instructions have been sent to your email address you@example.com.

If you don't see them, make sure you check your spam folder!

Return to sign in

Register for a Modenus account by filling in the information below:

I accept the Terms & Conditions.

Change Your Modenus Password

Manage Your Account Settings

  1.  Email me new & changed products for the brands I follow