Why are messy kitchens becoming so popular?

French doors conceal a walk in pantry which keeps the kitchen clean and organized.

Why are messy kitchens becoming so popular?

As the saying goes ‘everything old is new again”.  Nowhere is that truer than in the world of kitchen design. On one hand, today’s clients are asking for open plans which include a kitchen, living, and dining area. On the other hand, these open spaces are not great during meal preparation and clean-up when entertaining. Taking a cue from butlers’ pantries, messy kitchens have gained popularity since the mid-2000s. 

In current Europeans kitchen design, many of the working areas are concealed with sliding or pocket doors to hide away the mess once the entertaining begins.

Sliding doors conceal the working parts of this kitchen. Photo by Sharon L Sherman

What is a messy kitchen?

A pantry, scullery, back, or “messy kitchen” is the behind-the-scenes work kitchen. In many homes, a new kitchen can cost upwards of $200,000, and keeping them looking new and fresh is important to clients. The idea of these alternative kitchens has become very popular. Because many homes today do not have dining rooms anymore as the kitchen has become the center stage of the home, the working or messy areas are moving away from the main kitchen.  Private chefs prepare glorious meals out of sight while guests dine in a showplace kitchen without the inconvenience of noise and mess.

As kitchens have become more minimalist in design, they have become part of the interior design of the home. The back kitchen fills the need for practicality muck like a mudroom serves to keep the house clean and free from whatever you bring inside. Just as homeowners want to keep their homes neat, organized, and beautiful, the same is true for the kitchen. Having a space where the kids can make snacks, and the mess is out of sight of the home has become an important design consideration. Although messy or back kitchens are popular worldwide, they are just gathering interest here in the United States. 

This pantry from the New American Home in Orlando 2022 is a great example of a pantry that houses dishes as well as a preparation counter and workspace away from the main kitchen. At the same time, it is designed to coordinate with the main kitchen. It is a planned space, not an afterthought. 

From the New American Home in Orlando 2022 this is a great example of pantry which ouses dishes as well as preparation counter and work space away from the main kitchen

Kitchen pantry NAH 2022. Photo by Sharon L Sherman

What is driving this trend for messy or back kitchens? 

In the days of old, these spaces were called butlers pantries. The staging place for the staff to prepare the dishes before being brought to the dining table. As a result of changing lifestyles, those spaces were reimagined as staging areas for today’s dinner parties. This is where a catering staff may be providing the service in place of the house staff.  This new and updated butler’s pantry provides a buffer to the noise of the kitchen. They also became a place to keep china and crystal as traditional “breakfronts” fell out of fashion.

As can be seen in this turn of the 20th century home, the pantry is the perfect example of how the idea of a messy kitchen came to be. When a new kitchen was designed for the home, this smaller kitchen was designed to include a sink, dishwasher, wine refrigerator, and recycling center, as well as abundant countertop and cabinet storage. 

A butlers pantry in this turn of the 20th century kitchen is the perfect example of how the idea of a messy kitchen came to be.

A redesigned butler’s pantry in a circa 1890 home. Photo by Sharon L Sherman

For those of us who do not have a large luxury kitchen or a private staff preparing meals, open floor plans of today’s homes have given rise to this new design trend. There are many benefits to these spaces. If you have extra help in the kitchen, they can provide additional worktop space for prepping ingredients, they provide additional storage for small appliances, with an additional sink, clean up is placed out of the main kitchen area. 

What you should include in a messy kitchen?

I am a big fan of a walk-in pantry closet that can double as a messy or back kitchen. I really like to use them for staging ingredients. For the same reason, you can keep all of the small appliances there as well.  For instance, the food processor, microwave, toaster, mixer, and baking ingredients are stored in the panty, Then you simply add a sink for cleanup.

French doors conceal a walk in pantry which keeps the kitchen clean and organized.

French doors conceal a pantry closet. www.thymeandplacedesign.com

An extra refrigerator or wine/beverage refrigerator can be incorporated into the space as well.  I think one of the most convenient appliances for a back or dirty kitchen is a steam oven. You can cook a multitude of things in it without needing ventilation. 

How much space is needed for a messy kitchen?

These kitchens can be as large or as small as space allows. If you have a limited area, you can use a closet as a messy kitchen. It is important to keep these areas organized and ready to use.  A single-wall messy kitchen can be as small as 4’ which would allow a preparation counter with storage above and below.

Our Hearthstone kitchen features a steam oven built right into the island perfect for multiple cooks. The pocket doors on the tall pantry create a "messy kitchen" area concealing prep areas and work counter from teh main kitchen. Sharon L Sherman kitchen designer NJ Thyme & Place Design

Retractable doors conceal a small work area. Design by: Thyme & Place Design.

A large walk-in space approximately 7-8 feet long and 6’ wide is a nice space to work in. I have designed kitchens in New York City which are only 5’ wide and 8’ long. These spaces are basically a closet in their own right. Just because you do not have a large space does not mean you cannot have a well-designed pantry or messy kitchen. 

Things to remember when designing your messy kitchen. 
  • Include proper ventilation: If you are adding cooking to the function of the space, ventilation is key.
  • Consider the lighting: You should plan the lighting just like you would for a main kitchen. Good overhead lighting combined with under-counter or task lighting. 
  • Location, location, location: The messy kitchen should be adjacent to the main kitchen if possible otherwise it defeats the purpose. 
  • How you will use the messy kitchen: Will this be for cooking or just for quick meal preparation and storage? Design the space properly considering all necessary clearances for appliances and people. 
  • Storage: Make a list of what you want to keep in the adjunct kitchen so you can accommodate appliances, serving pieces, etc. 
  • Access: Try to avoid dead ends. It is best not to create traffic jams getting in and out of your messy kitchen. 

Have you added a messy kitchen to your interior design wish list? I would love to hear what you think about this idea. 

Sharon L. Sherman, ASID, NCIDQ, CID, CKD


Sharon is the founder of Thyme and Place Design, headquartered in Wyckoff, New Jersey. She’s been practicing kitchen and bath design for the past 40 years and is a Past President of the American Society of Interior Designers – New Jersey chapter. She is a current member of the editorial board of KBB Magazine, the official magazine of the National Kitchen and Bath Association. Sharon has also received a Kitchen Bath Design News 2022 Innovator of the Year Award.

Her award-winning designs and editorial comments have been featured in Forbes, The New York Times, Design Milk, Furniture Lighting and Decor, Designers Today, Bergen NJ magazineKitchen & Bath Design News, Woman’s Day, Country Decorating, Design NJ, New Jersey Home Magazine, 201 Magazine, The Best of Bergen, Savvy Living, The Vue, The Record, The Star-Ledger,  and Aspire as well as several books.

Her blog “Tips from the Trade” appears in digital form on DesignNJ.com and KBBonline.com. She has also appeared on HGTV’s My Big Amazing Renovation and episodes of House Smarts with Lou Manfredini.  Sharon was a featured speaker for  *Voices From The Industry*  at the National Kitchen and Bath Association’s international convention and The International Surfaces Event and is available for further speaking engagements nationwide on all topics related to running a successful kitchen and bath design business. She is also a CEU provider for IDCEC. 



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Sharon sherman

My award-winning designs haven been featured in multiple magazines, industry publications and on television. That’s nice affirmation, to be sure.

But perhaps the greatest accolade I’ve received is the repeat engagements with so many clients, project after project, year after year.

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