Thoughts on Kitchen Remodeling and Design

Before we undertook to redo the kitchen in this house, I did research.

Mostly this consisted of looking at kitchen design magazines.

And while looking at photographs of gorgeous kitchens from all over the world, I realized a few things about myself that I had never articulated before.

One of them was that I don’t like cold, antiseptic looking kitchens.

This realization hit me, as I was gabbling to Zak about my dislike for the new trend of consumer appliances wrapped in chrome and stainless steel. “Do people realize how hard that stuff is to keep clean?” I grumped. “Do they know what a pain it is to keep fingerprints off of it, how you have to polish it with special stuff?” He shrugged and shook his head and replied, “Probably not. They just probably like it because it makes their kitchen look professional.”

It was then that I realized why I didn’t like it.

It looked professional.

Stainless steel is a great material for a professional kitchen. It is easily sanitized and is durable. You can beat it, set things afire on it, hack bones apart on top of it, dress out a hundred pounds of still flopping fish until you are elbow deep in blood and guts, then after a few minutes work scraping and wiping, can make it look silvery and clean. You can pour bleach solutions over it and do it utterly no harm.

It also takes on fingerprints like crazy and gives a very cold, aseptic look to the room.

Which, psychologically is great in a professional kitchen, where temperatures and tempers rise up into the stratosphere daily. Having a kitchen that looks cool might trick some twitchy cooks into keeping cool heads.

But, in a home kitchen–where the hearth is still as sacred now as it was when Hestia ruled it–materials that look cold and clinical make me feel constricted and stiffed. Chilled. As in, frozen.

The kitchen is the heart of the home, and it is a place of nurturing and comfort. And to me–having a frozen heart in the home might lead to frozen hearts and minds in the people living there.

Now, mind you–I have seen some very modern, sleek, chrome, steel and blue glass kitchens that are to die for gorgeous–which means I can see why other people would like them. I can see people cooking there and being happy. But not me. To me–those colors and materials signify cold. And I don’t want my house or myself to have a cold heart.

So, I realized early on in the design process–before we had even selected a designer and contractor–that I preferred a kitchen that psychologically read as “warm,” rather than “cold.”

So, what did this mean?

Well, it meant that the white cabinets that the kitchen was endowed with had to go. Mind you, having worked in many home kitchens as a personal chef, I had already come to the conclusion that I disliked all white kitchens and white cabinetry many years ago for the purely practical reason that if anything dripped or splattered, no matter how small or insignificant a spill it was, it showed up hideously. White also tends to make me feel cold, so there is a double strike against it in my own personal taste.

As I looked through design magazines, one thing was clear–I liked materials that looked as natural as possible. I tended to like natural wood vs.thermafoil, stone vs. formica, and tile vs. vinyl. I liked enamel vs. metallic finishes, and when I had to have metal, the new trend in oil rubbed bronze greatly appealed to my aesthetic sense. I tended to like as natural a finish on the woods as possible, too, so the grain was shown to advantage.

That is when I decided to take inspiration from nature, and thus the Forest Kitchen, as my kitchen has come to be known, was born.

So, I learned a few things in undergoing this months long project of bringing the Forest Kitchen to life.

The first one is this, and it pertains not only to kitchen remodelling, but to one’s entire existence:

“Know Thyself.”

What I mean in this context is to know what you like. I mean, what you really like. I mean–really know what you want to work with, and live with and to have as a daily part of your existance for as long as you live in your home. It sounds simple, doesn’t it? But, it really isn’t really as easy as you might believe to really know your own taste and desire.

I say this because my original idea for the kitchen was extremely different than how it turned out.

I had wanted to go with a red, black and “white” (actually pale, natural maple, but have it read as white, instead of the light creamy wood tone that it is) color scheme for the kitchen. The black appliances are about all that remains from that thought process. I was going to go with glass doors on the cabinets with rice paper behind them to make them transluescent. I was going to have black-black granite countertops, and the tile floor was going to be imperial red, and some of the appliances were going to be laquer-red. I wanted to go with a Japanese decor theme.

At least, that is what I thought at first, and that was the picture I had in my head.

And truly, I am glad that the original contractor we had chosen turned out not to work with us. Because if he hadn’t dragged his feet so much on doing the design, and put us off for months and months, I wouldn’t have spent all of that time looking at magazines, websites, and design showrooms.

