As interior design goes, the open kitchen is a relative youngster. It’s a modern idea, and with it come challenges. Even in homes with traditional styling, clients want open kitchens and all that they deliver: the cooking space as the center of the action, with clear sightlines to everything that’s going on in and around it.

The kitchen as wide-open continuation of the living space (rather than tucked-away scullery) brings its own set of questions, such as clear and sensible spatial geometry, definition of function, sufficient wall space for big appliances, and lighting. “The hardest part is visibility. It becomes more than just working space, because everything is on stage and exposed,” says Tom Shafer, a principal of Grunsfeld Shafer Architects in Chicago. For a couple who wanted to stay put in the 1950s ranch house they had come to love over many years, Shafer did an extensive remodel, designing the entire house—including the open kitchen—by following the home’s existing lines. “They wanted to keep their memories and use the house with the next generation, their married children and grandchildren,” Shafer says.

Several elements in this open-plan area separate the cooking space from the living area while keeping the kitchen an integral and clearly defined part of the room. A work island of oiled English brown oak became the centerpiece, notes Shafer, who adds that he and the clients “wanted it to be a magnet.” The island serves as bookshelf, storage area, work surface, and room divider. “It’s a great product for use around water and food,” says Shafer of the oiled oak workspace, which includes an undermounted sink.

The home itself was “quirky,” as described by the architect, with a high wood ceiling of Western red cedar. To give the kitchen a needed sense of definition and intimacy, Shafer designed a dropped ceiling. This delineates the cooking zone and houses recessed halogens on dimmers that can serve as task and ambient lighting. The white dropped ceiling bounces light into the cooking area, too. With its large, metal-framed windows, the entire space living looks west to the pool, providing the Palm Springs, Calif., vibe that was desired (the house actually is located outside Chicago). For the clients, the scale of the kitchen works for all occasions and “has become the epicenter,” Shafer says. “It has changed the way they use the house.”

In Austin, Texas, architect Paul Lamb’s client “wanted a kitchen where she could be in the center of the entire floor plan.” Sure enough, in this L-shaped house, the kitchen is nested in the right angle of an L. An added challenge was that the client wanted the fireplace and seating area to be facing the kitchen so that family and guests didn’t have their backs to her while she was working in the kitchen. A limestone wall with a generous archway cuts through the first floor so the kitchen and living area are separate yet together.

The house has a family-lodge kind of style, with a 12/12 roof and an 18-foot, double-height ceiling of Douglas fir beams and planks, so an open kitchen wasn’t such a stretch. Those soaring ceilings made lighting tricky, but Lamb designed a large chandelier, starting with a circular steel tube 13 feet in diameter that serves as a lighting track. MR16 spots “throw light everywhere we needed it,” says Lamb, while old English lanterns sourced at a flea market provide ambient glow. Undercabinet illumination provides additional task lighting. Even the stove is a light source, with work lights that glow through a glass-fronted vent hood. “The challenge of an open kitchen is keeping it human,” says Don Crowell, general contractor on the project. “Even though this one has a lofty ceiling, the experience of the kitchen is a cozy place where you’d like to hang out.”

In Chicago, Stuart Cohen and Julie Hacker’s clients craved a home with bungalow character and detailing, right down to the mortise-and-tenon joinery on the kitchen island. But they, too, wanted a large, open kitchen that could handle informal gatherings with friends as ably as it could big dinner fundraisers. The architects designed an open room divider that separates the family room from the kitchen while it joins the two spaces, allowing sightlines of Lake Michigan from clear across the kitchen. The divider serves as a wine storage area, work space, and display shelving for pottery. In defining the room, it gets a graceful assist from a continuous band of crown molding that wraps around the entire kitchen, crossing the divide between kitchen and family room. “The divider is sitting in space, but it’s locked in by the trim,” Cohen points out. Floor materials underscore the differing functions of each space: antique French limestone in the cooking area and 6-inch-wide white oak planks in the sitting space.

Cohen and Hacker design mostly contemporary spaces, but even with an open kitchen that has traditional fittings and materials, the questions remain the same. As for the main challenges, Hacker sums it up with a question of her own: “When you have a room that’s one big space, what are the architectural ideas that allow you to have the room perceived as a big open space but have defined functions and sub-spaces within?” she asks. “It’s like solving a puzzle.”