When Chris Schwarz asked me to write about what he “got right” in his kitchen (as though there were anything he didn’t get “right” – insert weeping-with-laughter emoji) and what I’d do differently, my first thought was Look, it’s your kitchen. If you designed it and are happy with how it works, I have no place wading in with my two cents.
On the other hand, Chris appreciates the value of such discussion in sharpening how we see our work, whether it be photography (at which I suck, as Chris can attest) or the design of a workbench or chair. We learn by critiquing our own work and listening to the criticisms, as well as affirmation, of others.
So the first thing to say is: This is a gorgeous kitchen, and I can only imagine that Chris and Lucy are thrilled to have it. I wish I had that lofty ceiling and so much space, that glorious sink and that stove (though the six-burner La Cornue would be arguably be wasted on someone who would happily eat salad or homemade burritos with refried beans six nights a week). My husband would give his eye teeth to have a French-door-style fridge with freezer drawer below; we used to have a basic version of this type from Sears, before I made my most-expensive-purchase-ever, a Big Chill retro-style fridge, the “Surprise!” arrival of which brought us closer to breaking up than anything else has in our 14 years together. The dark blue paint is crisp as all get out, especially in contrast to the white interiors. The lacquer-free brass hardware is definitely the way to go (unless you’re emulating the in-your-face glitz of kitchens and baths from the 1980s). I applaud the preservation of the floor, complete with burn marks that record an important moment of the building’s history. And the maple counters and pantry door certainly fulfill Chris’s wish to give the kitchen a furniture maker’s touch.
But I am reasonably good at doing what I’m asked to do (if not in the case of photography), so in the interest of promoting Kochvergnuegen, here are a few points I would bring up if a client asked me for pros and cons regarding some of the details here.
Painted cabinet interiors
Cabinet interiors offer all kinds of creative opportunity. You can make them match the exterior, use contrasting colors or even apply wallpaper to the backs. In cabinets with glazed doors or open shelves you’ll get to enjoy the interior treatment all the time. But don’t ignore interiors that are closed off from regular view – a splash of color when you open the door to make coffee first thing in the morning can be just the zing you need.
I do point out to clients that opaque paint tends to show wear more than natural wood, the grain of which helps distract the eye from scratches and dents. If you’re careful about taking things out and putting them away, you’re not likely to cause significant damage – and even if you do, you can touch it up (or savor the “patina”). Alternatively, you may consider applying shelf paper to shelves or use mesh liners to prevent scratches.
Although I don’t have the dimensions of the room, it does seem to have a lot of open space in the middle. At least one person asked in the comments on Chris’s original post whether he plans to install an island. My understanding is that he does not. Were he interested in adding a central workspace, in view of his desire to respect the historic architecture of the building, I would suggest a work table rather than an island; work tables were basic fixtures of 19th-century kitchens and have the advantage of being mobile, whereas most islands do not. Islands also tend to be more massive – fine in some kitchens, but in this one, a table with drawers (and perhaps an open shelf below) would preserve the sense of open space while providing a handy staging point between the fridge and stove, in addition to a central visual focus.
Cabinets on counter
My favorite part of the Schwarz kitchen is the wall of floor-to-ceiling built-ins with a deeper central section. The one caveat I always mention to clients is that the counter in such cases becomes more decorative than functional; if you put anything on it, you have to move it to open the doors (or drawers, in this case). One way around this is to use sliding doors, as some historical cabinets do, but sliding doors have their own disadvantages. If you’re building the kitchen yourself and love this look, by all means, go for it. But if a client asked me to build solid maple counters with breadboard ends for this kind of scenario, I’d point out that they’d be paying a lot of money for a feature that’s largely decorative.
Recessed lights in ceiling
Recessed lights are practical and cost-effective, but they’re a mid- to late-20th-century intrusion on a historically inspired space. For what it’s worth, my husband adores them. If I die before he does, he’ll probably retrofit them in our kitchen ceiling, which has just one central schoolhouse fixture. Other lighting comes from a double sconce over the stove, a salvaged pendant over the sink and a couple of under-cabinet fixtures.
In Chris’s kitchen I would have suggested a central ceiling fixture with a few additional pendants, as appropriate, and task lighting under the upper cabinets (which are probably there, even though we can’t see them).
Applied end panels
The cabinets’ end panels, as well as those of the fridge housing, are made the commercial cabinetmakers’ way; they’re applied, instead of integral. This makes for a busier look, with unnecessary lines. To anyone familiar with historical built-ins, this detail says “hello, I am applied.” As someone whose livelihood depends largely on work for kitchens, I understand that making end panels this way is more efficient — and so, cost-effective — than taking the time to make them look integral to the structure. Most of the end panels in kitchens I do today are applied, but I take pains to make them look as though they’re not.
