The holidays are here, and there's one room in the home where the tantalizing aromas of good food and the chatter of good folk converge: the kitchen.
More than mere culinary spaces, kitchens tend to embody the heart of a home. There's the messiness and mayhem of communal meal making. Perhaps some pre-bedtime snacks. It's a place where many holiday memories are made.
Yet if you've scanned the pages of decor magazines and websites in recent years, you'll have noted that the prime aspirational kitchen leans toward a serious and sleek vibe -- pro-level equipment; a super-functional layout; lots of neutral colors and clean lines.
"We've officially reached peak kitchen design. We know exactly how to make a beautiful, luxurious cooking space," Sophie Donelson writes in her new book, "Uncommon Kitchens" (Abrams, 2023).
"Many of us find ourselves reminiscing about a family kitchen from growing up; not a perfect one, not a new or luxurious one, but one in which conversations happened, food was made, life unfolded," she notes.
Donelson and other design experts say that with a measure of color, pattern and/or decor elements, we can all have a kitchen that serves up happy. A few ideas to sip and savor:
ALL THE FEELINGS
Whether our ideal kitchen is kitted out like Martha Stewart's or hasn't much more than a humble cooktop, toaster oven and melange of mugs, it's a space with many functions and moods.
Be mindful of lighting and, above all, how you use your kitchen, Donelson says.
"Lighting that feels good in the morning while you're making coffee or preparing lunches for the day is different from how you might want to feel while you're making a late-night mug of ice cream or on a relaxed Sunday evening preparing dinner with a loved one," she says.
Have a variety -- an overhead light; warm-toned, under-the-counter LED task strips.
"And I always make the case for adding a petite table lamp at the counter," Donelson says. "Mine's vintage, sits next to the toaster, doesn't take much room. But it's charming and cheerful, and it's the first thing I click on in the morning, the last to be turned off."
Researching her book, Donelson learned that many renovators were opting to add or restore windows when possible in place of tile backsplashes.
ROOM TO LET LOOSE
"Many, many people mentioned dancing in the kitchen by themselves or with their family. It's fun, and a great way to exercise!" Donelson says.
Shift tables or even islands around if you can, so there's room for a twirl. And add a great wireless sound system.
And maybe you don't need a full-service island with a stool lineup; a table of any size with chairs can be a more convivial arrangement and still be a decent workspace.
Minneapolis-based designer Lucy Penfield has put frosting-pink paint on the door of a baking area. Added snappy orange kitchen barstools. And in a family cabin, there's now a fun, sunshine yellow Smeg retro fridge for beer storage.
Color "creates a mood for the space, and can invite conversation," she says.
Cortney Bishop, who runs a design studio in Charleston, S.C., also uses playful hues. A beach cottage got seafoam-blue Big Chill appliances, and a countertop is embedded with chunks that look like sea glass.
In another kitchen, she used deep, dark color to frame windows and ground cabinetry, then added cheery notes of citrus and tomato via stools, artwork, canisters, even range knobs. The result: a space that's packed with style and personality.
John Cialone of the firm Tom Stringer Design Partners increased the energy in a Palm Springs, Calif., villa by putting Benjamin Moore's Kiwi paint color in the kitchen. "The home's mainly a weekend house, so the clients were willing to go bold on cabinetry." The vivid green is picked up elsewhere via artwork, accessories and textiles.
In his own kitchen, Cialone says, "I like bright, crisp countertops that reflect natural light and contrast with food. If I was adding color, it'd be orange, because it evokes sunshine and citrus -- two of my favorite things!"
HAVE THINGS WHERE YOU WANT THEM
Cialone loves to cook but says an organized galley kitchen's fine with him.
"I've learned I don't need a lot of counter space to prepare even elaborate meals, if the area's well laid out," he says. "Fitted drawer inserts make me very happy -- they provide a dedicated space for items I use often."
Got kids? Set up pantries with low bins for easy snack stowing. Proud of your cookbook collection? Featuring it in plain sight makes access easy, and creates a homey decor moment as well.
Entertain often? Set up task stations -- maybe a separate coffee-making zone; a mise en place counter, where you can lay out all of a dish's ingredients before cooking; a dedicated baking prep area.
Build or adapt your kitchen to suit how you will use it, designers say, rather than worrying about conventions.
After a trip to Marrakesh that "changed my life," Penfield says, she cooks a lot of Moroccan dishes. "There's nothing better than fresh cut dill or basil," she says, "but my favorite is the aroma from mint added into a Moroccan dish."
Her kitchen now features tagines, North African earthenware pots.
An art lover, Penfield has modern prints and sculptural pieces on display, including a vibrantly colored piece by Belgian painter Luc Lebon: "He's known for his cheerful, optimistic works."
She wrapped the kitchen in earthy green terracotta tiles reminiscent of ones she saw on her trip. "It was a bold move, but it just felt right."
MAKE IT A ROOM
Everyone benefits from remembering that the kitchen is also a room, Donelson says, and can be decorated with the same things we add to other spaces.
"Art, plants, a little throw rug. Something that brings you joy in another room will also do so in the kitchen," she says.
"After all, the kitchen is the real 'living room' in the house, so treat it that way!"
New York-based writer Kim Cook covers design and decor topics regularly for The Associated Press.