Tuesday, January 15, 2013

making Tim Gunn sad

This man may be my favorite person I don't know (not counting bloggers):

He only asks one thing.  And I have to confess that I am not making it work. 

I have taken a lot of design risks in my kitchen - not so much in the sense of using chartreuse (I haven't) or doing things that other people don't do (definitely have) but of executing ideas before I can fully predict the outcome.  And I don't have a team of professionals or a massive budget to magic everything away and redo it instantly if it doesn't look the way it should.  I just have to use my bestest imagination to project how it will look.  I have gotten incredibly lucky, far more times than I deserve.  (Some of that is not luck but using sensibly-chosen parameters about how things should be done.  Good planning makes you luckier.) 

But when a great heavy object goes into place and it isn't working, that's when the real adventure starts.  Will it be perfect if I move it six inches to the left?  What about switching it with the thing on the adjacent wall?  If I painted it white?  Added trim?  Then would it be beautiful?  Or would it still just be weird, for some reason I can't articulate?  Of course, somewhere in the process of making these adjustments, my ability to see the thing objectively is worn down so badly that I cannot even evaluate the success of the changes.  At this point, I either give up and get rid of it or (if it's really securely attached) give up and leave it there, but look at it askance forever after. 

This wall is getting the looked-at-askance treatment:

I can tell it's not really working.  (Either that, or I can tell that I can no longer tell whether it's really working, and I am pretty sure that it isn't.)  I think that the shallow countertop/shelf I made is really lovely wood.  And it was a brilliant fit for the space.  I think the cabinet is attractive.  I think the molding is attractive, too.  But something is wrong about the whole grouping.  I think - if I can still see straight - the chair rail, beadboard, and baseboard are not only doing well themselves, but bringing the look of the whole wall up.  They're not part of the problem.  (Do you agree?) 

By the way, yes, I finished putting up the baseboard.  Yes, I know it needs a touch-up over the caulk and the scuffs from the saw. 

The upper cabinet may be part of the problem, but I can't tell.  And I certainly can't tell whether the problem is that it's hung crooked (it is, but other people say they can't tell.  I can tell.  Are they just being nice?), or that it doesn't entirely go with the rest of the cabinetry in the kitchen (true, but why does it look wrong if I just look at that wall?), or whether it's just funny-looking (I think it's attractive, but on the wall, somehow...?):

And I'm fairly sure that that shelf thing is a problem.  It shouldn't be - it's very simple.  I have been planning to add decorative corbels to cover the industrial-sized metal shelf supports:

Would just a few pieces of molding make the whole wall work?  That seems unlikely, but I do intend to try.  What if it's the color?  The shelf coordinates well with other things near it, but would it suddenly look better if it were blue?  Or what if I removed it and instead used a piece of marble as a shelf instead?  Then it would coordinate with the marble-topped work table to its left.  But right now it coordinates with other stained wood, and that's not helping.  Maybe the problem is the squareness of its sides?  They could be...a different shape?

It's not that I think anything on this wall is so hideous that people need to shade their eyes.  It's just that that wall is not contributing to an attractive whole.  And it needs to. 

I know (in theory) there are several ways to make elements work together.  Obviously, you could make them all the same:

Nothing sticks out there.  On the other hand, nothing really pops.  I like this kitchen (and yes, I have noticed that there are four different countertop materials - I respect that), but honestly, I think it would be more beautiful if it were just a little more interesting. 

Another way to bring things together is to unite visually different items with the same color:

I'm pretty sure the kitchen cart, high shelves, casement windows, and cabinets all hail from different installations.  (Despite what houzz says, by the way, I do not believe an architect was involved.  This looks like the effort of an actual human being.)  The fact that they're all white creates needed harmony.  If the room only contained matching stock cabinets, I think the monochromatic palette would be a cure for insomnia, but as it is, there's a lot of visually interesting stuff going on.  Win. 

On the other hand, you don't have to quiet down disparate elements.  You can encourage riot:

I see five different cabinet colors, and at least three cabinet door styles, just on this side of the kitchen.  (By the way, it's my understanding that this kitchen was professionally designed.  It looks like the cabinets were accumulated over time - a look I like - but that is not what happened.)  It does have a cohesive look (controlled chaos, if you will), which I think comes from similar finishes, similar trim, a narrow color palette, and matching hardware. 

I love this kitchen, too:

I think the unifying principle here is "stuff everywhere that I like."  If I set out to achieve this look, I don't even know whether I could do it and make it look intentional and not just disorganized.  But I think the results here are amazing.  Maybe it's just a matter of naturally good aesthetic sensibilities.  I hope I have those...

