Simple American

Hiestand kitchen in progress

Nearly ready for paint. This cabinet is in the kitchen of a 1915 house. The casework is made from formaldehyde-free, American-made veneer-core plywood with solid maple doors, drawers, and finished panels. The counters on this and its partner across the room are reclaimed heart pine finished with Osmo Polyx oil. In the interest of having this cabinet in particular flow seamlessly into the original fabric of the kitchen, I replicated the top section of the window trim to use as a crown.

The other night I arrived home from my current kitchen job in Indianapolis to find a piece of mail from a friend. Inside was a clipping from the New York Times of November 7 titled “Craving a ‘Downton Abbey’ Scullery.” I gave the article, written by Penelope Green, a quick read; it deals with last year’s opening of a stateside showroom for British cabinetmaking company Plain English.

I’ve been aware of the company for a few years, thanks to Remodelista, which often features kitchens furnished with Plain English “cupboards,” as the company’s branding would have its wares be known. The work is beautiful, with spare, solid lines and admirable attention to detail. But I found the article disturbing. Throughout the night I awoke repeatedly, perplexed as to what was eating at me. I analyzed my feelings over the next two days while fitting doors, then priming for paint, at my current job site, then read the article again, this time with greater care.

Hiestand kitchen_painting (2)

Applying the first coat of color after dark last Friday. The doors and drawers have been removed to my workshop for painting under controlled conditions. The yellow as it appears here is not the actual color; it’s Benjamin Moore’s Rich Cream, which has a deeper, warmer, old-fashioned kitchen look. This image shows the crown, coped to fit the original window trim.

As a professional cabinetmaker who trained, then worked, in England, and as one who has specialized in period-style kitchens (and has a forthcoming book about kitchens for publisher Lost Art Press), I’ll admit that one of my first thoughts was I hope no one thinks I’m one of those cabinetmakers copying their kitchens–not because their kitchens are anything other than strikingly lovely, but because I hate it when people assume things about me and my work that are not true. More importantly, my interest in period kitchens and my work inspired by them predates not only my awareness of the company, but the company’s very existence. No potential client has “waved pages from World of Interiors magazine” at me; I owe my interest in Georgian and subsequent kitchen styles primarily to my first woodworking employer, Roy Griffiths, who hired me in 1980 to build cabinetry at his workshop in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, as well as to his accomplished painter and woodworker friend Dan Dunton. While I worked alongside Dan in the old stables at Roy’s Georgian house, the two of them introduced me to the wonders of old architecture and inspired a deep appreciation of all things chilly, damp, cracked, worn, and enduring.

I’m still parsing out the aspects of the article that disturb me. Let’s start with the characterization of “slot head screws and brass hinges, pulls and latches, and hand-painting the cabinetry instead of spraying it” as “dog whistles to those who care about such things.” Dog whistles? I’m gagging. I won’t claim to speak for the principals at Plain English, but attending to such details has nothing to do with marketing, at least for me. It’s simply an expression of discipline on the part of a craftsperson who has taken the time to research, then honor, her subject’s history.

And then there are the names the company has chosen for its colors. Green cites a few: “Mushy Peas, Dripping Tap, Boiled Dishcloth and Boiled Egg.” Like many of the company’s signature names, most are faintly disturbing*, as though intended to connote a down-to-earth, “below stairs” realness that may well elude some of those who spend upwards of $45,000 to furnish their kitchens with these undeniably lovely products. I wonder whether Soiled Nappy, Mouse Dropping, and Monthly Blood will ever find their way into these offerings. (Perhaps one of these is already there.)

Another question for me concerns the nature of the basic materials used for cabinet construction. Are the carcase interiors made of sheet goods, and if so, which type? What’s the source of the hardwoods used for face frames, doors, and other parts? I ask as someone who once worked for an English business that imported most of its timber and sheet goods. Kudos to Remodelista’s Julie Carlson for noting the potentially “problematic” dimensions of shipping entire kitchens’ worth of cabinets from the English countryside to distant corners of the United States at a time when there is newfound emphasis on the importance of food and other products with origins close to home.

