My most recent commission, a built-in for the living-room alcove of a 1920s house, has been as rewarding to design and build as it has been a challenge with respect to budgetary constraints and safety during a pandemic.
My clients, Anke Birkenmaier and Roman Ivanovitch, have a minimalist modern aesthetic, with hardwood floors, pale walls and modernist furniture, some of it from the mid-20th century. Their home’s exterior is solidly American Foursquare, with painted clapboards, original windows and the original front porch, which has a limestone foundation and several limestone steps up from grade. Inside, the original plainsawn oak trim remains, some of it stripped of paint applied by a former homeowner. In contrast, the fireplace surround is more forward-looking in historical terms, a Jazz-Age design with geometric motifs. This focal point provided precedent for something more streamlined than the original built-ins that are typical of my clients’ neighborhood.
Roman is a professor of music. A piano presides over about a third of the living room’s floorspace. Anke is a professor of Spanish. The cabinetry would store musical scores, sheet music, CDs, family board games and lots of books.
I draw inspiration from all sorts of historical sources, but in this case one particular built-in came to mind: a wall of cabinetry and open shelves I’d long admired in a book given to me decades ago, “Contemporary Furniture: An International Review of Modern Furniture, 1950 to the Present,” by Klaus-Juergen Sembach. The modular ensemble was designed by Mogens Koch, a Danish architect whose designs are still produced today. Koch was in his early years of professional practice when what is now my clients’ house was built.
The orderly divisions of the upper section appealed to me and seemed ideal for the kinds of music-related books I’d seen on the freestanding shelves when I first visited the house. After I drew the piece to scale the clients suggested they’d like walnut for the lower cabinets and paint for the uppers.
Unlike those who built Koch’s designs in solid hardwood, with traditional exposed joinery, I was working with a budget that required me to use affordable materials, as well as choose carefully how I invested my time. The final built-in reflects the following considerations:
- 1″-thick slab doors are far quicker to make than frame-and-panel doors and complement the streamlined aesthetic.
- Because they’re quick to install and facilitate adjustment, European hinges are considerably less costly than traditionally mortised butt hinges, which feature in many Mogens Koch designs.
- The casework for the base sections with doors is made using an efficient method, from 3/4″ prefinished veneer-core maple plywood with solid walnut faces (using the same basic technique as I describe for kitchen cabinets in “Kitchen Think”). The central base section with open shelves for sheet music is made from 1/2″-thick walnut-veneered veneer-core ply, the shelves fitted in dados.
- The upper sections are made from Baltic birch plywood, which could be painted without requiring solid lippings or veneered edges.
A Few Aesthetic Details Worth Noting
- For dynamic rhythm I divided the space into three sections across its 96-1/2″ width.
- 1/2″-thick shelves and verticals (instead of my customary 3/4″) preserve the lightness of the Mogens Koch design. Where verticals are doubled up between modules, the extra thickness visually emphasizes the structure.
- The ensemble has a strong central focus, with a section of the upper cabinetry subdivided for CDs, a 1-3/4″ bump-out at the base, and graduated horizontal lines of open shelves for sheet music.
- Each of the uppermost three sections increases in height toward the top for happy proportions.
- To lighten the appearance of this large built-in, the kicks are slightly recessed.
– Nancy Hiller, author of “Kitchen Think” and “Making Things Work.”
28 thoughts on “Notes of Danish Modern”
Since this is a built in piece of furniture. I would like to know why you did not fill in the gap at the top of the bookcase. That area above the top shelves and the ceiling seems to be a loss. Would it have been better to have finished off that gap or is there a design reason not to do that. I really am interested in if that is a good idea to finish off that area with trim scribed to the ceiling as I am building a full wall of shelves in a room in my house.
I was thinking the along the same lines…
Carl, thanks for your question. As always, I gave considerable thought to how the top of the piece might best intersect with its surroundings. My default setting is to build up to the ceiling, with some type of context-appropriate trim scribed to fit. But default settings, like rules, should be questioned by anyone who does custom work.
In this case my original plan was for the upper section to finish several inches lower, leaving about 8″ above. Not only would that have looked more intentional (though it would in fact have been no more intentional than what I ended up doing; it would simply have made questions such as yours less likely) — it would also have made it easier to dust the top. When the clients suggested that we make the central lower section of the painted shelves tall enough to accommodate CDs, I had to increase the height by a few inches. I didn’t want to take the extra space away from the upper rows of shelves, as those spaces were already relatively low for a bookcase. I discussed this and more with the clients, who were fine with the shallower space on top.
From a logistical perspective, in view of the budget concerns and my interest in expediting the installation to minimize inconvenience to our clients, I thought it would be helpful not to try to fit this piece on all four edges. Sure, an applied moulding at the top would have been relatively simple to add, but I was already pushing the limits of the budget before the clients added to the cost by asking me to take on the painting. (To clarify, the charges for painting will be on top of the originally agreed-upon charges, but even so, it’s a significant chunk of change when clients are paying a professional rate, as distinct from when one is building something for oneself.)
Just as important to me, however, is the aesthetic effect of holding the top down a few inches from the ceiling: Doing so keeps the piece from overwhelming the space. It lets the room continue to assert itself as the larger “container” in which this undeniably large piece (8′ wide by a little over 8′ tall) exists. Others may think differently, of course, but to my eye, allowing the room that last bit of presence enhances the harmony of the piece in its context.
I took a screenshot of the piece and roughly edited it to make the gap / shadow at the top filled in with white, to see how it might look extended to the ceiling. It is interesting how a detail like that makes such a difference in the overall aesthetic of the room.
