Issue number 231 of Fine Homebuilding magazine includes my interview with British kitchen designer Johnny Grey, creator of the Unfitted Kitchen.* Due to space constraints, the published version contains only a fraction of the material I took down during a telephone conversation that was over an hour long. Here’s a version with some fascinating bits that had to be excised from the Tailgate interview. Square brackets indicate words inserted for clarity or relocated from other parts of the interview for narrative flow.
What were some of your early influences?
My father was a general practitioner in London. He loved making things. We had no money–you can imagine the scene in postwar Britain–but he said, “I’ll always buy you tools and materials if I can.”
My mother was a bit of a romantic. She had this great passion for the Sussex Downs, [where] she bought a sweet little abandoned cottage. She had a strong vision [for its restoration]; it wasn’t going to be added onto or poshed up. She [also] bought a gypsy caravan and kept it parked in a field at the cottage, visiting on weekends. I was conceived in it. [Eventually there were five kids—four boys and a girl] in a house with just two bedrooms. The caravan became our third bedroom. [But it also played another important role in my life.] Being made of painted softwood with a canvas roof, the caravan was always leaking. It became a rite of passage for each of us to fix this wretched roof. [That was how we] learned woodworking.
What was your training in design?
I studied architecture at the Architectural Association in London [during the ‘70s] It was a place of intellectual ferment, a design hothouse. I was exposed to incredible ideas. Ivan Illich dropped by and gave a talk. Buckminster Fuller gave a talk. Lyall Watson launched his book Supernature [there].
How did you get into kitchens?
It was all a big accident. I disliked the corporate world and loathed the business of my hours being “owned” by other people. Because of my rather bohemian background in Sussex, I felt I couldn’t handle a job where I wouldn’t be making anything. The thing about kitchens is, you can do a bit of everything—design, making, meeting the clients.
Today, the kitchen has become a real place. It used to be a second-rate room for women and servants. In the ‘70s, people began to realize that there was a real role for a kitchen company: to plan the big picture–layout, flooring, lighting, etc.–in addition to cabinetry.
Why “unfitted” kitchens?
I have a strong emotional bond with furniture. [My great-grandmother became an antique dealer after her husband died. My mother, too, loved antiques.] While studying architecture I ran an antique business. I had to develop my own sense of style very quickly, since in that line of work, your living depends on being known for a particular style.
Do you remember any particular kitchen from your early days with special fondness?
[My first job], the Gothic kitchen, was tremendous fun. Every piece in the room was from a different period of gothic, but it had a sort of happenstance unity. My client, Sam, invited the features editor of Harpers to dinner. Before you knew it, Harpers had commissioned a story—Sam would write the recipes, and I would write about the design of the kitchen. A Helmut Newton[-like character] photographed the client sitting with his bottom in one half of the sink, his legs hanging over into the other, and a stuffed parrot on the stove. It was really about being rather lunatic and enjoying ourselves. Don’t forget, at the time, all people were buying were those Poggenpohl[i] kitchens. This was a protest against that.
I was also being egged on by my aunt, Elizabeth David, who wondered, “Why do people want those plastic kitchens that are so hygienic?”
Where are your kitchens built?
[We work with several workshops.] [Some are] bespoke quality, the best furniture money can buy. Some are [outfits] that have moved from joinery into cabinetmaking; they’ve got their costs under control [and have] some very good craftsmen. [We also work with] very small furniture mak[ing shops], using them in groups. We don’t want [the furniture] to match anyway, so it’s perfect.
Where are you now in thinking about kitchen design?
When I first started out, nobody thought the kitchen would be anything of consequence. I want[ed] to steer it into its own territory, where [kitchen design would] stand on its own as a profession. Many people think the kitchen is a place where you fling cabinets around the wall, but I respect the kitchen. I think it’s our best chance of creativity in the home, because it plugs into so many different aspects of home life.
Bringing neuroscience in has been another piece of the puzzle. [The kitchen] is the most emotionally high range room. [Sharing home-cooked food] around a table in your kitchen is the high point of the day, the essence of family life. You have a chance to look outward and inward at the same time, and connect with your family. The hormones that make you human are more likely to be in operation when you’re around the table than at any other time. You have to feel safe. It’s got to be the right time of day to fit into [your] rhythm. [The kitchen] has to make you feel good. It’s got to have enough room to move around and to invite guests. It really has become this absolute room for sociability. You can’t have democracy without a place where you can enjoy the reason for living.
When I published The Art of Kitchen Design, it was the first time anyone had written about the sociable role of the kitchen. Neuroscience validates that social role.
I think I arrived at the right moment, really. What happened to the kitchen would have happened anyway, I think, but I’m glad I was there to be part of it.
*Warmest thanks to Johnny Grey for consenting to this interview and to Chris Hoelck at Fine Homebuilding for his help in getting the piece to the published page.