Sunday, March 30, 2008

Using Every Space

On the kitchen side of the partial wall, I found additional storage space. Between the back splash and the lowest open shelf, I had Oak Tree create a series of one bottle-deep shelves that are perfect for oils, vinegars and spices. These things are up off the counter but within easy, unobstructed reach when cooking. I also like simply seeing the line-up of bottles. Oak Tree added the panels of bead board, which makes the niches look nice and finished even when there's nothing in them.

Faux Stone

If you've been reading my posts, you know that I didn't start building this house with a budget. I've had to consider (and make some compromises in building materials) along the way, but I now believe that all of these variations from my original ideas have resulted in a house that will better serve me rather than vice versa.

In the kitchen, I had decided to go with Corian for the counter tops, but when I started working out the details with Cindy Miller of Empire Baths & Kitchens, she strongly urged me to reconsider. Her concern was with the fact that I wanted dark counters (to blend in, even recede) in the design. She explained that Corian actually scratches and cuts fairly easily, and she believed that CaesarStone would be less expensive. Was I surprised? You bet. I've known about CaesarStone for a few years. It's a manufactured stone that's make with quartz and looks very "real."

As it turned out, she was right, and the resulting installation is beautiful. I went with a polished surface, because I like the glow and feel that they look really clean with a quick wipe. The design of the kitchen also called for back splashes behind both the stove and the sink. Here, I really wanted the material to have the look of real stone, because the back splashes are very prominent. Behind the stove it rises to just over six feet where it meets the vent hood, and behind the sink it rises to meet the first open shelf.

I chose a color of CaesarStone called Raven. It's very dark, but not severely black. I wish my photos had more detail because the material has a pleasing lightly mottled appearance, almost like fossilized remains in real stone.

For the sink I chose Kohler's simple farmhouse style. With limited space I think your one sink needs to be deep and generous in size. You can pile it with dirty dishes as well as dump in a basket of garden vegetables that need to be washed. Counter to what most people would expect in a farmhouse like mine, I chose Kohler's modern Simplice faucet. I like the bold, clean almost pipe-like shape and the easy to use single lever water control. Another unplanned surprise that I've become addicted to is the retractable spray nozzle that comes right out of the faucet. It's efficient and makes clean-up extremely easy.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Both Sides

I like to think that I know a lot about kitchen design, but I have to admit that I had the help of a kitchen designer when I planned this kitchen. Cindy Miller of Empire Baths & Kitchens in Utica, New York helped me organize the cabinetry and appliance configuration. Empire sells Plain & Fancy kitchen cabinetry, and Cindy worked with my request for open shelves and a plan that would maximize storage. The kitchen also has to function as a passage from the back door and stairway to the living/dining space on the first floor.

For over 20 years, I've worked as an editor at several shelter magazines, and I've seen an uncountable number of kitchens—some great ones worthy of publication and many forgettable ones lacking good design or cursed with poor planning. I've also had the benefit of getting to learn more than the average person about many appliance lines and cabinet manufacturers.

Plain & Fancy is a family owned business based in the Amish country of Pennsylvania. Last summer, I had the pleasure of actually visiting their factory and was surprised to find out that there was still a lot for me to learn. First and maybe most important is an explanation for "off the shelf," factory made custom, and custom cabinetry. Off the shelf cabinets are the kind that you find at sources like Ikea. Each unit of the cabinet (or box) is a predetermined size and you can outfit any space with them, but you're not necessarily getting cabinetry that "fits" your space exactly. I'm not implying that there's anything wrong with "off the shelf" cabinetry, but you don't get anything close to a custom design.

At the other end of the spectrum is custom, which is most often thought of has cabinetry made by a craftsman in his workshop, or something close to this scenario. This means that you can have made just about whatever your heart desires in just about any way possible for the craftsman. You can also expect a price you probably can't imagine.

In between is the best of both worlds. Cabinetry designed to order, but made in a factory. In the case of Plain & Fancy, imagine a woodworker's workshop but on a factory scale. My visit last summer was fascinating. The first impression was that you could literally see individual kitchen installations working their way through the factory. There was a lot of white, the owners laughing and sighing at the same time admitted that most people want some shade of white. But, I did spot something more daring in red, and a number of installations working their way through the assembly line with the occasional accent color like black or blue...or red.

The beauty of cabinetry produced this way is that you get the much better price of cabinetry made "en mass" so to speak but the almost unlimited options of cabinetry made in one man's workshop. There's also the benefit of quality control and numerous layers of supervision. All in all, you get well made, beautiful product. I chose a vinyl interior for my cabinets, because it's less expensive, and I think that cleaning and maintenance will be easier. The drawers and the cabinet interior shelves are wood. They're beautiful, but this brings me to two of my favorite details. It may be common now, but I wasn't aware of either feature. All of my lower cabinets are outfitted with shelves the slide out for easy access. Why would anyone not have these? It makes the storage much, much more usable and accessible. And, last but not least all the doors and drawers are fitted with something I think is called "soft close," meaning that nothing slams shut. When you close a door or drawer a mechanism catches them just before fully closed and slowly finishes closing with no sound. Like I said, this may be standard, or becoming standard, but I'd never experienced how blissfully quiet it makes a kitchen—especially important in a small kitchen that's so open to the rest of the living space.

