House & Garden

Going with the grain

Designers are turning to wood to create bespoke and artful kitchens that replace the white-box formula with striking timber textures. Katrina Burroughs reports.

June 25 2011
Katrina Burroughs

Something delicious is cooking in kitchen design. Soulless white-box systems are no longer cutting the mustard; brushed metal feels too faux-cheffy; and high-sheen laminates in shrieking hues have passed their sell-by date. Right now, we’ve an appetite for warmer, more wholesome fare. And the ingredient of the moment is wood: pippy oak and painted beech, ripple sycamore, walnut and pale maple. Traditional makers are reinventing the charms of the Georgian cupboard, contemporary virtuosos are conjuring up curvaceous unfitted kitchens, and design-artists are dramatically recasting the kitchen island as functional sculpture.

Why is wood so good? Its devotees claim timber has a spark that manmade materials can’t match; a fresh, lively feel that has largely gone Awol from kitchen design over the past decade. When Juliet Patsalos-Fox and her management consultant husband, Michael, commissioned kitchen furniture for their New Jersey home, they wanted a symphony in wood. “We have five different types of wood and some bamboo on the floor. I love the different textures and the way the wood plays off the colours in the room. The freshness of the design makes it feel very alive,” she says. “There’s a section next to a little sink with a curved wall, which is kind of round like a tree trunk, and the beauty of the grain really does it for me. It’s like a life force.” Their kitchen is by Johnny Grey (from £75,000), the contemporary designer celebrated for his creative furniture, and whose clients have included luminaries from Steve Jobs to Sting and Sir Cameron Mackintosh.

There was never a danger of this particular ensemble looking frumpy, but that’s the pitfall to avoid with such a traditional material, reveals Grey. The key to bringing out the liveliness in timber is a carefully judged blend of natural and painted finishes. “Overuse wood and it absorbs too much light,” he explains. “It becomes soporific and the material loses its value. You have to balance wood with colour.”

The Patsalos-Fox kitchen features American walnut mixed with cherry and tigerwood, an olive ash tabletop and maple cupboard interiors, countered with pale and mid-blue painted sections and additional pops of colour, including pendant lights made from Campbell’s soup cans, sourced by Juliet. And, of course, there are those gorgeous organic curves to add dynamism and steer the design out of the territory of traditional and into the category of avant-garde. “When you start to use curves, you’re being more sympathetic to the material, to what you’ll find in nature,” says Grey. But a good curve doesn’t come naturally. In fact, persuading timber to adopt a rounded shape takes great skill and specialist kit. Grey, who has six workshops turning out sinuous furnishings, explains: “The traditional method is building up sculpted pieces out of solid blocks. Alternatively, you can layer up veneers over a polystyrene mould and put it in a vacuum – that’s how the small workshops do it. In our best-equipped workshops, we have heated veneer presses.”

While custom curves are undoubtedly crowdpleasers, many wooden kitchen fans, especially owners of historic country houses, desire something with a more discreet charm: understated cabinetry, beautifully rendered. Tony Mackintosh, chairman of Le Café Anglais, the restaurant where FT Weekend cookery columnist Rowley Leigh is chef patron, describes his East Anglian home as “a typical 17th-century Suffolk farmhouse; nothing particularly smart”, for which he wanted “a classic cupboard kitchen. I don’t like messy shelves and I can’t keep them straight; I just want to put everything in the cupboard and close the door. And for an old house you don’t want something shiny and metal.” He plumped for a beech plywood kitchen from Plain English. “Looking at the craftsmanship, it’s proper joinery,” he enthuses, referring to his elegant, unfussy pea-green painted cupboards. “And it feels right in the rural setting.”

Plain English’s trademark cupboards are inspired by early-Georgian cabinetry (kitchens from £35,000). They feature quadrant panel mouldings on doors, tongue-and-groove backed shelves, and dovetailed, pillow-fronted drawers with tiny wooden knobs – all trad touches, but edited back to the bones of the original designs and coloured in a palette pleasing to the contemporary eye. “Whatever the reverse of cutting edge is, that’s what we are,” says Katie Fontana, creative director of Plain English. Yet the company counts fashion designers, musicians, Oscar-winning actors and a couple of bank CEOs among its customers, and its sublimely spare kitchens are on the radar of interior design’s coolhunters,

If the period flavour of Plain English isn’t to your taste but consummate cabinetry is your cup of tea, you might try seeking out those designer-artisans who ply the old skills to create stunning, contemporary kitchens. Christian Stevenson, who five years ago founded ChristianPaul, says his clients – professionals who range from online entrepreneurs to surgeons and a QC – are often firmly “anti-gloss”, but design-savvy and keen to experiment with different finishes and colours (kitchens from £30,000).

