Home design: My ideal kitchen

5 minute read
1022 vermeer
Learning from Rembrandt's Holland:
My ideal modern kitchen (without that bulky island!)


Third in a series of articles about home design.

Everybody’s in the kitchen these days– eating, drinking, phoning, playing games, entertaining, listening to music, watching TV, working— and sometimes even cooking. Since this multi-functional space has become the social center of the American home, professional builders and designers have created new (and very expensive) “model kitchens” which propose to meet all homeowners’ design goals.

Here's one of today’s most celebrated kitchen concepts: the generic version, which looks like a trade-show display. In Philadelphia’s Lifestyles magazine (March/April 2008), Sean O’Halloran’s article “Where Dreams Come True” declares that “shaping your ideal kitchen is about opening your mind and forging a very specific vision.” To illustrate this point, he offers a surprisingly standardized model, where homeowners must sit in a straight line on stiff stools facing a solid wall of stainless steel and dark cabinetry (punched up with all white accessories. Granted, this kitchen meets certain functional requirements. But how can it possibly satisfy a homeowner’s yearning for beauty, relaxation and personal identity?

Another, more minimalist model is called the “Kitchens of Earthly Delights” in Metropolitan Home (May 2008). Despite her braggadocio about sculptural effects and “cabinetry with sex appeal,” Katherine E. Nelson’s sterile kitchens all look like fancy factories for living. Shades of Corbusier! No food nor drink nor comfort nor individuality here! Just more clever talk about the realm of senses, and no action.

The goal is beauty with personality

But enough negative examples. Allow me to present my own “ideal kitchen”— one that aims to achieve the two basic homemaking goals: beauty and personality. My concept has evolved along with my interest in renovating The Cloisters, one of Philadelphia’s fine old structures, into an affordable apartment building with indoor-outdoor kitchens available to all units.

Consider the proposed floor plan for my personal kitchen space, 21’ x 34’. These dimensions are drawn from the numbers system of the 12th-Century architect Fibonacci (1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34…), also known as the “golden mean” found in nature. The idea is to give special attention to aesthetic ideals which have stood the test of time.

The overall style for my ideal kitchen is what you might call “contemporary eclectic,” with a strong dose of my favorite period style: 17th-Century Dutch. As Witold Rybczynski explained so brilliantly in Home, (page 5), intimacy and privacy appeared in the Netherlands during its “golden age” (1609-1660s), and here the “modern idea of family home first entered Dutch consciousness.” It was also here that personal style evolved: Environments began to display the character of their owners. Rembrandt, de Witte, and Vermeer– all great artists during this epoch– celebrated the beauty of ordinary household objects. These included cupboards full of household treasures, Turkish carpets, stone fireplaces, raftered ceilings, heavy swagged curtains, along with fruits and flowers in season. According to Paul Zumthor, in Daily Life in Rembrandt’s Holland (page 41), the 17th-Century Dutch kitchen was “promoted to a position of fantastic dignity and became something between a temple and a museum.”

Please note the absence of so-called kitchen “essentials”: The bulky island, obstructive bar with attendant stools, excessive over-counter cabinetry, and the protruding refrigerator— all gone! Think of the money to be saved!

Special features

Ultimately these savings can be put to better use in the pantry behind a jib (concealed) door. Besides providing plenty of storage space, the pantry hides the refrigerator’s bulk, and also serves as a wine cellar, potting shed, linen closet, and backup kitchen for parties. Now there’s space for some other special features:

Greenhouse: Hopefully the indoor kitchen will house herbs and flowers hanging from rafters above the gallery counters. Outside the gallery window, more flowers will cheer up the dishwasher. Along the 20-foot art wall, a ten-foot tree may accommodate a parrot in antique cage. Perennial grasses and vines cluster and trail along the outer edge surrounding the entire exterior balcony (just as they did long ago in my apartment in São Paulo). In time, these plantings will mass together with those of other neighboring balconies, to create a vertical garden wonderland.

Cook’s kitchen: As in many contemporary European kitchens, the cook can reach out to open shelves and grab utensils, herbs, wine, olive oil, pots and pans, and much more in a nanosecond. Altogether, the counters total 34 running feet, including gallery, pantry and cupboard. And oh yes, the cupboard looks like a 17th-Century Dutch original, but it’s really a bar and coffee center. Budget permitting, up-to-the minute Gaggenau appliances (including a remarkable heathifying steamer) will be featured throughout the kitchen.

Double fireplace: Two hearths are better than one. Both indoor and outdoor stone fireplaces are very special centers of attention. For thousands of years people have sat around fires, to see the magic flames, to cook, to warm ourselves, to find a sense of security in a dark world. Why ever should we do without the real thing in the 21st Century?

Integrated artworks: The art wall (rustic brick at best) includes a rod for hanging pictures and attached ladder, which makes displaying paintings easy. From my existing collection I’ll start with Chuck Connelly’s oil paintings of landscapes and flowers. Illuminating the dining table and long kitchen counter are Harry Anderson’s light sculptures. Also from my collection, antique copper, brass and silver plates and pots are scattered about on cupboard and gallery shelves.

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To read earlier articles in this series, start here.

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