When it comes to designing kitchens, Johnny Grey is a master of his craft. He is one of the few genuine pioneers of kitchen architecture, has been designing kitchen spaces and whole home concepts around the kitchen since the 1970’s.
He is credited with the introduction of several features that are now common-place in kitchens throughout the world.
- End-grain chopping blocks adapted for domestic use with knife slots and chopping blocks (1976)
- Linking Alexander Technique to kitchen design (1981)
- Willow baskets woven into cabinetry (1982)
- The Unfitted Kitchen: the use of furniture as a key planning principle, in conjunction with hidden ergonomics (1987)
- Soft Geometry; the use of curves linked with peripheral vision understanding and body movement; (1991)
- Development of eye contact as key to kitchen design, along with the ‘driving position’ and ‘sweet spot concepts in kitchen planning (1995)
- The application of neuroscience into kitchen design, developed with John Zeisel (2006).
Johnny’s first book, The Art of Kitchen Design was published by Cassell in 1994, continues to influence kitchen architecture 20 years later and has sold over 100,000 copies. His Kitchen Workbook in 1997 spearheaded a new series of home design books by Dorling Kindersley and has now sold over 150,000 copies in 11 languages. Kitchen Culture was published by Jacqui Small in 2004, with English, American, Russian and Asian editions.
His kitchen and interior design business, Johnny Grey Studios, continues. His work can be seen all over the UK, and around the world he has projects in, for example, Ancona, Burgundy, Barbados, Cyprus, Jersey, Limerick, Melbourne, Mustique, Rome and Zurich.
More recently he has taken on the (unpaid) role of Visiting Professor of Design and Kitchen Culture at Buckinghamshire New University where he has been one of the people spearheading its new, three-year, Foundation Degree (Arts) Kitchen Design course.
The enrolment deadline for the course was Friday 5 September, and although the university did release any information about the number of students that had enrolled for the first year, the word on the campus was that it had exceeded its target well before the deadline.
Conducting an interview with the energetic and wildly enthusiastic Johnny Grey is like herding cats, but recently I managed to persuade him to be the first victim for my new ‘5 Questions For’… series of interviews. As he has been at the forefront of Buckinghamshire New University’s kitchen design course, my questions were pointed at this aspect of his work.
Grahame Morrison: Why are you bothering to be involved with this degree course when clearly you are a very busy person?
Johnny Grey: I want to share with others the knowledge I’ve acquired in designing kitchens all these years, and the fun this can be as a career. The kitchen is a space in which to exercise many skills, from using the view through a new window, subverting the architecture to make the room bigger, playing with spatial design (grown-up Lego), discovering the extraordinarily rich history of furniture, exploring people’s eccentric habits of cooking, use of colour, lighting design, using paint and pattern, and understanding each client’s original way of life and behaviour. I also think the kitchen is not just the room that is key to good living, but also the door to something richer and deeper.
My wife thinks my passion is deep-rooted – focusing on the kitchen is like going home to where you were secure as a child, a safe haven. Enthusiasm for the fine things in life is not a crime, whatever!
GM: Some have criticised the degree course as elitist and, at £15,000 for the full 3-year course, expensive. How would you personally answer these criticisms?
JG: I love this! It is so the opposite. An average three-year university course in England now costs around £40,000. With ours you can stay in your job, pay as you go. If you added the cost of not working to a typical student’s expense they would rack up an opportunity cost of around £100,000. And answer is this: would you want the course to be any cheaper? What are these critics expecting – teaching by DIY manuals, supported by a call centre? We also have a high proportion of students on bursaries. We have had tremendous support from the industry. (Do check out the university at www.bucks.ac.uk if you want to apply next year).
GM: Having just sat through the judging of this year’s Designer Kitchen & Bathroom Awards, I can confirm that good design is already alive and well in the kitchen and bathroom markets. Is there a need for a degree course?
JG: This is a good question but with a misguided conclusion. Yes there is excellent design. A relatively small number of mostly high-end kitchen companies deliver, but check where this good design really comes from. Its source is likely to be highly (university) -trained designers like architects, or from those who have studied the disciplines of product, interior or furniture design. Imagine the fashion industry pledging to use untrained designers to put collections together!
I don’t buy the argument that kitchen design does not need skill or can be self-taught. That plays down our industry’s undoubted value. A few very gifted individuals might be able to teach themselves the necessary range of skills, but they do not make up the numbers and anyway they too have to learn from someone. And I don’t buy that training kills creativity. Everything depends on the quality of the teaching and curriculum on our course. We will be judged by our students at the end of the day, as on any other degree course.
GM: Many of your fellow independent kitchen specialists currently do not make an obvious charge for their design service and see it as a part of the overall package they offer to clients. Do you think this will change once there are ‘proper qualified’ kitchen designers?
JG: A good issue to raise. I would like the industry to move towards charging because it would enable us to offer more sophisticated design services, rather than a fairly basic programme of selling. This is vital for the future if kitchen designers are going to compete with architects and interior designers for work.
Whether design studios offer a one-stop shop, a 3G kitchen or Life-Course space (terms for three-generational kitchens that cater for the widest age range of user, from child to 90 year old, and includes provision for short-term disability), the scope and economic value of the sale can be widened. This is a perfect way to provide customers with better service and increase revenue.
GM: Do you think we will get to a point where consumers look first to see if their kitchen designer is qualified rather than what this month’s special offer is?
JG: Price discounting is a weapon that is always on the table but savvy people will see the advantage of employing someone who offers multiple services – like lighting design or organising a new window to let in more sunlight. This way the customer will be much more likely to end up with an emotionally durable kitchen they won’t wish to throw out after a few years.
More of us now listen to our instincts than ever before because the way we live now revolves around our kitchens. Living rooms are so twentieth century!