A Kitchen Remodel in Real Time, Part 3: Design


Elements of this kitchen’s design. The subway tile is not definite yet but is among the elements Ben and Jenny have had in mind from the start.

The big picture

As with methods of building cabinetry, there may well be as many potential takes on designing the kitchen for a particular house as designers who might be hired for the job. My own starting points include the clients’ preferences and the architectural context.

This kitchen is for a 1959 ranch originally built for a middle-class family. While decidedly modest (not shouting Hey, I’m cool! Look at me!), it incorporates some classic mid-century modern features. There’s an asymmetrical façade and stepped roof with generous overhangs at front and back. Inside, the kitchen cabinets are set into bulkheads. There’s streamline casing on windows and doorways. The floors are a mix of plain- and rift-sawn oak. The layout is split-level, with public rooms (living room and kitchen) on the main/entry floor, a short flight of stairs going up to the three original bedrooms and a full set of stairs to the walk-out basement, which has a laundry room, bedroom (added several years ago) and storage.

I don’t have access to pictures of the original kitchen, but in this case the missing information is immaterial. The clients didn’t want to recreate the kind of retro kitchen typical of local mid-century modest ranches.

Heersen Trinidad kitchen

A mid-century classic. Most of this cabinetry is original to this kitchen, whose owners hired me several years ago to help with a few repairs and missing details. The original counters had been replaced; these red laminate counters with period-authentic metal edgings were fabricated by Laminated Tops. (General contractor: Golden Hands Construction)

Instead, as I’ve described in previous posts (here and here), they hoped to integrate the kitchen at least somewhat with the living room, as well as make it feel warmer and lighter. Replacing the hard, cold tile floor with oak run continuously from the living room will make a huge difference in perceived warmth. Skylights will bring in more natural light, and replacing the barely functional dark cabinets with clear-finished white oak will further enhance the warming and lightening effect.

I give clients all the pros and cons I can think of concerning every detail, from hinges to toekicks, and then I give my own opinion, assuring them that the decisions are ultimately theirs to make. I also think it’s important at least to broach the subject of resale appeal in kitchen design discussions. (Whether or not you have this discussion, you can be sure your clients’ family or friends will bring it up; at least if you’ve already run them through it, they will be better able to stand their ground in the face of know-it-all second-guessers.) Real estate agents and other pros have reams of advice, but I find the overwhelming majority of it useless (not to mention boring; who wants to live with a room designed for the lowest common denominator?). You can’t read the minds of future buyers. The fact is, an awful lot of people — perhaps the majority, these days — are determined to redo the kitchen when they buy a place, even if the existing kitchen was recently done; it’s a way of making their own statement. So if you’re jonesing for a kitchen based on the original cabinets of your 1915 bungalow, or your heart is set on a vision of teal, aquamarine and green…well, you can probably tell where this is going.


Kitchen in a 1915 bungalow, Indianapolis. Newly built cabinets based on a surviving original built-in, reclaimed heart pine counters, a reproduction sink and faucets and refinished original maple floor. The leaded glass windows are also original. (No cries of complaint about the beer bottle, please! It was not mine, but the client’s from the night before.)

Parks kitchen 1

My business did this kitchen for Carol and Roger Parks in 2006. Daniel O’Grady and Jerry Nees worked on the job with me. Carol chose the color scheme, which includes emerald-green glass cabinet knobs, in response to the original glass wall tiles; she had the floor painted with a quilt-inspired pattern. The base cabinets are cherry, the uppers finished with milk paint sealed with oil-based polyurethane. Regarding the durability of the finish, when I had the kitchen photographed in 2018, thanks to gracious permission from the current homeowners, the cabinets and floor of this hard-working, well-used room were in excellent condition. (General contractor: Golden Hands Construction Photo: Spectrum Creative Group)

Cabinet design

Jenny and Ben have three children and really use their kitchen, so when considering materials, I put durability at the forefront. White oak faces would be fairly bullet-proof, and the grain’s a champ at distracting the eye from scratches, dents and other signs of wear. I suggested straightforward lines for the cabinets in the main preparation area. But wanting to distinguish the cabinets from the ubiquitous take on mid-century style produced by the more commercial shops in our area, I suggested a few tweaks: Instead of fully recessed kicks, we’d have a more “carpentery” design, with stiles going to the floor to accentuate the cabinets’ structure. Using adjustable European hinges and drawer slides, I could fit the cabinets with inset doors and drawer faces while staying within the budget. For optimal durability, I’ll have the cabinets sprayed with conversion varnish by my finishing subcontractor.

When it came to designing the shallow cabinets for the opposite wall, which forms the transition between entry area and living room to kitchen, I couldn’t bring myself to repeat the same design. I wanted these cabinets to be less “workerly,” more appropriate to this liminal space. I have a vivid memory of a stacking set of small, circular wooden boxes my parents had in the early 1960s; they may have been Japanese. I was mesmerized by their form and finish — enamel paint in mid-century versions of yellow, red and green, each with a rounded black rim. This built-in — part kitchen, part entry area — seemed an ideal place to incorporate such an aesthetic.

Milk paint

I suggested milk-paint for this cabinet because it lends itself to so many textural finishes. For the carcases, blocks of different colors will be framed by narrow solid lippings painted black. Full-overlay doors and drawer faces will have black edges. The kick will be fully recessed and painted black. The clients will choose a mix of colors and finish effects — perhaps single-color, perhaps layered — and I will have the whole thing sprayed with topcoats of conversion varnish for durability.


A few of the possible colors, all from Real Milk Paint: Beachglass, Boardwalk, French Gray and Granny Smith green.


Another possible color combination


The textured two-layer treatment in the red/gold sample recalls similar effects in this painting by Paul Klee.  What does a 1922 painting have to do with mid-century design, you wonder? I was born in the year my current clients’ house was built. In the early 1960s our parents had a print of “Senecio” in the living room. Many expressions of “high culture” in the pre-internet 20th century (such as works by artists and architects) did not become widely known and influential on popular style until decades after their original production. This is another aspect of kitchen design that gets a workout in the section of my book on period kitchens. (Image: Phaidon)

Cabinet hardware and counters

The door and drawer pulls (in the picture at the top of the post) are from Schoolhouse. Hanging open shelves over the sink area will retain the openness between the kitchen and living room while adding extra space for storage and decorative objects. The counters will likely be a dark gray soapstone.

— Nancy Hiller, author of Making Things Work

About nrhiller

cabinetmaker and author
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to A Kitchen Remodel in Real Time, Part 3: Design

  1. Thank you for sharing this project with us Nancy. It’s nice to see your process! I think to compliment your upcoming book, you should also release a workbook with those plastic, removable “stickers.” It could contain bare rooms, different style cabinets, and parts “stickers.” Build a kitchen with Nancy!

  2. I’m quite enjoying following along with this project. Thanks for sharing the photos but also your thought and decision-making process.

  3. Mattias Hallin says:

    I very much agree with previous comments: this is a very interesting project to follow, both in and of itself, and because of the behind-the-scenes discussions of the process and thinking that goes into it! Thank you very much, Nancy, but also a big thanks to Jenny and Ben and their family for virtually allowing us into their home!

Comments are closed.