Sunday, August 23

Food for Thought on Kitchen Design

After seeing "Julie & Julia" last weekend, it really drove home to me how kitchens have changed in the past 50 years. The kitchen Paul Child designed and built for his wife Julia in 1961 (now enshrined at the Smithsonian) is a testament to utility and practicality rarely seen in home kitchens today.Paul Child raised the countertop height so Julia would be comfortable as she worked. Every tool, pan and utensil had a home - plus the ability to entertain inside the kitchen itself made it unique to its time and owners; it's a great example of custom design.

Julia Child's kitchen presaged a change in the American home over the last 10 or 15 years. These days, the kitchen has become the place where everyone wants to hang out, often watching TV in a "family" room adjoining it, making it the true center of the house.

As kitchens have evolved in their role to become the center of the house, their design seems to have forgotten the basic use - that of cooking and eating - and ease of use and cleanup. Look at this kitchen:

What is it? Is it a formal dining room with a range (and TV) stuck off to the side? Where do you do the prep-work? There's no proper work triangle in sight. And the worst sin of this kitchen in my mind is how on earth do you keep it clean? I think Julia Child would be aghast.

Then there's the opposite approach - the ultra sleek modern version:
This would be easy to keep clean, but where do you store anything? I hate the notion of only having open upper shelves for storage (dust catchers to me). It's not a kitchen where I imagine great meals being prepared or consumed.

These last two examples illustrate what the shelter magazines tend to advertise and illustrate as "Kitchen" today. Granted, Julia Child's kitchen is dated but, to me, it is still a more inviting space, exuding warmth and cheer. It's certainly good food for thought when thinking about designing kitchens!

Saturday, August 15

It's All About the Proportion

One of my favorite things to do when traveling around the US is to go to the older neighborhoods that were built between the two world wars. When architects came back from Europe after serving in WWI, they brought back a wealth of visual information. The results can be seen in these neighborhoods; the middle and upper middle classes could have a chateau to call their own. What was truly great about this period of building is that we had an abundance of skilled craftsmen whose trade had been passed down from generation to generation. Doing these "old world" styles was a piece of cake for them. The architects and craftmen turned out homes that still exude their grace and proportion today. I never tire of looking at these neighborhoods, and marveling at all the care and talent that went into building them.

Look at the two houses above; both are in the same neighborhood. Both are described as being "Tudor". I doubt you'd have any trouble picking out which one was built in 1928 and which one was built in 2003. Granted the 1928 version has about as much of a relationship to the real Tudor period houses as the 2003 house has to the 1928 house. But at least with the 1928 house there is a quiet and balanced sense of proportion between all the elements in the house's front elevation. There's a lovely blending of details like the half-timbering patterns, the use of rough-hewn clapboard up at the gable peak, and the strong addition of the brick chimney. It's a very sophisticated composition.

The 2003 version of Tudor appears to have been designed in plan - by which I mean the clients wanted this here and that there, and the contractor slapped a few gables on the exterior container, along with 3 pieces of half-timbering so they could call it a Tudor. It is not a 3 dimensional composition like the 1928 house. It's nothing more than a super-sized suburban box. Was a designer even involved?

In this day and age when super-sizing is hopefully a thing of the past, maybe we can return to building homes where grace and proportion matter over square footage. Wouldn't you rather have a house of real rooms you use vs. vast amounts of amorphous space? I'm reminded of an episode of "Housewives of Atlanta" where the owner proudly shows off her McMansion; it was one large undefined room after another (all with double high ceilings). No one in the family lived in these rooms; the kids had a TV room in the basement; the wife spent all her time in her office. All I could think about was why on earth was this behemoth built. Why is it that people stopped caring about how their homes are used (and what they look like) vs. just owning space?