The most important room in a house, is arguably, the kitchen. Not only to satisfy the building inspector who won’t let us live without one anymore, but to satisfy our own creative appetites. We want them to be special, ample, with lots of storage and modern conveniences. Because we love the old, we want them to be traditional and charming, as personal and unique as we are. The trick today is to incorporate all of the new conventions into the old house. The early builder could never have foreseen the evolution of the modern appliance! The ten foot wide hearth, with its iron pots and utensils, and large brick bake oven, was more than ample for the early homeowner’s needs.
Needless to say, the huge old hearth is not for cooking anymore. We’ve long since forgotten how to cook over the open fire, or how long to keep an arm in the oven to gauge temperature. We use electricity or gas rather than wood for cooking, and dials rather than arms for setting temperatures. While they used open shelving, and an occasional cupboard for storage, today we crave lots of cabinetry to house all of our “stuff.”
We want a designated cabinet to house the mixer, or an “appliance lift” to make it easy on our backs; a space to hide the coffee maker, or the microwave, behind a custom retractable door; a slide out trash compartment, with bins for separating trash and recyclables; a tray cabinet beside the stove; a drawer with compartments for cutlery and knives; a drawer for spices; shelves that glide out of the cabinet for easy access to pots and pans; “lazy susans” to take up that wasted space that occurs in corners where two cabinets meet. Added to all of this is a stove – often in two parts, or three – a cooktop and one or two separate ovens; a refrigerator which is often way too deep; a dishwasher, and sundry other appliances. All are usually in stainless steel, and all combine to create an enormous challenge in trying to capture the atmosphere of 18th century living!
That old hearth is a place for reflection now, a place to consider how far we’ve come and how far we want to go. The new kitchen can be incorporated subtly into the old keeping room, or preferably, in a wing off the house entirely. It can be designed using all of the same ingredients of the old house –wood floors, perhaps beamed ceilings, crown mouldings, raised panel doors, iron hardware. Putting them tastefully together, thinking like the early craftsman, copying his craftsmanship, even using some of his tools, helps us to achieve the look that works seamlessly with the original house.
The end result should be a room that will feel, when you walk into it, like a logical continuation of the old, or at the very least, part of the natural evolution of the earlier house.
Henry Francis Dupont said of his design at Winterthur, that no one thing should stand out when you enter a room, essentially, everything should carry its own weight. That is true about kitchens as well – so good luck with the refrigerator! And the stove, and the ovens! Well, we’ve dealt with these for many years. While they are challenging, they are not impossible. It is never a perfect solution, but a pretty good one. We do live in the 21st century after all, another evolution in design, which is not always kind to the 18th century. We certainly don’t want to use chrome and glass or melamine and formica. Well, we don’t want a lot of things.
But what we do want are classical designs using the same elements that attracted us to the house in the first place. The natural elements that keep us grounded, that remind us we are of the earth and want to remain in touch with it.
Clay, wood, plaster, stone, glass, and a few variations on those themes, as close to what is found in original colonial homes, will keep any new room in tune with the old. Wood cabinets, plaster walls, brick or stone fireplaces and hearths, material selection is of utmost importance, as is the proportion and balance of design. (I overuse that term, but it is everything!) We are in a constant struggle between fitting in what the customer wants and what the house will not be overwhelmed by. We don’t want to walk into the kitchen and have it scream at us –“I am a kitchen, and the most important room in your house!”
It should be a pleasant, useful space, whose cabinetry and woodwork do not overwhelm with over-design. It is easy for a homeowner to be seduced by the array of cabinetry and gadgets on display in a kitchen showroom. From the simpler Shaker style to European extravagance, a homeowner can be overwhelmed and end up “picking” a style they like right there on the floor, rather than one that works seamlessly within the context of their own home.
We purchase a home because we love its style, and recognize its possibilities. That’s important to remember, and stick to, when choosing a kitchen design. Custom design is worth it, to know that the cabinetry will be designed specifically for our working space needs, and fit seamlessly into our style of home. Nothing will stand out. The cabinetry and woodwork will feel like it was always there, contributing to, rather than distracting from, the charm of the colonial home.