Drawing on Eastern Asian Elements

For nearly 20 years, homeowners have been removing walls between kitchens and family rooms or between kitchens and dining rooms, creating spaces that more closely fit our changing culture. Lifestyle changes demand that, for most, the kitchen be at the core of family activities.

Taking a look at global design, past and present may offer insights for a new paradigm. Eastern Asian, both Chinese and Japanese, focus on harmony and balance as keys to creating spaces of beauty, health and happiness. In an effort to seek peace from our fast-paced lives and with the increase of global communication, the ancient influences of Zen and Feng Shui are giving us a new perspective on design in our daily lives.

Natural balance
From Taoism, the Chinese developed the principles of Feng Shui (wind and water). To achieve harmony with the energies (both animate and inanimate) of the cosmos, Feng Shui's goal is to balance or channel the elements in our daily lives and our natural and man-made environment. The desired result is a home environment (interior and exterior) that is balanced and nurtures good health, happiness and wealth.

While the Japanese culture has strong roots in China, Japan created its own distinctive cultural and aesthetic form in art and architecture, as a result of periods of isolation. Zen Buddhism and the aesthetic sense of beauty as defined during the 9th through the 12th centuries combined to form a design sensibility based on balance, harmony, proportion and purity of line. Simplicity of form and natural materials has been evident in homes and furnishings over the centuries.

Traditional and contemporary Chinese and Japanese religious philosophies and the resulting aesthetic manifestations that have developed over the centuries have resonance for today's kitchens.

A kitchen that has good Feng Shui would be first and foremost devoid of clutter. The entire kitchen would be clean, fresh and bright. Open shelves, therefore, would be kept to a minimum, with matching china or glassware visible. Display items would also be limited. The location of doors and the relationship between the sink, refrigerator (water elements) and the stove (fire element) is critical, and would be situated so as not be in conflict.

Counters would be curved to preserve good financial health. Interestingly enough, the colors that are most beneficial are those that are quite prevalent today: white, yellow and a minimal amount of dark blue or black. Stainless steel is recommended for the sink, and refrigerators would best be in white, stainless steel, blue or green.

Wood or tile flooring would be the most acceptable. Windows and plants are highly recommended.

European and Japanese design, combined with technologically engineered materials, make the minimalist kitchen a statement of choice for many. Materials enhance clean lines, strong linear statements and geometric forms. Unusual wood species, metals, glass and stone are used in open and often unadorned forms, allowing the beauty of the material to take center stage. New use of high-grade plastics adds accent and color, as does dramatic and unusual lighting. High-grade, flat-panel doors with minimal or no hardware emphasizes proportion and form. The same is true for counter surfaces, ideally of steel, concrete or stone. Preparation and cooking centers are as much inviting socializing hubs as "work centers."

The effect of screens is often created literally with the use of paper screens, designed to partially separate large open kitchen and living areas. Lighting again can change the mood and atmosphere of the space. Screen-like patterns are also evident in cabinetry design, window treatments and wall panels.

Water elements and mini Zen-like garden elements are appearing within the kitchen, adding peace and serenity to a place of nourishment. Large expanses of windows open to Japanese influenced gardens cross the divide between exterior and interior space. On a smaller scale, the Japanese influence of natural materials in accent pieces can provide textural contrast to a kitchen.

Interior & Design Ideas
From the Chinese, design elements include:

  • "Floor-level living," low tables, no chairs; or some chairs and tables with elaborate carvings.
  • Furnishings illustrating purity of form, and often lacquered.
  • Symbolic, calligraphic, natural and abstract patterns, often telling a story.
  • Strong use of color.
  • Symbolic use of color.
  • Early carving and painting on natural materials to change nature.
  • Heavy use of metal.
  • Pottery (red clay and porcelain).
  • Paper.
  • Highly ornamented lanterns.
  • Silk and development of elaborate embroidery.
  • Use of bamboo, cane and reed in utilitarian objects.

From the Japanese, design elements include:

  • Sliding shoji screens as dividers.
  • Tatami mats as floor coverings.
  • "Floor-level living;" low tables lacquered for work, eating and heating (with sunken hot plates); no chairs or seating on cushions.
  • Symbolic, calligraphic, natural and abstract patterns often telling a story.
  • Natural colors with limited use of primary colors.
  • Symbolic use of color.
  • Early carving and painting on natural materials to change nature.
  • Later influence of nature in pure form and material.
  • Metal ores not prevalent in Japan.
  • Development of paper crafts.
  • Simple lanterns.
  • Simplified, less elaborate Kimono.
  • Use of bamboo, cane and reed in utilitarian objects.
Mary Jo Peterson
Mary Jo Peterson is president of Mary Jo Peterson, Inc., a Connecticut-based design firm that focuses on residential projects and provides design support to major homebuilders nationwide. She is a certified kitchen and bath designer with 15 years experience, and her work has earned national recognition. With specific expertise in universal design, Mary Jo has authored three books on the subject and is a frequent national speaker and educator. McGraw-Hill published her latest book, Gracious Spaces; Universal Interiors by Design, in July 1999.

National Kitchen & Bath Association
The content of this article is provided courtesy of the National Kitchen & Bath Association (NKBA). At www.NKBA.org, you'll find an inspiration gallery of award-winning kitchen and bath designs from NKBA members, complete with photos and floorplans. In addition, this consumer website offers articles and tips written specifically for homeowners, an extensive glossary of kitchen and bath remodeling terms, and illustrations and explanations of kitchen and bath planning guidelines. There, you can also e-mail questions to the NKBA's kitchen and bath experts, as well as order a free copy of the NKBA Kitchen & Bath Workbook.