Another of my favorite kitchens:

This one really has the unfitted look.  The island on the left clearly had a sink and countertop made for the kitchen installation, but the base is apparently antique.  The table and chairs on the right are antique.  The wardrobe with the horse on it is an antique.  There's a set of shelves in the corner and around the corner is what looks like some sort of Hoosier cabinet.  It continues around the corner:

To the left of the Hoosier cabinet is some sort of lower cabinet with an angled top and a completely unrelated upper cabinet above it (complete with rooster silhouette), then a reproduction vintage refrigerator, then another huge wardrobe, then an electric stove from the 1920s or 1930s, then a work bench.  Not one of these pieces was manufactured for this project; most weren't even intended for a kitchen.  While the palette is fairly narrow, no two of these things are even the same color.  I'm not sure the homeowner even repainted or refinished - those finishes might be original.  I love this kitchen and I really think it works, but I think this pushes the "unfitted" (i.e., freestanding cabinets gathered from multiple sources) look as far as it will go.  (And yes, I would consider this for my kitchen, if it were a lot bigger!) 

So other than painting everything the same color (obviously not required), how to make disparate parts into a coherent whole, rather than just having them fight with each other? 

I know that giving a contrasting element some room to "breathe" helps.  You put enough visual space around it that it can just be itself - like this island:

I think that's worked really well with the wardrobe here, too:

On the flip side, physically attaching stuff to other stuff also works.  There's something about pieces that are perfectly physically fitted to one another that tells the viewer, "these things belong together."  (Kind of like how a black sweater doesn't really go with brown pants, but a black and brown sweater might work fine.)  Like so:

The stained cabinets are a different finish, slightly different molding style, and even a different height from the painted cabinets next to them (which are also two different colors).  But since they're physically attached and the uppers and lowers line up, of course they're meant to be together.  (The tiles do a nice job of tying the colors together, too.)  Likewise:

That wee-Palladian-window-ed cabinet in the corner has nothing in common in design or style with any other cabinet in the kitchen.  It's the same color and it has the same knob - that's it.  "Silly misfit," you say.  "It's obviously an intentional accent piece.  Clearly they bought a different one and attached it to those other two for some contrast."  Yes.  But what if it were sitting on its own, two feet from the other cabinets?  Might not look so intentional. 

You can slap together a whole kitchen's worth of totally different cabinetry.  Just bolt it all together:

I think I used the bolt-it-together principle fairly successfully with my cabinets 2 and 3.  They don't have exactly the same door style, and one has all-contemporary molding and one is more than a century old.  I just painted them the same color and attached them to each other:

I think that worked. 

The key to getting it not to look like a grievous error, to my mind, is to make it look like you mean it.  Offsetting a piece so it has the visual room to be a statement piece makes clear that you meant it.  Attaching them all together makes your intentions quite clear, too.  But those principles don't explain all the stuff I see working.  Like this:

Not attached.  Nor standing way out there on its own.  Clearly the top and bottom pieces are arranged so that they're meant to be associated - the top is centered over the bottom - but they're not even the same width!  And the countertop and upper cabinet have two different stain colors.  Nevertheless, I see perfection here.  Why? 

Very similar:

Granted, the colors don't clash, but the cabinetry pieces are three different colors (and finishes, actually - one painted, one stained, one painted and glazed), the painted pieces have different door styles and hardware, and the items aren't attached - they're just set next to each other.  Lower cabinets don't usually have gaps, and these do.  But they work. 

What about this? 

Completely different idea than the previous two.  But, like those two, we have several different colors, cabinets with different heights and depths, stained finishes with painted, and at least one antique piece from a different era than the rest of the items.  Some of it's attached.  Nothing is really offset.  The colors may or may not be to your taste, but it doesn't look like a tragic accident.  It's coordinated.  Why? 
So...this past weekend, I picked up this great craigslist find:

When I met it in person, I realized that the darker-stained "inlays" are a faux-finish treatment - that's not wood grain, it's swirly paint.  (I could've figured that out if I'd looked more closely at the picture.)  I don't like that.  But I also realized that the cabinet was way older than I thought.  It appears to be a real antique jelly cupboard.  That, I like.  And I think I got a good price!  However. 
It is not working in situ:

It's just a smidge deeper than the microwave I need to sit on it - so, correct depth.  It's narrower than the wall, so that part is OK.  (A little narrower would be fine, too.)  But I think it's too tall.  I originally meant to find a cabinet 36" high - the height of a standard countertop.  This one is 47" (which means I forgot my essential criteria as I was making a purchase.  The shopping is the part of this where I typically excel.  What is wrong with me?).  With the microwave on it, the cupboard does not work.  The microwave crosses the chair rail - I think it should be entirely below:

And I think both pieces are crowding the spice cabinet, which is definitely a disparate element, and needs more room to breathe, I believe. 

