Editor’s note: Aside from my family, my three deepest passions in life are woodworking, food and music. Almost every night I cook a meal while listening to music and surrounded by the things I’ve built. I have deep-seated philosophies about kitchens and kitchen tools that parallel my writings on shops, tools and workbenches. So after talking to Nancy Hiller about her approach to kitchens and cabinets, I knew we had to do a book together on this topic.
It will be a book that seeks to overturn the decades of “rip it out” advice you get from television, magazines, books and the Internet. It will be a be a book for people who would rather build than buy. And who want their kitchen to be in harmony with their house, their families and their lives. And so let me turn things over to Nancy.
— Christopher Schwarz
Kitchen cabinets are the poor step-sister of the furniture making world. You know – the homely one with a sixth-grade education who processes fish for a living and always seems to have that smell.
“He builds cabinets,” sniffed one of my woodworking friends a few years back, referring to an acquaintance. The statement was nowhere near as straightforward as those three simple words might suggest. He spoke with a pained expression, lowering his voice to a near-whisper when he got to “cabinets.” Clearly this was some kind of shameful secret; building cabinets made the acquaintance…well, you know, not a real woodworker. He might as well have been telling me the guy’d been caught in flagrante with a blow-up doll.
“Why would I want to build plywood boxes when I could be building 18th-century highboys?” remarked another woodworking friend. The question was rhetorical, more a way of announcing that he’d broken into the East Coast market for period Americana and so escaped the obscurity of the rural workshop where he’d spent years building cabinets, millwork and furniture for the local market.
You get the picture. Among woodworkers, kitchen cabinets are the Zero Bar to the highboys’ Lindt truffle: a species of work beneath those with refined taste and higher skills.
One wall of the kitchen Daniel and I did in Washington, D.C., in 2006, described in the story “Daniel” in Making Things Work.
Most woodworkers who build cabinets do so for the same reason as our furniture-making forebears built coffins in addition to tables and chairs: because they offer a source of income that helps even out the road between freestanding furniture commissions. It’s easy to look down on built-ins when your livelihood doesn’t depend on woodworking, or when you are:
• Your woodworking venture is subsidized by a spouse’s income
• You’ve tapped into a rich vein of market popularity
Not everyone is so fortunate.
How did the lowly kitchen cabinet become a friend to many who trained as furniture makers, imagining we’d spend our days hand cutting dovetails and French polishing meticulously inlaid cutlery canteens? The answer has as much to do with publishing, advertising and banking as with wood and tools. Ultimately it boils down to the commodification of the home.
We’re talking real estate. Home ownership today is light years away from that of 200, 100 or even 70 years ago, when the people who owned what’s now my acre of semi-rural land cut down some trees, dug up some rocks and built themselves a simple board-and-batten-sided cabin worthy of Snuffy Smith. Today a massive industry surrounds home ownership, from Realtors (yes, that term is trademarked and officially requires an upper-case “R”) and appraisers to title companies, banks and building inspectors. There has been a serious shift during the past century in how many of us think of our homes: They no longer simply represent shelter and a central base for family, but are the largest financial investment most of us will ever make – one that, with luck, may increase our wealth at a rate that leaves inflation panting breathlessly in the dust.
As with any investment, we’re urged to put ourselves in the hands of expert advisers. And there’s an army of them out there. Take the wildly popular hosts of home improvement shows on HGTV (please, take them) – that cast of smiling, perfectly groomed characters eager to instruct you in the magical art of transforming a hovel into an “urban oasis” or liberating yourself from the corporate rat race by hitching a ride on the house-flipping bandwagon. Take the legions of salespeople at home stores across the nation, who will gladly guide you through one cabinet display after another until you’re dizzy from over-exposure to CNC-routed fretwork, dedicated mixer cabinets with lift-up stands and decorative wine racks. Take the web-based magazines with their daily examples of designer ideas to “steal” and big-name-brand “hacks.” Or that modern means to keep yourself forever in debt, the home equity loan, advertisements for which have long encouraged us to treat our houses as ATMs.
To be a contemporary homeowner is to feel an almost moral obligation to spend money on your house. Never mind how your friends may judge your taste on seeing you still have that Laura Ashley “Dandelion” wallpaper from circa 1983; there’s a sense that if you’re not religiously “updating,” you may be losing financial ground.
I hung this Laura Ashley “Dandelion” wallpaper in the kitchen of the first house my husband and I bought, a skinny terrace (row) house in a working-class neighborhood of the English city Reading. How I loved that wallpaper.
One result of this topsy-turvy mindset is that customers are generally more willing to shell out tens of thousands of dollars on something they believe will increase the value of their house than on a piece of freestanding furniture. Built-in cabinets even fall into a different category in the world of sales tax: They are “improvements to real estate.” People rationalize them as an investment. That artisan-made dining table? Arguably a frivolous buy in comparison.
Of course, you can only get the value of a kitchen remodel out of a house so many times. Property values in most regions don’t increase at anything like the rate that would be necessary to cover the tens (sometimes hundreds) of thousands spent on kitchens. And then there’s the troublesome fact that new cabinets installed as part of a kitchen update undertaken to help sell a house are routinely ripped out by the new homeowners, only to be replaced by something more in line with their own taste. Never mind the so-called “green design” professional who encourages you to tear out your laminate counters and replace them with a “sustainable” composite incorporating recycled glass. The preoccupation with updating results in a mind-boggling amount of waste. These are real-world caveats that some of us point out to prospective clients as we urge them to think about what they really want and need, as distinct from what other experts (and friends, and relatives) are telling them they should want. Despite being urged repeatedly by contractors to blow out the walls of their 1910s kitchens per the dictates of “open concept” design, I have found clients almost giddy with relief at encountering a professional who appreciates the value of rooms.
That said, I understand the desire for a change of scene, a shift in tone. There are ways to rework your kitchen without spending a fortune or increasing the elevation of your local landfill. The first requirement is simply to think. In this process, context is your friend. I’m talking about context broadly understood: where you are in life; what resources you have access to in terms of money, unusual materials or time; the architectural style of your home; and so forth. For the past 20 years I have made my living largely by working with clients to respond creatively to a variety of realities many designers and cabinetmakers consider limitations. The book I’m writing for Lost Art Press will be full of these and other ways to approach kitchen design, build cabinets and devise creative solutions to problems.
— Nancy Hiller, the author of “Making Things Work.”