A craftsman whose work I have long admired recently mentioned that he’d noticed lots of kitchens in my Instagram feed and asked whether I enjoy the work or just do it to pay the bills.
“A friend in advertising gave me this advice,” he continued. “’Only show what you want to sell,’ so I have no kitchen photos, and slowly transitioned entirely into furniture.”
My answer to his question: I do enjoy building kitchens—in fact, I love it—and I do it to pay the bills. It’s because I have bills to pay that I’ve cultivated the ability to make my work lovable.
I am one of those people who thrive on necessity. Were I independently wealthy, I would likely vacillate between paralyzing depression and the kind of perfectionism that prevents some of us from completing anything. Like the strictest teachers, necessity is my ally as well as my taskmaster.
“I hated working outside the shop,” the long-admired craftsman added by way of elaboration. “Invariably there was always a tool I’d forgotten, and I detested working on my knees. Also dealing with crooked walls, sloping floors, and supervising customers.”
My knees and I can relate to all of this (especially at my own age of 59, when I am receiving unsolicited mail from purveyors of hearing aids).
Working on a jobsite takes you into a realm where you are not in charge. It’s like captaining a sailboat on the Great Lakes. You have to roll with what comes, whether that means scribing cabinets to a madly sloping floor/wall/ceiling, improvising in the tool department, or responding to a customer’s comment out of left field. (My favorite example of the latter comes from Ben Sturbaum of Golden Hands Construction, one of the wittiest carpenters I know, who answered a French customer’s criticism of his kitchen trim installation with “Do not judge my soufflé before it is finished.”)
Remodeling a kitchen is a hefty proposition at the best of times. On almost every job, there comes a point where I wonder why I take on such work. To continue the comparison with sailing, it’s that moment when the captain props her eyes open with toothpicks to enable an all-night traverse across the vastness before an approaching storm. Between the sheer scale of most kitchen jobs, the centrality of the kitchen to the customers’ daily life–you will be held responsible for the inconvenience of dishwashing in the bathtub, as well as for the fine layer of dust that inevitably circulates around the house, even with excellent dust barriers, though I wonder how much of that dust simply results from the cessation of house cleaning while a major remodel is underway–and the out-of-your-shop/comfort-zone reality of installing and trimming out built-ins, building a kitchen is an odyssey in the truest sense of that word. It will challenge your patience, your improvisational abilities, and maybe most importantly, your capacity for bending your will to necessity.
And that’s exactly what I love—though I should add that I love it partly because I don’t do kitchens all the time but intersperse them with freestanding furniture, design, teaching, and writing. The variety keeps me sane. I know this because I spent many years building furniture and cabinetry without the respite of writing and design.
But even more than the challenges of kitchen work, I love the opportunity kitchens offer to work with context. I’ll save that for next time.–Nancy Hiller, author of Making Things Work.
For a detailed look at some of the decisions that went into this kitchen’s design, click here.