And this matter of provenance, with the many values it represents, may underlie my biggest beef with the article, or at least with the business it describes. The company’s website credits the “life of genteel and bohemian aristocracy” that’s presumably integral to the history of its headquarters “deep in the Suffolk countryside” as an important source of inspiration for its work. Am I the only one rankled by the romanticizing of a life made possible by domestic service? Sure, many of those who worked as domestic servants were grateful for their positions and developed close relationships with those who employed them; a friend of mine whose grandmother was a parlor maid in Wales can attest to this. But still, I’ve read enough first-person accounts of this life’s realities to take a more critical view.**

In the States, we have our own history of handsomely designed historic cabinetry. You need only look to millwork catalogs from the early years of the 20th century to find handsome patterns for cabinets and other built-ins such as broom closets and telephone niches with genuinely American roots. At least these exemplars, which were manufactured for a burgeoning home-building market of middle-class families who did their own cooking and housework, have a more (if still imperfectly) democratic history than those that furnished the homes of aristocrats. –Nancy Hiller, author of Making Things Work

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Another kitchen with genuinely local roots. Lauri Hafvenstein hired me to design and build cabinets for the kitchen and pantry of her 1917 home in Washington, D.C., to celebrate her home’s hundredth birthday. The cabinets are based on surviving neighborhood examples. The counters are made from reclaimed wood. (Photos by Lauri Hafvenstein, Old House Loves)

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Lauri’s kitchen as she found it.

*Having savored my share of mushy peas over the years (along with tinned rice pudding and steamed Spotted Dick), I’m not calling the dish itself disturbing, but suggesting that many Americans may find the term, as a name for a color used by a maker of “bespoke cupboards,” charming in an ironic I’m one of the insiders who get this way that I, for one, find a bit galling.

**See, for example, Cott et al., Root of Bitterness: Documents of the Social History of American Women and Dudden, Serving Women: Household Service in Nineteenth-Century America. Yes, these books both concern American service, and the realities of domestic service in 19th-century America differed in many respects from those of 18th- and 19th-century England.

22 responses to “Simple American

  1. Reblogged this on Lost Art Press and commented:

    Another in my series of posts related to kitchens

  2. Nancy, your writing is such a pleasure to read as well as the wonderful belly laughs that it produces. This is a winner on all these fronts. How you are able to use the English language to express and convey the stewing that happened from reading that article was so spotted dick…..meaning spot on.

  3. 40 plus years ago I did whatever work came my way. Sometimes it was replacing a section of rotted kitchen cabinets that came in contact with continuous leaking pipes or adding on to a kitchen over 60 years old. I copied the materials and construction methods as best I could never once thinking about who designed the original kitchen. My job was to make the new look original to the house. Your efforts to bring context to those old kitchens is to be applauded. I’ve always thought modern kitchens lack the warmth and human touch of those from decades ago.

  4. Now Nancy, who wouldn’t want to describe to their friends how they have ‘cupboards’ painted in nicotine with mouldy plum trim. Sounds smashing! That’s some of the dumbest paint color naming I’ve seen in a while, who makes these kinds of decisions for a company like that?

    • Smashing indeed. But it’s not dumb; it’s brilliant marketing. They know their market…and it’s not the likes of you or me.

      • Craig Thibodeau

        Well, I’ll take your word for it on the brilliant part, I have a feeling that it was brilliant one or two revisions ago then some marketing ‘genius’ got a hold of it and now paint called ‘nicotine’ is on the menu.

      • It reminds me of a Tom Lehrer record where he commented on a doctor friend who “specialized in diseases of the rich”. I enjoyed your rant and sympathize.

