It's popularly accepted that the modern-day kitchen is the heart of the home. That heart, however, used to be much smaller.
As recently as 50 years ago, kitchens in the United States were primarily thought of as efficient, closed-off and back-of-house spaces solely focused on food preparation and dish washing. These days, kitchens are often a highly visible component of open-house plan concepts, places where guests are entertained and kids do their homework.
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Some even sport televisions and surround-sound systems that easily bring total price tags north of $100,000. And because we now spend so much more time there, most real estate agents will tell you that an updated kitchen is one of the biggest pluses any home on the market can have, especially if it's well done.
But even if you're not interested in selling your house, a kitchen renovation is worth considering. An outdated, poorly functioning kitchen can be an energy sucking, eyesore that makes meal preparation and entertaining pure drudgery.
Remodeling experts generally concur that a well-done kitchen renovation can deliver an average return of 60 to 80 percent on your investment, making that space one of the smartest in your home to work on.
Today's kitchens are integrated, hardworking spaces, and keeping them updated is an exercise in function and aesthetics. With that in mind, take a look at the following innovations, which aim to deliver on both performance and design in the hopes of serving up smiles all the way around.
• One of the biggest changes in kitchens to emerge in the past 20 years has been the dominance of professional-grade, stainless-steel appliances. Dacor, one of the most innovative names in appliances, has taken the professional-grade stainless range several steps forward with the world's first smart range for the home. Merging our love affair with technology with our passion for convenience, Dacor developed and created the Discovery iQ 48-inch dual-fuel range, which features an integrated, wirelessly connected tablet and a proprietary control panel dubbed the Dacor iQ Controller.
Along with another innovation called the Dacor iQ Cooking Application, this technology aims to make cooking foolproof for challenged chefs everywhere. The cooking application allows the user to effortlessly download recipes, get cooking advice and watch tutorials all while standing at the range. And a preprogrammed guide assists with cooking many dishes, cueing the range to automatically change over to warming mode when food is finished, and alerting you via text message.
To top it off, this dual-fuel range has a gas cooktop and two electric ovens loaded with 10 cooking modes, including pure convection sear, surround bake, max broil and, of course, the more familiar bake and broil. I'm a time-challenged perfectionist so I think a range texting me when it's done cooking my family meal is pure genius. I'm also design-sensitive so I'm equally enthralled that this range is so sharp looking. I wish it had wheels so that I could cruise to the grocery store in it. I often lament about how intrusive technology has become on our lives but this is not one of those situations.
• Kitchen surfaces can take a beating so it's no surprise that they've also seen so many innovations. Countertops and floors are called the workhorses of the kitchen for a reason. Anything and everything goes on them, and we stubbornly insist that they take a pounding while we cook and effortlessly transition to beautiful surfaces when we entertain.
In the world of countertops, some of the best innovations are coming from Minnesota-based Cambria. Cambria surfaces are American-made, natural stone products created by combining pure quartz with small amounts of pigment and resin to produce an end-product that is both strong and nonporous. For years, the gold standard for countertop durability has been granite, which typically has a 40 to 60 percent quartz content.
Cambria's 93 percent quartz content translates into stronger surfaces that appear just like granite or virtually any other natural stone (about 100 styles are available) while also being maintenance-free. By comparison, granite requires periodic resealing to prevent absorption of liquids and other material that can both stain and promote bacteria growth.
• Floors are the other workhorse in the kitchen, and lately, both designers and consumers have universally moved toward either a natural wood or stone aesthetic. These natural materials are unquestionably beautiful but require occasional maintenance, even in less-trafficked and drier rooms than a kitchen.
To address the demand for durability, low maintenance, slip resistance and the look of high-end natural materials, flooring experts such as Ceramic Technics point to the latest in glazed, Italian porcelain doppelgangers that look like wood and stone but require little or no maintenance. When the floor is laid down in planks, it can be virtually impossible to visually tell the difference.
If you've always wanted durable wood floors in your kitchen, consider Ceramic Technic's Sienna Crosscut Wood tile, which aesthetically delivers the fashionable crosscut section of the tree in durable 9-by-36-inch porcelain planks. If stone flooring better suits your taste, look to Ceramic Technic's Sienna Stone Plank tile, which blends authentic-looking reproductions of several stones into one unique color. With surface innovations like these, demanding aesthetics and low maintenance can really go hand-in-hand.
• Even if you're not looking for a major overhaul, a simple facelift, done correctly, can extend the aesthetic life of your kitchen for years to come. Among the easiest of procedures is updating your cabinet and associated room hardware. It's the equivalent of sprucing up an old suit with a new tie.
Crystal and geometrics are two of the biggest design trends today, and they can both be found in some stunning hardware offerings by Emtek, a true hardware innovator. Emtek's Modern Disc and Modern Square Crystal Knobs offer your hand a smooth, clear, and unadorned way to ratchet up the elegance every time you open a kitchen door.
Their pure shapes make them suitable for almost any design style and their reflective quality will make you feel privileged to load the pantry.
And in case your cabinet doors and drawers need a little attention, take a look at the bold geometric lines of Emtek's Alexander Pull and Brass Geometric Knob. Both are notable for feeling current and timeless simultaneously and are manufactured from high-grade materials that will endure.
As for finishes, all are available in oil-rubbed bronze, satin nickel, polished nickel and polished chrome. Finish trends come and go, so just make sure that your cabinet hardware, door hardware and light-fixture finishes emanate from the same color family to tie a thread around your design choices.
Don't worry about mixing non-stainless-steel hardware with your stainless-steel appliances, which serve as a neutral backdrop that frees you to make other finish choices without matching concerns.
Today's kitchen really has cemented itself as the heart of an increasingly busy home, so it's worthwhile to consider the occasional update, remodel or overhaul. Luckily, with today's innovative products, you can create a space that is highly functional and stylish.
• Vern Yip is an interior designer and star of "Bang for Your Buck" and "Live in Vern's House," which debuts on HGTV in June.