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Artisan Kitchens

Artisanship has the ability to elevate kitchen design, offering designers the chance to do the unexpected. This month, kitchen designers from across the country discuss artisanal design.

authors Lis King 

The artisanal kitchen is here. That means a space that oozes personality, embracing creativity rather than sticking to one formula or Pinterest board. And designers, who prefer thinking outside the box, love it.

“People are yearning for that personal connection,” explains Sharon Hanby-Robie, a designer and author in Lancaster, PA. “That’s true for the kitchen as well as other parts of life. We yearn for the human touch, perhaps in the form of custom cabinets akin to furniture, hand-forged hardware or well-loved collections. In my own kitchen, I have a revolving display of the paintings and watercolors that I collect. It always makes me happy.”

New York City designer Rob Stuart also finds that his clients want very personal kitchens.

“I consider it especially exciting that these days, clients often bring ideas to us,” he notes. “The tables have definitely turned, and I don’t think it’d be going too far to say that the kitchen is replacing the living room as a focus for self-expression.”

Hanby-Robie and Stuart both feel that today’s always-tech-
connected lifestyle contributes to people’s need for something uniquely personal. “Constantly updating the iPhone and conversing with Alexa are part of modern life,” remarks Stuart. “But it feels good to step back into the calming rhythms and patterns of a kitchen that honors craftsmanship and permanence.”

Back-lit glass panels reflect the wind and water elements of Taoism in this Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired kitchen designed by Thomas Trzcinski of Kitchen & Bath Concepts. The hand-forged, tree-branch-shaped refrigerator handle (at right) adds an artisan touch, while the stone columns surrounding the refrigerator continue the nature-inspired theme.
Photos: Craig Thompson

Defining Artisanship

But what, exactly, is meant by artisanship? Nobody could define it better than Grace Jeffers, designer, historian and member of the National Kitchen & Bath Association’s team of Insiders.

“In artisanship, one sees the hand of whoever made an item,” she explains. “And artisanship usually tells a story that is personal and moving. It’s ‘art thinking’ as opposed to ‘design thinking,’ and ‘art thinking’ is about emotion and atmosphere.

“One of my favorite examples of artisanship is a kitchen I saw in a bungalow in Berkeley, CA,” she continues. “On the property was an old black walnut tree that had become very sick. The owner had the tree cut down and hired a local cabinetmaker to make all the cabinets and countertops for the bungalow’s new kitchen from it. That tree never left the property and is still enjoyed daily by the family.”

Jeffers feels that people should touch at least one hand-made thing a day, be it an artist-made coffee cup or an entire interior. “Otherwise, I fear that we will lose touch with our humanity,” she says.

Artistry at work

Designing a thoroughly unique kitchen is a gigantic challenge, but Dan McFadden of PB Kitchen Design in Geneva, IL contends that this is also what makes it so exciting. He tells of one of PB’s particularly interesting projects, a kitchen designed in close collaboration with its owner, an accomplished artist.

“Her stamp is all over this kitchen,” explains McFadden. “The home is in a rural part of Illinois, but it’s international in scope. The La Cornue range, which presides over this kitchen, was customized in many ways, so it became as unique as its owner. But, in this space, it is only the start of eye-catching, special features. They include hand-made, dimensional tile behind the stove and the range hood covered by metal panels, but wrought iron plays a major role here, too.

“As it turned out, the owner had a friend who owned a foundry, and he hand-forged the nature-inspired hardware on the doors of the refrigerator and some of the cabinets, the chandelier and the table that’s part of the island. The table is special. Part of the communion dress worn by the owner’s daughter was embedded in that table top, creating a relief pattern and every day reminding the family of such a happy, memorable occasion.”

McFadden notes that the PB design staff treasures its relationships with local craftspeople. “The terrific thing is that, when we bring them a design, they often find a way to make it even better than we had envisioned because, of course, they understand their particular medium better than we do.”

