Showing posts with label reader question. Show all posts
Showing posts with label reader question. Show all posts

24 January 2013

As if to prove my point

This e-mail just arrived:

For starters, what color grout to use on your back splash is not a huge dilemma. Deciding to take a loved one off of life support is. Let's try to work on getting some perspective.

For seconders, your dilemma would be solved best by the designer you're working with or the sales person you're working with where you bought that tile.Posting photos on Houzz and asking me for advice on grout colors I can't see is how you end up in real trouble.

If you're working with a designer or a reputable salesperson, he or she will ask your installer to do two mock ups. Each will use your back splash tile. One will have your tile with Pewter Waterfall gout and the other will have Silver grout. Once you see how those two different grout colors affect the color of your tile in your own home your decision will make itself. Do not buy tile from someone who won't do a mock up for you.

You're welcome.

27 February 2012

What's that color?

I get at least three e-mails every week from readers of this blog and other things I've written around the internet. This is immensely gratifying and most of these e-mails are questions about a photo or a request for advice about flooring, appliances, counter materials or cabinet brands.


I'm glad to answer these questions and I love that strangers look to me as a source of solid information. However one question I'll never answer definitively is "What's that color?"

This happens most often in response to the things I've written for It's a legitimate question and every time someone asks it I launch into what's by now a rote speech.

The short answer is that it doesn't matter because you're not seeing the actual color. What human eyes see as color is reflected light and how a color reads in a photo is completely dependent on how a subject is lit at the time the photo was taken. So the act of photographing something distorts its color, sometimes pretty radically. So that's one degree of distortion.

Add to it that you're seeing that photo on an uncalibrated computer monitor and that's at least two more degrees of distortion.

After all those distortions, the nuance of the original color is lost for good.

Photos on the internet are good for general families of color. You can look at a photo of a room and know that you want a yellow kitchen or a taupe living room. But the actual colors used in the photo won't look in your home the way they do in the photo you're admiring.

Here's a detail of a kitchen I designed. The wall color is Sherwin-Williams 7037 and I picked that color because it played well with the off-white cabinetry paint color and it was as similar hue to the brown veins running through the Calacatta marble on the counters and back splash.

If I were to go to Sherwin-Williams' website and look at the swatch, here's what I'd get.

Even though they're same color, they look nothing like each other. What's more, the color as it appeared on the walls was off from the swatch in my Sherwin-Williams chip library.

The difference between a paint swatch and actual paint is typical, and a good designer knows how to accommodate it. The difference, by the way, is due to the fact that a paint swatch is a printed approximation of a paint color as it will appear with an eggshell sheen. Paint swatches are never the actual paint. Different sheens make even the same paint colors look completely different.

So the answer to "What's that color?" isn't an answer. Rather it's an explanation, and a long-winded one at that. It's impossible to specify precise colors with photos and even more impossible to do so with an image on the internet. The only way to gauge true color is to paint a wall, let it cure for a day and then decide whether it works or not.

I know that's not the advice most people are looking for; but it's the cold, hard truth. Use photography, be it on the internet, in a magazine or in the marketing collateral from a paint brand as a general guideline to help you identify a direction. But until a paint color hits the wall, you'll never know how it will actually look.

So go ahead, ask me anything. Just don't ask me what color something is.

28 November 2011

Three reader questions for a Monday morning

Help! My husband and I are planning to finish up our kitchen with all new appliances and by fixing our old cabinets at some point after the new year. Ideally we want to replace the cabinets rather than just fix them, however  we want to keep the granite counters we had installed a few years ago. Is it possible to replace cabinets and keep our existing granite counters?
I hate to be the bearer of bad news but here goes. No.

Except for cases that are very few and very far between, a granite counter can't be reused. The act of removing them carries with it the very real chance that the counter will crack or break all together. Granite's a very hard material, but it's also very brittle. I has to be supported completely when it's in a horizontal position. That's why it's always transported vertically. Sliding a counter off of the cabinetry where its's resting will leave it very vulnerable to being held in an unsupported, horizontal position.

Adding a layer of complication and risk to all of this is granite's sheer weight. 3cm slab granite weighs between 18 and 20 pounds per square foot, depending on the density of the stone you have. So if you have a counter that's eight feet long and 25 inches deep, that single counter will weigh around 330 pounds. Manipulating a large object that weighs that much will take a team of people. Dropping it will destroy whatever it lands on, be that a floor or the feet of the people carrying the stone. If it breaks while it's being carried, potentially catastrophic injury and damage await. Do not attempt this on your own. Please.

