Asked my old prof when I told her we were considering remodeling the kitchen. "I've lived with mine for more than forty years despite it being small and having three doorways in it." "You just make do," she said, "but nowadays you might as well tell that to the Marines." "All that good stuff going into the landfill just because some dolly desecrator says so." Warming to her theme and sipping her wine "It's not that I'm advocating waiting for the tinker to come by and have him repair a pan as my great-grandparents had to do – not that these gals nowadays would know how to wear out a pan; they don't cook! Can't cook, in most cases. Didn't you once tell me about a neighbor who threw out all her old pans because they didn't go with her new kitchen and bought a matching set of fashionable, so-called professional pans? Who do these people think they are – chefs? Can you imagine Piero throwing away a pot because it doesn't look good? It should be about function not fashion."
"Is there a problem with the new menu?" said Piero (whose grandfather, as a boy, saw Buffalo Bill in Piacenza) walking over from his kitchen – we were having our usual Friday lunch and I guess we'd got bit excited and enthusiastic. There's never a problem with the food that comes out of your kitchen except, perhaps, my waistline, I assured him.
Our kitchen, as you see from these photographs, is a galley and its layout was designed in 1969 by the architect of the buildings. It was designed as a "work center" – a place where the help could enter by the back door (there's a doorbell on the door frame) and begin her work without entering the main door. The room functions as both kitchen and laundry. Not an entirely satisfactory situation by modern standards, but as a good instance of 1960s thinking and planning it cannot be beat. Ted Levy, the architect, had provided a laundry room for tenants in one of the buildings yet I have come to appreciate the combination of kitchen and laundry – perhaps because I grew up with such an arrangement, and being able to keep an eye on more than one task is of great use to me.
The kitchen was fitted with new cabinetry and appliances in the 1970s and when we bought the place it was in a terrible state and only one appliance worked – the oven, and it died halfway through baking a cake on my birthday. Given that the building/selling boom in Atlanta was then at its peak we couldn't get a contractor because we lived in a high-rise – they were too busy with building the suburbs. Nowadays, of course, they're fighting to get in the buildings so, perhaps, this time it will be easier to remodel.
We painted the dark cherry cabinets a soft grey-blue, built a cabinet for the stacked washer/dryer, replaced the peeling counters with Silestone, backslashes with subway tile, and used Miele and Sub-Zero appliances. You see the results – on a summer morning, facing the rising sun, the kitchen is a joy to walk into. On a winter's night, orange curtains closed against the cold, it's delectable having the Celt sit at the table telling me about his day whilst I futz at the cooktop and then join him in one of the Provençal chairs we bought more than thirty years ago.
Now, nearly ten years later we both want a new kitchen – one without oddly projecting cabinets with more work surface, no stainless steel (a misnomer if ever I heard one), no visible hinges and without paneled doors. In other words we want a contemporary, streamlined, easy-to-care-for and to cook-in kitchen that is beautiful and suits someone with back problems.
Inevitably, fashion plays a role in decorating and remodeling decisions. Neither of us wants the kind of curlicued cabinetry that refers to a mythical Victorian past – kitchens until the late 20th-century were hellish and from our first-world perspective created more labor than they saved. The modern kitchen is one of the wonders of the modern age and also of modern marketing – as much a product of suburbanization as was the creation of the family room/great room/keeping room/kitchen combination with attendant butler's pantry and wine cellar.
What exercises us is not when to remodel, but whether or not we remove the wall between the kitchen and the dining room. In essence, the kitchen would not get any bigger except than an island or peninsula would supplant the dining table, yet I see the attraction of taking away the wall – the undertow of fashion and marketing is strong. We are divided about it – not acrimoniously but certainly typically.
It's likely that making do as my old prof advocates is not a choice – the concept of "aging in place" and the adaptability of the environment to the needs of the user already require that changes be made to the room. Also, perhaps, what should exercise us more than the possible removal of a wall is what happens to the old cabinets and counters. Do they go into the landfill? Would anyone even want them?