Designed for an artist by PB Kitchen Design, this kitchen features a host of unique elements, including handmade dimensional tile and a hand-forged iron chandelier, table and hardware. The hand-forged iron table with a relief pattern is very special to the client, as the pattern was formed by embedding her daughter’s communion dress in the table top. The nature-inspired twiggy hardware on the Sub-Zero refrigerator adds another artisinal touch, while the customized La Cornue range provides an eye-catching focal point. Photo: Bruce Van Inwegen

In a recent project, PB had to shift focus from its Illinois roots. A client was building a vacation log cabin in Colorado and wouldn’t hear of anybody else but PB designing the kitchen. They honored the log cabin tradition with rustic custom cabinetry and flooring, all within a powerful framework of massive, locally felled and hand-hewn pine logs and ceiling beams. They then added some metal cabinets for an industrial jolt. The result is a kitchen that honors Western traditions, but also provides convenience and conviviality for a family of enthusiastic skiers.

Wright re-visited

In Pittsburgh, PA, Kitchen and Bath Concepts recently met a different kind of challenge: creating a kitchen for the owners of a Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired house.

“The vibe of the structure was definitively mid-century modern and called for Frank Lloyd Wright’s celebrated aesthetic,” explains Kitchen and Bath Concepts President Thomas Trzcinski. “That meant nature themes and Japanese references, but first of all, it struck us that the house’s stone exterior should be reflected inside as well.

“So we designed the kitchen with stone accents: for example, surrounding the refrigerator with stone columns. And that refrigerator, a Sub-Zero, got the full ‘nature’ treatment. We designed it with mid-colored panels of quartered fiddleback Anegre, an African hardwood, and then honored nature and Asian themes with a handle shaped like a tree limb and strips suggesting the lines of classic Japanese gates. The tree limb handle is iron, handcrafted by a Pittsburgh artist. The material between the strips is quartered figured English Sycamore, and the stripping is Alder. The other cabinetry is crafted of mahogany. The five elements of Taoism – earth, wind, fire, water and metal – are paid homage, too. For example, a backlit glass panel behind the stove represents wind and water,” he explains.

Glass plays a major role in this Palm Beach, FL kitchen designed by Sura Malaga.
Photo: Chris Fay

Tile strategies

It’s hard to find a kitchen aspiring to artisanship that doesn’t feature tile. It’s timeless and trendy, say designers, as well as endlessly versatile, and it always requires a skilled hand to project its artistry.

In a banker’s New Jersey mansion, designer Sura Malaga used ceramic mosaics on the floor of a kitchen as intricate and ornate as anything you might encounter in her client’s native India. In fact, Malaga traveled to India to select the tile. The floor was designed in an exotic floral pattern. The same tile was used for the backsplashes, but was kept fairly simple. Still, their gleam of pink proved an effective counterpoint to black cabinetry.

“Even just setting tile on the diagonal makes a difference,” says Hanby-Robie. “And using tile trim and moldings can create masterpieces to rival art.”

Jeane Dole of A La Carte Design, in Denver, CO, loves both ceramic and glass tile. She used glass tile featuring earthy colors on backsplashes in several kitchen remodeling projects. In one, the tile was set horizontally from counter height to ceiling, but in another the tile direction was vertical, creating an entirely different effect. She also looks to tile to create colorful moments, including a kitchen backsplash hand-painted with a favorite greeting card motif.

Stuart is another tile devotee. In a New Jersey kitchen, he lined the walls with subway tile, seemingly a pedestrian product. In his version, however, it takes on drama, because he chooses a crackled version and black grout. “It creates an antique effect,” he says. “I echoed it with a mosaic of antiqued mirror on the wall behind the stove.”

Tile is always an element in the kitchens designed by Cheryl Kees Clendenon of the Pensacola, FL-based In Details along the Emerald Coast. “I rely on it to provide a wow factor,” she says.

“For a coastal aura, I often use tile patterns featuring vivid blues and greens.”

