Having the chance to work with a client for the second time has brought me to a point in designing where I am finally coming to my own on how and what I design. Several weeks ago a discussion was posted on a kitchen and bath board questioning – are we (as Americans) way behind the modern design of Europe today with our traditional kitchens. Answers flew back and forth: some on how modern and contemporary design is far more superior to that of traditional design and others stating that it’s designing for the client that counts. Not many viewpoints expressed the love of traditionalism.
I graduated from college with a serious hate of traditional classic design. Growing up in a quiet Midwest neighborhood I was sick of colonials and brick facades. I fell in love with the fast paced and urban attitude of the city and off to Chicago I went. I loved the sleek lines of cabinetry, the cold concrete counter tops, hidden handles, and stainless everything. I loathed mosaic tiles, anything frivolous, and frowned at brocades and nail head trim. I practiced a lot of contemporary and modern design. My clients were wealthy couples, no children, remodeling high rises. Others were architects who loved Eames, Knoll, and Design Within Reach. I played out the glass back-lit back splash a few to many times that I can be proud of. My boyfriend (now husband) and I owned an urban renovated loft in the west loop.
Original brick walls, exposed duct work, maple cabinets and black counter tops.
Track lighting, platform bed, and floating shelves.
The only thing that was traditional was our Christmas tree.
What happened to me? When did I catch the traditional bug and why hasn’t it gone away? I moved out of the city and to the Arizona Valley where my skin crawled at limestone columns and reclaimed pavers. But I quickly caught on to what owners wanted. I designed as I did before, with function, cost and aesthetics in mind. After all my job was to design for the client not to tell them what it should look like. I would look at design magazines and say “that’s not my style but it’s perfectly designed.”
My fiance and I soon married and remodeled a condo in Arizona. Our style went from urban contemporary to a smoother transitional look. Warmer cabinet colors (with a glaze) but still with the black counter tops – black galaxy to be exact. A four poster black bed replaced our clean bed frame and my fittings switched to satin nickel from the sleek glossy chrome that we had back in the city.
Shortly afterward I began a project that would give me the freedom to use all my creativity for a client with little or no budget. I was referred to them by a former co- worker of mine back in Chicago, this client was building a home in the prestigious Silver Leaf community in Scottsdale. He looked at my portfolio and said “I hate contemporary” and he still hired me. I had never a better opportunity to “push the envelope”, “think out of the box” – as cliché as that sounds – with clients who wanted something different and the resources to do it, it was amazing. I was working with materials I had never worked with before in the urban range of design. Venetian plasters, reclaimed pavers from France, exotic marbles and granites, woods of any kind and hand carved cabinets from a master European carver who’s work is actually in the dining room of the white house.
The clients were in their early 50’s with no children, they if anyone could remind me of the clients who I designed strictly modern for. But no, they wanted a chateau, a rancho santa fe. They loved cowboy art, the colors blue and red and we used reclaimed pavers and I loved them. We found them from a great source in Scottsdale called Antiquities that reclaimed them from France and I was filled with happiness. My clients shared with me their ideas of love of design and a whole new style had begun. I started looking at marbles, and iron work, antique furniture, and wood molding. I craved color: reds, golds, rich greens, and heavy woods. I designed custom furniture pieces and replicated antique sideboards and hutches. My client’s sub zeros disappeared in a sea of furniture armoires and my stainless steel hoods of my yesterdays were replaced my limestone structures. I had caught it, and it wasn’t going away.
Having a child around this time exemplified this disease. I was picking out furnishings I thought would be family friendly. How could my toddler be walking around a glass table without bumping her head on the corner, or how would I keep it clean from her grubby little fingerprints? Would my daughter like playing around on sleek tile floors, or could she be dragging her knees around on woven floor rugs? Would a chenille stainmaster couch stand up to a white leather settee due to the fact that she would spit up on it hundreds of times until she was finally eating solids. Did becoming a mom push me over the edge?
So I was designing traditional homes for families and loving it. It wasn’t until the current project that I am working on that made me realize how functional and truly necessary it is for me to design in this manner for the families I design for. My current client, a repeat offender, married and has been blessed with 5 children. I am in her home and we are examining how she uses her current kitchen.
Question # 6: What do you like about your current kitchen? Response: Everything. Question #7: What do you dislike about your current kitchen? Response: Nothing at all.
I couldn’t help but smile after that.
We are finishing wrapping up the preliminary drawings for her project. The schematics were far easier than I had anticipated because as I said this is a second project for her and I know what she likes and dislikes. She asks me about finishes and I tell her I want to get the layout and the spacing right first. I tell her that if she loves the look of what I have done and how it functions that we can do that kitchen or bath in a 1000 different ways or finishes and in still works. And that is what is so backwards to me in modern and current design today. I see pages of pages of kitchens with no upper cabinets, sometimes no upper shelves. My client says to me, where am I going to put my glasses in a kitchen like that, I always like to unload my dishwasher right above me for my glasses. And those shelves look nice with all that sleek dinner wear and plates but how long does it look like that for, and how much cleaning is that. How can modern be the absence of ornament but the lack of functionality?
And then I began to notice how traditional design is the right design for me. Lauren needs the cute chalkboard cabinet to leave notes to her kids when she is getting home. Her kids love the magnets to play with. Her deep drawers are not trendy but because she likes to fit her large cooking pots in them. Curved traditional handles feel good to this client, she likes the way they fit her hands, they do not feel cold like steel pulls and are not pocket catcher for her or her husband. Farmhouse sinks feel natural to her, not cold, and are easy for her to clean. Glass cabinets let her display antiques passed down from her parents. Terra cotta back-splashes have been used for centuries; they have sanded the test of time far better than laminate counter-tops. The colors and finishes are nothing without the rest of the layout and function of the space but it lets her leave her personality to her home. You see from the red painted island that she is a passionate person, passionate about her family, husband and life. Her house makes you feel warm and comfortable and if you did not know this woman or their family you could feel around to know who they are.
What I see in modern or poor contemporary design is such an absence of anything that reflects the lives of the family’s or couples I design for. I don’t get to create a space to display Luke’s trophies – they are hidden away behind stainless steel doors. No lists, no chalkboards, no artsy rugs to set their feet on. Simplified they say. Unnecessary detail. But how can this be unnecessary to this particular family. But for a family who communicates to each other in this manner, it doesn’t seem unnecessary. Modern to me is designing a home based on function and how one lives. You always adapt to every kitchen but a perfectly designed one should make your life easier.
You should be able to answer question #7 – I don’t hate anything about my kitchen.
And to questions #6 – I love everything about my kitchen.
We have to make it beautiful and that is what you are being paid to do, but take that basic plan, those basic layouts and elevations and you could develop a million finish ideas that are beautiful and yet the original function of the space is still there. And beauty is in the eye of the beholder, my neighbor’s dark wenge cabinets would give me headaches in my home, my distressed cabinets make them wonder why I paid so much to buy new cabinets just to have them beaten up.
I believe the term modern is wrongly used. Design your kitchen in any style be it modern and traditional and make it function. So are you just taking out wall shelves to make them look cool and sleek or are you doing it because the client is short and never uses upper wall cabinets. My clients function perfectly in their kitchens and unique to them and to me that is the most modern concept that perfectly make sense.