Property: The kitchens of distinction

Directions: Katherine Sorrell looks at the trend away from fitted units to furniture that promises greater flexibility
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Would you take your kitchen with you when you moved house? Undoubtedly not. The concept of the unfitted kitchen is, though, not unusual in Europe, where the unfurnished rented sector is a great deal larger than in Britain. Rather than rows of identical cabinets screwed to walls, the continental preference is for free-standing cupboards, open shelves, racks and worktops on wheels, all of which can be packed and taken to a new home.

And in this country, as the increasing popularity of converted industrial buildings pushes us into a radical rethink of how we use our living spaces, along with a backlash against the impersonal excesses of the Eighties fitted- kitchen movement, there is a swing towards the more free-spirited, improvisational and individual style of kitchen design.

Not that the fitted kitchen is likely to lose its popular appeal. It is efficient and ergonomic (usually) and relatively low-cost. At the top end of the market, however, more people are having kitchens designed for them that depart from the standard sizes and finishes, while the movers and shakers are instigating a look that incorporates wire racks, office- type units, sinks on legs and giant American-style fridge-freezers, as seen in the pages of Elle Decoration and Wallpaper, the style bibles.

In the mass middle sector there is also a rise in the popularity of semi- fitted kitchens, where matching units are combined with free-standing pieces such as dressers and plate racks.

"While more than 90 per cent of all kitchens sold in the UK could be termed fitted, consumers at many levels of the market are very keen to introduce unfitted elements to their kitchen," confirms Graham Hayden, the chief executive of the Kitchen Specialists Association. He notes that at the Cologne Furniture Fair in January, the influential German kitchen manufacturers are set to introduce elements such as decorative end panels that will make it easier to use their products as free-standing items. It is a step that is bound to be copied.

Such a shift in thinking could please nobody more than Johnny Grey, a leading kitchen designer and keen exponent of the unfitted, or what he calls "sociable" style. He developed his concept of "the unfitted kitchen" (he even has a copyright on the term) 21 years ago, and 11 years later developed the "Unfitted Kitchen" for Smallbone of Devizes, comprising a range of 1,700 pieces that enables the customer to approach furnishing the kitchen in much the same way as a living room or bedroom.

"So much has gone wrong with kitchen design in the last 30 years," says Mr Grey. "In terms of cost the fitted kitchen is successful. In terms of comfort it is not. How can yards of melamine ruthlessly repeated in the same geometric configuration and colour produce a palate comfortable enough to embrace the many uses we expect from a contemporary kitchen?"

A deviation from the norm of factory-made, purpose-built units will, he says, bring variety and personality, a feeling of spaciousness and a great deal of adaptability, essential in these days when we use kitchens not just for cooking but also for entertaining, watching television, children's homework and a myriad of other activities.

He compares kitchen design with a painter's technique, balancing colour, shapes, texture, tone, mass, movement and light, which is hard when you are working with a straight line of uniformly shaped boxes. But bring in curving lines, different-height surfaces, unusual handles, displays of coloured crockery on open shelving, glass-fronted cupboards, and surprising combinations of materials - such as metal with MDF, ceramics with stainless steel, glass with granite - and you have the answer.

"A mixture of free-standing items with a judicious use of built-in pieces can result in a practical design with relaxing features," he says. What is more, he adds, although accepted wisdom has it that fitted kitchens make the most effective use of space, unfitted units such as full-height cupboards can give more room for storage while freeing up the floor area for circulation or another piece of furniture.

At the cutting edge of design in unfitted kitchens is a retro look, the ideal complement to the Dualit toaster, Waring blender and other style- conscious kitchen kits. Zeyko, for example, a German company renowned for being at the forefont of market developments, offers Mondo, a streamlined 1950s-style range in colours including pale turquoise, light yellow and dove blue, with solid or glass doors and chromed handles. Meanwhile Scottwood, a Nottingham manufacturer, has just launched its 1950s Cabinet Retro Kitchen, featuring sliding glass doors, open display cabinets and a tallboy with a drop-down door. Even Habitat has launched a free-standing set of kitchen components with white laminate surfaces, frosted glass doors and stainless steel handles. Where Habitat leads, others are bound to follow, and in a few years, when asked whether you'll take your kitchen with you when you move, your answer may be yes.