The kitchen has replaced the art wall and the living room as a locus for self-expression.
Douglas Friedman’s kitchen in Marfa, Texas, looks more like a mysterious appliance or a piece of art furniture — perhaps imagined by Terry Gilliam for his dystopian satire “Brazil” — than a room. It is, in fact, an object, rather than an assemblage of cabinetry, fixtures and hardware designed to be ordered by the foot and bolted to a wall.
The kitchen — made of powdered steel by Vipp, a 78-year-old Danish company that for most of the 20th century produced one product only, a sturdy, pedal-operated trash can that is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art — comes in one color, black, and is embedded not just with appliances and equipment but design-icon flourishes, like a brushed steel countertop that floats above the drawers below like the baseboard-free reveal in a modernist house.
Friedman, a portrait, interiors and fine arts photographer who also has homes in New York and Los Angeles, likes its toughness — that stainless countertop invites scratches and dents — which makes sense in an environment in which you live hard, as Friedman puts it. “The dust comes in, and the dust comes out,” he says.
He was also drawn to its utilitarian beauty, appropriate for the glass house he has built in the West Texas desert, a region overseen by the ghost of minimalist sculptor Donald Judd.
“I didn’t want to distract from what’s outside,” he says. “Because it’s black, it just disappears. It’s not a showy thing. It doesn’t look like a kitchen.
“I didn’t want anything that felt too common or too suburban.”
Friedman is not alone in wanting his kitchen to look like something else.
For much of the first decade of the 21st century, the popular kitchen archetype was expressed in glossy white English cabinetry and honey-hued Mediterranean kitchens. Then Pinterest made the look ubiquitous, and builders made it suburban, rolling out ever larger and ever blander imitations. White marble islands grew to impossible, comedic sizes, trapping families on either side of their vast expanses.
Americans are still spending billions on their kitchens — over $67 billion on products alone last year, according to market research by the National Kitchen & Bath Association. But they have moved on, aesthetically, and outfitting this space is a fraught endeavor, says Amy Astley, the editor of AD magazine, in a recent email.
“The ante has been upped,” she writes. “Today’s dream kitchens are all about personality — embracing creativity rather than adhering to any one formula or Pinterest board.”
High-end brokers like to say breathlessly that the kitchen is the jewelry of a place; it may be more accurate to say that the kitchen has replaced the art wall and the living room as a locus for self-expression.
Kitchens are for your stuff, not your food, says Kim Gordon, a designer and builder in Venice Beach, California, who makes glassy/rustic houses with open living-room kitchens for a clientele she describes as “the beard and flannel set,” and which includes executives at Snapchat, Vice media and TOMS, the shoe company.
“They have beautiful plates, and barware to die for,” she says. “Work and life is all combined, they want to have everybody over and the kitchen has to look like furniture. Yes, you need refrigeration, but if you’re buying your food every day, you don’t need much. And you need less space to store your dry goods, because you are buying small batch flour from Sonoma.”
Designers are conjuring all kinds of nonkitchen-y arenas, like the refectories of old boarding schools, a signature of Christopher Peacock, the English-born kitchen designer once known for his all-white offerings. The kitchens of Steven Gambrel, a New York City-based designer, look like libraries, in dark woods with chunky, masculine hardware.
Thomas O’Brien laid in walnut library-style kitchens among the town houses of New York’s Greenwich Lane condominium development. Built on the old St. Vincent’s Hospital site in the West Village, it alludes to a mythical New York, from a past that never quite existed. In his kitchen thinking, O’Brien remembers the fine joinery of the turned staircase in his first house, a tiny 1920s Dutch colonial fitted out like a wooden ship.
Plain English is a London design firm that makes kitchens painted in lush colors with impish titles like Milky Tea, Boiled Egg and Sprouts. Their designs recall, variously, the cabinetry in Georgian houses and Shaker furniture, among other influences. They evoke English Bohemia, and the novels of Penelope Fitzgerald.
“The design thinking is gentler, if you like, less utilitarian,” Katie Fontana, a co-founder of the company, says of her kitchens, “more like drawing room furniture, study-type furniture. I never looked at the room particularly as a kitchen. I just always thought of it as a very pleasant room to be in.”
Julie Carlson is the editor-in-chief and a founder of Remodelista, the design-forward remodeling blog. In her post, Carlson has overseen a decade of kitchen trends — open shelves; Ikea hacks; arch, vintage-style appliances; plywood cabinetry; deconstructed kitchens and kitchens that are every shade of blue. And black, yellow and bright green. Last year, she moved from Mill Valley, California, to Brooklyn Heights in New York, and she has nearly finished a kitchen renovation in her brownstone parlor floor apartment there.
She is trying to play the long game.
“Trends are cycling through so quickly,” she says. “What seems new and fresh feels dated in a year or two. I can’t look at another blue kitchen. Brass faucets? In a couple of years everyone will be looking at them in despair. I wanted to do the most boring, most unobtrusive kitchen.”
She took her inspiration from Anna Valentine, an English fashion designer, whose minimalist white kitchen was designed by DRDH, a London-based architectural firm, and was itself inspired by the work of Vilhelm Hammershoi, a Danish painter of quiet interiors marked by pale, wintry light. Composed of three elements — a white free-standing cupboard, a long pale wood table and chairs, and a counter-height cabinet topped only with white marble — there’s not a shelf or a tile or a piece of equipment in sight.
“It’s the idea of the uniform applied to the kitchen,” Carlson says. “Hopefully it will age gracefully and I won’t get sick of it.”