Home & Design

Kitchen Dreamin’

A decent-looking apartment galley kitchen, says LittleBird Nancy, but the cabinets hang too low to allow for a stand mixer to, well, stand on a counter, and the precision fit of the piston-hinged cabinet doors (they open upward rather than outward) doesn’t allow anything to hang on the adjacent walls. The track lighting is stupid-looking, and who thought it was a good idea to have rough-cut tiles as backsplashes? And “dark” in the kitchen, like the bathroom, is not your friend.

By Nancy McKeon

I’VE BEEN LOOKING at my kitchen a LOT lately—surely I’m not alone. And I keep hearing the siren call of renovation. What I see in that perfectly respectable little room isn’t the nice cabinets but the fact that they hang too low on the wall to allow my stand mixer and Sodastream machine to sit on the counter beneath them. And those piston-hinged cabinet doors lift up nicely but are fitted so close to the adjacent perpendicular walls that nothing can be hung on said walls, not even a flimsy calendar (but that’s what are phones are for, right?). And dark, dark brown, though elegant, doesn’t make for a bright and cheerful work space.

Nonetheless, I think I may be done with kitchen re-dos. Finished. True, I say this now, not facing a full run of Formica countertop—not that there’s anything wrong with that!—or an unfortunate excess of busy granite. Oh dear, did I just write “granite”? Next thing you know, I’ll be typing s-t-a-i-n-l-e-s-s-s-t-e-e-l. But my appetite for construction projects may be overshadowed by my dismay at the idea of ripping out perfectly good 15-year-old cabinets and ranges and counters just to replace them with newer versions of the same.

What I thought when I first posted this piece 3-plus years ago stands. So where I once saw “potential!” I now just as often see “good enough.” Believe me, I’ve made more than my share of mistakes in kitchen remodels. Nonetheless, I have developed simple guidelines, things to be considered even if ultimately rejected.

I’m betting that MLB’s “grown-up girls” have developed their own “rules”; so read through mine and chime in with your own. Maybe they’ll keep me and others from making a mistake someday. I’ve added some new thoughts in boldface.

SAME STYLE, DIFFERENT PRICE: You’ll realize this if you look around a bit, but the same style of cabinet can in most cases be found at high and low price points. Even if you fall in love with those sleek, pricey European cabinets, you can get a similar look for less. (I’m not sure how easily available the piston-hinged cabinets in my new apartment are. Ikea has one, simpler version in its Sektion range but beyond that they may be high-end and not so easily found. But re-read what I said about them above before you start salivating at the thought of them: It may well be that for the stuff in them to be at all accessible they must be hung in this low, unhelpful way.)

ARCHITECT V. KITCHEN DESIGNER: Architects bring added value to your project with their ability to “rationalize” and balance your space. On the other hand, many of them don’t seem to have a working knowledge of real kitchen life—you know, baking, making the kids’ school lunches, cooking while friends are crowding into the room, why you need  a real pantry.

A kitchen designer will probably have a better sense of what’s needed, but the ones who make their money from the cost of the cabinets may stuff every inch of your room full of cabinetry, including that mortal sin of kitchen commonsense, the “attractive wine storage rack” built in next to the range or over the refrigerator. So for the architect you may have to ask for more, and for the kitchen planner, perhaps a bit less.

POT DRAWERS, PLEASE! You know all those base cabinets? The big question is, Why? They have a half shelf at most, and the rest of the space just swallows up your stuff, never to be seen again, even when you bend yourself into a pretzel to look around in there.

The answer to Why? is, of course, Cost—it’s much less expensive to build a box than to outfit one with deep drawers where you can store pots, or stacks of dishes, or small appliances. Pull out the drawer and you can see what you have without stooping.

(If there’s nothing wrong with your cabinets to justify starting from scratch, you can retrofit by installing those pull-out shelves you often see advertised—there are wooden ones and nice chrome ones as well. You’ll lose some space around the perimeter of the shelf [because the shelves need room to roll out beyond the doors], but you’ll gain by being able to find and reach things. If you are starting from scratch, though, I see no advantage to having to open a door and then grab for a rolling shelf; simpler to just pull out a drawer.) But this brings us to . . .

