I have been lucky to have always lived in homes with great kitchens. Even in college, my two roommates and I shared an apartment in Georgetown that had a kitchen with exposed brick walls, a working fireplace, a big old-fashioned enamel stove, a full-size refrigerator with a separate full-size freezer and an amazing picture window that looked out on a fig tree and a distant grapevine-covered wall. Needless to say, I, the budding cook/caterer of the group, chose the apartment (“one bedroom for three girls, but a great kitchen!”) because I was seduced by the cozy old-world charm of its hearth.
When I moved to New York, my now husband and I rented a small but charming fourth-floor walk-up one-bedroom apartment in a brownstone. I am quite sure that the kitchen was once a closet. I remember when my brother (who at the time was living in Texas) visited, took one look at the minuscule kitchen and asked, “where is the dishwasher?”
My husband raised his hand and said, “You’re looking at it.”
Despite its size, the space was remarkably efficient. I used to turn out wedding cakes and dinners for 30 or more, all from a space not much bigger than a phone booth.
Years later, we finally purchased our own apartment, but one that needed a gut renovation. I would have done anything to reproduce the kitchen of my college days, but adding a fireplace on the third floor of an apartment building was out of the question and, sadly, so was a view of a fig tree. But I did attempt to re-create the atmosphere by making it the heart of the apartment. I removed the swinging door that separated the kitchen from the rest of the apartment and joined together the butler’s pantry and the actual kitchen space to make it more open and inviting. I also wanted the kitchen to be as efficient as our first brownstone apartment kitchen — no giant permanent island for me to run around. Instead, I had an outlet placed in the floor in the center of the room so that no matter what furniture I put there, I would be able to plug in an electric mixer or a glue gun. When we moved into the apartment, our kids were very young, so I bought a lilliputian table and four chairs from Pottery Barn Kids to fill the space.
Until ages 15 and 12, it was here that they did art projects, finished homework and ate meals. When they couldn’t tolerate their knees hitting the edge of the table anymore, I replaced it with a clean Parsons-style table from Crate & Barrel, which now serves the same purpose.
At the time of the renovation, I was a decorating editor at House Beautiful, so I had access to all of the showrooms and manufacturers. I was as well educated about tile, marble, appliances, cabinets and hardware as any designer out there. I knew that honed Carraramarble could stain and chip, but I didn’t care; I liked the look and to me, stains and chips added character. I also knew that I wanted classic clean white subway tiles for the backsplash and that I didn’t have to spend a lot on them; inexpensive ones would do and I could use the money I saved to buy top-of-the-line appliances. Similarly, I saved on the floor by choosing inexpensive sheets of porcelain white hexagonal tiles that I grouted in gray. The tiles give the kitchen the friendly old-world look of a French bakery or bistro and the practicality of a 1930s service kitchen.
As for cabinets, I chose a simple painted wood design, but what makes them special is that they go all the way to the ceiling, which gives me ample storage space. I painted them a sage-y, pea-ish green because I wanted a neutral color that was warmer than white.
The real money went into those top-of-the-line appliances: a Miele dishwasher, Wolf range (the 30-inch dual fuel) and the piece de resistance: a Sub-Zero armoire-style refrigerator with a glass door.
Even though the refrigerator takes up a lot of space in a relatively small kitchen, I don’t regret the purchase — it is magical. The glass door makes it look professional, and the divided freezer spaces help me stay organized.
If there were one thing I could do differently, it would be to choose a different sink. I went for the classic farmhouse white fireclay sink, which looks great from a distance, but it isn’t very practical. Over time it has chipped and scratched, which leaves it looking dingy. (I know I just said that chips and scratches add character, but such flaws are better concealed in marble with its gradations of color; on white porcelain they just attract more staining and scratches. Instead I would have installed an undermount stainless steel sink from Blanco.
Over time I have developed a recipe for what works for my lifestyle: My kitchen needs to be one part friendly and inviting, one part high-performing and one part efficient. But I also believe that if you love to cook, then you can make any kind of kitchen the heart of your home.
Mayhew, a “Today” show style expert and former magazine editor, is the author of “Flip! for Decorating.”