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A sentiment on the wall of a friend's kitchen sums up the importance of this part of the house to the typical consumer:

"No matter where I serve my guests, it seems they like my kitchen best."

Whether you are building or remodeling, it seems there is no better place to spend money than on the kitchen.

Some call it the "Grand Central Station of family life."

The kitchen has come a long way from the days when our grandmothers isolated themselves there for hours preparing meals from scratch, but consumers continue to demand improvement in efficiency and style.

Instead of isolation, cooks want to be placed in the middle of family activities so they can keep tabs on what everyone is doing. Kitchens these days are almost always open to the family room and often have wide views of the outside.

They also are getting larger, because cooking has become a social activity, with more than one preparation area and more than one kitchen.

People who do a lot of entertaining want a kitchen with large open areas that allow guests enough room to mingle.

Kitchens must also have style and architectural interest -- high ceilings and decorative beams and moldings. The ceilings accommodate large, unusual windows and taller, more ornate cabinetry.

If you already live in a house and want a larger kitchen, one option is to turn a living room into a formal dining room and incorporate the space from the old dining room into the kitchen.

To cooking areas that once might not have been much more than a stove and exhaust hood with a microwave above them, today we bring in more detail to enhance the area, making it one of the main focal points of the kitchen. What do kitchens look like today?

Black is back, as are reds, blues and celery greens.

Outdoors materials, including stucco, are being used indoors.

Desks are appearing in kitchens at counter height.

Sinks are getting bigger, deeper and more plentiful. Two separate sinks are replacing the double bowl model.

The sinks are becoming an opportunity for art, a statement of personalization.

Although stainless steel is by far the number-one material used, designers are working with quite a few others. One of the beauties of working with solid-surface materials for a sink -- including stone, which can be finished and sealed so it will not stain -- is that you can fabricate and shape it, creating an interesting drainboard as part of the piece.

Sinks can be art, but they also have a function, and that observation applies to faucets, as well. Several major manufacturers this year have introduced a rubbed bronze look that is almost black but has more depth than wrought iron.

Satin nickel is another popular finish.

Faucets include the pot-filler, which is put in a wall near the stove and allows you to fill large, deep pots without having to lift them. It may or may not be near the sink.

For appliances, stainless steel remains number one.

The professional series and look is particularly important at the high end, and it wants to be mimicked at the lower price points.

People are going for a range and separate wall oven, with the oven at a convenient height.

In refrigeration, the watchword is flexibility, with new models from manufacturers either very small (drawer-size) or very large, with beautiful designs and finishes, and available from several sources instead of just one.

Prices are being brought down from very high-end.

It's not just $4,000-and-up for integrated refrigerators. You can get them for less, because there are a variety of sizes and designs.

Different finishes that will not show fingerprints are being used, such as graphite and meteorite.

Appliances also seem to be about the small details. Storage is being made convenient and flexible, including split drawers on a bottom freezer.

More and more, microwaves are combination appliances that also feature toasters and coffeemakers. Dishwashers have become oversize -- or smaller, depending on your preference.

And let us not forget about speed cooking, which allows you to roast a chicken in 20 minutes and eat steaks that taste as if you made them on an outdoor grill.

Granite is the number-one choice for countertops. Alternatives include metal (if the appliances are not metal) and concrete.

The trend in cabinets is warmer, darker, richer, and oak is coming back.

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