Saturday, May 9, 2015

On kitchen design, and design in general. From the anti-designer.

One year I was watching HGTV around Christmastime, and I thought I was going to throw up.  I could not believe the waste.  Style for your house, they tell you, you must have a stylish house.  People were spending, literally, thousands of dollars to decorate their houses for Christmas, in the name of Christmas, and on January 1 (or maybe even December 26) it would all be torn down and thrown away.

Later, I realized that they apply this rule to all of house decorating.  I call it house decorating rather than home decorating, because a true home should not need to be "updated" every 4-5 years.

Yes, that's what they tell you: if you are doing it right, you should redecorate your house every 4-5 years.  Hogwash.  Malarcky.  Absolutely ridiculous.

* * * * * * * * * *

A year ago, we were finishing a kitchen renovation.  I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown.  It had not gone well.  I am not going to do this again in 4-5 years.

Also, I did not put in white cabinets, or gray quartz countertops, or (gasp) an island.  I incorporated neither open shelving nor glass fronted cabinets.  "What even is the point?" the HGTV believer asks.

But, a year later, I am very happy with the kitchen (now that my dear husband has fixed nearly everything that the contractors did wrong).  It is a good kitchen, and it works well.  I am thankful for it.  I like the way it looks.  I enjoy cooking and eating in this kitchen.

And that, after all, is what a kitchen is for.

Here is my take on "trends":

(1) White cabinets.

White cabinets are fine if you like them.  They just aren't my favorite.  To me, they look overly formal and high maintenance, or sterile and stark.  We wanted a bright kitchen, so we put in lights.  We have standard fixtures: in the middle of the room, over the table, over the sink.  We have recessed lights in the ceiling around the perimeter of the room.  And we have under-cabinet lighting.  When we turn on all the lights, our kitchen is plenty bright, and the cabinets are not white.

When we were shopping for a home, back before we bought this one (sight-unseen off the internet), each time I walked into a kitchen with white cabinets, my heart died a little bit within me.  I like the warm hominess of wood, even (gasp) oak.  I like it.

When we decided to renovate our kitchen, I read up on kitchen design, and all the designers said things like, "All the really good houses have white kitchens."  For awhile I looked into a white kitchen; I looked at white beadboard cabinets with an antique wash.  They were almost homey, almost inviting.  But my husband didn't like white, and truth be told, I honestly preferred wood myself.

Personally, as much as they try to tell me that white cabinets are classic and timeless, I am pretty sure that within 5-7 years, popular opinion will shift back towards warm wood finishes.  People are going to get sick of white, gray, black, silver and stainless steel.  It seems to me that if we sell our home, it will probably be after white cabinets have lost their allure anyway.  So why put them in if I don't love them, and they won't be a selling point by the time we sell?  Also, it's fairly easy for buyers to paint wood cabinets white, if that's what they like.  It's not easy to go the other direction.

(2)  Kitchen Islands.

Here's the deal.  I don't have an island, and I never have.  We could have fit an island into this kitchen, but it would have meant sacrificing an entire wall of uppers and lowers, and a lovely seven foot stretch of counter that works beautifully for either extra work space or a serving buffet.  I couldn't see how an island would offer me more than that.  Plus, this way the wall doesn't get scuffed up by passing traffic.

Islands are okay if you have a truly huge kitchen.  Mostly, I think they are nice for filling in an extremely spacious kitchen, so that the cook can turn around and find a workspace behind her, and not need to run a long way across a massive room in order to set something down.

In much of today's design, islands make me sad because of what they stand for.  Islands stand for the busy, frenetic, activity-saturated lives we live, where "family dinner" is an oddity, a rarity.  Islands stand for, "Belly up to the island and eat these chicken nuggets from the convection oven as fast as you can so we will not be late to little league."  People used to have a kitchen table in the middle of the kitchen, a place to peel apples, roll out cookie dough, experiment with watercolors, and do homework.  Now we have islands, we rarely peel apples, and homework is done in the SUV on the way to ballet lessons.

