Anatomy of a Perfect Kitchen

Every year at this time our thoughts turn toward America’s War of Independence. Which we won. Finally, we were free of the British, of onerous taxation and excessive meddling, of kidney pie and boiled meat. Free of the hundreds and hundreds of years of European history — all those wars and marriages between those tiny little nation-states shoved up against each other on the map. We were able to start from scratch, here in this vast land, able to build our houses one chunk of sod at a time, free from the influence of kings.

But in our haste to chuck out our past, I think we got a little carried away. We became enamored with anything new, a love affair that still influences our collective taste. The standard in in our homes is to make everything (seem) as new as possible. We love trends, and race to install the latest look in our interiors, full throttle, without managing to incorporate anything from the last latest look. This is especially apparent in our kitchens, which we make so up-to-the-minute that they become dated the moment the last drawer pull is screwed in.

image from T magazine.

The kitchen depicted in the accompanying picture belongs to Olatz Schnabel. By the way, I love the name Olatz Schnabel. The z at the end of the Spanish first name rolls right into the German sch of the surname and creates four syllables worth of the ideals of the European Union. Unfortunately for her, Olatz had to marry the artist Julian Schnabel in order to acquire his last name.  They’ve since split up but at least she walked away from the artist with a pile of beautiful paintings, attractive children, and a great name. And this kitchen.

Why is it so perfect? Well, besides the fact that it belongs to a perfect person, Olatz Schnabel, it contains all the elements a kitchen should have. And no, I do not mean a large stockpot and a dish drainer. Not those kinds of elements. I mean elements in a larger sense — the pieces that compose the building blocks of a room, that send signals about what kind of room this is and indicate what sorts of things should take place in it. But the building blocks of this kitchen might seem troubling, fundamentally un-American as they are. This lack of red, white & blue spirit becomes clear when you observe that the kitchen is without:

1. Excessive cabinetry.

2. Granite countertops.

3. Recessed lighting.

But yet, when you look at the picture of this kitchen, aren’t you certain that you would love to be in it? That you would love to tuck into a plate of farm fresh something-or-other, prepared by the casually beautiful hands of Olatz and her circle of fascinating friends? You just know, triggered by all the subconscious messages the elements of the room send you, that long, lovely meals take place at that table, that cut flowers are arranged in one of those enormous glass jars at that soapstone sink before being placed on the table, just in time for a tossed together dinner of homemade pasta and basil, freshly plucked from the kitchen garden. There is probably a dog that sits underfoot (an Afghan hound or some European version of a Golden Retriever) and a grandmother ensconced at one end, dispensing cranky but timeless wisdom.

Your mind creates this picture, and others just like it, because of what you see in the room: farmhouse sink, weathered table, casual dishware, the warm green color that transcends current fashion. Of course a rustic kitchen isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. But I would argue that a rustic kitchen is the only sort of kitchen there should be, really. At least if cooking and eating is your primary concern. Kitchens respond to our most basic needs, the need for warmth, nourishment and society. And if concern about splashing tomato sauce on that bank of shiny cabinetry installed like a fortress above your cooking pots overwhelms the cooking itself, maybe you should rethink your revolutionary American ways and look back to our shared past, to those European kitchens of America’s colonizers. After all, they can’t tax good design. At least not without a fight.

A few key features. Olatz Schnabel’s island is topped by a slab of marble from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Amazing!

6 thoughts on “Anatomy of a Perfect Kitchen

  1. I’m in the process of planning an update of our kitchen (the actual update will probably never happen or happen at a snail’s pace given it’s us doing it). I’ve told an architect and a design person that I have 2 main goals: I’d like to bring up from the basement the kitchen’s original soapstone sink, and I’d like as few cabinets as possible. Both requests were met with utter bafflement. Paring down is not the norm, you are so right.

    • You are a rare American bird, Jane. I hope you find a sympathetic architect. And can only imagine the meals that will emerge from your talented self once your (old) new kitchen is complete!

  2. How I love this post! As a lover of all kitchens, small or large, old or new, farm or urban, I just adore reading about them and looking at them. And what I love more than anything, is a kitchen that IS the person who claims it as his or her own…just like the one you’re sharing above.

    Having just read one of my mom’s letters (1949) in which she describes the kitchen she’s about to have in another apartment as “small and inefficient, no built-ins, a small sink and no drainboard”, I had a good chuckle, realizing that in the 40s as a new homemaker, she often had only a shared ice-box in the hallway, or a sink in a utility closet, etc. It would be several years before she had her “own” kitchen and what we all loved most, was the wallpaper with chickens, put up rarely poorly so that the front and back halves of the chickens didn’t meet. There are many times that I long to cook in the presence of those humorous split chickens.
    Apologies for the rambling comment, but your post really got me thinking–and that’s what I love about it!

    • Ann, never apologize for what you consider rambling. I always find your comments spot on, as you get the spirit of old stuff. I hope people are discovering the treasure trove of letters you have been sharing on your blog. And I love the tale of the split chicken wallpaper!

  3. Thanks! One of this week’s features in Houzz is a kitchen with a turquoise wall oven and knotty pine cabinetry–folks are loving the oven, but not the case with the knotty pine. I thought there might be some great possibilities there for a very fun space done right, but that sure isn’t the majority opinion on this one!

  4. My 1860s farmhouse kitchen came with cherry cabinets and ugly can lights—and everyone thinks I’m crazy for wanting to get rid of “cherry” cabinets. I cannot wait to have a functional kitchen I detest tons of cabinets and guess who is going to help me with the design? My favorite restaurant supply store–I cannot wait for a kitchen that is functional and without expensive cabinets. {I love commercial fridges and work tables…….}
    this is a great post!

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