The open shelves in the kitchen were made by Oak Tree, and they did a beautiful job. Again, this is another example of how important tear sheets can be during the design process. As it turned out when I organized the many magazine pages I had been accumulating I had maybe 6-8 examples of open shelf brackets, all with slightly varying designs. Mark and I looked at them closely and came up with my design. The shelves sit slightly back on the brackets to give the brackets a little more definition and help slightly break up all the horizontal lines of the all the upper shelves. We also nipped off the front bottom corner of the bracket arms, which seemed a little sharp projecting forward at eye level. I think they did a beautiful job.

Kitchen Ingredients

While the footprint and general design of my kitchen was a part of the original architectural plan. Oak Tree and I decided to wait until the house was framed and enclosed before we made the final detail plans for this area. As you can see, the kitchen is separated from the main living/dining room of the first floor, but we were able to keep it partially open to the rest of the house. When you're in the kitchen, you don't feel like you're separated from what's happening in the rest of the house, but when you're in the living/dining room, you don't feel like you're also living in the kitchen. Lower cabinets give me concealed storage, but open upper shelves allow light to flood through the space. Glassware, china and some service pieces are easily accessible, even on display.

The design of the partial wall separating the kitchen from the rest of the first floor was crucial to this working. Most importantly, during construction I was able to mock-up the lower part of the wall with plywood to determine the minimum height that the solid part needed to be so that when you are standing in the dining area, you don't find yourself looking through the open shelves and into the kitchen sink.

Last Saturday, I roasted a chicken in the house for the first time, which was almost like a christening of the kitchen. It was the first real test of functionality and just as important the experience of cooking here—everything was perfect. In this rest of this post and a few following posts, I'd like to share some of the ideas that enable it to work so well. While I have nothing against big, really tricked out kitchens, I like to think that what we've designed here is proof that something more simple can work just as well and maybe even feel special. I can't help remembering a conversation that I had with one of the architects that I met with when I was just starting to think about building a house. He had a house not that far from me and couldn't understand why I wanted to build a small-ish house, especially since it would mean a small kitchen. In his mind the kitchen needed to be big enough to accommodate a large gathering of friends when cooking. Well, if he happens to come across this blog and post, I think I've come up with a design that doesn't involve a kitchen the size of a small house with lots of unused counter space, and something that functions equally well whether I'm cooking alone or entertaining friends.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Upholstery Arrived

I've been a little too anxious to talk about it a lot, but last month I posted a photo showing swatches of the fabrics I'd ordered for the upholstery coming from Lee Industries. Seven pieces arrived a couple of weeks ago, and I have to say that they look great. I was worried, because I'm not an interior designer. Thanks to my career with shelter magazines, I've developed an eye for combining colors and patterns. But, putting together a scheme of fabrics is not as easy as it might sound. Fortunately, I've been studying the work of interior designers for over 20 years and developed a certain instinct. At least, I have a good sense for what I like.

So after pouring over hundreds of fabric samples in a to the trade showroom where Lee sells their full line in New York, I came up with a scheme of fabrics for the upholstery in the living room that was built around a beautiful silk ikat. If you're reading this before the end of March and just happen to be going to (or in) London, there's a wonderful show at the Victoria & Albert Museum on ikats from Central Asia.

The big question mark in my design plan was, would this fairly busy pattern work on a seven foot long sofa. So, what do you think? I tempered it with a pair of dark navy cotton denim covered club chairs that are fantastically comfortable without taking up a lot of room and an arm chair with a high back in a faded blue floral printed on cotton.

It's really looking great in the room. I'm sharing pictures hesitantly, because I'm not finished. TK are pillows all in the blue and white scheme but in various patterns and designs. A friend gave me a nice piece of old Fortuny, which is going to look fantastic piled on the sofa with other patterns. I'm also working on a rug and simple white cafe curtains for the windows.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Between the inside and the outdoors

I found the perfect bench for the mud room, which is actually an enclosed continuation of the side porch that connects to the back door and porch. I've definitely seen larger mud rooms, but this roughly 12' x 6' space serves fine. In my part of the world you need plenty of hooks for coats, totes and other things that tend to collect inside the exterior door you use the most. You also need a comfortable, sturdy place to sit down when removing shoes or boots.

Eric came up with a really nice design when he added a row of small square windows just above eye level in the exterior wall. They frame a great view of the mountain ridge across the valley and flood the area with light. Along the bottom of the window frame, we installed wooden pegs, and below all of this I've added Ballard Designs' Levanto 3-seat bench. It couldn't fit better. The worn black finish doesn't feel too perfect or precious, and the woven rush seat adds a great texture in the space. The side and back doors open all the way to the wall framing the bench on each side in warmer weather, so I know that this piece is going to get lots of use year round....and at the $299.95 price, it's a great find.