And I wouldn’t have had as long to live in the house and get a feel for the energy of the place.

I realize now, in looking back, that if I had gone with my original ideas, the room would never have looked as nice with the rest of the house as this one does. Also, I don’t think that I would have been as happy with that theme as the one we ended up creating by looking out the window and taking inspiration from what we saw.

It comes down to two things–I didn’t know my own heart and I didn’t know the house. I hadn’t lived in it long enough to decide.

So, we come to my second point–know your house.

That means, live in it for a while and get a feel for how it flows–how it breathes, how it exists in its space. Get a notion for the light that comes in, or not, through the windows. Take in the sights and sounds. Understand the house for how it is–not how you think it is.

Because, whether we realize it or not, whenever we move into a new place–we don’t really know it. No matter how many times you visit a house, you don’t know it until you live in it for a few months. Not even a few weeks will tell you what you need to know. You need the time to get into the rhythym of the rooms, to settle in and begin making a house a home, before you can really reasonably begin the huge undertaking that is redoing a kitchen.

My third bit of advice also sounds simple, but it isn’t, especially if you are anything like me.

Be patient.

This simple sentence covers many aspects of kitchen remodelling. Take the time to work out in your head, or on paper what you want. Write lists, make sketches, cut out pictures from magazines, prints stuff off of websites and take photographs at people’s houses and in design showrooms. Hell, take your camera to Lowe’s and Home Depot so you can get ideas and file them away. Collect paint chips obsessively, and bring them home to look at in various times of day from various parts of the kitchen.

Have a file of all of your stuff that you have packratted with you when you interview kitchen designers and contractors. Let them see what you have and then hear what they say.

And listen to them, please, and carefully and patiently take note of what they say.

If you are like me, you are as concerned with the practical workability of the kitchen as you are with aesthetics. If this is the case, you should aquaint yourself with the “work triangle;” this concept of kitchen design has remained pretty much unchanged since its inception in the early twentieth century, and with good reason–it works. It refers to the spacing of the three main work areas of the kitchen: the refrigerator, stove and sink. This is the primary work triangle, and you want to maintain the shape of a triangle, as much as possible, between these three areas as you design your kitchen. You can also have a secondary work triangle that includes sink, countertop and undercounter refrigerator as well–but this is for folks who have huge kitchen spaces that make mine look miniscule in comparison.

When you talk to a designer, let them tell you their ideas. If they come up with any plans that violate the concept of the work triangle in favor of aesthetic considerations, run away. They probably don’t cook, and will give you trouble when it comes to the more practical aspects of your kitchen.

A good designer will listen to you, and will be able to tell you what parts of your ideas will work, and what parts will not. They will know about the work triangle and will not ignore it, even if their client really wants to. More likely, they will explain it to them, and try to show them why it is an integral part of good kitchen design.A good designer or contractor will be able to take rather unformed ideas from the client and turn them into actual concrete plans, and they will be able to do it in a timely fashion.

However, while timely is good, it behooves one to be patient. Good design takes a little time.

Do not rush the designer unless he or she is really dragging his feet.

Once a plan is decided upon, then the details begin to become very important.

This is both fun and harrowing, and patience is necessary here again.

Patience, and diligent study. Learn everything you can about the materials you are choosing, before you make your final decision.

For instance, my large enamelled cast iron sink is beautiful, and I surely can scrub my wok hot off the stove in it without making a huge mess, but waterspots form on it very easily.

This aesthetic issue doesn’t bother me, because I expected it because we rented a home in Maryland that had a black enamelled sink, so I knew it would happen. But it might have bugged someone else to death.

I had thought about getting Corian countertops, but heard from friends and learned via research that it melts very easily, and mars much more easily than is advertised. So, I looked into granite, but found that the upkeep could be onerous. That is how I ended up with the engineered quartz countertops–they wear similarly to granite, they come in a great range of both naturalistic and futuristic colors, but it is simpler to care for than natural stone.

If I had simply gone with my first desire, not only would my kitchen not look as nice or work as well, I wouldn’t have been happy.

And there is nothing worse than spending money on something that is supposed to last decades, and then hating it.

It isn’t like buying an unflattering dress, and then taking it back. With a room remodel–you are stuck with it for a long time.

