During the 15 years they’ve lived in their home, Shelly Zuzek and her husband, Dennis, have made a lot of improvements.
But there was one feature that new finishes and fixtures couldn’t fix: a 1963 floor plan with a wall and a bank of hanging cabinets that separated the kitchen from the main living space.
Zuzek, who loves to entertain, felt “trapped” every time they had people over. “I didn’t feel a part of it,” she says. When guests did venture into the kitchen, they ended up blocking access in and out of the room. “I had no mobility.”
Zuzek admired the open kitchens she saw on TV shows, and dreamed of a space where guests could congregate and she could join the conversation. “I wanted to bring people into the kitchen while I was cooking,” she says. So they turned to Ispiri, a Woodbury, Minn.-based design-build firm.
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The Zuzeks’ closed-off kitchen was typical of its era, says Bjorn Freudenthal, Ispiri’s vice president of marketing and sales. “Kitchens in the ’60s were utilitarian, very different from being a living space. Most people today want an open concept.”
Midcentury homes lend themselves to creative reconfiguration because their main living spaces usually aren’t as divided as those in homes of earlier vintage. “With bungalows and Tudors, you end up with room additions,” Freudenthal says.
Instead of a big, expensive addition, Ispiri proposed removing the wall that separated the kitchen from the living room and reworking the space to give the Zuzeks both an open kitchen and a dining area, all within the original footprint.
Removing the kitchen wall also would minimize the visual impact of another 1960s throwback: the split entry, which had almost been a deal-breaker when the couple first looked at the house. “We made a list of the features we did and didn’t want,” Zuzek says. No. 1 on the unwanted list was a split entry. “I didn’t really like the look.”
But the Edina, Minn., property had other features that won them over, including a generous lot just blocks from the elementary school their kids would attend, with plenty of room in the backyard for the pool they wanted to add.
Over the years, the couple had learned to live with their split entry. But the kitchen wall at the top of the stairs remained the first thing you saw when you entered the house. Removing the wall would invite the eye up from the entry and into the home, Freudenthal says. “Open up that sightline, and you don’t see the split.”
The couple agreed. “It’s more inviting that way,” Zuzek says.
To create space for the big center island of Zuzek’s dreams, Ispiri proposed a small 18-inch bump-out at the back of the kitchen. “You wouldn’t think that would make much difference, but it did,” she says.
Their new kitchen/dining area includes an efficient work triangle at one end and a built-in banquette, flanked by two decorative storage cabinets, at the other. “It’s a huge space-saver,” Zuzek says. “Having a table in the middle of the room really blocks your traffic flow.”
When it came to choosing materials and finishes, the Zuzeks wanted a warm, rich look with timeless appeal. Their previous house had been a 1920s bungalow, and they’d already incorporated some Mission-style elements into their new house.
“I knew they had a style they liked, kind of a contemporary Arts & Crafts look,” says Becca Hall, interior designer with Ispiri. Because the new space would be open to other rooms in the house, blending was crucial. They kept the kitchen’s original dark ceiling beams, but instead of matching them exactly, they chose new Shaker-style cabinets in quarter-sawn oak, a few shades lighter than the beams, and a quarter-sawn oak floor that is lighter still.
Combining different wood species and stain colors is a more contemporary approach, says project manager Rich Troxel. “The ’60s look was monochromatic — one wood, one stain,” he says. “Here, there’s an appreciation for each piece. It makes the cabinets look more like furniture.”
The Zuzeks, who like color, chose neutral hues for big permanent items, but bolder shades for accents, including a peacock-blue wall behind the banquette. The open floor plan meant that new elements in the kitchen had to complement the living room’s original 1960s stone hearth. “The tricky part was making sure [the new Cambria countertops] didn’t fight with the fireplace,” Zuzek says. “They’re in such close proximity.”
Now that the homeowners can both work comfortably in their kitchen, they find they’re cooking together more. And entertaining is just the way Zuzek imagined it. They recently threw a party for her sister. “We had 100 people, and it didn’t feel unmanageable,” she says. “That was the true test. I thought, ‘Wow! This works.’ ”