There are other problems.  It's not blocking or even really constricting the path around the work table or the path into the kitchen, but it is visually looming into the kitchen:

(I overheard my DH telling someone over the phone that "the kitchen just got a lot smaller." He has not tripped over the cabinet, but he perceives that it makes the kitchen claustrophobic. Since he makes no effort to over-analyze these matters, I think his impression is probably objective. I need to do something about that.  The kitchen, I mean, not his opinions.)  Even though the faux finish irks me a bit, I think it is actually really nice-looking on its own.  I wasn't planning to paint it white, because it would blend into the beadboard behind it.  But if I painted it white, would it visually recede, and stop attacking the visual space in the room? 
Or maybe there's no color that would keep it from looming.  Maybe a piece 36" tall would take up less visual space, and solve my microwave and spice rack problems.  Or, maybe I would get a piece in that size and found I had bought two cabinets in a row that did not work.  (Sure, I could sell this one for more than $50, but I am not in the business of selling antiques; as I have discovered with the stove, it is a pain.)  I need the under-cabinet area to store wine bottles and cookbooks, so I can't use a table instead, but maybe I could find something leggier, to make a bit of floor visible and create the impression of more space.  Like so:
OK, fine, that's much too big for the space, and also way too expensive.  But if someone wanted to sell me a little one for $50, I wouldn't turn it down.  I promise I wouldn't paint it :). 
I just can't get my head around the fact that I bought something wrong.  And it wasn't even a bad something - it's a really nice antique jelly cupboard, and I got it for a great price.  And yet it is undermining the harmony of my kitchen. 
I'm sorry, Tim Gunn.  I will do better. 


  1. Hi,

    I'm pretty much just a lurker but have visited off and on and enjoy your blog. The main reason I wanted to comment was just to recommend another blog that I absolutely love. I'm figuring you haven't seen it and it seems right up your alley:


    The blogger is a NJ real estate agent who loves cottages and constantly posts/reblogs her favorite home tours and interiors, amongst other lovely photos. Lots of kitchens. Thought you might find some inspiration there.

    Also, re: your shelf set up... well, in the interest of full disclosure I should note that I am a total novice at DIY home projects and have no real idea what I'm talking about so you know, take it with a grain of salt and all that :)... that said, at my first glance it seemed to me the issue is that the shelf should be moved to the right. It may just be the angle of the photo. Maybe simply placing the shelf objects more right of center would visually do the trick? I could be just nutty (or just a Capricorn) but it looks to me like the issue is the shelf was centered on the wall, rather than being centered under the cabinet, so the shelf looks off center to the cabinet, if that makes sense?

    Re: the cabinet itself, I couldn't tell it was crooked either until you mentioned it and even then, I don't think it's an issue.

    PS- This post made me laugh because i'm working on my own Project Runway-inspired task... Nina Garcia's "three commandments" aka "Edit, Edit, Edit"

  2. Here are my thoughts: the wall is top heavy. You have a big chunky cabinet (albeit beautiful) over a very slim shelf. All those kitchens you showed have both top and bottom cabinets. If you can't add a more substantial cabinet underneath it, then I think the shelf needs to have fabric hanging from it, maybe.

  3. Hmm, I'm trying to think of the proper decorating terms here, but it might be that your shelf doesn't have enough mass and is overwhelmed by the cabinet. It's too top-heavy for the eye, maybe? I don't know, but I do love that jelly cupboard you bought. I can definitely understand about the feeling it is invading your space - it could be height, or it could be depth. It's hard to tell without seeing it in person.
    p.s. I love Tim Gunn, and Hubby does too :). He says he'd be a cool person to have over for drinks.

  4. I loved seeing so many actually interesting kitchens -- I too much prefer the mix and match ones in contrast to the first.

    as for your shelf.. I think both are just fine separately, but relative to each other might be the issue. For me, the issue is that the shelf appears less deep than the overhead cabinet. Typically I think we like horizontal features to be deeper to the wall relative to horizontal things that are higher up... just a thought. If you like pondering such things, you might enjoy flipping through A Pattern Language which has all sorts of things that humans seem to like in their cities and buildings. Its a huge tome, but worth checking out the next time you have some time to kill in a bookshop or library:)

  5. I have to admit, I am not much of a designer, so I dont have very many suggestions!! But I absolutely love how you're documenting your remodel, and how you post your inspiration/possible inspiration photos!!

    And I'm not sure if you "do" awards, but just in case, I nominated you for one over on my blog ;-)