Instead of incorporating a lazy Susan in the corner to the left of the stove (see the image at the top of this post), I would have recommended sacrificing the inside corner space and providing access to that cavity from the living room. “Kitchen Think” includes a lengthy analysis of the actual footage (square and cubic) that storage devices such as lazy Susans, corner drawers and corner optimizers make available. In most cases, it’s far less than you’d imagine. And the storage area that most of these supposedly space-saving devices end up providing is less than ideal, being oddly shaped or constrained by structural parts.
When kitchen space is seriously limited (and depending on the specific types of items you want to store), a corner storage device can make sense – especially in cases where you can’t access the back of the corner from an adjacent room. This kitchen, though, has tons of storage space (at least, compared to many of my clients’ kitchens), in addition to the ideal scenario in which to make optimal use of the corner by accessing it from the neighboring room. I would have recommended a stack of narrow drawers at the left of the stove (going just to the inside corner) – a perfect spot to keep cooking utensils, a garlic press, hotpads and perhaps a drawer with a built-in knife rack (see Narayan Nayar’s elegant design in Chapter 5).
Why drawers, instead of a door? In most cases, I find drawers more practical and convenient for base cabinet storage. A door with one or two shelves inside certainly costs less to build in a professional shop, but it requires you to get down on the floor to extract things from the bottom shelf (and even from the farther reaches of shelves above that).
Similarly, I would have suggested a set of drawers to the right of the sink – depending on the width available. In a kitchen without a dishwasher, a drawer by the sink is perfect for storing silverware; where there’s a dishwasher, I’d put the silverware drawer next to it. This is also the ideal location to store dishtowels, so you can grab one when your hands are wet. The one crucial caveat to putting drawers on both flanks of an inside corner is you must make the face frame stiles wide enough to allow the drawers to bypass each other when opened – and don’t forget to factor in the protrusion of the drawer pulls! (There’s an entire chapter in the book on the subject of what Chris calls butt savers.)
Bottom line: Chris, I’m pretty sure that Mark would prefer your kitchen to ours – even without the stove.
— Nancy Hiller, author of Kitchen Think and Making Things Work
32 thoughts on “Ask and You Shall Receive”
Nancy, loved the critique. Picked up a couple of tips. Here’s one for you – on over counter doors like the floor to ceilings, I have learned to leave a couple inches, 4 or 5 is better, under the upper doors so you can set something down and still open the upper cabinet door. Save mountains of agro.
The table you suggested would be icing on the cake! Maybe Chris can do it, after that gate leg he’s working on!
Good points shared. I know this is minor, but I like the choice of trash can. I really don’t understand the phenomenon of hiding them and putting refuse in cabinets
Thanks for pointing it out! I hadn’t even noticed it, and it’s a cool looking one.
You can find some hideous debris behind, under and around some of the built in bins. Even the recycling ones can have a hideous stench if the containers thrown in haven’t been washed…… then you remove the actual cabinet unit and try not to throw up when a wall and floor covered with cockroach crap has to be scrubbed clean. The last one I did the painter had to use stain blocker before repainting the wall.
I’ve never liked those trash cans in a cabinet. A friend of mine had one. Horrible smell in warm weather. No thanks! We have a small plastic trash can in the space under the sink. Empt it every day. You can have those trash compactors too. Just one more thing to break down.
Thanks for the useful analysis here, and for the book. I dove into the pdf as soon as I received it, found it very helpful, but look forward to the book-object.
I’m very taken with the cabinets in the 4th photo, the same photo that graces the cover of Kitchen Think. I would love to know how they are constructed. Maybe they are the same as the process you outline except for the cabinet on the right. And maybe this is not a question for the comment section.
Thanks again for the book!
I appreciate your question about the construction of the upper cabinet in that photo (assuming that’s the one you mean). Great idea for another post. I’ll write it up with some illustrations at some point in the next few days. Thanks for the suggestion!
That’s the cabinet that piqued my interest, and made me wonder if they were all constructed differently–no face frames, slab sides? Whatever is going on is thoroughly interesting, and I would be delighted to read a post on it.
Give me a few days to dig up some old drawings and put it together.
This kitchen could use some kitsch! A vintage egg cup display or obsolete kitchen utensils screwed to the wall might help offset the serious mood of the blue cabinets. Kidding aside, the only thing wrong here is it’s done. Most woodworkers live in incomplete kitchens with missing doors and “temporary” plywood counters. Congratulations and happy cooking!
Great analysis Nancy. I especially am taken with the applied ends of cabinets. I’ve never thought about that before — and now I’ll never be able to unsee it.
Thanks for a thought provoking piece. One question about wood counters though. When picking a wood for a kitchen counter, presumably there is some set of trade offs between looks, how easily it might get banged up by routine use, the chance of water damage, other design preferences, and cost. Do you have any thoughts on this?
Lots of thoughts, and I’m sure Chris has his own, as well. There’s a discussion of this in the section about counters in the book, which touches on species of lumber and finishes.
Thanks very much. I’ll take a look.