Since it's not a DIY project, one would think that a stone yard would take on a project like that. Don't hold your breath. You'll be amazed at the cost if you look into it. A team of stone workers' labor costs that aren't folded into the cost of an installed counter can be pretty steep and that's if you can find a company willing to take on the liability of moving a previously installed counter.

Barring some miracle, you'll end up saying goodbye to those counters unless you're willing to do a cosmetic do-over on the cabinets you have already.

Since you asked me this question I'm going to tell you what I think is a better plan. For 2012, have you and your husband set a goal to save between $25 and $30,000 so that you can renovate your kitchen correctly and without having to resort to Band-Aid solutions. Once you have that goal set, make an appointment with a local, independent kitchen designer. If you need a referral, I will find someone for you. In that appointment, tell the designer your budget and talk about the items on your with list for your new kitchen. Explain too the time frame you have in mind.

If you have a rapport building, terrific. Any designer I'd send you to is there to help you get as much for your money as it's possible to get. It's his or her job to do the math, figure everything out that needs to be addressed and to make sure that everything not only looks great, but that it works too. You'll spend less money with a good designer at the helm than you would on your own, as paradoxical as that sounds. Good luck!

Help! Do you have any idea how to refinish brass cabinet hardware? The knobs in my kitchen are legion and I'm in no hurry to buy new ones. I just replaced my faucet with a new one that has a brushed nickel finish. I really like how that looks and I'm wondering if there's a way to change the finish on my knobs to brushed nickel. Is there a product out there that can help?
No there isn't, sorry to tell you that. While it's true that there are metallic spray paints out there, they cannot accurately recreate the appearance of something like brushed nickel.

Spray painting cabinet knobs is a surprisingly enormous undertaking because all of those knobs have to be removed from the doors and drawer fronts, attached to something like a piece of cardboard and then sprayed evenly. Spray painting is not as easy as it looks under normal circumstances and in the case of kitchen cabinet hardware, the existing finish will will working overtime to prevent you from painting it.

Metal knobs and pulls (and faucets and just about everything that gets installed in a kitchen) have a stain-resistant clear coat applied to them while they're being manufactured. This clear coat locks in a factory finish and makes cleaning up spills a whole lot easier. It makes adding a new finish over top of that clear coat nearly impossible at the same time.

While it's true that you can remove that clear coat with a solvent, you'll probably end up damaging the metal underneath as you rub off the clear coat.

A much better use of your time and resources is to bite the bullet and replace everything. Lee Valley Hardware sells a plain, brushed nickel knob from their Atherly collection for $2.80 and if you buy ten or more, the unit cost drops to $2.40.

Start saving up your shekels and save yourself a whole lot of heartache and replace your brass knobs.

Andrew Coppa, Vis Vitae/In Touch Weekly
I get it that in certain areas of the country like Florida and California there's a historical and cultural link to Spain, so the architectural heritage of that country informs the aesthetics of those parts of the US. But in the northeast, kitchen designers are still pushing miles of tile, corbels, distressing and glazing in an attempt to recreate their idea of Tuscany. I think theme rooms belong at Disney hotels or Graceland. Any thoughts?
Oh you bet I have some thoughts. You hit a nerve. But before I get to that, let's have some geography first. While it's true that Florida and California were once Spanish territories, so was the rest of North America. However, it was only in the southern areas of what's now the US that the Spanish actually did any kind of development. Surviving Spanish structures in California were primarily missions and the surviving Spanish structures in Florida were forts and a handful of homes. Oh, the wild pigs that wreak havoc in our great state are their legacy too.

Furthermore, Tuscany is a region in northern Italy. Tuscany, while lovely, is a very different place than Spain is and the Italians never played a role in the colonization of North America.

What passes for Tuscan design in the United States is a uniquely US creation and yet another embarrassing example of trying to prove one's cultural awareness through excess. The nightmare in the photo above has nothing to do with Tuscany or anywhere near the Mediterranean. It is however a testament to the striving ambition of the nouveau riche vulgarian standing in the middle of it.

Here's a kitchen in a home for sale in Gandia, a coastal city 70km south of Valencia in Spain.


The hole on the left side is where a washing machine will go and the hole on the right side is where a dishwasher will go. Notice the oven and the cooktop. They're the metric equivalent of 24" wide. Note the absolute lack of "Mediterranean" details. By Spanish standards, this is a large kitchen and by Italian standards, it's enormous.

