Three examples show how to make the heart of the home more functional, airy, and stylish

Warm and modern
In this Orinda, California, kitchen, chatting with the cook is easy and comfortable: There’s a built-in couch right near the range. It’s one of the highlights of a remodel that opened up a 300-square-foot kitchen. The kitchen was formerly part of a long corridor that connected the living room with a small breakfast room. One wall of the kitchen hid a stairway.

Architect Lindy Small extended the kitchen into the former breakfast room so there would be more space to chop, cook, and spread out appliances in an L-shaped layout. This change allowed her to open up the stairway, turning the railings into an architectural feature and dramatically expanding the space. The new kitchen is about 430 square feet.

The railings and the cabinet that forms the back of the couch establish a subtle horizontal banding that repeats throughout the kitchen, helping to unify the space.

Design: Lindy Small Architecture, Oakland, CA (510/251-1066) 

With the couch at its center, the sitting area plays many roles for a busy family. It has a desk for a home office or homework center, room for a small television in the end cabinets, hidden storage in pullout drawers beneath the cushions, and storage and display areas on the outside faces of the 44-inch-tall cabinet screening the end of the couch.

Sliding doors made of vertical-grain fir and sandblasted glass create a simple and elegant camouflage for the pantry beside the stairway.

Natural woods reinforce the feeling of warmth. The breakfast table and couch surround are mahogany, most cabinet fronts are beech, and walnut is used as an accent for a cabinet built into the stair railing. Bamboo flooring adds lightness.

The almost graphic clarity of the design continues overhead with white-painted beams that stand out against an unpainted wood ceiling.