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Is Modular the Right Way?

Much more needs to be done by the kitchen industry if the Indian customer is to reap the benefits of modularity

Bindi Saolapurkar

The culinary culture of a region is the DNA of the home kitchen. Culture is a very subtle moulding force, a mother, to the design and construction of a kitchen. Culture and climate silently but undoubtedly influence the functional aspects as well as outcome and workability in the kitchen.

Thus from the earthen cooking fireplace of the joint family, the kitchen has transformed into a technologically advanced space, capable of being run efficiently by a single person. It could now also relate to space for a nuclear family in urban settings. In this way, the kitchen has adjusted to the socio-cultural change, from a joint family tradition to the contemporary small or nuclear family unit of the city.

The Indian cooking system differs vastly from every other land, not only in its method but also in composition and beliefs. The tropical climate means seasonal cuisines, sometimes requiring cooking over the slow fire, something that is not prevalent in the West. Traditionally, the Indian joint family context has implied that there are more hands to help out in the kitchen; hence kitchens were large, and food always freshly prepared for every meal and not preserved for the next.

In today’s context, however, the nuclear family structure with a working couple means time and help both were in shortage, necessitating preservation of food, fast cooking, and mechanised help. This has led to the kitchen turning to technology, and hence the path of modularity. In the West, there never has been the need for help in the kitchen, and seasonal cuisine is also limited. So in this cultural trait, mechanisation and modularisation were the only solutions, and industrial progress has enriched the outcome by equipping the kitchen with accessories and gadgets.

Although the modular concept does not easily fit into the Indian culinary mould, the added conveniences that the modern kitchen brings are now too valuable to let go. So even at the cost of inconveniences arising out of cultural conditioning, the Indian kitchen has changed its course towards the modular. Globalisation has accelerated the advance of the modular kitchen into our homes, and within a span of 10 years, turned it into the order of the day.

Though technically suitable, modular kitchens have not entirely localised to Indian cultural traditions and beliefs. For example, a wastebasket was never kept inside the kitchen and was relegated to the outdoors. The modular kitchen allows this as a convenience – storing garbage in a closed basket, in a closed cabinet, below the sink. Also, Indian cooking is a ‘fry and smoke’ affair requiring a large chimney hopper area with great suction, which sadly none of the products in the market are able to provide. But the Indian household is content with other conveniences that the modular kitchen offers, although at a serious cultural dislocation cost. We do not seem to mind if garbage is stored in the kitchen and rots there till the domestic help carries it away the next day.

Technology has made the kitchen very user-friendly and efficient in terms of utility and effort, and seemingly more hygienic. Over the years, new materials, hardware and energy-efficient gadgetry have ushered in a clean swanky look. Space then looks attractive, given the possibility of a variety of finishes, and this attraction for the aesthetic overrides the real need. This is the central paradox about the Indian kitchen, which has been smoothly smothered by the glitz of technology and relentless hard-sell of the advertising and marketing brigade.

This has even lent to the kitchen a status symbol. In fact, western corporates bringing in innovations and new products are systematically keeping the modular kitchen ‘superiority’ myth alive!

No doubt advantages in terms of conveniences and customisation are many. The word modular connotes possibility of repetition or high standardisation, greater accuracy, and a clean factory finish with accessories designed for convenience, and not needing any further finishing work at the site except assembly. Modular kitchens can be customised for client needs within the limits of available accessories and standardised hardware and fascia finishes.

Primarily, every modular kitchen is composed of the carcass or boxes, fit-out accessories, hardware, channel supported drawers, hinged shutters, and support legs which hold up the carcass. Standardisation is the key concept, and this ensures that 85% of the kitchen is built outside the site in the factory, thereby avoiding modifications and last-minute changes, apart from the dust and all the mess associated with an on-site job.

Modular kitchens have the advantage of the ease in remodelling after a few years, as facia finishes and new accessories can be fitted into standardised slots of the old carcass, and the kitchen can get a new look with a little overhaul. The standard dimensions allow for easy replacement and create a new, pleasing appearance in tune with the times.

Often the carcass is built from strawboard/chipboard, and hence has lesser intrinsic strength and possibility of play when subjected to rough use or forced movement during fixing. The shelf life of the carcass is relatively much less when compared to an in situ built plywood kitchen. The cost can vary widely, as the industry sells the modular kitchen as a product, while built-at-site kitchens are executed as a project with higher labour inputs. Creativity often blossoms in customisation. But again, customisation is more often a prerogative of the smaller kitchen. As the size gets larger (larger means the number of people it is intended to service), creativity manifests itself through finishes, gadgets and material finish quality.

Modularity can allow built-in gadgets like hobs, ovens, coffee machines, water purifiers, microwave ovens, etc. to seamlessly fit into the carcass modules, bringing a coordinated and controlled look. But in the Indian scenario, this can more often increase possibilities of leakages, as the chef relies heavily on water for cooking and cleaning.

Designing a separate wet area in the Indian kitchen is a necessity, which is better achieved by segregating it in the plan. Electrical points for garbage crushers, RO systems, built-in ovens, etc. typically need to be provided on walls, thus requiring cutouts and adjustments in the modular carcass after it arrives on site. To some extent, this diminishes an otherwise neat factory finish.

Typically the leg supports of the carcass are of PVC with limitation of load, and these may degenerate in strength over time, thereby debilitating load capacity. The skirting facia to the legs allows dirt to collect, while insects and rodents may flourish in the space behind. This is not the case with a customised carpenter-built kitchen, which is usually installed on a brick and plaster platform.

A customised kitchen can turn out to be more expensive since it requires higher labour input to attain aesthetics close to a factory finish. On the other hand, the open-plan modular kitchen is an urban hit, integrating itself with dining and living areas particularly in apartments, making it convenient for nuclear families and allowing close bonding in the family, which perhaps is a growing need in the urban Indian milieu.

The author is a Bengaluru-based architect and kitchen designer.  


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