Whether you’re a teacher, a doctor or a cabinetmaker, it’s sobering to subject yourself occasionally to the kind of conditions your students, patients or clients experience while in your care. The past few weeks have reminded me how disturbing a kitchen remodel can be…which seems appropriate, given that I’m working on a book about kitchens for Lost Art Press.
Mark: Where the *#@$ are the knives?
Mark: Where did you put the salt and pepper? Salt and pepper! How is it possible to forget the location of such basic things?
Me: I JUST. HAD. THAT &^$% CAST IRON GRIDDLE. WHERE DID I SET IT DOWN????
At such moments I feel a special kind of empathy for my kitchen clients: the ones who wash dishes in the bathroom sink not for weeks, but months, because they just had to have that handmade faucet from England (the one that arrived damaged and had to be replaced — apparently with plating made from nickel newly mined and shipped on a slow boat from Botswana). The ones who have to endure complaints from their smart-Alec kids (“Why are you tormenting us?” — overheard in a kitchen where Daniel O’Grady and I were working in 2005). The ones who plan their remodel in two phases stretching over a calendar year so their income can catch up with the costs, and patiently live out of boxes. And especially the ones who camp out in their basement while doing their own remodel and building their own cabinets.
Granted, our chaos is more pervasive than it should have been. We’d had this kitchen work on the horizon but hadn’t planned to let rip when we did. Mark had an unexpected opening in his schedule one morning when a client wrote to say she was seriously ill and suggested that he and his crew might prefer to avoid exposure to contagion. I leapt at the chance to get our kitchen started and (like a champ) dispersed the contents of the cabinets to the far corners of the house before work that morning.
When planning the hayrake table I built last year*, I decided to modify the original dimensions of the 1908 drawing by Ernest Gimson so that Mark and I could use it in our home. Our house has no dining room; we cook, clean up, and entertain guests in the kitchen.
It seemed like a good idea. We missed the farmhouse table in our previous kitchen, which had also served as our dining room. Even though the old enamel-topped worktable I’ve been moving around for more than 25 years worked fine for meal prep and eating, we thought it would be lovely to have a homemade table where guests would feel like guests instead of warm bodies who might be pressed into service chopping or kneading.
But as soon as we carried the table into the kitchen I realized I’d opened a can of worms. The delightful retro-style vinyl composition tile I’d put down when I first moved in (because it was affordable and I could do all the labor myself in my spare time) was an affront to the Cotswold School-style table, never mind the pair of two heart chairs based on a turn-of-the-century design by C.F.A. Voysey. That floor would have to go. The table called for flagstones softened by centuries of wear; the least we could give it was a floor of wood.
As tends to happen when you tinker with one feature of a room, we decided that if we were going to the trouble of replacing the floor (which would entail removing *everything* from the kitchen), I should strip the cabinets I’d made in my spare time, years ago, when I was using my home to experiment with unusual materials and finishes. (Translation: The finish looked like crap.)
“Well, if we’re taking out the cabinets so you can strip them, I’d like to talk about a better sink,” Mark said. The sink was a salvaged double-drain model (though, being from the ’50s, it was made of pressed metal instead of cast iron as its forebears would have been a half-century before) — perfectly serviceable, and really, quite charming, but with basins that were annoyingly shallow and too-thin enamel that had worn through in some areas, allowing the steel to rust.
And if we were going to get a better sink… Well, there went my cheerful retro linoleum counters.
A simple table brought into our home proved the tip of a shipwrecking iceberg. At lunchtime on Thursday we reached a point sufficiently up the other side of the bell curve that I thought it was time for a punch list. Wishful thinking. It looks as though there will still be a few weeks of “Where’s that *%^& pan” and “What did you do with the oregano/pasta pot/tin foil/fruit cutting board?”
Sure, I get that these are trifling inconveniences compared to going weeks without running water or months without electricity, never mind facing war, disease or starvation. But I’d forgotten just how deeply my basic ability to function — mentally as well as physically — is grounded in the orderliness of the kitchen. It really is the nexus of our home.
–Nancy Hiller, author of Making Things Work
*for a book about English Arts & Crafts furniture scheduled for publication by Popular Woodworking this June