The kitchen is the most-remodeled room—often at great expense—but also the room most likely to be gutted and remodeled again by new owners. Partly that’s because appliances and surfaces get so much wear and tear. But it’s also true that “new kitchens” date themselves very quickly. Once it starts to show any wear, an out-of-sync kitchen looks dowdy, it looks like it doesn’t belong in the rest of the house, and it looks like it needs yet another update. If you’ve gone to look at lots of old houses with real-estate agents, you know what that’s all about.
It’s better to take cues from the age and style of the house, to put in a period-appropriate kitchen that will always look right. When you have an old house, the game is not to look up to the moment. It’s to look appropriate, and to match the kitchen, especially, to the quality of the rest of the house.
Unless you are taking a curatorial approach—like what a house museum would do, and, yes, even some private owners are purists—it’s unlikely that any of us truly wants to re-create, let alone cook and clean up in, a pre-electric kitchen. So that means some compromise for anyone with a Colonial, Federal, Greek Revival, Romantic, or Victorian house—actually, all old houses right up to the 1920s. After the first quarter of the 20th century, you can achieve some semblance of authenticity. But you will want to incorporate modern concepts of kitchen planning, contemporary standards in lighting and plumbing, and functional appliances.
The functionalism of the early 20th-century kitchen suggests what you might call a “scenario approach” when you remodel the kitchen. The scenario goes like this: You pretend that, sometime in the early 20th century, the original (or already remodeled) old kitchen was nicely updated in a way that was sensitive to the house. This is quite credible because it usually did happen! You take that as your story, and then create the kitchen in the manner of a past time (but a time conveniently later than the house). Because hindsight lets you pick up on the best of the period, this encourages a timeless approach that avoids today’s showroom trends while allowing a sense of evolution over time. For example, in your late-Victorian house, the kitchen’s floor plan and wainscot might say 1890s, the flooring and sink and lighting suggest they were updated during the late 1920s, but the stove was “replaced” in the 1960s—or last year.
Another design approach seeks to essentially hide the kitchen. People with early homes seem to like this kind of cunning, hiding a refrigerator in what looks like an old cupboard. But even some modern kitchens create a furnished room, with living room-quality finishes and lighting; the integrated appliances seem to disappear.
Still another approach is to be frankly modern. When there is nothing remaining of the original room, when previous poor remodelings and the wear of time make the room unsalvageable, it’s clear you are putting in a new kitchen. Nothing wrong with letting it be a product of its time. (Do a good job, and it may even be a classic someday.) When the kitchen is in its own wing or in an addition, you can experiment with any design vision. Usually, though, even with the frankly modern approach, state-of-the-art appliances and cabinets are often surrounded by flooring and woodwork cued by rooms in the rest of the house, for visual continuity.
Early kitchens are those that look right in a house built before the Civil War era. The kitchen will usually have rural character, suitable for a colonial dwelling or a farmhouse. If your house is a preserved antique, you’ll probably keep a modern kitchen out of the place. A functioning kitchen may already be in a wing or an addition and need only sensitive remodeling. Other owners go out of their way t o hide appliances and today’s functions—in custom cabinets, in pantries, or back halls. A good rule is to keep it simple. Go for an unfitted look and try to incorporate the semblance of a hearth: a fireplace, woodstove, or a prominent cookstove.
Victorian Houses (ca. 1860–1910) challenge us to put a family-friendly modern kitchen into a house that would have had a rudimentary kitchen meant for use by servants. The room itself may have been relocated, from a rear basement (as with urban row houses) or a separate ell to a more central space near the living areas. With a big black stove, a sink on legs, a separate pantry, and hidden appliances, it’s not hard to create an authentic-looking 19th-century kitchen. A majority of owners opt instead for a Victorian Revival kitchen fitted out with sumptuous materials of the period, from cherry-wood cabinets to encaustic tile, polychromed tin ceiling and cornice to lavish use of white tile.
