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Friday, August 12, 2005

How About the Kitchen?

Good morning all.

Kitchens cost all the money. Bathrooms are expensive too, especially when you figure by cost per square foot, but there’s a lot of pricey stuff in a kitchen, and lots of utilities that have to serve it.

In the modern home, the kitchen is the most important room in the house. We’ve integrated at least casual eating in the room itself, and generally the family room is at least attached to the kitchen, if not part of it entirely.

It wasn’t always this way, you know. There was a time in the distant past when the smell of cooking in the home was considered objectionable, and the kitchen was located with an eye to segregating it entirely from the living areas. Big old post-revolutionary homes sometimes had the kitchen in separate buildings entirely, and the food was brought into the house only when ready to be served.

Boston Chicken take-out notwithstanding, we don’t do it that way anymore. We’re our own scullery maids now, and the idea of banishing the food preparation to another world is alien to us.

The common folk always had it right, if the aristocrats didn’t. The average colonial home had a great big fireplace in a common room, and the fireplace served as furnace, stove, oven, and light, and the room was where the daily activities of the entire family were performed.

Gathering in a room like this is familial and pleasant. Or it should be, if your builder knows what he’s doing, and you know what to ask for. Let’s see if we can help.

The floor needs to be hard, of course. There was a short lived flurry of kitchens with carpeting in them about thirty years ago, as I recall, but the first grape juice spill changed that notion right quick, I imagine. Wall to wall carpeting for the masses was still a novelty then, and like all items for the home that suddenly become both available and inexpensive, there’s a lot of overkill for a time until people get some perspective. Now that I think about it, the cheap carpet craze didn’t stop there, people here and there carpeted their walls too.

No, I’m not making this up.

The seventies were pretty bad for interior decoration if I remember correctly. Everything was a fad, and it was all bad, like carpeting on the wall. Avocado colored appliances. Stick on mirror tiles. Parquet stick on floors. Dizzying geometric wall paper. Flocked dizzying geometric wallpaper. Hippy crap mixed in with Art Deco furniture knock-offs. Horrible ersatz cartoon colonial furniture, with the proportions all wrong, the distressing done in what seemed like a fussy fashion, but with a hatchet, and all in that drab brown stain that turned people off to the term “Early American” for two decades at least.

Paneling. Everywhere.

Blue siding with cocoa brown trim. Gold shag carpeting. Stick-on bricks. Bean bag chairs. Naugahyde recliners. Plastic drinking glasses. Chrome furniture.

Couple shiny powder blue polyester fabric on the furniture with shiny powder blue Qiana leisure suits, and the lack of friction ends you up on the floor like you’re riding down a log flume.

Unexplained track lighting. Wrought iron everything. “Mediterranean” console televisions.…
I, I, um, I’m sorry. I went down the seventies rabbit hole, and went into shock. I picture all that stuff, with the Partridge Family on the TV, and Nixon, Agnew, Ford and Carter as the decade’s Mount Rushmore, and I want to go back in time, and become an arsonist. It was all bad. Bad, bad, bad.

You don’t believe me? Too young to have known it, or older, but in denial? I typed “70s decorating” into Google, and it came back with a site featuring decorating bibliographies by decade. The 70s started with:

Goldman, Phyllis W. Decorate With Felt. New York: Crowell, 1973

Thanks, Phyllis, but I’ll pass.

Where were we before I wigged out? Oh yes, the non-carpeted kitchen. Except for a short period in the eighties where rubber industrial flooring and cork tiles were the rage, and an unfortunate period a decade ago when people resurrected Frank Lloyd Wright’s very bad idea of dyed concrete floors with the heat right in them, (I’m pretty sure we don’t think living in the garage is a bad idea just because the floor’s cold- concrete floors are AWFUL!) flooring in the kitchen has been 50/50 split between tile and wood. Pick your poison. They’re both fine.

I like differentiating the food preparation areas from the informal eating and casual rumpus areas by putting tile on the floor. I’ve put a two foot wide strip of tile along the flooring at the cabinets, with the rest wood, with good results too. Make sure there’s no bump of any kind where the disparate flooring meets, lest ye find yourself face down on the floor in a bowl of hot something. These are the details that matter, and are often overlooked, and haunt you day and night.

Okay, now blow twenty five thousand on cabinets.

What else can I say about them? They cost a fortune, even though they’re made in the land of the fortune cookie now, probably.

In general, there’s too many of them. If you have a plan that shows very long runs of cabinets, trash it and have the builder put in a pantry. A real walk in room, with open shelves on three sides, and a window on the end, don’t forget that, is so much nicer than opening a million cabinets looking for what you want. You can close the door on the clutter, too, so the open shelving’s terrific. If you don’t have the space, a pantry closet adjacent to the food prep area will do.

In general, they’re numbingly repetitive. Box after box, hanging on the wall, all essentially the same, is dull. Mix in open shelving, vary the counter heights, Vary the cabinet heights, make some deeper than others, and generally make the place more interesting and useful by doing so.
Cabinets are often distressed these days, and might as well be right out of the gate. They will be sooner than later anyway. The room gets a lot of use now, and not just for cooking, so make it as homey as you can.

Dishes stack neatly, and open shelving for them won’t look as messy as it sounds. Putting lesser used patterns behind glass doors protects them from dust between holiday meals, and you can still display them.

Lay off the oak on the cabinet doors, will ya? It has a coarse, sawtooth grain that’s at odds with many of the common styles of cabinets. Mission yes, medieval, yes, colonial revival, no. And when you tire of them, (trust me, you will) the open grain paints up lousy.

Never let the side of the refrigerator show. Build an enclosure for it or something. Cabinets on both sides, anything.

Island cooktops shouldn’t be across a short stretch of countertop to counter stool seating. Getting second degree burns from bacon splatters while eating your cereal is an overrated morning amusement, in my book.

Rethink the ubiquitous microwave integrated into the range hood. It locates the item coming out of microwave, some times scalding hot, above eye level for many people. It’s a greasy location too, over the burners, and either the microwave has to be small, or the clearance between it and the burners suffers. Sometimes bad ideas become industry standards. This is one of those.

Try locating the microwave in the island. It’s dead storage in there for the most part, anyway, and you don’t need as much of that now that you have that pantry. Our nine year old son can make his own popcorn at that height, and hot items come out and are placed on the counter just above, instead of being dropped all over yourself, the stove, and the floor if the microwave’s over the stove, five feet up.

A few more things:

Make sure there’s countertop on both sides of the cooktop. Even in cramped quarters, avoid the mistake of placing the refrigerator right next to the stove. You need places to stage the items coming on and off the stove.

The cabinet over the refrigerator should be flush with the face of the refrigerator, or it’s worthless.

Window, or windows over the sink. I will brook no argument on this. A blank wall, or, egad, a cabinet face, should get a designer jail time.

Anyone who gives you a detailed reason why the dishwasher HAS to be to the right of the sink, because most people are right handed and blah blah blah, is drinking cooking sherry and after-shave when no one’s looking, I suspect. You load the dishwasher with both hands, and unload it in every direction. Put it where it fits.

And look out for people who tell you to put the dishwasher near the seating area, not the sink, “because that’s where the dishes are.” I suppose that’s true for people who lick their plates like a puppy instead of scraping gristle into the trash, and rinsing the dish before loading, but with that sort of logic, you’ll have a washer and a dryer for nightstands, “because that’s where the sheets are.”

More Kitchen Ruminations on Monday.

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