Kitchen Design 101: The Kitchen Triangle

Kitchen Design 101: The Kitchen Triangle

If you’re anything like us, you’re probably addicted to those house-hunting or fixer upper shows on the popular home design channels. Inevitably someone comments on the kitchen triangle – whether it’s a perfect size, too small, or is some monstrosity.

In this article, we’ll walk you through the ever-important kitchen triangle, and how to make it work for you when designing your very own kitchen.

A Design Concept

The kitchen triangle concept is based on the notion that the primary tasks in a kitchen involve the sink, refrigerator, and stove – food prep, storage, and cooking. Efficiency experts and kitchen designers refer to the imaginary lines that connect these three appliances as the kitchen work triangle.

The theory holds that if all three elements are close to each other, the kitchen is easy and efficient because the home cook can easily move among the three spots without wasting time, steps, or energy (crucially important when you forgot to wear hot pads).

There are some exceptions to this idea: for instance, if the three areas are too close to each other, like in the galley kitchen. We’ll dig into these later.

A Fun History of the (Kitchen) Triangle

If you know the 1950 classic film Cheaper by the Dozen (or the 2003 remake) than you are already familiar with who developed this idea – even if you don’t know it yet.  

The outlandish movies are based on the real lives of Lillian Moller Gilbreth and her husband Frank Bunker Gilbreth, Sr. and their 12 kids. Together the couple were efficiency engineers who focused on industrial engineering and pioneered the study of motion and human factors. Lillian became one of the first female engineers to hold a PhD, and went on to specialize in a new-ish field that we know today as industrial or organization psychology.

In the 1940s, her kitchen model became the standard of efficiency in the kitchen, losing the former name, ‘circular routing,’ in favor of the more accurate kitchen work triangle. Eventually the University of Illinois School of Architecture wanted to reduce cost in home design. The work triangle allowed them to standardize kitchen design and construction, and it became a standard practice for architects and designers.

Universal Kitchen Efficiency

As the kitchen work triangle took hold in the 20th century kitchens, a few universal guidelines developed:

  • Three layouts are the basis for kitchen triangles: U-shapes, L-shapes, and the galley.
  • The rule of that is that the three sides of the triangle should total somewhere between 12 and 26 feet.
  • Foot traffic shouldn’t interfere with the triangle. (We all know how annoying it is to turn in the kitchen only to find someone standing in our way!) Try to protect the cooking area as much as possible, even if it means letting go of some control of the fridge or sink. If there’s something a guest or child often needs while you’re cooking, consider relocating that item to beyond the triangle.

Modifying the Triangle

As kitchen appliances have grown and specialized, you may rely on more go-to items than just the Holy Trinity of the kitchen triangle. Think what you may use often: microwaves, toaster ovens, Kitchen Aid mixing stands, blenders. No matter your home life, you can apply the principles of kitchen triangle to maximize kitchen efficiency. If you use an appliance often, leave it out – but if you only need it for Saturday morning breakfast, hide it in an easily accessible cabinet.

In the traditional triangle, you may only need one sink, but modern homeowners and interior designers may opt for a prep sink and a cleanup sink that allows the kids to get involved in cooking. New technology means you can store food in one refrigerator and wine or beer fridges under the counter, so guests can grab a cocktail without slowing down the cook. Use that microwave on a daily basis? Add it into a kitchen zone – we’re okay with your kitchen triangle becoming a little more rectangular.

With more people moving back into cities, maybe your problem isn’t too much space, but a lack of it. While galley kitchens get a bad rap for their size, kitchen experts say that traditional two-wall galley kitchens or even one-wall open concept kitchen areas offer great efficiency. (Just think of all the steps you’re saving!)

Your kitchen may be less than ideal for entertaining or two-people cooking, so plan ahead: what can you prep in advance so you don’t need as many steps back and forth? Where can you set up a drink station and snacks for guests who arrive while dinner is still cooking?

To Triangle or Not?

While the kitchen work triangle isn’t going away anytime soon, designers and efficiency experts are divided on whether it is still a useful concept. We believe that even if you can’t stick to a geometrically perfect triangle, sticking to its principles will help you design a perfectly efficient kitchen. At the end of the day - decide what makes sense for you (even if you don’t have 12 kids).