So those are my four bits of wisdom gleaned from my experience in remodelling the kitchen. To the dictum of know thyself, know your house, be patient, and learn as much as possible, I add a fifth and final element that will help you through the process.

Have fun.

And keep a sense of humor about you. If nothing else, the ability to laugh will save you on days when it seems like everything is going utterly and completely wrong.

And in any construction project of this size–those days will happen.



RSS feed for comments on this post.

  1. *standing up, applauding*

    A great read and I feel similarly about some of the things, like the cold antiseptic feel. Give me a rustic Tuscan kitchen any day over a kitchen that looks like an operating room. I haven’t much choice in my apartment decor right now so the putty grey counters and white cupboards, cream walls, burgundy blinds, horrid flourescent lights and pukey linoleum get to me. I’m thinking of getting some butter yellow paint and white curtains to change the feel of the place I love to be. I wish I could plan in more detail like you have. Kudos to you!

    Comment by Nerissa — December 12, 2005 #

  2. Apartments always limit the scope of what you can do to personalize a space and make it comfortable. But I think that if you go with the yellow paint and white curtains it will go far in giving your kitchen a sense of light and airiness that will evoke feelings of sunshine and spring in you.

    I tend to believe that the more positive a person feels in a kitchen, the better their cooking will be, too.

    Comment by Barbara — December 12, 2005 #

  3. Hey, was looking at your images of the kitchen first and thinking to myself, “Oh THANK YOU for not wrapping your appliances in stainless.” And then read your paragraphs and learned it was by design that you rid yourself of the nasty beasts. Excellent.
    Some day I’ll be ablet to afford new countertops, I can hardly wait. Still trying to figure out what I like and don’t like. I wish I could find some old formica from the late 1950s with gold speckle in it, with star designs or something. Something Eames.
    Ah, but I’m rambling and could probably go on for quite some time. It is kitchen design after all.


    Comment by Dr. Biggles — December 12, 2005 #

  4. Dr. Biggles, I am glad to know that I am not the only one with an aversion for stainless. Everywhere I went when we were choosing stuff for the kitchen, everyone sales person or designer assumed we wanted stainless. NO!!!!

    No stainless. Gah.

    Retro formica designs may be coming back–I have seen some retro 1930’s-1950’s kitchen designs coming out in the magazines and in showrooms.

    You never know what you might find.

    Oh, and you are allowed to ramble all you like here. You are talking kitchen design, after all–a subject which is suddenly near and dear to my heart.

    Comment by Barbara — December 13, 2005 #

  5. Congratulations. It turned out gorgeous and SO homey!

    Comment by Kim — December 13, 2005 #

  6. The wood finishes really does give the kitchen a warm homely feel to it.

    Comment by kitchen — February 19, 2008 #

  7. The wood finishes really does give the kitchen a warm homely feel to it.

    Comment by kitchen — February 19, 2008 #

  8. The first kitchen has a nice warm color scheme. The honey tones of the wood look great against the green walls.

    Take a look at my kitchen design website when you get the chance.

    Comment by Kitchen design — February 21, 2008 #

  9. I DO think you talked to the wrong people in coming to your conclusions about Corian.
    It doesn’t melt, ever.
    Hot pots placed on (white) Corian over time will cause a yellow discoloration.
    I have had white Corian countertops and sink in my own kitchen since 1989.
    We have the sink cutout with some feet applied, as a cutting board/trivet between the cooktop and sink.
    We don’t cut on it because it would dull our knives (we use cutting boards for cutting), but we do set hot pots on it. It has discolored to a degree.
    The rest of our countertops and the wonderful integral sink remain as pristine as when new.
    When the sink becomes stained I just sprinkle some Comet cleanser and let it sit overnight. Everything has always come out with this strategy, including some scary stains that I didn’t think could be removed.

    Congratulations on exercising patience in your kitchen remodel and studying all the details until you KNEW your decisions were right. That is definitely the way to go with such an expensive endeavor. As a kitchen designer, I can’t tell you how many kitchens a year to two old I have helped replace because the homeowners had rushed to remodel without getting to know the rhythms of their new homes…Or their own preferences in the face of “fashion”.

    Comment by Peggy Deras, CKD, CID — February 23, 2008 #

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