Kitchen islands also stand for a society of isolation and insulation.  So often, the kitchen sink sits in the island nowadays.  The popular sink placement now overlooks the family room, because that is where the children play.  It used to overlook the window to the backyard, back when kids played with the neighbor children, outside.  But now we have had to pull our families inside, and we wash up after dinner while watching our kids play video games on a giant flat-screen TV rather than whiffle ball out under the setting sun.  Practical, yes, but sad.

(3)  Open shelving and the trend toward no upper cabinets.

Really?  Do you want to use your kitchen, or take pictures of it?  Seriously?

Okay, open shelving is not a new idea.  In the eighties, they had open shelving in Michael J. Fox's kitchen on Family Ties.  It bothered me then, and I don't like it now.  Can we just think about this for a minute?  How much do you like to dust?  Are you really up for artistically arranging your dishes in plain sight on a daily basis?  A kitchen is a work room.  You need to be able to work in it, to get things done.  You should not design it with elements that will increase the difficulty of doing your chores, or add unnecessary tasks to your already long to-do list.  Unless you have a hired hand who dusts the shelves for you, and primps the dish display, and you generally just eat take-out off paper plates at your island, I do not recommend open shelving in place of upper cabinets.

One of my friends observed recently, "I know some people with really fantastic kitchens, with commercial quality ranges and giant stainless steel hood fans, but they don't seem to use them.  My friends who like to cook, who are really good cooks, they all have pretty normal kitchens."

I once read a blog where the woman had torn out her lovely cherry cabinets (uppers and lowers), and replaced them with white drawers (on the bottom), and no uppers at all, just some sort of gray stone backsplash (or maybe it was white tile).  I wanted to weep.  Why?  Why?  Why?  She was totally convinced that she had achieved a great increase in efficiency.  She did admit that she had to get rid of most of her stuff, now that there was nowhere to store it.  "A wonderful way to unload the excess," she raved, "And with drawers, it's all so much easier to access."

I find drawers to be the most inefficient form of storage around.  I admit that a few drawers are nice, if you can use them to sort and organize.  But overall, drawers waste space, and things get lost in them; you are always having to dig underneath and behind.  Also, clearly this woman did not have lupus, or rheumatoid arthritis, or a bad back, because nobody with any of those issues would ever say that low storage is easier to access than upper storage.  I'd be surprised if most healthy people would claim that lower cabinets are easier to access than uppers.

Once I read a surprisingly honest article about minimalism.  The author stated that minimalism is actually the most lavish and excessive of decorating styles, because it presupposes that the homeowner has so much space, he doesn't really need to use it.  Yes, he can devote an entire room to one artistically formed designer lounge chair and a window with a flowing curtain.  He has no need to seat a group of people, feed a family, entertain a small child, or store backpacks and books for students.  Or, presumably, he has rooms devoted to those activities hidden away somewhere else in his house.

I like things that are truly timeless, "design" that is not "in style" and never tried to be.  I like nice materials (natural wood, stone, metal), efficiency and neatness.  I like a house that says, "Sit down, we're glad you're here!  We'd like to spend some time, some face-to-face time, reconnecting and sharing and loving, and not so much observing the house as though it is some sort of a museum."  God made the Sabbath for man, not man for the Sabbath.  I think homes, likewise, should serve the people, and not the other way around.  Comfortable seating, good books, well placed lamps.  A place for everything, and almost everything in its place.  A vase of flowers, a lovely quilt, yes, but not an art-scape everywhere a person's eyes try to rest.  That's just tiring, or self-conscious like adolescent poetry.

And me, I like an old-fashioned kitchen.  Friendly wooden cabinets encircling the room like a grandmotherly hug, and a weathered kitchen table in the middle, surrounded by chairs, sheltering a dog and a toddler underneath.  Colors and textures that blend with the smells of cookies baking, soup simmering, coffee brewing.  A room that isn't seriously marred when a single item is out of place.  That's not exactly what I got, but I made a stab at it.

It has grown on me.  I am thankful.  A year later.

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