Bungalow kitchens are relatively easy to approximate. The era’s kitchens were, by and large, built for use by the housewife, in houses of modest size. A bit of a clash may come when today’s owner decides that the original kitchen is (a) way too small, or (b) too removed from the living areas of the house. Bungalow owners have found clever ways to keep a new kitchen appropriate while updating it for contemporary use. A bump-out or addition looks in scale when an arched niche or banquette seating creates a dining area. A low wall, island, or colonnade will retain the sense of a separate room while opening the space to the dining room or family room.
Some kitchens of the “bungalow era”—broadly ca. 1895 to 1940—are transitional in one way or another. In this period we encounter original kitchens meant for servants; other kitchens, however, connected to the dining room, were assumed to be the housewife’s domain. Kitchens in Arts & Crafts bungalows, Colonial Revival houses, cottages, and Tudor Revivals were quite similar. Timeless design works best here, as it does for houses that have seen a lot of change over the decades. Stick to classical proportions and cabinet details, a simple palette (perhaps black and white), and such materials as stone (natural or man-made) and wood.
The Arts & Crafts Revival kitchen has become a default for many renovations and even for new construction. With today’s kitchen serving as a hub of family life, and open to guests, it’s easy to see why such hallmarks as tile, furniture-quality cabinets, eating nooks and banquettes, and the lovely lighting of the (electric) Arts & Crafts era are preferred. Higher-style elements from other rooms of the house find their way into the kitchen. Hardwoods (for floor or cabinets) and textiles make these rooms warmer than the usually white kitchens of the early 20th century.
There’s nothing depressing about kitchens of the 1930s, even if they do date to the years of the Great Depression. Recognizably modern, with electric appliances and built-in cabinets, these are rooms that embrace color—in wallpaper, tablecloths, linoleum, and dishware.
Mid-century kitchens are the most recent to be enjoying a revival, as homebuyers scoop up Modern homes and suburban ranches. Here it’s especially important to consider saving what you can of the original. That steers you in the right direction and saves money (not to mention preserving a bit of domestic history). The ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s all have their own styles. Kitchens of these decades may be nostalgic, pop culture, or cutting-edge Modern.
Trendy or Timeless?
A kitchen makeover is an expensive, time-consuming proposition. You don’t want yours to look dated in five or 10 years. Happily, period-look kitchen fittings are so popular that they’ve become mainstream. But 21st-century intrusions abound, from appliances with built-in computer screens (imagine how fast those will age!) to faddish cabinet pulls. Which trends are likely to stay the course, and which will date a new kitchen in a skinny minute?
• Sleek “designer” kitchens in all-black or all-white are trendy and not very user-friendly. But the black-and-white kitchen is timeless: dark cabinets with light countertops, or vice versa. The contrast lends visual depth. Wood has a place in almost every timeless kitchen, whether you use it for floor, cabinets, or
• In cabinets, both severity and excessive fussiness will age out. But well-proportioned cabinetry with some detail is timeless. Raised- and flat-panel doors endure in houses built before 1945. Any island that resembles a large, rectangular kitchen table will always be in style. (Learn how to install kitchen cabinets).
• Granite countertops teeter between a classic and a cliché. The more exotic the stone, the more likely it is to look like a fad that passed. Stick to classic, quiet colors.
Versatile White Cabinets
Always a standard, white-painted cabinets are made period-appropriate depending on the tint of the paint, the hardware you choose, and, of course, cabinetry details. As you look through this issue, notice how white cabinets fit right into country houses but also are perfect for a Depression-era re-creation. White looks elegant with brass or nickel hardware, lively with red Bakelite. It’s the right backdrop if you collect mix-and-match or jewel-color plates.
Bungalow kitchens, small and “sanitary,” most often had cabinetry finished in an off-white oil paint. Kitchens of the Arts & Crafts Revival lean toward oak or fir cabinets, but that’s not always the case. The revival kitchen on page 82 mixes a colorful upholstered banquette with cabinets in a buttermilk white.
Be aware that period texts indicating “white paint” for cabinets or trim were not always referring to bright white, at least until the 20th century. “White” trim was more likely an off-white color tinted toward soft gray, pinky-gray, yellow, or bisque—even beige or tan.