The hand-forged, tree-branch-shaped refrigerator handle adds an artisan touch in a Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired kitchen designed by Thomas Trzcinski of Kitchen & Bath Concepts.

Custom all the way

Homeowners rarely know what custom cabinetry is supposed to be, Trzcinski believes. They just hear the word “custom” and presume the product is special, he says, but of course that isn’t so. There are inferior products out there billed as “custom,” so it behooves designers to understand the difference in order to offer their clients the best possible finished product.

“A true custom cabinet facility is one that has no boundaries,” he explains. “It can work with any wood species as well as metals, glass and more, and it can produce any design and finish. And then, of course, the designer should learn what true craftsmanship is. For example, a door finished by a master craftsman is refined and elegant, while a so-so finish tends to look like plastic.”

Range hoods also get showered with attention in artisanal kitchens and often become focal points. But the designers insist that you’ll never find a design repeated in their portfolios at PB, Kitchen and Bath Concepts, In Detail or Rob Stuart Interiors. Some unique examples include a zinc-finished domed hood designed by Stuart to produce an old world look; a curvy, oversized hood that helps PB establish a French provincial vibe, and a wood hood that Clendenon had faux-painted copper.

“I was convinced the kitchen needed a copper hood,” she says. “The client didn’t want to foot the costs of a custom copper hood, so I solved the problem with faux painting. It worked.”

Authentic elegance

Hand-crafted materials add up to eye-catching pieces in the kitchen, according to Dole. “It could be an island created from reclaimed wood or a live-edge countertop,” she says. “So dramatic, but even just designing cabinetry with feet rather than sitting on the floor works wonders. It takes on the look of furniture.”

In Palm Beach, FL, Malaga went all out creating a unique 1,400-sq.-ft. kitchen. Using sea glass, she designed one-of-a-kind backsplashes and also used glass, custom-painted with an abstract bamboo motif, to disguise a troublesome structural column. More glass, dramatically backlit, formed an island plus a retractable table for extra entertaining space.

“I was inspired by the home’s marvelous sea views and the owners’ fondness of Asiatic culture,” she tells. Consequently, in the adjoining pantry, she had a wall faux-painted in a dragon skin pattern. The color, of course, was mandarin orange.

A complete contrast was seen in a kitchen she designed for a couple enamored by everything streamlined and industrial. “We made sure this very contemporary home’s roof trusses became part of the kitchen design,” she notes. “Light-colored maple cabinetry contrasted marvelously with the dark trusses overhead.”

A ship’s antique figurehead becomes a unique corbel in this Florida kitchen designed by Cheryl Kees Clendenon of In Detail.
Photo: Greg Riegler

Collections count

Today, designers say, kitchens are often inspired by the homeowners’ collections.

“I loved the New York couple who collected art objects on their travels,” states Rob Stuart. “The objects weren’t necessarily expensive treasures, but they had meaning for them, and they wanted me to incorporate them in their new kitchen. So I designed open shelves that would hold these mementos. It made the kitchen unique.”

“Any collection will make a kitchen special,” adds Clendenon. “Some clients have beautiful plates or barware to die for or gorgeous cookware. By all means, incorporate it in the design. We remodeled a 100-year-old home for a couple of serious cooks. That meant a 48″ stove, a custom copper hood, backsplashes of classic Calcutta gold marble tiles and, naturally, their prized collection of cookware. We hung that collection from the ceiling, making it an appropriate focal point for the room.

“So good cookware is a natural kitchen accessory,” she continues. “But go for the unique, too. I once used a ship’s figurehead, an eBay gem, as a corbel for a kitchen island.”

Stuart agrees, stating, “I once saw an antique upholstered door. It was posh and interesting, so when I encountered a house that called for some yesteryear charm, I had a butler’s pantry door upholstered in black leather. This is the sort of thing that adds personality to a space. Remember, an artisanal kitchen may seem like a challenge, but it’s also an opportunity to do the unexpected, and let the imagination roam.” ▪

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