We used to love Formica, remember

Fancy a new look for your kitchen? Then think about tomorrow as well as today, warns Felicity Cannell

The kitchen has come a long way in the past 50 years since, after the Second World War, the lady of the house found she was going to be the one who had to work in it.

The 1940s and 1950s saw Formica and the beginning of the fitted kitchen, the 1960s introduced the stylish design detail, the 1970s were the years of "knocking through", and the 1980s saw Glenn Close and Michael Douglas bonking on the draining board in Fatal Attraction. Today the kitchen is a family room where people work and relax as well as cook and eat.

Apparently 60 per cent of women rate the kitchen as the most important room when house-hunting. This isn't necessarily because they plan to spend most of their time there: perhaps they just realise this is the most laborious and expensive room to alter.

If you do decide to change your kitchen, the possibilities are endless, with reams of magazine and advertisement space given over to ideas. But beware of going mad; you want your new kitchen to sell your house for you one day, as well as be a place to hang out at parties. So what do you choose? Tastes vary immensely of course and no matter how much time, effort and money you expend, the next person to walk into it may hate it. But there are trends, short-lived and lasting, and a classic kitchen can look fashionable today and be adaptable in the future.

So what is popular now? According to Dream Home in Chingford, which is fitting out developments in London's fashionable Docklands and Islington, the trend is for plain doors in maple, cherry or pear. Faddish sounding maybe, but these are gentle pretty woods or wood finishes, and will probably outlive pine and its "effects".

A painted "picture frame" door, Shaker-style, remains a popular choice. The beauty of these kitchens is that they can be adapted to look traditional, contemporary or ultra-modern. Stick in an Aga, a butler sink and a ceiling rack and you have a country kitchen. Choose curved stainless steel fittings, enclosed appliances and a resin work surface and you're in the 21st century. A scrolled, inlaid door with twiddly bits around the shelves is far less adaptable.

Stainless steel has become so fashionable that cheap appliances are being covered in it to look state of the art. If you're worried about being ripped off, Neff appliances are made almost exclusively in white because the company refuses to pander to fashion and is more concerned about the quality than appearance.

Modern ranges are increasingly popular as buyers struggle with their twee desires for an Aga but don't want to live in a sauna all summer. Butler sinks are still fashionable in the suburbs but are rather impractical unless a) you are short with long arms or b) you want to bath the baby in the kitchen: they are so low they cause chronic backache and so deep they take half a tank of water to fill. If you've already discovered this, do what they were doing 30 years ago; chuck it into the garden and grow pansies in it. And as for those willow baskets - what's wrong with hygienic, easy-to-clean plastic?

Prices vary enormously. You can spend pounds 1,000 or pounds 50,000 fitting out the same area. The major appliances used to be the difference between cheap and expensive but now worktops can be diamond-polished granite, at pounds 200 per metre, or laminated board at pounds 25. Handmade wall tiles from Fired Earth cost pounds 137.59 per square metre while at the The Reject Tile Shop they cost pounds 43.75.

Cheapest by far are off-the-peg kitchens from home centres such as Ikea. Self-design and assembly is no longer necessary; many stores have computer imaging to plan for the best use of space. This is invaluable; the largest kitchen can end up crammed with redundant areas of work space if designed by an amateur. And the small ads can provide a kitchen fitter at a reasonable price. Self-assembly is a saving you may want to do without once it comes to mitreing those work tops and overdosing on the mastic to fill in the gaps.

Two details not to overlook are electrics and lighting. There is no point modernising a kitchen if the old electrics cannot cope with the volume of new appliances. And apparently people over the age of 50 require at least 100 per cent more light to read by than they did when they were 20 so presumably that goes for slicing the carrots as well. Undercabinet lights could be a solution.

Another serious design fault for many kitchens in today's world of once- a-week shopping for pre-packed convenience food is fridge space versus larder space. A refrigerator disguised as one of the units might be adequate to cool a bachelor-boy's beer but is near useless for a family. Strangely enough, the fridge is never visible in glossy magazine advertisements.

When choosing a fitted kitchen purists refuse anything other than a Siematic, but there are hundreds of good alternatives. Sadly many of the selling techniques leave much to be desired. The kitchen company that sends a salesman to call has a large profit margin, so don't be afraid to haggle. Every salesman has his bottom line but it sometimes takes all evening to get there!

Fired Earth 01295 814300: Reject Tile Shop, Wandsworth Bridge Road 0171 731 6098: Dream Home 0181 531 3413: Ikea 0181 208 5600.

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