A Sense of History
How to make a kitchen look like it's been there forever.
Owners of old houses love to talk about preservation. But you rarely
hear talk about a vintage kitchen faithfully restored to its former
glory. The historic houses we love, with their thick walls, sumptuous
mouldings, and architectural flourishes, did not have the kinds of
kitchens we expect today. Historic kitchens are antiquated kitchens,
inefficient and poorly laid out for modern-day needs. In a typical
prewar model, everything was freestanding: the behemoth of a stove, the sink on porcelain legs, the icebox, a table that doubled as a work surface, a stepback cupboard to store the china--if there was no
butler's pantry. Kitchens were work areas, plain and simple. And those
modernized in the 1950s, '60s, or '70s often held even less appeal than their forebears. The countertop, flooring, and ceiling materials in them were rarely as attractive as the hardwoods, linoleums, and metals they replaced. Appliances came in dismal hues: the avocados and harvest golds that, for good reason, have never returned to favor.
Today we want to capture the flavor of the kitchens we imagine our
great-grandparents loved. Homey. Warm. And filled with the aroma of good cooking. Fortunately, replicating the mood of a vintage kitchen, in an
existing space or in an add-on, has never been easier. As demand for
kitchen fittings with a patina of age has grown, so has the availability
of period materials, architectural salvage, and well-designed
reproduction hardware and appliances. Resources for old-fashioned pieces can be found by perusing advertisements in many home-design magazines, inquiring at local antiques shops and architectural salvage companies,
and browsing the Web.
A major concern for most modern-day households is storage. Kitchens of yore may have offered little storage in the work area itself, but larger homes usually had a separate walk-in pantry, a butler's pantry, and, in very old houses, a buttery, where condiments, spices, and preserves would be kept. The strict allocation of items to be stored is a smart way to think of how and where to position cabinetry--either in the kitchen itself or in an ancillary space, such as a pantry.
Cabinets, more than any other single element in the design, determine
the look of a kitchen. To give a kitchen a historic feeling, architects
and designers caution against filling the kitchen with modern built-ins;
rather they advocate an "unfitted" look, a mix of pieces with different
finishes. Architectural salvage companies, such as Urban Archaeology in New York City, and Architectural Antiques Exchange in Philadelphia, often stock vintage cabinets in wood or metal, which mix well with freestanding antique or reproduction pieces, such as a Welsh dresser or a dry sink, and with semi-customized items like plate racks and open shelving. Painted wood cabinets may warp when stripped, so you might want to try one cabinet door first. Metal cabinets should be stripped, buffed, and lacquered to prevent them from rusting.
If you decide to go with all-new cabinetry, be aware of the signature
design elements of the era you are trying to recall when you make your
selection. Kitchens built between 1880 and 1930, for example, often
featured Shaker-style cabinets, with plain, box-frame panels (and no
lip) on the doors. Some designers who value authenticity over comfort
specify base cabinets that go straight to the floor; you can compromise
by installing straight-base cabinets for storage or display and cabinets
with a toe kick in work areas.
Surfaces to Consider
Stone countertops are compatible with old-fashioned kitchens--as long as the stone is honed to a soft finish; Vermont soapstone is one popular
choice. Concrete, subtly colored or left in a grayish hue, is a contemporary alternative to a natural material; concrete is durable as long as it is sealed.
For flooring, architects and designers usually recommend hardwood. Linoleum, maligned for years, is making a comeback. Imported versions, including linoleum tiles, have never been more beautiful or practical. Colors and patterns range from pale, marbleized designs to intense, broad-brushed, high-color motifs. Unused rolls of vintage linoleum from the '20s to the '50s can often be found at salvage companies or at specialty stores like Secondhand Rose in New York City.
On the ceiling, pressed metal is handsome, particularly when left in its natural state. As an alternative, try heavy Anaglypta paper, a cream-colored wallpaper embossed in a variety of period patterns. It is less expensive to install than pressed metal and, once painted, achieves a similar effect.
Even though they were not used in old houses, most designers recommend under-cabinet lights because they provide discreet but effective task lighting. Vintage-style billiard lamps and schoolhouse lights have a period appeal when hung over islands in traditional kitchens. Carriage- or train-lantern sconces look well on walls, especially in a cozy dining
Old Stoves, New Woods
Finding authentic-looking stoves--and, occasionally,
refrigerators--became easier in the mid-1980s, when the country look was blossoming. Heartland and Elmira, two Canadian companies, make new stoves that simulate the look of our grandparents'--complete with graceful Queen Anne legs, warming ovens, tall backs, and lots of chrome. Genuine old gas stoves are available from a number of sources, such as Antique Stove Heaven in Los Angeles. The store, which ships, usually has a stock of '30s Magic Chefs, among others, on hand. All stoves are refurbished and retrofitted so you don't need to light a match every time you turn it on. Though most old stoves are white, some occasionally turn up in cream, green, or cobalt blue.
Hoods are another story. Since they weren't around 100 years ago, it
can be difficult to find one that will blend with a refurbished stove.
The most common approach is to face the hood of your choice in wood and integrate it into the upper cabinetry. A metal hood should be
custom-designed to complement the range over which it hangs. Or install
a retractable downdraft hood; when not in use, it almost seems to
Hardware, The Finishing Touch
Vintage-style hardware, whether old or reproduced, is the finishing
touch--jewelry for the period-look kitchen. Bin pulls are one popular
choice. Make sure the finish is authentic. Designers suggest
oil-rubbed bronze, antique brass, and satin nickel. Or try a blackened
finish. As one designer says: the hardware will look as if it's been there for many years. Just like your kitchen.