I like the space at the top. It’s just big enough to cast a shadow, which I think draws attention to the piece and helps add dimension. I also like the wood/paint combo. Very nice!
Personally I like the gap at the top. I have learned that rooms feel larger when you can see the corners – and the ceiling corner counts. Any kind of crown moulding would be out of character for the piece. I think Nancy’s solution is the most appropriate for the piece.
Struck me as a dust trap.
Of course. That’s the response we’ve all been trained to have. In fact, however, there is room to get a vacuum hose with a low-level attachment into the space for dusting. The shadow above is so important to the piece’s visual presence. And, if I’m honest, my eyes have been scarred by exposure to clumsy examples of determination to block off the spaces above cabinets with huge boards, soffits, or mouldings; they rob so many built-ins of a grace they would have if this rule of thumb had not been made into dogma.
To my mind, there is a great and important difference between a “dust trap” of this kind in a kitchen and in any other location in a home.
In a kitchen, the combination of dust and fat (and no matter how good your kitchen fan is, there will always be fat particles floating around and settling wherever they can) will over time build up to something in equal measure disgusting and difficult to remove. (Don’t ask me how I know.)
In any other room, yes, dust will settle on the tops of bookshelves and any other tall pieces of furniture and, because unseen unless you stand on something, will be out of sight and therefore also likely be out of mind. However, once you do mind them, as long as you can get in there with a vacuum hose (and preferably a suitable brush attachment), they will disappear in a jiffy – it’s just dust. And in the meantime, because it is out of sight, you won’t be bothered by that wee bit of dust (unless you are visited by a drill sergeant or cartoon-style inlaws that will check on your dusting with white gloves).
Dusting issues aside, I find this an absolutely gorgeous piece of work! I particularly love the way the upper sections, because they’re painted white, seem to just flow out of the walls of the niche. Most impressive and truly lovely! Your clients are lucky indeed!
And although it is of course not entirely straightforward to imagine what it would have looked like with some sort of board or moulding to bock off the top few inches, for my part I think you made just the right call here by leaving it open to create that very pretty shadow.
Amen – a caulked and painted crown looks good until the weather changes. Then looks like amateur hour.
Just curious but was there any consideration of adding a soffit?
I’ve addressed this in my detailed reply to Carl.
I really like the design and it has a lot of flexibility built into and yet avoids any adjustable shelfs.
I hope you are in good health.
There’s no adjustable shelves! ❤️
Ah, the narrow wide shelves to house the Henle’s and other Urtext editions. Yes, I can tell a music professional lives there. Question on that section, though: it appears those shelves must be extremely deep and most Henle or similar editions aren’t much over 9 or 10″ deep the direction they are stacked in the above photograph. Is the shelf for these blocked off at the back so things can’t get pushed back and lost, or are they on some sort of slides so you can access the back?
Beautiful work, as always.
The depth is not blocked off. There’s no telling what the next occupants of this house will put on these shelves. This piece is not designed to be the be-all-and-end-all of music professional storage, and the budget limited how crazy I could go in terms of cool customization. This, along with our awareness of constantly changing recording technologies, will also explain why the subdividing shelves in the CD compartments are removable. The entire upper section is 12″ deep, overall; the base cabinetry is around 23″.
Congratulations, that is an excellent piece! Although done for budgetary reasons I especially respond to the white upper cabinet and think it is more successful than if it was matching to the base cabinet.
Thanks, Gary. The use of paint-grade materials for the upper was not a response to limited budget. The clients chose the contrasting materials purely for aesthetic reasons. It was their idea (a detail I mention by way of giving credit where it’s due), and I love how it came out!
I find these posts so inspiring. Thank you for posting your beautiful work and the amazing level of thoughtfulness you put into it.
Considering everything you had to contend with on this project, you did an excellent job. The unit full of books and CDs looks fantastic! I hope your clients are happy, compared to the before set-up they had, this is a HUGE upgrade both in terms of functionality and aesthetics.
Wow! I love the shadows at the top.
Are the slab doors solid or ply? I ask because while I like the look of slab doors, commercial veneers are so thin I always worry about their durability. That said, with solid slabs I worry about them staying flat. Curious which way you went.
These are solid walnut. I made them 1″ thick, net, for stability. Walnut is a pretty stable species, so I’m counting on these doors, which are relatively narrow, at about 15″ apiece, staying close to flat.
This looks great, which is not surprising. We have a small alcove that’s not wide but quite deep beside our fireplace. I’ve been staring at it for almost three years trying to figure out a shelving solution for CDs, records, & various media players. This helps & I’ll check out the designers you mentioned as well.
Mogens Koch is easily in my top five designers of all time. Anyone known for a piece just called “The Book Case” (1928) has got to be a boss. Nancy you have captured that aesthetic perfectly. As always the execution is spot on and I appreciate you speaking to the realities of the work, schedule, clients, budget. Only those of us who do this for money understand.
And FWIW the open space at the top is the only way to handle it and be true to the concept. Thanks for the glimpse inside.
I have to make a cupboard into an alcove so may I ask how you got around the skirting boards. Did you cut these out or did you shape the cupboard around them?
The rule of thumb is to remove baseboards and other trim, then cut them to fit the built-in. In this case, as I described in the post at Fine Woodworking (which is linked to the post here), it was more practical to cut one side of the baseboard to fit while it was still nailed in place. I recommend removing, then cutting, whenever possible, as doing so will give you the cleanest fit.
I like the gap. It draws attention to the unit. it’s brave to do this, though!
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