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.