Lower-level kitchen areas are as much about fun as they are about function.
Story by Tracy Dickinson
Featured in Autumn 2023
Adding a kitchen area to the lower level of your home has always been a bonus feature whether it was a simple counter and sink or a bar area for entertaining.
As home plans, lifestyles, and even products have changed over the years, the lower-level kitchen has been transformed as well. Adding a downstairs kitchen should be as much about fun as it is about function.
The set design
“We still see a good mix of both bar areas and kitchenettes,” says Rachel Arganbright of Woodharbor, “but clients want the space to feel different than their main kitchen, so the design is more flexible.”
Kitchen and Bath Company’s Tina Noel says, “Kitchenettes are growing more common, with families adding spaces for in-law suites or guests. But lower-level bars aren’t going away any time either. That extra space leads to more family time.”
Full kitchens are less common when the home is a walkout plan, according to Moehl Millwork’s Danielle Frye. “In that situation, the homeowner usually has a grill or cooking area outside, so there’s no need for a full kitchen. But then we’re seeing a bar area, often with a full fridge and even a dishwasher,” she says.
Noel says, “We’re also frequently using both counter-height and bar-height surfaces in the design. Counter-height works well for family gatherings or serving food, but the upper-level bar height is better for setting up a drink bar and still offering visibility in entertainment spaces so guests can see the television.”
The lower-level kitchen is a great place to add specialized appliances not included in the main kitchen.
“You can do something as simple as including a microwave and a backup fridge for the kids or for family gatherings,” Noel says. “Or you can opt for a countertop popcorn machine and an undercounter wine or beverage fridge.”
“More and more of our clients are wanting full-size fridges with ice makers,” says Arganbright. “And wine fridges, dishwashers, and microwaves are often integrated into the design, too.”
Other homeowners are creating less of a wine space and more of a full bar. “We’ve been doing a lot of glass with taller wall units to hold more barware,” Frye says. “And we always recommend a double trash unit in lower-level kitchens to help keep things tidy and to make it more convenient.”
Creating the mood
Full kitchen or wet bar, the lower-level kitchen area is anything but basic. Neon signs, water features, funky materials—they all find their place downstairs.
“We’ve done everything from Old Irish Pub style to sports bar or swanky cocktail lounge,” says Arganbright. “Homeowners are really wanting to create something unique.”
Noel says, “Adding stone or wood wall accents is always fun and is an easy way to create that pub feel without overwhelming the design.”
Surprisingly, dark colors are making a comeback in lower-level kitchen and bar areas. As home designs have changed, higher ceilings with more natural light have opened up the lower level and opened up the design possibilities.
“When clients want to use black for the bar area, I love adding aluminum doors for some contrast,” Frye says. “I’ve been seeing more metal elements throughout the bar-area design.”
Dark woods, brick or stone accents, or deep paint colors help create a dramatic tone, whether the homeowner is trying to achieve a bar feel or a theater and entertainment vibe.
“We discuss with our clients whether there’s space for an island or peninsula, how much cabinetry to incorporate, whether to go to the ceiling for visual height or to keep it open and allow for display space,” says Noel. “Floating shelves or lighted display shelves for barware or bottles can add a design element and make the space feel more open, too.”
Lighting the stage
Whatever the style, the right lighting makes all the difference. Today’s home plans have virtually eliminated the dark basements of decades ago, making it possible to use lighting as a decorative element and not just a necessity.
“I love incorporating different lighting into wet bars,” says Arganbright. “It really sets a mood. Sconces, ceiling fixtures, integrated cabinet lighting, and undercabinet lighting are all important features of the design.”
Adding glass or mirrors to upper cabinetry not only enhances that design, it adds visual interest and a sense of space to even smaller bar areas.
And with the advances in lighting technology today, homeowners aren’t limited to fixture selection alone to create that mood. LED products can be installed directly into countertops, cabinetry, and backsplashes. Many are also programmable, so homeowners can change the color, adjust the brightness, and more.
“It’s important to be realistic when it comes to the size and items you can include, compared to what you want to include,” Frye says. “But even a small space has room to be creative.”
The lower-level kitchen is still designed for convenience and function. But it also sets the stage for fun. These spaces are all about entertaining, whether it’s just for you, your family, or a house full of friends. •
- Tina Noel Kitchen and Bath Company
- Danielle Frye Moehl Millwork
- Rachel Arganbright Woodharbor