If you’re looking for something unusual for a new or remodeled kitchen, why not choose things that are handmade?
It’s an unconventional criterion for making selections, especially for a space where the major focus is on modern appliances and maximum efficiency. But when you surround yourself with things that show the subtle imperfection of the human hand at work, the results can be stunning — a modern look with a traditional flair.
Today’s artisans combine techniques that are often hundreds and even thousands of years old with a modern sensibility for color, texture and finish and an artist’s yen for thinking outside the box, creating objects with highly original couplings. In the context of a kitchen, this could be Shaker simplicity paired with Kandinsky abstraction or a cabinet pull embellished with cut Swarovski crystals.
What handmade choices might you consider for your kitchen? You could think small and replace the cabinet handles and drawer pulls, make a bolder move and replace the counters and backsplash or go the whole nine yards and engage a cabinetmaker to design and fabricate an entire set of cabinets.
Knobs and pulls might seem like a minor detail, but they can have a dramatic effect because most kitchens have so many of them — the average-size kitchen has 20 to 30 drawer handles and cabinet-door pulls spaced out across the entire room.
Two handmade cabinet hardware lines that I discovered at the Kitchen and Bath Show last spring in Chicago would change the look of any kitchen. The work of both these firms is also highly evocative and may lead you to reconnect with long-forgotten memories.
Carpe Diem’s intricate and highly polished, lead-free cast pewter pulls and knobs look like your grandmother’s jewelry; many of the details may also remind you of your own trips abroad. Such associations would not surprise Carpe Diem’s founder and designer Diane Steidl, who traveled widely in Europe and designed jewelry for many years before segueing into cabinet hardware in 1992. Her work for Carpe Diem draws on a broad range of European artistic traditions including Classical Greek architecture, Gothic cathedral sculpture, the French fleur de lis and Swedish lace. Steidl also embellishes some of her pieces with Swarovski crystals, which add a sparkle rarely seen in a kitchen.
Cal Crystal’s porcelain pulls and knobs resemble the fantastic flora that populates children’s fairy-tale books. The shape of the knobs (swirls, mushroom caps, and button tops) and the colors (a range that extends from dark green to rose and pale yellow) combined with the hand- applied glazes create the unusual look. Each knob is further differentiated by the number of glazes used, the thickness of the glaze and where each piece is placed in the kiln before firing.
“Handmade” is not a characteristic usually associated with countertops and backsplashes, but Fireclay Tile offers handmade clay tiles that can be used in this type of installation. The hand-applied glazes developed by Fireclay’s chief ceramicist Paul Burns produce a finished tile with a subtle textured surface reminiscent of the Craftsman era, but the color palette is thoroughly 21st century. Burns said that authentic Craftsman colors look “dark and dreary” to most homeowners now, and they prefer tropical brilliance and colors like his best-selling “Hawaii Blue” and “Tangerine.”
Fireclay has incorporated a second 21st-century update to its products — recycled content. Its Debris and Express clay tiles are made with 70 percent recycled materials, including pulverized porcelain toilets and sinks.
Fireclay also makes “Crush” glass tiles, which can be used for a backsplash, and these are made entirely of recycled window glass. Unlike conventionally made glass tile, which is manufactured in large sheets and then cut so each tile has straight edges and square corners, Fireclay’s are hand poured into individual molds, which gives each tile a softer look with rounded edges and rounded corners. The Crush tiles also have an unusual texture, created by tiny glass shards that are not completely melted when the tiles are made.
Engaging a cabinetmaker to design and fabricate new cabinets might seem unthinkable because of the cost. In reality, however, the cost is about the same as higher-end, factory-made custom cabinets, an option that you may already be considering if your kitchen has unusual dimensions and stock cabinets won’t fit.
The difference is that in hiring a cabinetmaker you get cabinetry that is precisely tailored to your taste because the design is a collaborative effort between you and the artisan. You can also see exactly what you are getting before the cabinets are made because most cabinetmakers will make a full-size door sample to ensure that you are completely on board with the work.
Describing the process from a cabinetmaker’s perspective, Afton, Va.- based Christopher Paul Harrison, said, “Making cabinets for homeowners is more fulfilling for me because I work with the clients one-on-one. They put in their ideas, and you put in yours. It’s a very collaborative effort and a wonderful process.”
If you don’t need new cabinets but still want a new look, some cabinetmakers, including Harrison, will make new doors to fit over your existing cabinet boxes. For a traditionally styled McLean kitchen, he designed and fabricated new doors that combined the owners’ taste in contemporary art with Shaker-styled simplicity.
The new flat-panel oak doors are framed in Honduras mahogany and embellished with an abstract-patterned veneer overlay made with exotic African and South American tropical hardwoods. When the project was completed, Harrison said he and the owners “ended up calling it ‘The Birth of the Universe.’”
Katherine Salant has an architecture degree from Harvard. A native Washingtonian, she grew up in Fairfax County and now lives in Ann Arbor, Mich. If you have questions or column ideas, contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.katherinesalant.com.