Tag Archives: kitchen design

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


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)


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.

Interview with Johnny Grey

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.