Soul Food: Or How to Give Your Kitchen More Soul

07/11/2012 07:10 pm ET | Updated Oct 11, 2012

When it comes to setting up kitchens, even the best-designed kitchen is unpleasant to be in if it is cold and sterile. And even the worst designed kitchen provides comfort if it has a sense of soul. I know several people with dream kitchens that they don't dare let get splattered with food. And I know one (non-cooking) woman with a kitchen the size of an elevator that is so crammed full of knick knacks and paddywacks that just getting a glass of water requires a battle plan. Yet she has somehow managed to defy every kitchen design rule and lick of common sense and still come out with a room you want to curl up in because her warm and happy soul is clearly right smack dab in the midst of all that colorful culinary clutter.

The secret to soul in a kitchen is not in what you buy and put into it, but in how you make room for people and nature to come into it. Bringing nature into your kitchen connects you to the source of all food, assuming it's not in the form of bacteria and germs (though let's face it, if your kitchen is as sterile as a science lab you'd might as well serve your food in Petri dishes; food and the preparation and consumption of it are biological processes. You can't eat another life form without encountering some life.)

Good kitchens and good souls have one fundamental feature: a sense of well-worn space. Just as a good soul knows how to use its spiritual space, a good kitchen knows how to use its physical space. And both are challenging to achieve in most cases. Far too often the kitchens we have to work with have insufficient space, just as the crowded physical worlds we live in can make it hard to breathe. But these are challenges we can meet once we rethink our perceptions. If your kitchen is too small, think vertically -- look for walls, the sides of cupboards, the insides of cupboards, hooks that can hang from ceilings and racks or underneath the cupboards. Sinks can be covered with cutting boards for extra counter space while cooking, extra counters can be crafted to swing out from the wall on hinges. But always make room for empty space. No matter how small, don't allow your kitchen to become cluttered.

Yet if the kitchen is too big, space can equally be a problem. Cooking islands help (and can be made from old tables, dressers, chests or antique tool benches), but often kitchens are too small for a cooking island, yet a touch too big to function well. Movable kitchen carts can limit striding from stove to sink. And rugs can unite distant counters and provide a sense of soul.

Which gets to another design fundamental for every room: Think floors and walls and lighting.

What crawls across your kitchen floor? Keep it clean and beautiful; it's a highlight of your kitchen and a fundamental feature. Even if it's yellowed, peeling vinyl and you only shop at rummage sales, floors can be covered up. There are some great inexpensive "oriental" or "modern art" rugs in the department stores, and used ones are often ideal. They might look cheap in the living room, but they're perfect for the kitchen; they're economical enough that you won't freak out if you spill something on them, and they're patterned enough to hide your messes till you vacuum. Kitchens are often small spaces, so discount flooring remnants are available that are an improvement over bad floors. And if you can afford the best, wood, cork, rubber, and real linoleum are excellent, though brick, stone, marble and that sort of thing might look great, but will break anything that lands on them and can be hell on your feet.

Let There Be Light. Nothing makes good food look bad or good cooking turn bad faster than a dark kitchen (except maybe neon-yellow mustard). Open up the windows; remove things that block the light. Change your bulbs and wash the flies out of the ceiling lights, and add task lights: pendants, under-cabinet lights, or 10 dollar clip-on desk lamps you can aim where you're working. If you don't like glaring light, put a dimmer switch on the overhead so you can have bright light when you need it and dim it when you don't (but it won't work on fluorescents; if you're stuck with those I'm sorry).

What's climbing up your walls? Because kitchen walls are generally covered up with cupboards, kitchen walls are easy to forget. But they provide invaluable storage space as well as the perfect touch of warmth and color. My favorite way to improve kitchen walls is Mexican Talavera tiles on the backsplash; they add color and warmth and don't show the grease, just as long as they're grouted with dark gray or black. Anything that enables you to hang the things you use the most within reach is not only practical, but it brings your personality into the kitchen. I once used vinyl covered cyclone fencing on a wall; Julia Child used painted pegboard and her kitchen ended up in the Smithsonian. Use your walls wisely and keep them saturated with warmth and color.

Color is key to bringing home soul, so if all you can afford for your kitchen is some paint for your walls, then find two or three colors you love. My brother used paint on his ceiling to divide his kitchen from his dining room, by painting a textured ceiling that ended in a graceful curving S shape meeting the darker, non-textured ceiling of the dining room. It was a perfect way to subtly divide the rooms, and the bright white ceiling illuminates the warm coral and yellow ochre of his walls that give his small kitchen a fiery glow. I painted a kitchen in a house in the woods with dark brown umber and a terra-cotta shade of orange. The painters balked at my selection, but when it was done they loved it; it felt as if the kitchen were right outside among the trees. Yellow is always an excellent choice for an accent or the main color, just avoid that neon-mustard shade or you'll be sorry; opt for warm, glowing shades or bright lemony yellows. And you can never go wrong with a touch of blue in the kitchen. You just can't, unless it's the shade of a Smurf doll.

Add wood. Cutting boards, a crock of wooden spoons, or stained wood cupboards or floors bring genuine warmth into your kitchen. Even if you prefer a sleek, minimalist design, wood can be incorporated with some polished wood stained black or umber brown (or pickled white), whether in the floors, ceiling, or walls, or just in the touch of a salad bowl and chopping block. But always have some wood. (And keep chopping blocks and cutting boards looking good with mineral oil.)

Use other natural materials wherever possible. You probably already know this. But as kitchen technology makes manufactured materials all the more practical, it's easy to lose sight of just how warm natural materials can be, whether bamboo cutting boards, clay pots, brick walls, or cotton towels. So where it is practical and you can afford it, use natural materials.

Bring the garden inside. Don't turn your kitchen into an urban terrarium, but a few herbs in the window are lovely and useful. Similarly, anything that grows from plants or started out that way -- such as fruits piled high in a fruit bowl, a bowl or cluster of garlic near a cutting board, or a hanging basket of potatoes, will add soul to your kitchen. But you'll need to balance practicality with beauty - and when it comes to a functioning kitchen, practicality wins hands down. A big bowl of lemons is lovely, but they won't last -- they're best kept in a sealed plastic bag in the refrigerator. Roots should be kept out of the sun. Rotate before it all rots. Replace with a vase of flowers or cut branches or herbs.

Finally, avoid knick knacks and countertop décor, but you can certainly accessorize as long as you're judicious. Anytime you can add a layer of age by incorporating something old into a room, it will enhance the sense of soul. In a kitchen, vintage dishware is useful and colorful as long as it's not in the way. Framed artwork on an otherwise unusable wall or fridge is perfect, just as long as it's not overcrowded.

And if you have a fireplace in your kitchen, don't ever move. Just keep it burning. If you don't have a fireplace? No problem. Light a food-scented candle (grapefruit, vanilla or tomato perhaps?) and have a cup of tea. Just make sure there's room for a friend to join you. And be sure to get cooking. Because good food, delicious aromas and good company are really all you ever need for a soulful kitchen.