Interior Design

The heart of the matter

A welcome sense of warmth and personality is returning to the room considered the heart of the home, with tactile materials, curvaceous shapes, decorative flourishes and quirky details. Jenny Dalton reports

January 23 2013
Jenny Dalton

The new LaCucinaAlessi, designed by Wiel Arets, is a monolithic block of a kitchen – all white, super-minimal in form and functions, most of which are hidden from view unless in use. But just as it seems kitchens can’t get any more invisible, at the opposite end of the scale there are changes afoot. Valcucine, which makes this Alessi and other ranges of arch-sleek contemporary Italian kitchens under its own name, launched a new line in Milan last year that features hand-carved or inlaid decorative figures on its elm cabinets (price on request). The new range – the SineTempore (literally “without time” or “timeless”) – is designed to be durable and sustainable. In looks and concept it is an antidote to the monochrome minimalism that has been the dominant fashion for the past decade.

So, while the super-minimal’s time may not be up quite yet, there is increasing evidence of this new direction emerging – designs that radiate personality, human touch, warmth. They fulfil a need for “personalisation in our globalised society where everything tends towards sameness,” says Valcucine’s creative director, Gabriele Centazzo.

Among other companies offering a “softer” choice of kitchen this season is Boffi, whose designs have – until very recently – come to define minimal lacquered, sleek and glossy good looks. Now it is incorporating variegated timbers (complete with knots and imperfections) into its products. Its new Aprile range includes layered-effect timber doors made of walnut or acacia, which are deliberately uneven to form undulations and “steps” in places (from £30,000). And there is even a new reclaimed solid timber table (from £6,875) as part of the Duemilaotto collection, which reuses a relatively rough wood taken from old Italian mountain ski chalets (a personal find of Boffi creative director Piero Lissoni).

The brand’s move towards greater decorative diversity is rooted in its history, according to Steven Salt, Boffi UK’s managing director: “The brand has its origins in woodworking, but certainly over the past one to two years we’ve been using a lot more natural timber and timber veneer with variation and interest. Our customers don’t want kitchens based entirely on cold, unfriendly boxes and shiny, flat surfaces. So, increasingly, we’re combining these with the natural textures of wood to create a nice juxtaposition.”

Promemoria, meanwhile, one of the most luxurious of Italian furniture-makers, has just installed its new kitchen, the Angelina (price on request), in its Pimlico showroom and it will feature in a number of upcoming projects, including a family home in Surrey, planned by interior designer Steven Payne of Maison AD. The Angelina is a characterful beast, with its dark timber and touches of retro styling (Payne acknowledges “1940s elements”), but has all the functions of a modern kitchen. It manages to convey the feel of stepping into a beautifully timeless and glamorous Venetian apartment.

For Promemoria founder Romeo Sozzi the kitchen was inspired by nostalgia and images of the past, namely memories of his mother, Angelina, a skilled home cook. “I remember watching her using ingredients from right outside the kitchen – the salad leaves from the vegetable garden, the eggs from the chicken pen, a chicken from the courtyard.” Sozzi hopes to have created “something beautiful yet practical, half a century on, using all these influences and more”. The intention is to have created a room that “radiates warmth even when not in use. This makes it a pleasure to be in with family and friends.”

Personal history is key, because this new wave of kitchens is all about bringing back some soulfulness into what most of us accept is the heart of the home. “City-slick design isn’t cutting it for most of us,” explains Amanda Talbot, a stylist, trend predictor and author of Rethink: the Way You Live (Murdoch Books), a new study of how our homes are changing in this post-recessional world. “Overworked urbanites are fighting to regain some ‘slow time’ and reconnect with nature. The more we move away from the natural world, the more we feel the need to be connected with it. Many of us are realising simplicity isn’t about cold, hard minimalism. We are taking note of the Japanese aesthetic wabi-sabi, which is a way of being that champions the simple, slow and uncluttered. It reveres the natural cycle of things along with authenticity above all else. In the home, wabi-sabi insinuates a warm minimalism that celebrates the human touch rather than the machine-made or mass-produced. It encompasses objects that resonate with the maker’s touch.”

Further evidence of more textural, characterful kitchens can be found at Fendi Casa, which launched its new kitchen range last year (from about €50,000). This offered a mix of textures in the designs, including work surfaces and units covered with hard-wearing leather. The result is soft and visually interesting, as well as tactile.

