As we head into the holiday season, even those of us who aren't prone to cooking end up spending at least a few extra hours in someone's kitchen. That usually leads us to thinking about all the things that are wrong with ours. I particularly feel this way when I visit my cousin Amy in Switzerland. She cooks exquisite meals in a shoebox kitchen. In fact, it seems almost all Europeans cook in simpler kitchens than we do here in the states and I think we could stand to learn a few lessons from them. A cursory search on the differences between European and American kitchens will leave you feeling badly about how immensely over-scaled and wasteful your kitchen is given that evidently our friends across the pond cook better pasta in less than half the space. Efficient use of small space is great, and really can help in food preparation, but I'm thinking about different lessons that exist in Europe primarily because that continent has a longer history than ours, not because its people are so much more thoughtful about how they use space.
Several years ago, I visited Ham House, a very well preserved example of stately 17th century English domestic architecture. The house is delightful in many ways, but what impressed me most was the simplicity of its kitchen. It's a rectangular room in a daylight basement. In its center is a gigantic wooden work table that probably measures 40” wide and 12 feet long. Along one of the long walls there is a counter surface with shallow utensil drawers and long open shelves overhead for storing pots and pans. In the center of the opposite wall is a fireplace almost big enough to stand inside, with various primitive machines indicating the fire was once critical to food prep. The shorter interior wall has counter height cupboards with hooks above from which to hang the kitchen's most frequently used tools. On the other end of the room, where a bay of windows lets light stream in from above, a secondary, free-standing work surface doubles as a table.
It took me a long time to understand why this kitchen left such an impression on me and seemed relevant to the kitchens I design. Ham House is a huge residence built for very rich people, but the kitchen really doesn't occupy a whole lot more space than a standard American one. The room feels far larger and more airy though, despite being partially underground, because so little of it is taken up by cabinetry hiding all sorts of things that get used once and then fall prey to the dark recesses of unreachable, un-rememberable spaces. Another thing that distinguishes this room from current American kitchens is that it is not open to any adjacent rooms, yet somehow it retains the feeling that several people could use it at one time for a number of different activities. This is because so few of the objects feel like they have to stay in the same place forever. If you wanted to use the room completely differently, you'd just push the big table out of the way. Why do we feel like every element of our kitchens needs to be indelibly plotted? What would happen if some of the space we designated for built in cabinetry could be given over to antique cupboards, or islands with legs and open air beneath?
There's one company I know of that seems to be working to answer these questions. It's called Cesar Kitchens and has only one location in the United States. In New York, of course. It began in the late 1960's when its founder, Vittorio Cester, felt he could add a little style to the modular kitchen emerging in the US. As with so many Italian companies, Cesar has managed to stay family owned all this time, as well as very design centric. Who knows if they make any money, but the cabinetry they produce is both incredibly useful and beautiful. I am especially enamored of their unit kitchen, which features freestanding lacquered aluminum-bodied islands and tall standing cabinets on slim metal legs. Despite their furniture-like appearance, Cesar has managed to incorporate ovens, stove tops, sinks and refrigerators into the unit modules. While the impact is much more modern than the arrangement at Ham House, the over all feeling of light, airy space produced by simple cabinet solutions is the same. If you're designing a new kitchen, check out Ham House and then check out Cesar Kitchens. Both will leave you inspired.