The Nook Look

Pity the stool! Kitchen designers think outside the island for new eat-in environs


Published by: Arizona Republic, October 22, 2007

Bridget Bresnahan has seen the future of the ubiquitous kitchen island. And it looks, surprisingly, like a booth at the 5 & Diner.

“Recently, I asked my designer to come up with some new kitchen ideas,” said Bresnahan, owner of Roma Designs in Scottsdale, a shop specializing in the latest Italian kitchen cabinets and fixtures. “And she designed an island that featured a benched seating area, instead of the bar stools you’d normally see along the counter.”

Initially, Bresnahan nixed the idea. “It just wasn’t practical,” she said. “She wanted to use a black lacquer that would get all scratched up too easily.”

But then Bresnahan attended the annual awards banquet held by the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID), and noted that two of the awards for best contemporary kitchen design went to configurations that, curiously, updated the classic Naugahyde nook concept of the early 60’s.

“It’s a return to this idea of where the dining room’s part of the kitchen,” Bresnahan said. “Where it’s easy to get up and get a pot off the burner, or slide up off the bench and go for seconds. I do think there’s a developing trend toward innovating the island beyond what it’s been for the last several years.”

Indeed, the classic kitchen nook concept is enjoying something of a revival, as well as some long-denied artistic recognition. This summer, a visual arts exhibit at the venerable Seattle Center, home to the 1962 World’s Fair, featured a detailed recreation of a coffee shop nook done by a Canadian artist collective. Titled “Nooks: If You Lived Here, You’d Be Home by Now,” the stark wooden table with high-back benches, looking out on a window sill over a small Sony TV, included a sign defining the style: “A nook design shouts, ‘I have room for four! Maybe six!’”

It’s a cozy arrangement that’s now beginning to appear in some of the poshest custom homes in the northeast Valley. Scottsdale businessman John Scherer, of Video Professor fame, enjoys holding meetings in his nook, a king-sized booth just to the side of the kitchen where coffee-sipping executives can dangle their feet like Lily Tomlin’s Edith Ann character. Bulthrap, the hip German kitchen design firm that recently opened an appointment-only showroom in Scottsdale, offers a new product line that features, in a configuration designed for compact rooms, a light wood dining table flanked by a long matching bench along the wall.

Modern updates of the eat-in kitchen, where the seating is more ergonomical for comfortable dining and the eating space is more integrated with the work areas, is really where Bresnahan sees things going.

“I wouldn’t say that it’s mainstream right now,” said Bresnahan. “But I would say that people are looking to alternatives to the standard island, which is by now getting a little bit blasé. People are looking for different elevations of the island, so you have two or three different levels going on.”

A certain sociology is at work, too, recapturing the kitchen’s place as the unofficial meeting place for the family but deliberately slowing down the interactions, so those hurried how-you-do’s, normally served to kids bouncing off bar stools as fast as the toaster pops up a pastry, have time to sit in.

Such an arrangement, posits the Seattle nook exhibit, communicates it’s “time to take a break and hang out with each other.” While the kitchen has long been acknowledged as the heart of the home, it’s been decades since designs featured comfortable seating. A nook or banquette – traditionally a long “L” or “U” shaped upholstered seating area – offers a concentrated space for social interaction that feels at once inviting yet exclusive, like the family’s special booth at Durant’s.

Certain manufacturers, like Chicago-based CityLiving, are going deliberately retro with the trend, offering residential buyers circle booths featuring a string of big white diamonds sewn into black vinyl upholstery – a style that might well make you look for framed Brown Derby-style caricatures of the family members on the walls.

Others, like Bresnahan’s Scavolini-dominated showroom, are looking for ways to bring the cozy concept of the banquette or nook into the 21st century.

“Right now, it’s more of a traditional look – which is not something that we focus on,” she said. “But I’m definitely going to be looking at it.”

Another concern for Arizona designers, Bresnahan says, are the materials commonly associated with the style. Upholstered Naugahyde may look cool on stylish retro TV shows like AMC’s “Mad Men,” but you wouldn’t want that material sticking to your skin on a Valley summer.

“Bench seating can be cute and clever,” said Bresnahan. “But it may not be the way to go here.”


Photos courtesy Copenhagen Imports, Armstrong

If you aren't ready to commit to a built-in banquette, this set gives you the look. With microfiber fabric, it washes easily. Called the Silass from K+W Krauss & Weinnber, it's available at Copenhagen Imports for $3,850.

A built-in banquette with storage underneath that snuggles up against the kitchen island is one way to maximize space in a small kitchen.