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A Man Who Has Nothing In Particular To Recommend Him Discusses All Sorts of Subjects at Random as Though He Knew Everything

Kitchen Stories

Three Years Ago I Invented Blogging And Wrote This

[Author’s Note: Four seven years ago all I had was dial-up Internet access, but started an Internet cottage furniture business anyway. Like with everything else, I was a cranky autodidact, and painfully taught myself HTML by fooling around with FrontPage, toggling back and forth in the WYSIWYG window to compare the code to the appearance of the page. I had no idea there was anything like a community of blogs, and just started writing essays on my What’s New page. Here’s one from 2005 I’m not ashamed of.]

[Author’s Note: There is no editor}

Now, I’m going to forgo maundering on about the good old days, because this is thirty years before I was in the game, so to speak, and I don’t have a dog in that fight.

But look at that room. It’s glorious. You’d kill for a kitchen that pleasant to be in, and we’d get you to sign the closing papers before you noticed there isn’t a dishwasher, unless you count the girls in the chairs. Please keep in mind, this is not the rich folk’s house, or it wouldn’t be here. They were just regular people, like you and me, or maybe just me; you might be an Admiral or Rock Star or somesuch; I don’t know.

Let’s go over what they knew about a kitchen then, that they don’t know now.

First of all, look at the light. I’m referring to the light emanating from the yellow orb in the sky, which rarely gets into houses these days. The big girl on the right is reading, and that looks like a great place to do it. Two things bring in that light. First, the ceiling is high enough, but not vaulted. Designers vault rooms willy-nilly now, and make gloomy, echoey, medieval caverns out of rooms that should be close and homey. Kitchens get it a lot these days. You generally need four or five hundred thousand million watts of lighting in a vaulted ceiling kitchen to approach what they’ve got here, streaming right in. ( I might be a little off with my calculations on footcandles there, but I stand by the gist of it.)

That ceiling looks nine feet high. You can get a fairly airy ceiling by simply specifying full eight foot studs for the first floor wall framing of your house, and gain 4 inches for a few bucks. You’ll save people like me from getting cracked in the head by your inexplicable ceiling fans on a 7′-8″ ceiling that way.

The ceiling would undoubtedly have been white calcimined plaster, to reflect the light. Calcimine was a form of paste used in lieu of paint on ceilings, that you had to wash off before recoating. Everyone forgot that eventually, and painted over it, and it peeled forever. Your recollection of endlessly peeling Victorian and WWI vintage house ceilings generally traces back to calcimine. In the fifties, peopled stapled asbestos and cardboard tiles over the flaking paint, in the sixties they tried acoustic drop ceilings, the seventies tried swirled sand textured paint over the mess, and the eighties tried the judicious use of the wrecking ball.

But everyone’s forgotten to make the ceiling high enough to make the room proportionate to its length and width, allow the windows to be tall and stately, and let in extra air and light. Your present kitchen is almost undoubtedly larger than this, and I ask you, could you fit those four children into yours while you worked at the sink? (Count the shoes, there’s four, trust me) The designer knew enough to put windows on two walls in the room, and not just one. It’s possible to get natural light into a room with the windows ganged on one wall, but its hard to do, and unlikely you’ll manage it. Lighting your face from one side alone makes for interesting Beatles album covers, but it’s no way to live.

Look at the pantry cabinet on the facing wall. it’s in a niche, to allow you to get around the room, with a nice flat counter to display what is obviously a prized possession, with room to spare for day to day use as a work surface. Lovely. Even expensive kitchen cabinets are really crummy these days. They’re more often than not made from particle board covered with plastic woodgrain paper with a design imprint that looks like someone who liked Lawrence Welk a lot drew it originally. The only real wood on cabinets now is the doors, and they always are overlaid on the face, not inset like the picture. They are overlaid to save the manufacturer trouble, not give you a better looking thing; these cabinets have the doors inset into the frame, which is fussy, and looks terrific, and is not like most modern cabinets. The modern version looks more like the box a cabinet comes in than a cabinet itself.

The cabinets here are painted, probably glossy white, looked spiffy, reflected the glorious light some more, cleaned easily, and could be refurbished when they got to worn by a conscientious homeowner. Nowadays, since you’ve ponied up all that money for your cabinets, they’re probably solid hardwood faces, with uninteresting grain, dark enough to soak too much of the light up, and make you add still more lightbulbs to try to see in there. They’re sprayed with a thin couple of coats of nitrocellulose lacquer, which is tough as nails, at least until it isn’t, which is fairly soon, and can’t be rejuvenated by hand, and end up in the trash every ten years, no matter what you paid for them.

