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.

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