The problem with the living room in Mark and Jeanette Jedele's Plymouth home was that it wasn't where they really lived.

It was just "wasted space," says Jeanette, a human resources director at General Mills. Instead, the Jedeles' daily lives revolve around their kitchen.

"It's where everyone congregates, so we'd have eight people and it was tight," says Mark.

That's not an unusual complaint, says interior designer Christine Nelson, who helped the Jedeles rethink their living space. She points to a growing trend in the way American families are using their homes: "People are spending more and more time in their kitchens."

The old layout of the Jedeles' first floor was simply too compartmentalized, with a wall between the kitchen and dining room.


(Mark Ehlen)

The 15-foot island becomes a convenient buffet area for large-group entertaining. Below, more than a dozen drawers make up for the loss of cabinetry around the stove.

“And we do a lot of large-group entertaining,” Jeanette says, “so the dining room wasn't big enough.”

Contractor Eric Gustafson cites that as a common problem in many suburban houses built in the 1980s and 1990s.“Dividing off the dining room,” he says, only ends up “creating this claustrophobic dining room and this undersized kitchen.”

A solution is to open things up and create one long room.

That was particularly true for the Jedeles. With three teenage daughters, the family frequently hosts entire soccer teams after games. And since all five Jedeles cook, the kitchen doesn't just serve a social function. It gets put to real work. “

Jeanette loves to cook. She wanted this kitchen where she could cook and entertain,” Nelson says. “She got this huge range and cooktop — everything was super-sized for the professional kitchen. It was her dream kitchen, for being the chef she'd like to be.”

The new space is all about openness and creating a flow between the dining room, family room and patio that centers around the kitchen.

The kitchen was expanded into a full-size galley, freeing it to take up its role as the most important room of the house. It's now the nexus of an open area that can comfortably fit several dozen guests.The old diningroom area was absorbed into the kitchen space, and the former living room now contains the formal dining table. 

“There was kind of a swap between the rooms to create this long kitchen,” Gustafson says.

The space around the range and cooktop is uncluttered by cabinetry, surrounded instead with an eye-catching tile backsplash covering the whole wall.

Just off the main food prep area is the new dining room, which is furnished with easy chairs for Jeanette's parents, who are frequent visitors, and with a piano.

(Mark Ehlen)

A long tile backsplash behind the stove adds openness and color to the kitchen's cooking area, designed for daily use by serious chefs.

Tying the whole room together is a daringly large, 15-foot center island, topped with granite. On one end of the island, a wider area gives extra food-prep space. But when a soccer team stops by, the whole 15- foot length serves as a buffet area. Guests can conveniently load their plates, then mingle in the adjoining family room or outdoor patio.

“That's the longest bar that we've ever put in, or seen designed in a kitchen,” says Gustafson, who admits that it “was a concern at the start that the bar would be too huge. But with the space that's there, it worked perfectly. It's just the right size.”

The island also has a raised glass bar that seats four guests, who can relax and chat with the chefs without getting in their way. It also serves a crucial design need, Nelson says.

“Since we had this huge 15-foot island, to do a raised bar, it would end up feeling like the Great Wall of China,” she says.“We needed something to break it up, but I wanted it to feel light and open and airy.”

Although the kitchen incorporates plenty of cabinets (made by Minnesota company Dura Supreme) near the refrigerator, they're absent near the cooktop.

Nelson took inspiration for this from European design concepts.

“Americans tend to want to fill up every single wall with cabinets,” she says. ”But if the cabinets are efficient, you don't need as many. I really wanted to leave space for the massive stove and hood with no wall cabinets and give it that punch of color with tile.”

Mark admits to early skepticism about losing the cabinet space: “It's kind of different. It's not what I thought about originally, but (Nelson) said, ‘No, no, you can do that.'”

In fact, Nelson's design, rather than losing the cabinets, relocated them. “If I took away storage, I tried to give it back to her in a bigger and better and more efficient way,” Nelson says.

An appliance garage in one corner, 36 inches deep, easily accommodates items like mixers and food processors, reducing clutter on the counters to zero. And the island itself picks up the rest of the slack with more than a dozen drawers.

(Mark Ehlen)

Left of the island, a round table made of the same black granite forms a much-used secondary dinner table for the family and looks out onto their backyard patio.

“That is really cool,” Mark says. “We love the drawers. All our everyday stuff is down there, the glasses, plates. It's really easy to get it in and out. It works fantastic.”

One big reason for the success of the redesign was that the Jedeles weren't just passive participants. “You have to have your own ideas,” Jeanette says. “You have to think, how are you going to use the space?”

The Jedeles sketched their initial ideas on paper, mocked up 3D models in cardboard, and researched what kind of brackets they'd need to hold up the glass bar on the island.

“It was fun,” Nelson says. “When a customer has an interest or an artistic skill, I like to pull that in and use a team approach.”

Mark and Jeanette also found the island's unusual black stone top.

“I think I looked at every slab of granite in the greater Twin Cities area,” Jeanette says, laughing. “I was looking for something very specific, and as soon as I saw this, I knew it's what I wanted.We knew we wanted a really dark, rich feel, but we didn't want something boring.”

They settled on a Brazilian stone called Cosmic Black, found through local company Cold Spring Granite and crafted by local fabricators Minnesota Tile and Stone.

The Jedeles credit Nelson with encouraging them “not to be afraid of color,” says Jeanette.

“That's not our forte,” Mark says. “It was nice to have her walk us along.”

Nelson loves to use bold colors where she can, but in this case, something more sedate felt right.

“You have to blend it with the other rooms, too,” Nelson says. “So we went more with earth tones, with greens and oranges for the accessories. It was a pretty neutral palette, and then a couple of pops of color. It's a safe way to go, because they can change the accessories, and paint is easy to change, too.”

Gustafson calls the project “a total success.”

It has worked so well, in fact, that the kitchen is even more central to the Jedele family's daily routine than they had expected. The island's glass bar, conveniently situated for laptop computers, isn't just a guest space: “The kids do their homework there all the time,” says Mark, who owns an industrial crating business and a financial consulting practice. “I would not have guessed that. That's their regular perch.”

Jeanette agrees. “We expected it to open up the space and be the gathering area, but it worked even better than we thought it would. Because if the girls are home and we're home, we're all right here.”

Christopher Bahn is a Twin Cities freelance writer.

(Mark Ehlen)

A raised glass bar seating four not only gives the long kitchen island a much-needed visual break but also has become a favorite homework area for the family's three teenage daughters.
(Mark Ehlen)

Formerly hulking between kitchen and dining room, the refrigerator was moved to the opposite wall, which allowed the entire first floor to be opened up. To the left, a deep appliance garage eliminates countertop clutter.