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.
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
*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.