CREATING A HARD -WORKING KITCHEN SHOWPIECE by Carla Labianca
My kitchen is a modern reflection of the past
My husband and I are no different from most people. In every apartment or home we’ve lived in, we completely renovated the kitchen – in our imaginations. In the fall of 2019, both of us now in our mid-40s, we were finally ready to renovate for real.
We hired a local architectural firm to help us put together a multi-year plan to restore our 1884 Victorian in Maplewood. We needed a lot more than just a kitchen. At some point in the house’s life, a flipper got ahold of her, and now those renovations were starting to crack, quite literally: Two weeks into the Covid-19 shutdown, 50 pounds of plaster, lath, and shoddy sheetrock patches crashed down from our living room ceiling while we ate dinner in the next room. BOOM!
But a few months into our planning, my husband, Gary, was diagnosed with a motor neuron disease. We no longer had the luxury of time; everything had to be done now. We scrapped the multi-year plan and started over with our architects. If I had more than 1,500 words for this article, I would detail our complete renovation, which transformed every space in our home to be a pleasure to use on foot or in a wheelchair. I would include a bit about the extraordinary team that cleared their schedules and dedicated themselves to helping our family and to elegantly restoring our historic home.
But this article is about playing the role of interior designer for our new kitchen. I can write about the rest another time.
Allow me to set the stage. My design aesthetic is maximalist. Each time you enter our home, something different will catch your eye – a new piece, something we’ve had forever, or something we’ve simply moved from one wall to another. Antique, vintage and new are all in the mix.
Fashion provides a good analogy. Until fairly recently, decades were defined by a recognizable style. The Victorians donned corsets and celluloid collars. In the 1920s, folks showed some leg and partied in three-piece suits. Hippies protested in bell bottoms and macramé. Thankfully we inhabit an era where fashion can take a cue from any decade or combine them all. I take the same approach to our home. The walls are not permanent exhibitions stuck in time, but slates that reflect our evolving tastes.
Local interior stylist Sarah Gee, a good friend and fellow administrator of our SOMa at Home Face
book group, is fond of saying, “Curate, don’t decorate.” My Nana’s antique tea cups look perfect with our Fishs Eddy melamine tray that features the Brooklyn skyline. Gary’s pans displayed on brass rods and cast-iron hooks transform utilitarian objects into art.
By mid-March of 2020, our collective lexicon would change forever. As the world added “social distancing” and “community spread” to its vocabulary, we added multisyllabic medical terms and their acronyms to ours. In a way, this made us feel almost normal. The pandemic, despite the fear it instilled, distracted us from the new normal we weren’t ready to accept. So did planning our kitchen and home restoration.
Those of us privileged to work safely in our homes during this time found joy in our kitchen laboratories: experimenting with homemade pasta, everything bagels, and sourdough starters. Finding the perfect scone recipe became my goal – not the cloying American kind stuffed with all sorts of things, but the small, slightly sweet kind topped with clotted cream and jam or lemon curd. This quest led me to Mary Berry’s Country House Secrets on BritBox, but it was the kitchens on the show that really caught my attention.
Many of the homes that Ms. Berry visits are centuries old, but their functionality and decorative features transcend their years. Here they were, handing me a blueprint for a kitchen that would stand the test of time. Plenty of the details – white porcelain tile, flat-paneled drawers, deep copper sinks (renowned for their antibacterial properties), and industrial light fixtures – are perfect choices for modern homeowners. Now that I had my inspiration, I studied companies like Artichoke, deVOL and Plain English that skillfully marry historic elements with modern sensibilities.
I poured my collection of digital images into a mood board, and gradually my kitchen started to take shape. While our architects and kitchen designers, René and Marvin Clawson, hammered out the math and layout and cabinet configuration, I set out to source plumbing and light fixtures, tile, hardware, sinks, and refine our color palette.
After all the time, thought, and money we invest in our kitchen remodels, we want the outcome to garner oohs and aahs. We want a showpiece. But as I learned from those English kitchens, it should also be a workhorse. With that in mind, I chose materials and fixtures recognized for their hard-wearing characteristics as well as their ability to develop a beautiful patina over time. Life happens, and aging should increase a material’s beauty rather than spotlighting its imperfections.
So our cabinets are made from maple, a hardwood renowned for its durability. For the island, by nature a high-traffic area, I chose a chestnut stain so I could cover bruises with a stain pen rather than attempt to patch chipped paint. Almost all of the light fixtures are rewired antiques dating back to the early 20th century. The hardware includes salvaged Eastlake bin pulls, manufactured around 1895. The countertops are a mix of soapstone, a soft stone with high talc content that takes on an old-world look and feel as it ages, and quartzite, a harder stone that’s more durable than marble.
Some pieces I collected are from local shops, but one of my favorite acquisitions was a refectory table that I took off the hands of a real estate client who sadly didn’t have room for it in the new space. The long, banquet-style table was completely covered in layers of white paint. I stripped it all off, stained the top and painted the body. I raised the leg height to accommodate Gary’s wheelchair and restored the hardware, with a little guidance from Paul Lewis of 2GFN.
Our contractor, Dave Kasdan, understood the role that metal, wood, stone and porcelain would play in recreating a historic tone and texture. His team cut sections from our antique moulding and had new pieces fabricated to replicate it. The custom framed and tiled range hood was a special challenge. A lot of care and planning resulted in a seamless transition that blended perfectly with the rest of the backsplash. Every decision was made with an eye to both aesthetics and durability.
Appliances played a key role in creating equity in our kitchen. Using the principles of “universal design” to recommend appliances, René created an accessible space for people of varying abilities, ages, and heights.
We now have a kitchen that will endure years of everyday use – a kitchen ready for red marinara splatters and knives falling from cutting boards as they’re carried to the sink, a kitchen tough enough for three children, two adults, an 80-pound golden retriever, and a grumpy 17-year-old cat.
One of Gary’s passions is cooking for us; it’s one of the many ways he shows his love. He always makes a mess when he’s making dinner, and that’s the way it should be.
“Your kitchen will get scratches,” René told us early on. “Remember we’re doing this so you can fill it with love and memories. It’s not supposed to be a museum with velvet ropes.”
Here’s my best advice. Add and subtract pieces to suit your unique taste. Mix old with new. Use materials that absorb imperfections with elegance. Resist the urge to make everything perfect; create character. Tell your story.
Carla Labianca is one-half of the partnership of Danbrot + Labianca, a real-estate team with Coldwell Banker. She is the co-founder and co-producer of the Resource Home Show, a trade show for the home-industry professional and enthusiast. She is also the co-administrator of the SOMa at Home Facebook Group.
Architect: Clawson Architects
Kitchen Designer & Cabinet Retailer: Clawson Cabinets
Contractor: Kasdan Construction Management
For a complete list of local artisans, trade persons and resources used in this project, please contact Carla Labianca at email@example.com.