That fridge is really small, but the homeowners probably had spent their childhood with an icebox, or some without even that, and thought it was a marvel, no doubt. And it has the supple streamlined corners and clean white metal baked enamel glaze that says “clean” to me. You wouldn’t feel the need to put wood panels on the front of your refrigerator if it looked that, well, cool.

The simple checked floor is terrific. Really underrated, that kind of simple decoration. The photographer is probably standing in the door that leads to a dining room, or a hallway or parlor if the house is small. The homeowner has hung a pretty little mirror on the wall, canted just so, so she can see behind her when she’s at the sink, or alternately look out the window. People still make the mistake of making the sink a sad, lonely place to be, and occasionally make it even worse than bad, by running the cabinets right across with no window, and doom the user to hours of staring at nothing, their back to everyone, whether you have a dishwasher or not. For shame!

You all know me by now, and know full well that I’m going to steal the design for that gate leg table in the middle of the room. Oh yes. It’s the perfect work island for food prep, and presto, open it up and you’re eating the finest meal in the world, which is placed on the table direct from the oven or stove, by Mother’s hand, surrounded by your loved ones, the clink of glass and china and cutlery a domestic symphony, the beaming faces of the children arrayed around the round table, with the late afternoon sun beaming in and the family beaming out.

Get some of that lost kitchen, as much as you can find, fit, or afford, and I’ll bless it for you, right here and now.

7 Responses

  1. "First of all, look at the light."

    Instantly: "Of course. It's Christopher Alexander's pattern #159, "Light on two sides of every room." (Well, OK, I had to look up the pattern number.)

    Almost every time I recognize a pleasant room or building, I turn out to be responding to the Pattern Language. I don't know that everything is in there; High white ceilings? Niche pantry? Inset cabinet doors?

    But building without even an intuitive understanding of what Alexander & co. were striving for is a recipe for ugliness.

    And I can't imagine a devotion to the language turning out something completely unliveable.

  2. What's the rerun # on this? You've done it before this; I remember it, and wasn't smart enough to find you in '05.

  3. That room probably only has two outlets. and I'm not completely convinced that the thing in the corner isn't an ice box. Kinda hard to tell but if that appliance dates with the rest, then to be a refrigerator it would need the electric stuff on top.
    If this room even has electric lights, then there's probably only one round tubed florescent on the ceiling. Looks like plumbing was a recent addition too, as the stand alone sink demonstrates. Trendy New Yorkers pay big money for sinks like that now, after they were all torn out and beat to death by the plumber's flunky.
    You can always tell who the homeschoolers are, they're the ones who can recognize the usefulness of they way things were done then, as apposed to the technically marvelous, but completely impractical way they are done now.

  4. Many years ago when I was young and rich and foolish all at the same time I decided to build a house and set about hiring an architect.

    I could not find one who could tell me how large any given room in the house should be, much less why. Not one of them could say "for a family of 2 adults and x children you will need a living room of y sq ft and minimum width of z feet, because …" or anything remotely similar. 1 of 5 knew that different wood in different dimensions had different allowable spans. They were all vast windy compendia of hippy dippy generalities and buzz phrases without an ounce of real knowledge between them.

    I wound up building to slightly modified plans of an early 1900s 2 story on the theory, proved correct, that those early architects knew more than modern ones.

  5. We added a kitchen and dining room to our older contemporary farmhouse when we did a complete renovation. Kitchen is on southeast corner, vaulted ceiling by necessity of the addition's design. Windows to the east and south, lots more light from the adjacent dining room.

    Farmhouse sink faces a three window array looking out at the meadow. Cooktop vents out the south wall, with windows on both sides. Lovely light colored cherry natural finish cabinets, with traditional doors, built by Mennonite craftsmen. Floors are hickory, laid by the sawyer who cut the trees from his own land. The island has a granite top, while the counters are the modern quartz composite, very wear resistant while looking quite pleasant.

    You can tell that we adore our kitchen and spend many happy hours there. Ceiling lights have hardly been used, just some low voltage under the cabinets, and a pair of bulbs in the pot rack. I think of it as a 2000's update of the idyllic kitchen pictured here.

  6. My earliest memory involves a kitchen like this. Yellow walls, a white ceiling, yellow-and-white gingham café curtains and a painted wooden table against one wall. There were white enamel appliances and two windows that faced east and north. In the morning,the room shimmered.

    The memory? I was eating breakfast at 8:15, still in my high chair. (I know the time only because I still can see the hands on the wall clock.) My mother was at the sink. When she opened one of the cabinet doors beneath, she discovered a mouse had been caught by its tail in a trap. She screamed, picked up her red-trimmed, white enamel dishpan and slammed it over the mouse.
    "There," she said. "That'll keep him until your father comes home."

    I have no idea what happened to the mouse, but I've never forgotten the pleasure of that kitchen.

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