Even as kitchens become bigger, higher tech, higher priced and almost Zenlike in their minimalism -- imagine, please, a lone bowl of lemons adrift on a black granite counter -- Mary Randolph Carter devoutly worships at the altar of clutter: the old, the colorful, the quirky; the dented, bent, rusted, funky, gunky and cheap effluvia of the hearth.
As vice president for advertising at Polo/Ralph Lauren -- whose sumptuous ads make us long to lay a table with inherited silver for 24, complete with aspic servers and berry spoons -- Carter takes us way downmarket yet again in her third book glorifying domestic detritus.
First came "American Junk." Then "Garden Junk." And like those two, "Kitchen Junk" (Viking Studio, 252 pp. $29.95) pays homage to Carter's own aesthetic, grounded in Americana and folk art until the early '90s when prices skyrocketed. Why hand a dealer $750 for a primitive artwork in an antiques shop when you can hand 75 cents to the nice church lady at a parish rummage for something equally naive or endearingly ugly?
The book contains some 400 of Carter's photos, many of her own junk. It is spread among her New York City apartment, her farm and outbuildings two hours from Manhattan and her store, American Junk, which she owns with a sister in White Stone, Va. (How very nice for a compulsive shopper to make her habit pay, although some customers tell Carter they mightily resent her markups.)
But "Kitchen Junk" is more than a scrapbook of favorite things amassed by the author, her kin and chums. It is a guide to the tectonic changes in housework, housewares and kitchen design during this century. Some of her junk is functional and some is just terrific window dressing.
There are washboards once used for scrubbing clothes before they were dropped into boiling water and lye soap on the stove (rather than into a sleek, multi-button machine); aprons, elaborately embroidered, appliqued or ruffled to keep Mom or Grandma spatter-free in the days before gourmet carryout and fast-food deliveries; pot-holders crocheted by homemakers deft in the so-called womanly arts prior to the female exodus into the workplace; streamlined chrome toasters (with slots too narrow for designer bagels); and cookbooks with recipes long on lard.
"Kitchen Junk" has much less to do with food preparation than with interiors for people who just can't live in a visual void. Walls, shelves, fridge doors, tables, sinks, counters, burners, chair backs, all are curatorial canvases. And though there may be a Kitchen Aid mixer next to the rolling pin collection and a Miele dishwasher below the wire plate rack, the junk gets star billing.
This is clearly not a design statement for everyone. At the same time that Martha Stewart sends millions of eager devotees trolling for treasures, she also maintains her role as display disciplinarian. Less is definitely more and perfect is better than imperfect, although there is a time and place for that distressed look, be it the real peel or chemically-induced weathering.
Stewart's approach is not necessarily better than Carter's. It is simply, ah, more orderly. Certainly it is easier to place a few old signs touting "Fresh Eggs, Just Laid" or "Pure Ground Spices S.R. Van Duzer & Co." between the five-foot-wide Viking range and the behemoth Sub-Zero fridge and scatter some vintage tins on the post-modern concrete counters than it is to exhibit two dozen grotty dustpans, 35 mismatched ceramic chickens and 22 aprons amid the custom-made purpleheart and ebony cabinets.
Might a kitchen junker seek professional help -- from a decorator, not a shrink -- in showcasing a vast collection of cheap cherishables in a $200,000 kitchen? Not likely, said interior designer Cynthia Reed, who sells home and garden furnishings and accessories in the Georgetown shop bearing her name.
"The fact is, people who take the time and run around doing this at flea markets and yard sales don't use a designer because they like getting this or that themselves. And they often have a great deal of confidence in their own eye and sensibility," she said.
"People who use a designer are those who have collected a great deal of things they feel are valuable and they need help in associating and delineating the use of these collections in the home," Reed noted.
Carter shares that view. "I find junking the most liberating experience personally. When I finally kicked that antiquing habit, I stopped worrying about the worth of something or what other people would think and just let my heart be the Geiger counter."
Any advice for the novice junker? "Give yourself permission to be inappropriate."