Into the Wood
A superbly crafted kitchen mixes furniture and cabinetry in an open layout that cooks as good as it looks
When Regina and Sean Dowling decided they were ready to remodel their 1950s-era kitchen—a cave-like room with low ceilings and a brown vinyl floor—"we did what everybody does," says Regina. "We bought a lot of magazines." But out of the whole stack, only one story really caught their attention: a feature on kitchens that showcased just the sort of simple lines and warm-hued natural woods the couple wanted for their 1880s New Canaan, Connecticut, Colonial. "Our house is truly humble," says Regina, a theology professor. "One of the challenges was to put in a kitchen that didn't violate its character. We wanted it to be homey, not pretentious."
Inspired by the magazine story, the Dowlings began phoning the cabinet companies it listed, but one after another told them they did business only with architects and designers, not home owners. By the time Regina called "Geoffrey D. Warner, Designer Craftsman," she was on the verge of giving up the search. "I assumed it was a made-up name and just another big company that wanted to sound like this fictive Yankee craftsman," she says. To her surprise and delight, Geoff Warner answered the phone.
And he really was a Yankee craftsman. Over the next 13 months, Warner would design and build a beautiful, efficient kitchen in a signature style that shows the influence of the early-20th-century Arts and Crafts movement: It features extensive use of rich, solid woods and no veneers; simple lines with no fancy moldings; and exposed dovetail and mortise-and-tenon joinery. Along with built-in cabinets and a banquette, Warner crafted several freestanding pieces—a corner pantry, a rolltop desk, bookshelves, a breakfast table and chairs, and a couple of bar stools—in his Stonington, Maine, workshop. "Instead of having fitted cabinets all over the place, I like to emphasize open wall space," says Warner. "It makes a kitchen feel more like a room than a storage area."
Designer/builder Geoff Warner used light woods for the kitchen furniture to distinguish it from his deep-toned cabinets. The striking grain patterns
in the curly maple dining table put on a show at every sitting. The chairs are
maple, too, with half-circle backs that Warner made by gluing together
layers of wood, then cut into a curve using a band saw, router, and shaper.
In recent years, unfitted kitchens—which incorporate storage units and work surfaces—have become a popular alternative to those with wall-to-wall built-ins. Although they can be more expensive than designs that use standard base and wall cabinets, the looser, less formal style of the unfitted approach gives owners more ways to customize both form and function. "It lets people put a little variety in their kitchen," says David Beer, president of the Bethlehem, Pennsylvania?based YesterTec Design, which specializes in the look. "You can mix and match different colors, textures, and cabinetry styles to create a beautiful, eclectic room." That was what the Dowlings saw, and liked, when they met with Warner and visited kitchens he'd built in nearby Westchester County. "He had a way of not making everything so monotonous," says Sean.
But before the new kitchen could go in, the structure of the low-ceilinged room had to be reshaped. At Warner's suggestion, contractor Ross Tiefenthaler tore off the flat roof and put in one that was higher and more steeply pitched, starting at about 8 feet and rising to about 14 feet. "You could justify the project just in getting rid of that roof," says Sean, who had spent too many winter mornings up there shoveling off snow to prevent water damage. Besides adding needed headroom, pitching the roof also allowed the installation of two skylights that bathe the room in light. Another plus: The door from an upstairs hallway that had once opened onto the roof now leads to a mini-balcony overlooking the kitchen.
To find more workspace for the Dowlings—both avid cooks—Tiefenthaler made the room a little larger by bumping out the north wall about three feet, pushing into what had been a closet on the east side, and closing up an unused stairway to a basement boiler room. The clothes washer and dryer were also moved out of the kitchen and into an adjacent utility room. And by turning the room into a separate heating zone with its own thermostat, Tiefenthaler made the often-chilly space positively toasty. "Last winter we were soooo happy," says Regina.
The old '50s-era kitchen
With the room alterations under way, Warner and the Dowlings finalized the cabinet and furniture plan, finding ways to make it a kitchen for two, not one. "If we're entertaining," says Regina, "I can be cleaning dishes and Sean can be over in the prep area working on something else. We're never on top of each other." The room enlargement and the eventual layout put plenty of room between the work areas. "We're not trying to run a restaurant here," says Sean. "What does it matter if we walk a couple of extra feet? We like the way it works."
Putting together the components was a bit trickier than in a typical kitchen, given the Dowlings' special requests and the unfitted nature of the room, but Warner's design met the challenge. Despite few built-in cabinets, there are a lot of places to put things away, thanks to the corner pantry, the oversize desk, and a mini?butler's pantry in the short passageway to the formal dining room. Regina, a frequent bread baker, wanted a 30-inch-high pastry counter to comfortably knead her dough. The baking station, with its nearly circular countertop, is now one of the most eye-catching features of the room.
