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This Old House

Must-See TV

It's the newest kitchen appliance. Here's how to make it look good even when it's not turned on

Most kitchen appliances are all about food: storing it, cooking it, and cleaning up after it's eaten. Except for the television. But even though it fails miserably at food prep, the TV has become as common in the kitchen as any power mixer or espresso maker.

"You're no more surprised to see a TV in a kitchen than a microwave," says McKee Patterson, partner at the Connecticut architectural firm Austin Patterson Disston. "It's just not a big deal anymore."

In the past, TVs were too big and clunky to fit comfortably in all but the largest of kitchens. But with the advent of flat plasma and LCD screens, you no longer have to give up valuable countertop real estate. In fact, screens have become so slim — some are just 2 to 4 inches deep — that they can go nearly anywhere.

Meanwhile, falling prices have virtually eliminated cost from the equation. "A small LCD TV is about $500. These days, anyone can have one," says Jack Borenstein, president of Ultimate Sound and Installations in New York.

Design Consideration and Planning Ahead

While it's easier than ever to squeeze in a TV, there are still some design considerations to take into account. First, since the screens tend to be smaller than those elsewhere in the house, viewing distance is critical. "You have to locate it close enough for people to see it and have easy access to it," says Barbara Laughton, vice president of Front Row Kitchens in Connecticut. Small screens — say 15 inches or less — are best mounted underneath cabinets or at the end of a counter. Larger screens can be hung on the wall or recessed into cabinetry.

Also, think up-front about who will be watching. If it's the cook, then the screen needs to be within view of the kitchen work triangle (sink, stove, and fridge). If it's the kids, then the TV should be oriented toward the breakfast bar, dining table, or other seating area. Swing arms that attach to the wall or cabinet or pull-out swivel trays help expand the options for kitchens with multiple viewing areas.

Finally, ask yourself just how important the kitchen TV is compared with others in the house. If you or your family members plan on spending a lot of time in front of it, you'll probably want to invest in a larger screen, high-quality built-in speakers, and even a DVD player.

Then again, you may not want to look at the TV at all. Another advantage of the new generation of flat-screens is how easy they are to completely hide from view. One of the more innovative ways is to install it behind a picture frame whose artwork retracts for viewing and covers the screen when the set is turned off. A still more customized approach is a mechanized system that allows the television to descend from ceiling panels or rise out of an island. But the most popular method of making the kitchen TV virtually invisible is bracketing a flat screen to the underside of cabinetry, so that it can neatly flip up and out of the way.

Plan Ahead, Hide the Wires
The TV itself is only the first step, Borenstein points out. There's also the wiring — likely to play an even bigger role as TVs inevitably combine with other functions, such as accessing the Internet. Another commonly overlooked item and necessary evil is the cable box and possibly an infrared repeater system to control the cable box when it’s hidden behind doors. And let’s not forget about the ventilation that the cable box is definitely going to require in addition to being accessible to exchange a defective box or a future upgrade to a new and improved box.

One company, iCEBOX, already makes an undercabinet television and Internet terminal rolled into one. (Not to be confused with a TV actually in an icebox — like refrigerators from Samsung and LG with 12-inch screens built right into the door.)

When embarking on a kitchen renovation, it may be wise to wire the room for video and data feeds even if kitchen tech isn't your thing. It can make your house more valuable and marketable if you decide to sell.

Perhaps one day you’re going to want to hook up your smart kitchen appliances to the internet so, let’s say the supermarket will be emailed that the milk that you scanned it’s barcode into will deliver fresh milk without you lifting a finger before you get grossed out by the smell of bad milk. What about the appliances telling you, or your service provider that it’s time to perform an earlier scheduled maintenance because your water filter will expire in a month or your stove has a gas leak.

"You have to think about running and hiding wires — give yourself or a future owner the option," says Borenstein. In situations where rewiring isn't practical, cables can be hidden behind hollow baseboard or crown moldings designed for that purpose. Some manufacturers, including Sharp and Sony, offer wireless TVs, but you still need to hook up a transmitter from a cable box or DVD player elsewhere in the house. And the technology is pricey.

As much as some purists might resist it, the kitchen television is here to stay. "It has become an appliance at this point," says Patterson. "Instead of asking clients if they want one, we just ask them where they want it."

Our thanks to: Jack Borenstein, President Ultimate Sound & Installations, Inc. 36-16 29th Street, Long Island City, NY New York [Office] 718-729-2111 www.ultimateinstallations.com