Monthly Archives: August 2010

The Once and Future Kitchen

Great Room-inations and Design in a Bag

The open kitchen, as illustrated in architect Leon Meyer’s handsome contemporary

Seasons Plan 496-2 — is not a new idea.

The modern habit of combining cooking, dining, and living functions in one space harks back to the early American home, where everything was done beside a large open hearth,

as illustrated at the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning  (in one of the so-called Nationality Rooms, which you can visit). It was a “Great Room” before there was such a concept. Later kitchens became separated or closed off from the rest of the house partly to protect from fire and partly to accommodate emerging systems and equipment like indoor plumbing and new-fangled appliances. The kitchen became more specialized. In their book The American Woman’s Home , published in 1869, two famous sisters — Catherine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe — argued for efficiency. Their ideal design provided separate areas for storage, food preparation, and cooking.

They set the kitchen apart as a kind of laboratory (see the University of Houston for more about this book.)

But by the mid twentieth century an interest in more casual arrangements along with the rise of venting devices like fans (to evacuate cooking odors) lead to the dining  or family-kitchen,

like this one by ranch house designer Cliff May from the 1940s, with its kitchen pass-through and big Colonial style hearth that also includes a modern barbecue (presumably the rifle is just an accessory).

More recently the advent of quieter dishwashers and refrigerators has made it possible to make the kitchen part of a larger entertaining space, as we have seen with the Meyer design. Throw the fire back in, along with walls  that  disappear to unite inside and outside

and you might get the  Colonial/ranch house kitchen — “Part Deux.” This 21st century example was designed by Sebastian Mariscal Studio (photo courtesy the same).

To Infinity — and Before

One of the troubles with kitchen design is that there is too much choice in materials: counters, cabinet styles, back splash, paint, etc. How do you start narrowing down the list and then figure out what goes with what? My friend Lisa Kalmbach, former senior vice president of KB Home,  told me  about an especially clever solution called Design in a Bag from Chicago designer  Rebekah Zaveloff, who founded a company called Kitchen Lab with her husband Nick. The “bag” is  a selection of design materials grouped in stylish recipes covering a wide variety of kitchen styles.

You have a choice of Modern, Classic, or Vintage categories and then ten to 20 “recipes” or groupings of material samples within each category. Color palettes are simply cool, warm, or neutral. The one above is modern, called “The Palos” in a warm palette.

Each grouping includes finish materials, four paint swatches, color 3-D renderings to illustrate your finishes with the four different wall colors, and a shopping list with pricing, sizes, names of materials, and where to find them. The price of each sampler is around $100, depending on materials. Infinity just got closer.

Inception Begins in the Basement

Architecture as Foundation

As dream manipulator Dom Cobb in the film Inception – which here means planting an idea in the brain instead of extracting it — Leonardo DiCaprio says to young, artfully named architect Ariadne, well played by Ellen Page: “We always wanted to live in a house but we really liked these buildings.” They’re touring a super-dense dreamscape of modern highrises conjured out of a collage of real and fictional buildings. The poster provides a glimpse of an imaginary Downtown — see the gable-roofed wing of Los Angeles’ Biltmore Hotel peaking around a corner in the distance.

A nondescript hotel elevator lobby enjoys some suspenseful choreography. And the horizontally striped L. A. Department of Water & Power headquarters, shown below (courtesy you-are-here.com) forms the base of an immense “Seussian” skyscraper — in the clever phrase of LA Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne, who observed in a recent piece that, overall, it’s pretty bland architecture for a film that’s about imagination.

I agree (though I’m a big fan of the Water & Power building), but hey, then I discovered that the house Dom and his wife Mal actually called home is a Craftsman style landmark by Greene & Greene — at least according to the website Curbed.

The courtyard is shown above (it’s the Freeman Ford residence of 1907, courtesy Greene & Greene Virtual Archives, USC). In any case, several scenes take place along a hallway and in a wood-paneled dining room that definitely have the look of Greene & Greene. This image, not from the film but from

the Wood-and-Light website of author and photographer David Mathias — captures the honeyed atmosphere of the Cobb home. Sounds a little contradictory — they like slick, machine-like, contemporary but inhabit warm, hand-crafted, romance (or is that the other way around?), but then the mind is full of surprises and a good house plan website could always help them figure things out. And guess what, in one of the dream sequences you reach the house by taking a highrise elevator down to the basement: literally the foundation of all dreams, not to mention the source of all plumbing angels and furnace demons. Talk about Metaphorland!

Needless to say director Christopher Nolan’s film is an enthralling and very entertaining ride and planted the idea in my mind — inception indeed — that good architecture begins at home, perhaps even in the basement. (For more on the locations that were used in filming read the fascinating On the Road blog by Jerry Garrett.)

Which leads me to thinking that a basement should be built for brainstorms. Here’s one that includes a Sport Court:

It’s Dutch Colonial Plan 56-604. Or how about acing a bank shot in a game of billiards.