  5. “Focus Grouped Canary”

    “Lowest Common Denominator Lilac”

    “Planned Obsolescence Opal”

    (Nothing will ever hold a candle to “Monthly Blood” I think I shot spaghetti out of my nose)

  6. You mean, New Shaker would never do?

    I have been in clients homes that have never experienced a home-boiled egg. I mean, even I shattered a ‘pre-War’ Limoges cup hoping to slurp up a margarine covered 5 minute egg.

    Our staging crew, Sarah, and oft-times model, would open boxes of “things” between other projects in office warren, to keep the sterility of those images homey.

  7. Looks like the Greenwich Village poet got inspired by the colourful lingo of the outfit’s marketing team.

  8. Great post Nancy. It might be my favorite yet.

  9. “It is the sort of expensive good taste also expressed by the high-end nursery food served at Rochelle Canteen in the Shoreditch neighborhood of London.” (Penelope Green, “… Downton Abbey Scullery”)

    Shouldn’t that have been “bad taste”?

    Yes, I read the linked piece from the Times. It left me feeling a bit sick, and ashamed to be British – if that’s how we’re promoting ourselves across the pond. Sorry, everyone, that’s not what we’re really like!

    • I’m aware that this is not the norm in your country! During my 16 years in England, which began when I turned 12, I went to school, then worked, with a broad variety of people. It was a wonderful experience, not least thanks to the immersion in your long history.

  10. I can attest from England that nigh on every lovely big georgian house I have been in has had it’s “Downton abbey scullery” ripped out, along with half the walls and doorways anywhere near the kitchen. The kitchens of the genteel and bohemian aristocracy – or even the well off middle classes (i.e. kitchens that servants used predominantly) are not the kitchens we want, or need today.
    Oddly enough early 20th century american kitchens much more closely align with how most people use their kitchens now – stick with your own tradition, there was foresight in it.

  11. It always galled me when over the course of my career, people (companies, celebs, etc.) came out of nowhere to ‘burst’ upon the local scenes to promote the kind of work I’d been covering as a 5th generation to the trade. And it, of course, has only gotten more prominent in the age of social media and the like. Word and name coin-age has reached an all time high and I swear that half the buying public will buy into a color only because of the name (and may, in fact, not even like the color). While most certainly a legitimate term, I still have to keep my gag reflex in check at the utterance of “be-spoke”. Keep up the great work Nancy!

    • The folks at my local paint store tell me they are ready to snap because of all the gray paint people are using these days. Everyone want a gray with some high falutin name. Gray. Blech.

  12. Finn Koefoed-Nielsen

    “ Am I the only one rankled by the romanticizing of a life made possible by domestic service?”

    *hand shoots up from the back*
    Nope, and there are plenty of us in Olde England who are similarly suspicious around this Downton Abbey stuff. The National Trust (who manage access to many of the UK’s historic properties) is hugely popular, but on my visits the public have been gratifyingly unreverential. We want to bounce up and down on the four poster beds and I reckon we’re all fantasising about being Lady of the Manor rather than a scullery maid, but no caps are doffed! If you listen very carefully, you can just about hear the shuddering of the aristocracy, mortified that their drawing room has been invaded by such grubby little oiks.
    Anyway, I’m far more comfortable looking round little old churches than big old houses nowadays. There’s usually a more intimate sense of connection to those who’ve worked on and used the building over the centuries. Vernacular has more character, innit.

  13. Great words. Great response. I won’t muddy up the comments section with anything more than, I really need to see one of your kitchens in person.

  14. It is time to say: Ms. Hiller, you design and build homes for people to live in and enjoy. Savor your special fare, and abilities.

    I never need to wonder if you massage a digital representation.

  15. Your work speaks for itself. It stands on its own and in no way should be compared to “mushie peas or spotted dick”.

  16. I wonder what Myrna Loy would think of those colors https://youtu.be/s33ScN4D-HU?t=5

    Andy.

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