“There’s a call for an eclectic look where the outer cabinets are painted, often to blend back into wall colours, and then a central showpiece is made in a beautiful timber,” says Stevenson. He developed such a showpiece, a 2m long russet mahogany island that “floats”, for a family whose kitchen is also their entertaining space. “It’s an unusual piece altogether,” he comments. “It doesn’t look like something from a kitchen, more like an office or a gentleman’s club. The client is a boat builder and had a stockpile of mahogany he had bought some time ago [mahogany is now a protected timber]. He wanted mahogany and he wanted it French polished. You wouldn’t normally do that in a busy family kitchen, but he liked the idea that it could get a little beaten up after a few years. And we set the island on wheels 2mm off the ground, so when they have a big party, they can clear the centre of the room.”

The downside of commissioning truly bespoke furniture makers (rather than the firms that tailor standard designs) is that, since each of their projects is unique and time-intensive, you may have to join a waiting list for their services. For example, Matt Podesta, another kitcheneer who specialises in handmade cabinetry in glorious combinations of wood, completes between 15 and 20 one-off kitchens annually (from £40,000). Cofounder and designer at Buhr, Tom Bullimore creates witty, original, handmade furniture, but only finds time for three kitchens per year (from £25,000). Bullimore’s is a plain, rather masculine style, whose lack of adornment draws the eye to the natural grain of the timber. “I let the figure in the wood do the talking,” he says. Some of his clients are so devoted to the pared-back look that they ask him to find alternatives to handles on the cabinetry. “We tend to build in finger pulls on the cupboards,” he says. “And I’m now working on some touch-sensitive drawers: there’s an electronic sensor on the front that triggers a device like a finger at the back, which pushes the drawer out.”

And beyond bespoke, what’s the next big thing in timber kitchens? Why, the kitchen as art, of course.

“It’s not so much about the wood, it’s more a question of soul,” says Miles Hartwell of Splinter Works, explaining what he and his partner in design, Matt Withington, seek to bring to the kitchen interior with their functional artworks. “You often see really beautiful bits of modern architecture, with incredible interior design and imaginative manipulation of light and space, and then the kitchen is… square white boxes. It almost doesn’t fit. Matt and I got to the point where we thought there must be more than these soulless units.” Both men trained as product designers and list among their design heroes Thomas Heatherwick, Ron Arad and studio furniture artist Wendell Castle. Their ambition was to introduce a similar inventive, playful wit to kitchen design. In 2009, they teamed up to produce a range of limited-edition “portfolio pieces” alongside one-off kitchen commissions (from £70,000). First came a hemispherical kitchen cabinet in rosewood veneer over plywood, called Dime (edition of 24, £39,600), whose curved shutters open to reveal a solid cherry shelf and a drawer plus a counter, with room to prepare food or eat breakfast. Last year’s follow-up to Dime is a curved kitchen island called Tipping Point (edition of three, £76,800), in mirror-polished stainless steel with outsize, handsomely figured reclaimed teak drawers. It combines a contemporary edge with a retro sci-fi vibe: Tipping Point wouldn’t look out of place on the bridge of the USS Enterprise. A kitchen island, Jim, but not as we know it.

If one installation encapsulates the liveliness and spirit that wood can impart, it is the walnut-walled island (from £40,000) created by Joseph Walsh, a design-artist based in County Cork, Ireland. Though kitchen units aren’t his comfort zone, Walsh was persuaded to design the piece by a couple who own a collection of his artworks, for their base in Ireland. “They have a period house with a modern extension in parallel and a reflection pool between the two, in a glass-enclosed pass,” he explains. “The entire kitchen is concealed behind lacquered cupboard doors. It’s quite cold. They wanted a strong island, something warm, textured and appealing.” Walsh’s creation, a counter wrapped in a curved wall of polished blocks of walnut, completely transforms the chilly space, while its richly hued reflection in the pool links the old and new buildings. “The blocks explore the different textures in the walnut; how it can catch the light and all the various effects the same material can give. In some elements we’ve cleft the wood, breaking it along its natural grain – which is lighter coloured and more open-textured – and others are highly polished, darker end-grain blocks.” An utterly delicious solution to the couple’s kitchen conundrum – and certainly not an effect one could achieve with white boxes.