. . . FULL-EXTENSION DRAWER SLIDES: Don’t make the mistake I made years ago with my bathroom vanity, where I got the drawers I asked for but could open them only about two-thirds of the way. What’s in the rear third of those drawers remains shrouded in mystery.

Kitchen2web

With full-extension drawers, you pull the drawer out and see the entire contents directly below you. Genius! For this privilege you may have to pay a per-cabinet upgrade, but I have found it to be worth it. My kitchen is all deep, wide drawers, each pair topped with a shallow drawer (as in the above illustration), also full-extension, for utensils and such. (One of the things I really liked about my new apartment’s kitchen is that it had all those pot drawers. So, yay! Or at least half a yay: One freestanding base cabinet to the left of the range has two rolling shelves at the bottom, closed in by two doors that must be opened first. I don’t know why someone would have done this.) In my old house, the only exceptions were the sink base cabinet and the garbage bin, about which . . .

BUILT-IN GARBAGE BIN: When

Kitchen1web

Häfele Twin Side-Mount Built-in Waste Bins, available through kitchensource.com.

people would ask me which part of my old kitchen was my favorite, I would pull out the cabinet to the right of the sink. This was something I would do probably 18, 20 times a day, and it was satisfying every time.

In part it’s because the “cabinet” was simply a door to which was attached a heavy-duty frame and slide contraption to hold two trash bins. I used the front one for garbage and the rear one for recycling.

The other cause of such deep satisfaction was the quality of the apparatus, which was by the German hardware and fittings manufacturer Häfele (pronounced HEF-fuh-luh). This is high-grade, heavy-duty stuff; it’s been sliding in and out for more than 15 years now with not a wobble or a squeak unlike some of those lesser units. Yes, the more widely available models from other manufacturers run about $50 while the Häfele item shown above can cost multiples of that, depending on width (and Häfele has less-expensive models). But Mercedes-Benzes cost more too, and they require costly maintenance, whereas this guy just keeps on keeping on.

The Häfele wholesale site may be too “parts” oriented and too intimidating for us consumers. Better to go to the retail site KitchenSource.com. In fact, it’s fun to go to that site and add up all the cool kitchen bells and whistles you could have. Yes, reality has to set in at some point, but better to know the options than regret later that you didn’t know a really useful thing was available.

The reason I keep going on about trash is that, time after time, I look at a picture of a newly redone kitchen only to notice a garbage can sitting in some corner of the room. True, oftentimes people can’t sacrifice the storage space that would otherwise be taken up by trash; but sometimes it’s just a lack of foresight. Consider yourselves on notice.

(Department of Second Thoughts: Now ensconced in a New York co-op apartment, for the first time in I’d say 50 years, even in other NYC apartments, I’ve had a roach problem. So now I’m feeling a little less inclined to store the stinky stuff, or even the paper recycling, in a dark space under a cabinet. Who knows what/who are down there and what they’re doing when I’m not watching? Something to think about.)

Kitchen3web

A base cabinet made with 3/4-inch plywood by Barker Cabinets. The interior tray dividers are good for baking sheets cutting boards and, well, I guess serving trays.

3/4-INCH PLYWOOD CONSTRUCTION: It’s a pretty basic requirement for good cabinets because 3/4-inch plywood is sturdier and more stable than lighter-grade plywood and certainly than particleboard, which can wick up moisture from all those kitchen spills. ‘Nuff said.

BTUs, BABY: Until we all became obsessed with restaurant-style gas ranges, American stoves were a pretty anemic lot. But you don’t have to moon over the $8,000 trophy range you can’t afford (or can’t justify, given your microwave habit). You will surely have your own requirements (self-clean? middle griddle? gas-electric combo?), but for the burners it all comes down to the BTUs. Online browsing makes it easier than ever to flip through the specs on various manufacturers’ ranges; you’ll soon find one you can afford that can give you the power burners (and maybe even the low-BTU simmer burner) you want.