And when Diesel recently previewed its first kitchen collection, with Italian manufacturer Scavolini, called the Social Kitchen (price on request), to be launched this year, it featured a punch-packing bright-yellow freestanding console unit – called Misfit Cart – and details such as glass doors with metallic mesh insertions, American refrigerator-style handles and visible, knotted, aged oak on the doors. The effect is “lived in” and “casual”, according to Diesel chairman and founder Renzo Rosso. One of the original kings of denim and a believer in knocking down a few conventions, he aims to deliver a kitchen that is a room for entertainment, not just practicality. “We have developed different materials and new colours to bring Diesel culture and lifestyle to this collaboration,” says Rosso, whose mantra is to reflect “a love for things that have been experienced and interpreted with soul”.

In Britain, Charlie Smallbone, formerly of Smallbone, is launching a completely bespoke boutique kitchen collection this month. Called Rock & Bone (from £22,000), it is handmade in York and does away with the idea of the standard box unit in favour of unusual, undulating and curved freestanding pieces that are often jewel-like with metallised finishes, 1950s-inspired “car” colours and bespoke handles. “I felt nothing new had been done in kitchens for the past three to four years, and it seemed like the right time. The only way people are going to want to spend a lot of money on a kitchen today is if they fall in love with it,” he says.

This year’s most unusual kitchen, though, is the award-winning TD Beam, designed by Tom Dixon in collaboration with the Danish Lindholdt Studio for Ekoij. It is a curious freestanding mixture of raw industrial iron beams and warm bronze finishes, juxtaposed with quirky details such as red industrial plumbing valve handles. Dixon says the inspiration for the range was to “challenge the conventions of what kitchens look like”. Raw steel, bronze and aggregate stone were chosen because they are “honest, solid and heavyweight”.

While the latter is still super-contemporary, Suffolk-based Plain English, a brand known for its beautifully simple take on traditional woodworking, has launched a kitchen that is a bridge between its pared-down, classic aesthetic and contemporary design. The Osea (from £40,000) is a more masculine and blocky design than the company’s usual elegant, typically Anglo offering. It includes nostalgic industrial elements, tactile leather handles, science-lab-style brass taps and is, in owner and creative director Katie Fontana’s words, an attempt to infiltrate a marketplace populated by the likes of Bulthaup. And although the line has been a slow burner, this dynamic-looking kitchen, so full of personality – especially when made up in the deep Sanderson paint colour Peppercorn (as seen in the company’s London showroom) – has in recent months taken off. Plain English has just installed a grey-painted Osea in a Hampshire oast house, providing a contemporary yet traditional twist.

“It’s not that I’m against things that are minimal and sleek,” says Fontana about the recent domination of the super-minimal kitchen. “But I’ve learnt over the years what sort of thing I go off quickly, and what I can live with for a good length of time. Designs that are very clean lined and glossy are easy to sell, but I know that clients can tire of them after three years. I suppose that in the long term they appreciate things that are a little bit more forgiving. It’s rather like having a new car – it can lead to neurosis. With the pressure of having something shiny and new, it ceases to be a pleasure.”

While Plain English can do very “grand-looking kitchens”, Fontana insists that they are also very human. “What I’m drawn to are tiny, unusual details – I suppose that’s a human trait – and yet modern kitchens can be quite impersonal. What we hear from our clients is that they like the fact that we include features such as pull-out apple drawers and perforated sink doors. It makes things more individual and fun.”

Fun and personality are increasingly what bespoke clients are demanding, too. Furniture- and kitchen-maker Halstock recently completed a curvy kitchen unit with hand-turned recessed pillars painted blue to look like columns of light (from £50,000). And at the award-winning, UK-based kitchen company Mowlem & Co, design director Jane Stewart admits that her customers are ready for greater experimentation. A new project for a male client involved cladding an open-plan kitchen bar area with a spectacular semi-precious translucent carnelian mineral – backlit so it really pings – with the rest of the oak kitchen units stained to enhance their uneven grain (price on request). “We are certainly experiencing an unapologetic desire from our clients to welcome back tasteful touches of glamour, nature and decoration in their kitchens.” This means, says Stewart, more unusual stones “with an intriguing texture or veining or imperfections, bookmatched timbers that celebrate the richness of grain, decorative glass features, splashes of vibrant colour used in a playful way, bespoke leather handles and so on. People are less afraid to mix things up aesthetically and add personal touches.”

For Centazzo, such personal touches are offering not just fun but a thought for the future. “Increased personalisation is a way of creating a greater affection towards a product and could, therefore, be a way of elongating its lifespan. The longer the life of a product, the less its impact on the environment.”

For Charlie Smallbone, the way forward is an injection of quirky touches and a rethink of kitchen materials (he insists on purple leather-lined drawers, like a humorous suit lining), rather than focusing on the functionality of a kitchen, which is a given. “We’ve reached that time in the economic cycle where we need innovation,” he says. “This could be quite an exciting time for kitchens.”

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