A Kitchen to Comfort Your Soul

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A Kitchen to Comfort Your Soul

“You can tell a lot about a person from their kitchen,” says Johnny Grey, an award-winning interior designer specializing in “happy kitchens,” a design philosophy that focuses on bringing emotional, physical and psychological well-being into kitchen planning.

“A kitchen is no longer just for cooking. Often, the only time a couple will spend together awake, is in the kitchen,” says the British architect, whose clients include Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, British singer Sting and millionaire publisher Felix Dennis.

Mr. Grey, who started out designing kitchens for his late aunt, the influential British food writer Elizabeth David, takes an unusual approach to interior design. He and his team spend up to 80 hours with clients, understanding what makes them tick, often going round for dinner and even staying over at their home. His aim? To create a domestic utopia tailored to their personality, using the principles of neuroscience, or the scientific study of the nervous system, to answer their emotional needs and subliminal desires, as well as building a seamlessly practical kitchen. It appears to work.

“Johnny’s designs are completely unique and incredibly aesthetically pleasing,” says Ron Baker, whose kitchen was redesigned by Mr. Grey 10 years ago. “You feel so at ease when you enter the room, it is hard to leave.” The director of British venture-capital firm Arkbe was so delighted with the outcome, he commissioned the designer to renovate his office as well. The new space is a nod to Mr. Baker’s connections with the metal industry; the table legs in the boardroom are melded from twisted stainless steel.

Johnny GreyA modern take on Aga side cabinets in a Bath kitchen;

In today’s straitened times, Mr. Grey’s techniques may sound like a gimmick. But the well-being of the household depends on surroundings triggering the right cues to help people relax, says the designer.

John Ziesel, a San Diego-based neuroscientist at the Salk Institute, meanwhile, is researching what he refers to as measurement-based design, which shows how spaces can shape our behavior. He uses everything from hormone studies, brain scans and targeted psychological experiments to foster his research. “A kitchen is a space loaded with emotional and behavioral cues,” he says. “Neuroscience can help us understand what goes on behind the shiny surfaces and layout of kitchen cabinetry.”

He points to the increasing reliance on neuroscience as a happiness index in politics, education and the workplace. “Academics and politicians alike increasingly emphasize the value of the happiness quotient,” Mr. Ziesel says. “Our surroundings inevitably impact our well-being, and the kitchen, where most of us spend most of our time, should induce those primitive feelings of sociability and comfort.”

Take for example, Mr. Grey’s floorplans for the kitchen of Sir Cameron Mackintosh, the British theater doyen. The culinary area is built in a circular shape reminiscent of an open stage, where Sir Cameron can perform for guests while cooking them dinner. The dishwasher is located close to the dining table, so that, quid pro quo, guests can clear their own plates.

“We act as a mirror—we hold up ideas that might have been circulating in their heads and bring them to the surface,” says Mr. Grey. He believes combining design with psychology and neuroscience produces a more satisfactory result than an off-the-shelf fitted kitchen. As you might expect, a kitchen fine-tuned to your subliminal fancies doesn’t come cheap. Prices for a Johnny Grey kitchen vary between £60,000 and £250,000, depending on materials used and time spent.

A good starting point in creating a happy kitchen, according to Mr. Grey, is discovering what he calls the “sweet spot.” “You know, your favorite perching point from where you have views over the table, landscape, entrance or fireplace, while preparing a meal.”

Leaning or perching places encourage conversation, says Mr. Grey, making them a crucial place in a thriving kitchen—a perk for both cook and companions. Dedicated work surfaces must be neither too long nor too short, while an enclosed space at the cook’s back makes preparing food more relaxing. Mood-enhancing décor—color, textures, shapes and art—are essential finishing touches; luxurious materials like Carrera marble, oiled oak and Ancaster stone are de rigeur, adds the designer. Custom-made cabinets are curved at a precise radius—where possible, a table should “follow the sun’s arc.” Design faux pas are anything that induces feelings of stress. Sharp corners, a hemmed-in work surface, or jutting cupboards can all trigger the release of cortisol, a hormone related to panic.

Other designers are adopting similar ideas and principles. Award-winning Swedish architect Martin Brudnizki, who has designed for luxury restaurants including Scott’s, The Club at The Ivy and a number of private residences, reckons one thing connects a person with a room above all else: “It’s all about light,” he says. “Even the most beautifully designed rooms will leave you empty if badly lit.”

On returning to his apartment after early morning workouts, he often felt deflated. “Out of habit I always left the lights blazing, but it made the atmosphere of the rooms flat,” he says. “Then I started to dim the lights, which created a better mood. This made the start of my day much more enjoyable.” Splashes of color and a smorgasbord of artwork are also on Mr. Brudnizki’s list of “happy kitchen” design must-haves.

But happiness doesn’t have to be limited to the kitchen, says Mr. Grey. He recalls showing a prospective client around one of his kitchens in London’s Knightsbridge neighborhood. The kitchen has a corner cupboard with large, curvaceous columns running up each side. “She started stroking the columns in an embarrassing way and I couldn’t drag her away. I had to apologize to the owner,” he says.

A week later, the client came back and asked him to design a four-poster bed, not a kitchen. “She loved the sensuality of the cupboard and felt our designs were more appropriate for the bedroom.”