Worried about waste and having too much ‘stuff’? Get rid of the fitted kitchen

As usual, I was procrastinating, putting off the moment when I settled down to write, by browsing property porn – and that’s when I found it: my dream barn. Oh, it was everything I ever wanted. In just the right part of the Yorkshire Dales, and with uninterrupted views to the Lake District, some deft person had made it over with utmost care. I liked the bedrooms, and the bathroom; I adored the garden, with its cast iron water butt at the back door. But most of all I loved the kitchen, which consisted only of a huge stove and a couple of waist-high cabinets on casters, to move as and when the fancy takes.

Is the fitted kitchen on its way out at last? I’m beginning to think that it might be. As the rental market swells, space inside coming at an ever greater premium, and we grow more concerned both about waste and the politics of owning stuff more generally, the fashion for massed ranks of gleaming cupboards is rapidly diminishing – one symptom of which is a similar reduction in our hunger to own kitchen kit. Companies that rent out slow cookers and bread-makers, pasta machines and food processors, report rising numbers of clients, and no wonder. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a charity that campaigns to cut waste by keeping products in use, 80% of household items are used less than once a month. The cost of lockdown “regret purchases” is said to stand at £6bn.

My own kitchen, which I may have described here before, is very small indeed – completely out of proportion to the size of the house – and for this reason, some of its cupboards are fitted; it’s the only way to make the space work. But I have open shelves rather than wall cupboards – I hate wall cupboards; they’re overbearing – and in fact, the spot where I cook is only an adjunct to the main event, which is the room where not only the dining table stands, but two armchairs and lamps for reading. It’s nice, if you’re stirring a pot, for someone to be able to sit close by and chat with you.

But still, I fantasise about having something at once bigger and even more pared down – those cupboards on wheels, I guess – and it seems I’m not the only one. The future, yet again, is beginning to look more like the past. I’ve been listening to an interesting series about kitchens, presented by Lucy Dearlove of the food podcast Lecker, and thanks to this I now know that when the majority of 20th-century houses had just two rooms downstairs – well into the 1930s, most homes were still being constructed without a purpose-built kitchen – people made do with what was known as a kitchen cabinet: a piece of furniture that, according to Prof Deborah Sugg Ryan, a design historian, had its origins in the American Hoosier cabinet (so-called because most of them were made by the Hoosier Manufacturing Company of New Castle, Indiana). Like a free-standing dresser, but without the open shelves, such cabinets typically came with a meat safe, a pull-out work surface, and a flour hopper (a funnel-shaped thing that dispensed the self-raising Be-Ro straight into a mixing bowl).

I’m not being facetious when I say that I think meat safes may one day make a comeback; I often put a joint in our coal hole – no, we don’t use coal! No, we don’t eat a lot of meat! – when there’s no room in the fridge. I think, too, that the time may be approaching when a freestanding cabinet (or three) seems not only ample for most people’s needs, but a useful brake on our tendency to buy too much (we need to shop little, and often). In all sorts of small ways, our kitchen lives are changing, and I’m glad, though as much for aesthetic reasons as for green ones. Fitted kitchens have always seemed to me to be so unfriendly: a row of unsmiling faces whose eyes are all permanently closed. What? You want to know about the barn? Well, obviously I could never have afforded it in a month of Sundays, and anyway, it went under offer immediately. But I’ll always think of it: that kitchen, with its whizzy mobile cupboards and their myriad possibilities.