BUILT-TO-ORDER CABINETS VERSUS TRULY CUSTOM MADE: Just a thought about this. Major kitchen cabinet manufacturers will of course lay out the cabinets to fit your kitchen space, but to keep prices down they make only certain widths. Asking for a custom size for a weird hole in the layout will cost more. I had kitchen cabinets custom-made, and the bid was within pennies of what a standard manufacturer would have charged once we tweaked the sizes and options. So don’t dismiss custom out of hand; you never know.

There’s much more to outfitting a kitchen, but I fear I’ve worn out my welcome. It’s your turn to fill in the things I haven’t thought to list.

 

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6 thoughts on “Kitchen Dreamin’

  1. Carol says:

    I know I’m a day late BUT… just read the important (to me) parts of this, particularly about THE DRAWERS! My husband is handy and needs a winter project. Our house is almost 50 years old, the cabinets are fine for me but I NEED those pot drawers. A couple of years ago he put in a bread drawer that pulls out all the way, which is good especially when a pesky mouse invades that space. Now I will ask for another bigger one for my pots. I hate having to get on the floor to reach into the back of a box cabinet to find something, at my age getting tricky. TMI for you? Thanks for the inspiration.

    1. Nancy McKeon says:

      Not TMI at all! you DO need those pot drawers!!! At any age those base cabinets are just . . . stupid! I can see the use of them if you have a very large kitchen with room for lots of base cabinets–then you could have a heavy-duty pop-up mechanism installed in one of them so you could store your stand mixer there and pull it up and out to use since it’s not something most of us use every day (at least I don’t). other than that, they’re just empty space looking for a reason to exist. Many, many years ago I bought two pretty inexpensive pot-drawer base cabinets from Ikea with, of all things, plastic feet. I figured it was a stop-gap until I could really fix my early-20th-century kitchen. I proceeded to load the pot drawers down with hundreds of pounds of cast-iron pans and all manner of heavy stuff. The prefab counter I bought was longer than the two base units and I kept putting off cutting it to fit. Laziness sometimes pays off: I finally realized that I could separate the bases, span them with the counter and use the space in between for vertical storage of sheet pans, trays, etc. It was great! When I went on to do that kitchen for real (I mean, termites had eaten the floor joists, so I really had little alternative!), I gave those pot-drawer bases to one of the workmen for his church kitchen. I’m willing to bet they’re still in use!

  2. What egg? Did I say the toaster oven cooked eggs? It does take up counter space BUT it is also big enough to count as a great supplementary oven for all of this entertaining I’m planning to do if covid or whatnot doesn’t get me first. (I have NEVER rejoiced so about an appliance. I’m just besotted).*
    *Totally unpaid endorsement.

    1. Nancy McKeon says:

      I wasn’t referring to YOUR toaster oven but to some rando pop-up toaster I saw on the market some years back. Here, I found it again, a Westbend model TEM500W.

  3. Nancy McKeon says:

    Stephanie, I think I know what you mean, though I haven’t had quite as much trouble. Appliance repair guys have explained to me that gas, which is great up top (so flexible and immediate), is not so good for the oven because the gas supply is not steady—there can be surges etc. that naturally cause the temp to rise and fall. That’s why people who do a lot of baking are wise to opt for the gas on top but a nice, steady electric oven. That’s not an inexpensive solution, of course.
    I’m “allergic” to those “small electrics” (I think that used to be the term for them), not wanting to clutter my life or my counters with appliances that do only one thing (or even a couple of things, like that toaster that also cooked your egg—good grief). But it’s kinda like husbands—when you find one that “works” for you, go for it. I’ve been contemplating an air fryer, but I’m not sure I’ll like it or really use it, and then it’s just another thing taking up kitchen real estate.

  4. I see the word range and steam comes out of my ears. I’m on my third or is it forth in 37 years and despite researching the buggers, and parsing the comments, every bleeding one of them — is a turkey. I wonder if the manufacturers ever stick them in actual kitchens where people, um, cook stuff to see what works and what doesn’t — difficult burner sizes, under powered burners, ovens with temperatures that dramatically dip and surge, impossible to clean tops… I now rely more often on peripheral appliances — the slow cooker and my darling new pet, a Breville convection smart oven, for everything from chili to cookies. Except for browning meats, those do pretty much all.

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