The kitchen is the heart of many homes, an all-purpose area where much of life happens.
But in the end, it has just one function that makes it unique among rooms: It's where you cook.
Clutter, distractions, poor workflow -- sometimes a kitchen's layout can hinder the cooking process more than it helps.
Decorating can create similar pitfalls. "We get too caught up in color palettes and soft fabrics, and we over-think it," says Genevieve Gorder, co-host and judge of HGTV's Design Star.
But a well-planned kitchen can boost your cooking experience and make the room an even more treasured space, says Gorder and fellow designers Betsy Burnham (founder of Burnham Design) and Brian Patrick Flynn (founder of decordemon.com).
It's all about focusing.
"A kitchen is the most task-oriented space in the house, so it must honor function as well as aesthetics," Gorder says. "A light, bright, clean kitchen is a nice framework for the dance that is about to happen, which is cooking."
How can you re-imagine your kitchen to make it the best possible place to cook?
Think it through
More than any other room, Burnham says, kitchens need to be precisely planned.
If you're remodeling, "you need to go out and really touch and feel all the appliances, see what's out there," she says. "It's not just, this is cool. My friend has this, so I want it. It's, how do I really cook? Where do I put my spoon? Where do I like to have my towels?"
Leaf through food magazines to see how professional cooks arrange their kitchens.
"Professional stuff is so available to the public now," Burnham says. "You can arrange your drawers with those dowels that organize restaurant plates. They're spring-loaded."
Installing a second sink or second dishwasher has also become more common.
Big changes don't have to be expensive, Flynn says. But since a kitchen won't be remodeled often, "think of how far each dollar goes in relation to durability first, then aesthetics second."
All three designers preach simplicity and timelessness: "Go with classic colors, a classic backsplash," Burnham says. "You really don't want a date on that kitchen."
Clear the deck
"When there's a clean butcher block out on the counter," says Gorder, "I want to cook."
Devote counter space to cooking tools and fresh fruits and vegetables, but nothing else. Keep your go-to items (wooden spoons, whisks, etc.) next to the stove in one large, open container.
An airy, uncluttered kitchen is the goal.
"Especially by the stove," Gorder says. "People tend to overfill the space."
Lose the decorative baskets and knickknacks, she says: "If it's not something I cook with or I eat, it doesn't belong in here."
Simple shades, dashes of color
All three designers praise the merits of a white kitchen. An uncluttered, white space with a large, white farmhouse sink is "an invitation to play," Gorder says.
Burnham and Gorder are fans of white Cararra marble countertops, which work with contemporary or classic decor.
Don't worry about fragility, says Gorder: White Cararra marble "made up the entire city of Athens and it's still standing. You're not going to ruin it by one little spill or scratch. In fact, the more it's worn, the more beautiful it is."
Flynn loves doing kitchens in white-on-white or white with light gray. For clients who don't want white, he favors brown with gray or black with gray. "These color combos," he says, "work with virtually any accent color."
The placement of those accent colors is the key. "Choosing a bold-colored tile backsplash is enough to give a commitment-phobe an instant coronary," Flynn says, since those tiles will likely remain on the wall for many years.
Keep the inspiring dashes of bold color relegated to items you can replace inexpensively.
To add a backsplash without expensive tilework, Flynn suggests using textured vinyl wallpaper. "It's the same material used in restaurants and hotels, so it's easy to care for and it's flame-retardant," he says.
For a bold punch of color in a black-and-white kitchen, Flynn added "fire-engine red in accents such as a pendant light over an island, a steel console table and vinyl stool cushions. The small doses packed a ton of color into the space. But if the homeowner's taste were to change, it's simple to bring in a new color."
Consider changing your cabinets and storage to suit your cooking style, Burnham says. Do you prefer closed drawers or open shelving? Could you use more storage close to your stove? It's possible to change just one or two cabinets, rather than the entire set.
Gorder suggests extending cabinets to the ceiling and storing rarely used items up high to clear more space in the immediate cooking area.
For an infusion of fresh style, Flynn says, "cabinet doors can sometimes be very cost-effective to update.
New cabinetry gets pricey because of fabrication, removal and installation," he says, but "if cabinets are in good shape, I have a carpenter add a band of molding to the front of my cabinet doors, then spray them with oil paint in a gloss finish."
Replacing cabinet hardware can add style, while making cabinets easier to use. "Glass and chrome hardware adds an element of glamour," Flynn says. "The best part about hardware updates? You can do them yourself!"
Once the space is cleared of all clutter and decked out in a clean, crisp color palette, and all your cooking tools are conveniently at hand, Flynn has one last recommendation: Hang just one or two pieces of inspiring art.
"It's not necessarily something most people think of doing," he says, "but it really personalizes a space."