You can do that in the basement of Marcia Trionfale Plan 481-1 by architect Bud Dietrich. Of course basement garages work well in some situations,

as in Linacre Plan 496-1 by architect Leon Meyer. But media rooms might work best, as illustrated by Prairie Style Plan 56-601

in a  house on a slope, which allows for a wall of glass. A good place to watch building — I mean block — busters and dream about your new home.

Small Bathrooms, Big Ideas

Power Showers and More

A leaky shower head this morning — drenching everything in our tiny bathroom but me — reaffirmed my long held wish for a real walk-in shower and not the kind that’s part of a tub. But we have very limited space (not to mention resources) so here are some examples to consider while I hire a plumber and start saving up.

Architect Jonathan Feldman is particularly adept at coaxing an airy functional elegance out of small bathing spaces. This shower occupies one end of the long narrow room. We don’t really need two shower heads but the idea of using the width of the space as a “shower room” is compelling. Another even more compact ensemble also appeals to me.

The deep window shelf, minimalist materials and fixtures, and natural light coming from two directions give this tiny bathroom a measure of serenity. On the other hand if one must have a bathtub then the Feldman approach seems right.

Again, he cleverly uses the width of the space; this time turning a tub into a liquid bay window (photos by Paul Dyer, courtesy Feldman Architects).

Architect Sarah Susanka used a novel window/mirror combination to make her narrow bathroom seem larger in her Not So Big Prototype 454-3 Plan.

The mirror and the window draw the eye to the end of the bathroom, blurring the edges of the space beside the steps up to the tub. Where there’s a little more space take a look at this example, with a platform tub and  shower, that’s in our Flexahouse Plan 445-3 by architect Nick Noyes.

Though the drawing is schematic you can see the orderly simplicity of the arrangement — there is no wasted space. Or look at a platform tub and shower design by Turnbull Griffin Haesloop Architects.

The skillful use of small mosaic tile to delineate the room-within-the-room make a fairly generous space feel even more open and bright and the skylight above the shower floods both the shower and the tub with light. This idea — of a wet corner — could easily be applied to smaller spaces.  And finally, because it’s summer and I am a fan of the outdoor shower here’s a particularly handsome example, also by the Turnbull firm:

Look closely or you might miss it — the shower is against the leafy wall in a private patio off the master bathroom. Now that’s a place where a plumbing leak could create a geyser and it would be just fine (photos courtesy TGH Architects).

Eco Building Resources

Exploring Greenland

I just toured a new showroom in San Francisco that is a one stop shop for earth-friendly flooring, cabinetry, counters, fixtures, paints, and more. It’s called Ecohaus and has outlets in Seattle and Portland as well as SF. Here are some of the items that caught my eye. I have mentioned one or two of these products in previous posts but having them all in once place makes shopping so much easier…

Marmoleum (made from linseed oil, a natural ingredient) is a type of linoleum and though not a new material now offers a wide range of

colors and patterns. The image above shows the huge array of glue-down sheets. Marmoleum also offers click-together planks for easy installation.

An expanding variety of recycled woods are now available, through a company called Eco Timber.


Their newest introduction is  FSC-certified Strand Woven Poplar

with its attractive multi-toned, vividly figured grain. It’s made from post-industrial furniture scraps!

Eco-friendly counter options are multiplying. Squak Mountain Stone offers this seductive warm gray.

It’s a composite of recycled paper, recycled glass, and low-carbon cement and comes in full and half slabs that are 1 3/8 inches thick. It has the smooth cool touch of burnished concrete.

Low-flow and dual-flush toilets are now routine, but here’s a water saving example that has also been shown at recent Home Builder shows. It uses the run-off from the sink to fill the toilet tank.

It’s from a company called Caroma, which also offers  a variety of other bathroom sinks.

Using a table as a kitchen island is a simple strong idea and this table would fill the bill for me nicely.

It’s handsome enough for an elegant meal and durable enough to use as a work surface. Made by Windfall Lumber, it’s composed of wood from shipping pallets and crates.

No- and low-VOC paints are important finishing touches and among the choices are lime based paints by Olivetti, which have a rich texture.

Something to consider for an accent wall like the one above (courtesy Ecohaus). See how the texture adds depth and richness to the hue.

New Plans to Explore

These green materials would be especially suitable for some of our latest exclusive plans, like the Vermont Simple House 1 (plan 500-1) by architect Robert Swinburne.

Bob, who started out as a carpenter before becoming an architect, is interested in creating super simple, flexible, adaptable modern and traditional designs that can be affordably constructed.

The  layout is very efficient, with a good-sized front porch.

Upstairs are three bedrooms.

He says: “My designs are green without gimmicks other than some degree of passive solar and Passive house insulation.” Which reminds me of one of my nervous tics, I mean, mantras: good design is green all by itself.