Re: Islands. When we lived in Buffalo, we didn’t have an island. The house we bought here in Californication had an island. The house had been vacant for two years (foreclosure). It need a lot of work. Needless to say we bought it just as the Real Estate Burst Balloon was at it’s lowest…we got it for, like, 30 cents on the dollar. The contractor we hired had good design sense. He modified the island by making it about 12 inches deeper. To support the granite top (it would have cracked if unsupported) he built a three section bookcase to fit underneath the overhang. Three equal width sections. White wine on the left, red on the right and cookbooks in the middle. Since we had no intention of using this as an impromptu dining space, it works out well.
Totally agree about drawers instead of cabinets in base units. When I did our kitchen I built two humongous drawers that hold stacks of bowls, pots, pans, etc. Much easier to reach in and pull out a stack of bowls from a drawer than from down on my hand and knees trying to reach the back corner of the cabinet.
One of the things I wanted to do when we moved to Californication was to have a walk-in refrigerator and walk-in freezer. Sadly, Marge nixed my idea. She said that there was no way she would give up the living room for those.
Re: islands, I cook in two kitchens currently (one has an island, one doesn’t) and I don’t think they are as important as people seem to think. They are a good place for people gathering (if that is your thing) and also a great place for collecting clutter. But in terms of prep space, I mostly work next to the sink and stove and rarely prep on the island and don’t miss it when I am cooking at my vacation condo (which has no island).
Worktable is a brilliant idea!
One of the hats I used to wear was as a service tech for high end appliances. I state that to state I have seen an awful lot of kitchens in my life. The one constant complaint I’ve heard is not enough light. The pictures show the kitchen in ambient lighting. So I don’t know what hidden lights are present. LED’s today allow for great hidden light options that allow great light but can not be seen when off. Also Chris a question: Are you minimalist cook? The number of electrical appliances used today requires at least two duplex plugs per counter space about two feet apart for ease of use.
I use few gizmos. All of them store away when not in use.
The room has about eight LED can lights. It was the only option because the ceiling is a little less than 8′.
I’m going to disagree with Mark about the refrigerator. We have the French doors with the bottom freezer and I hate it. I’m 6’ 5” and digging in the freezer is a pain in my backside. But since the women in the house are short and outnumber me I have to live with it.
The kitchen as a whole is gorgeous though.
We got the largest side-by-side refrigerator we could. Freezer left, ‘frodge right with an ocemaket and a water filter. I.love it! Gas cook top. Only thing I wish I could change is the electric double oven. I’ve always used a gas oven with a gas broiler. At the time we couldn’t find a gas oven. Our contractor straighten me out on one point. Before, I had the microwave on a shared service. He said it had to be on a dedicated line. Viola! No circuit breaker pops! All in all, I’m happy. Lots of storage space (even have a spring balanced lift shelf for the stand mixer… bloody thing weighs a ton!)
Have you heard of the 3 x 4 counter rule? I learned about it in the book Cooking for Geeks, pp 72. It says you need 3 distinct countertop spaces each 4 feet wide. One is for prepping raw ingredients, the second is for finished dishes, and the third is for dirty dishes. I look at Mr. Schwarz’s kitchen and can’t figure out where I’d make those spaces. For prep, I’d prefer between a space between the sink for washing produce and the stove, for finished dishes I think somewhere between the stove and the dining area, and for dirty dishes something next to the dishwasher. Anyway, I thought I’d share the idea because I think it’s something I’ve found to be critical in any kitchen I’ve cooked in.
That’s a lovely rule for ideal scenarios, but the overwhelming majority of us don’t live in such circumstances, so we do our best (gratefully) with what we have. Goodness only knows how our forebears, most of whom had no counters at all, survived! But thankfully, they did.
It’s funny because my most functional kitchen was actually in one of my worst apartments right out of school. It was a galley kitchen that had those 3 spaces naturally and I was surprised how efficient it was only to learn about the rule later and how it matched my experience in that space. I also make do with the layout I have today even if it’s not ideal! I have no logical place to put dirty dishes so they’re always in the way.
I don’t know if the 3 x 4 rule is well known but I certainly think it’s more important than the kitchen triangle you often hear about. I thought I’d share it to help others when thinking about their kitchens and their workflow.
Looking forward to reading your book when I plan our mother-in-law kitchen.
Out here in Californication, we’ve learned a few tips:
1.) Secure valuable, heavy items ([like a China Cabinet] to the wall studs with two or three “L” shaped brackets. In an earthquake, the Cabinet won;’t tip over.
2.) secure cabinets with Child Safety Sliding Cabinet Locks. Same reason as above.
Gotta say I love this critique! So much to learn from in the discussion. I think the comments about the worktable miss the obvious fact that chris will have one or two of his workbenches in the kitchen at any given time… probably just moved them to the side to take the pics. Anarchist cookbook here we come! You know you want to!
I will definitely buy Chris’s cookbook when it comes out. And there are a couple of kitchens in Kitchen Think that have woodworking benches in them.
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