Deborah Singerman considers the impact design competitions and awards programs have on trends for Australian kitchens. 
A kitchen is still defined as the room “equipped for preparing and cooking food”. That is how they are still being built. The Housing Industry Association’s latest Kitchens and Bathrooms Report details an expected increase of 5.6 per cent in new kitchen installations in 2012-13 (after a decline 2011-12) taking the total to 149,000. Yet talk to designers and suppliers and you realise that the kitchen has become more complicated; it is central, part of the family room, where entertaining, computer games, computer work, conversation and relaxation all mix in our 21st century milieu.
Harder to answer is whether this merging gives a kitchen more identity or less, strengthens its position within the home, or, in sharp contrast, renders it null and void?
Stella de Vulder, PR manager at architecture firm BVN, believes that the kitchen has all but disappeared as a separate entity. The shift has been gradual, open plan for kitchens, as with everything, becoming more popular over the years. She does remember a residential apartment in Victoria Street, Potts Point, in the late 1970s, where the kitchen effectively was missing as it was part of the main living space. “It is interesting how a place modifies our behaviour”– and how isolated examples can start trends.
Alex Milne, executive director of the Kitchen and Bathroom Design Institute (KBDi), says 30 to 40 years ago the “kitchen was the domain of the primary cook in the family, often mum, and you’d eat from the fridge”. He believes the opening out of the space and expansion of its roles “gives the kitchen a greater identity and meaning, with the whole layout becoming more challenging”.
Not that this shift has been significant for competitions, he says. “There has been a progression towards open plan anyway.”
Enquiries about kitchen design competitions in Australia either drewa blank or took BPN to the KBDi, the enduring and main organiser of such events here. In one form or another, kitchen design awards have been conducted in Australia for over 20 years, Milne says, with associations covering various sectors of the building and furnishing industries to commercial interests including product suppliers and magazine publications, mostly now orientated to the tradesperson, with judging criteria focused on the quality of the workmanship, rather than design.
The Design Institute of Australia (DIA), for one, has reservations about any competitive design process, a policy paper ( warning that you have to determine whether a competition is “genuine or a cleverly disguised pitch”.
Joanne Cys, associate professor in interior architecture, University of South Australia, is the DIA’s immediate past national president. “The Australian Interior Design Award has a category for residential interior design meaning the whole residence, not just a kitchen or bathroom as individual rooms,” she says.
This is also borne out by the Australian Institute of Architects whose search for an architect who specialised in kitchens or even one who was passionate about, enjoyed or was interested in kitchens, did not produce any names, a spokesperson reiterating for BPN that “architects don’t specialise in individual rooms”.
Milne agrees that there is a “cultural gap between architects who are big picture people and kitchen and bathroom designers trained to have a broad understanding of technical aspects behind the kitchen”.
The KBDi is proud of what it regards as two marked differences from other kitchen awards programs. The judging criteria provides for the assessment of the individual designer’s work in the design of the kitchen rather than the finished product.
Pictures on the website of Australian and state winners show the universal open plan with generous tables and chairs, natural light streaming in but backed by stylish lighting systems, integrated appliances and large floor areas. Crucially, for Milne, the awards are judged blind – anonymity is important – and the judges only find out who the winners are when announced at the awards gala. 
The judging criteria are based on Australian standards and the nationally accredited training package for kitchen design, and cover: design and innovation; kitchen layout and compliance; quality of drawings including a pictorial view; eco-sustainability; and documentation including specifications and design statement. Weightings apply and vary between the open (all members) and certified (certified kitchen designers only) design sections.
Under the judging guidelines the judges’ deliberations remain confidential, says Milne. “We would not publish the whole entry without permission. If you are good you stay in front anyway.”
Lyndon Craig, senior design manager – Electrolux says kitchens run a spectrum. “You have integrated, minimalist kitchen design at one end and at the other, stand out equipment or colours. It is almost the nature of a kitchen that design reflects the appliance.”
The most recent Electrolux Design Lab competition challenged industrial design students worldwide to consider intelligent mobility within home appliances. There were robotic vacuum cleaners; small, portable cleaners; portable microwave ovens; and smart induction hot plates operated via remote, smart phones.
“With major extensions and major developments people are prepared to spend a high proportion of their income on kitchens, with young demographics, house-proud singles, going on to couples, who want to establish themselves, personally and with the family.
The kitchen is important,” says Craig, adding that it is a form of social capital. Caroline Pidcock, principal at Pidcock Architecture and Sustainability, suggests a kitchen competition could explore how cooking and food preparation is changing; the various materials being used; and how the details of living in different rooms are changing. “I would prefer to see something about how we can live better with less rather than more,” she says.
Reflecting the design and appliance link, Miele thought competitions could look to the future, developing existing ideas, innovations and technologies that, says Thorsten Kissel, product manager food and beverage preparation, “place the kitchen at the hub of home living and the development of appliances that are so technically advanced they take the guesswork out of producing great food while adapting the technology of the commercial kitchen for the home cook”.
Sustainability considerations include appliances designed and tested to last to the equivalent of 20 years under average household use, and having many recyclable components. For design, kitchen appliances complement each other, with sets of built-in appliances blending in, forming continuous lines, and “achieving a consistent fleet design”, Kissel says.
Other forward-thinking technologies that might influence kitchen design competitions, he says, include large steamer (moist) ovens (dry heat) for steaming, roasting and baking; induction cooktops that are more energy efficient than electric or gas cooktops because of the heat-up time and direct application of the energy; and rangehoods that integrate LED glass edge lighting into the slimline canopy.