Sean very much wanted an eat-in area. The long maple table and cushioned banquette Warner built remind him of his grandparents' home. "It was a nice, social place," he says. "People would gather there after dinner to play games." And the more-than-9-foot-long banquette is as practical as it is comfortable: The seats lift up to reveal lots of storage for "the waffle iron, mixer attachments, all the things we don't use that often," says Regina.
Compared to the '50s-era kitchen it replaced, the new design shows the dramatic change that can come from a small expansion—a 3-foot bump-out along the cooktop wall—and a more open layout. Taking out the cabinets that stood between the kitchen and the eat-in area simplified the overall traffic pattern. Now the busy sink area is separated from the dining table by a 4-foot-tall divider made of solid cherry.
After solving the way the kitchen would work, Warner went about creating a roomful of fine, intricately detailed woodworking. His plan included the use of a variety of woods: cherry for the built-ins, spalted maple for the corner pantry, walnut for the desk, and maple for the breakfast table, chairs, bookcases, and bar stools. Amid the beautifully grained wood, tight joinery, and clean lines, details abound. Tiny, dark-stained walnut insets dot everything from the cabinetry and chairs to the wall sconces; handmade maple door and drawer pulls contrast with the reddish-brown cherry; graceful brackets support open shelving. Some of Warner's inspiration comes from the designs of noted California architects Greene and Greene, who gained fame in the early 1900s for the extraordinary wood craftsmanship of their homes and furniture. "I like to mix the Arts and Crafts influence with my own ideas," says Warner.
One of his inspirations produced the kitchen's most unusual detail. As part of his plan to open up the space, Warner had wanted to remove a pillar that rises next to the prep counter. But Tiefenthaler said it couldn't be moved because it contained a drainpipe from the second floor that had to stay where it was. Warner turned the problem into a plus: To cover the plumbing, he installed a 2-foot-wide, floor-to-ceiling slate blackboard, on which the Dowlings jot down shopping lists and important dates. "It's a little unusual, but anything creative should have a few surprises," says Warner.
The biggest surprise for the Dowlings, though, has been a major renovation that went smoothly and brought them the kitchen they'd long dreamt of. "We'll be here till we retire, and perhaps beyond," says Sean. "This is the kind of furniture that makes you think, 'I never thought I'd own anything this nice!'"?
After tearing off the kitchen's original flat roof, crewmen put in steeply pitched rafters, which gave the revamped room a much more spacious look, even though the floor space hardly increased.
Seventy-Five Days Without a Kitchen
Regina Dowling feels uncomfortable talking about being kitchenless for 2 1/2 months. "I spent two years in the Peace Corps without electricity," she says. "This was nothing." Perhaps that's because the Dowlings were prepared: They had contractor Ross Tiefenthaler move their refrigerator into the mudroom, which they also equipped with a microwave, an electric tea kettle, and a toaster.
During the renovation, they cooked a lot of fish (says Regina, "It doesn't dry out in the microwave!"), frozen vegetables, and frozen organic meals. "We didn't eat out a lot," says Sean. "I preferred coming home and heating up something over going out again." In fact, the hardest part had more to do with cleaning than cooking. "We were lucky to have a full bath nearby," says Regina. "Washing dishes in the bathtub kills your back. We packed away all but four plates and mugs, otherwise we would've had big piles of dirty dishes." But to Regina, the most important survival factor was the good relationship she and Sean had with Tiefenthaler and his crew. "If you like the workers, and you trust they're doing a good job, it's much easier to wait it out."
A 6-foot-3-inch-tall slate blackboard solved the problem of covering a structural post that couldn't be moved.
Sinks of Stone
When Geoff Warner specified charcoal-black slate countertops for the Dowlings' kitchen, he knew what kind of sink would blend in perfectly: a slate one. That may sound exotic, but having one made is as simple as sending a fax to Maine.
In the middle of the Down East State, workmen at Sheldon Slate Products Co. Inc. make dozens of these sinks every year. "If you send us a drawing, we'll build it," says Roger Page, an employee there. The price for a standard size (about 33 x 22 inches) is $900.
A single-bowl sink starts out as five pieces of inch-thick slate—a base and four sides. Workers hone the base to create a slight depression that funnels water to the drain, and then the slabs are fitted together and drilled for screws (which don't show after the sink is installed). The final assembly is done with marine-grade adhesive, with the screws acting as clamps. The finished product weighs around 150 pounds, says Page, but it can be crated and shipped anywhere.