Tag Archives: kitchen cabinets

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.

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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.

Kitchen Cabinets Video for Woodsmith Magazine

One morning last January I opened my email to find a message from Colleen Douglass asking whether I would be interested in making a video about building custom cabinets for Woodsmith Magazine.

Over the next few weeks we negotiated some twists and turns. For one thing, being in front of a camera is among my least-favorite positions. I speak slowly, because I try to be thorough and precise, and I really don’t like seeing or hearing myself on video. Colleen fielded those objections by saying she’d seen a couple of videos I had previously made (Popular Woodworking’s “Build a Turn of the Century Baker’s Cabinet” and Fine Homebuilding’s “Floating Vanity”).

I threw out another challenge: Colleen had said the editor at Woodsmith suggested me, specifically, for the video, a claim I found odd because my way of constructing built-ins is so far from the norm–and also because my flattery/b.s. radar is always set on HIGH. When I addressed this concern to Phil Huber, the editor in question, he said he’d done so precisely because my way of building cabinets is not the norm among commercial cabinet companies. I asked where he’d seen examples of my kitchen work; he said he’d seen them in Old-House Journal and its sister publications over the years—Old-House Interiors, Arts & Crafts Homes and the Revival. That clinched my interest, because those publications take period detail and the often-idiosyncratic character of well-loved homes seriously (unlike the media universe constructed on fantasy DIY home makeovers, house-flipping instruction, and saccharine “unique home decor ideas,” “spectacular home recipes,” and “sneak peeks” into the personal world of one particular Texas family).

All good. But one potential obstacle still remained: I had to ask Chris Schwarz whether doing the Woodsmith video would violate the terms of my contract with Lost Art Press to write a book about kitchens. Not at all, he said; in fact, given that the video series would have a somewhat different focus from that of the book, they would complement each other.

Woodsmith set pic

We shot the video over four days this summer in Des Moines at the studio used by Woodsmith for its PBS program. The work was intense—and thanks to the seasoned, competent crew, it was also a lot of fun. I’m proud of the video we made, especially because it’s full of safety points and detailed asides related to materials, techniques, and period nuance. (There’s even the occasional bit of humor, though you have to pay attention to catch it.) You can see a preview and buy the series here. (Use the code NANCYSAVES to get $30 off.)

The toughest part of the week came at the end, when Colleen said it was time to do the promo. “What, you mean I have to ‘sell’ the work?” I asked, feeling the blood drain from my face. I was never a cheerleader or even remotely popular in high school. I’m not an actor. I’m the person attracted to the wall at parties. I grew up with an ethos that shunned self-promotion of any kind. And now I had to smile at a camera and invite people to check out my video? I felt the same impulse to flee that led me to run out of the doctor’s office when I was 6 and terrified of injections.

Taking one for the team called for strong measures. Had there been a bottle of bourbon on the set, I would have helped myself to a swig, but no such luck. There was, however, a bowl of M&Ms…and cameraman Mark Hayes had kindly replenished the coffee in the break room. After five small packets of chocolate and three cups of coffee, I was ready. (The crash came a few hours later.)

Thanks to Colleen Douglass, Phil Huber, Mark Hayes, Dennis Kennedy, Becky Cunningham, Becky Kralicek, and John Doyle.

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Becky Cunningham and I shared quality time discussing makeup and menopause amid the lovely colors of Woodsmith shirts in the dressing room. (Seriously, how often does one get professional makeup while wearing a dusty shop apron?)