Here's a kitchen from a villa in Montagnana, 20 minutes outside of Florence, the capital of Tuscany. That makes this a real, Tuscan kitchen.


Where are the corbels? Where are the multi-step glazes, the dried flowers, the tapestries and the enormous appliances? I'll tell you where they are. They are in every cul de sac subdivision in the United States.

I've said it here more times than I can count, a home is no place for themed decor. Architecture should look the time when it was built and it should reflect the place where it sits.

There is no way someone walking around the streets of Florence or Valencia could conceive a kitchen such as the fist one show at the top of this question and then call it Tuscan or Mediterranean. A kitchen such as that is the product of some kind of warped nostalgia, too many weekends in Las Vegas and too many dinners at the Olive Garden.

But all of that excess is expensive and I believe very honestly that it's the expense of that stuff that drives peoples' asking for it and designers' willingness to give it to them.

So there you have it. My thoughts.

21 November 2011

Reader question: whither goest farm sinks?

Help! I love the look of the farm sinks, but I don't like the look of granite. The salesperson at Home Depot said to have a farm sink, you have to have granite. Is this true, or what other counter top can be used? Thanks.

To quote a young Christina Crawford in Mommie Dearest, "That's a lie." I don't think it's a lie on the part of the sales person who told you that, I think he or she was just parroting back the Home Depot party line. Whatever the source of that bit of misinformation, it's patently untrue and it's pretty illustrative of the reasons not to shop in a home center for anything other than light bulbs and duct tape.


The Home Depots of the world realized a long time ago that it's too expensive to train their employees adequately or to pay them enough to keep them around for long periods of time. The result of that incredibly short-sighted approach is the exact kind of advice you got about sinks. But hey, what's a little inaccurate information when there are a couple of bucks to be saved. Right?

Stay out of home centers for complicated purchases such as the one you described. There are independent plumbing showrooms everywhere who are anxious to win your business. The people who work there are paid a living wage and are rewarded for knowing what they're talking about. Find one near you and buy your sink there.

Before I get too far into this, the sinks you're referring to are called apron-front sinks by the industry. Referring to a those kinds of sinks as an apron-fronts as opposed to a farm sinks sends the message that you did your homework.

Apron-front sinks don't require that you use any specific kind of counter material, but they do require a specialized sink base cabinet. Retrofitting them into an existing kitchen is nearly impossible, even if you're getting new counters. This is not a weekend DIY project by any means.


If you want to add an apron-front sink and not tear out your existing kitchen, go talk to an independent kitchen designer. He or she can help you figure out a way to pull it off tastefully and properly. You'll have to buy a new sink base cabinet at a minimum, so talk to a professional about how you can add a new cabinet without it looking like a band aid.

Once you settle on a sink and how to integrate it into your kitchen, go talk to a counter fabricator. Most counter fabricators deal with natural stone, solid surface and quartz composites. Many of them can handle other materials like concrete and wood too, just ask. Explain that you're going to use an apron-front sink and they will explain, clearly and factually, the sorts of things you need to keep in mind as you pursue this project.

You will spend the same money there that you would from a home center. But again, your money will go to a company that pays its employees a living wage, trains them and rewards them for knowing what they're talking about. A salesperson at an independent counter fabricator can answer all of your questions about how to handle an apron-front sink.

Between the plumbing showroom, the kitchen designer and the counter fabricator you'll be all set. You'll have information that's based on facts, you'll get personal attention and you'll spend the same (if not less) money than you would at a home center. Furthermore, you'll be pumping money into your local economy instead of exporting it to Atlanta or Mooresville, NC.

Home centers have their place, but that place is not selling and installing specialty products, as the misinformation you were given illustrates perfectly.

12 August 2011

Reader Question: What's my style?

Help! I'm getting ready to renovate my house and I'm in a bit of a quandary. I like all kinds of things, from antique sofas to hyper-modern appliances. I've been going through the magazines and hard as I try to, I can't categorize my style. It's one thing to be indecisive but there's a lot of money on the line here and I'm wondering if there's a website or a tool that will help me find my style?

I haven't run a reader question in ages but this one was too good to pass up.

Sun in an Empty Room, Edward Hopper - 1963; Oil on canvas, 28 3/4 x 39 1/2 inches; Private collection 

Why the rush to categorize what you like? No one categorizes how she or she dresses and I don't understand why anybody would want to pigeonhole him- or herself into a rigid category someone else defines.

Before I go any further I want to ask you to do something for me. Stop watching HGTV. I suspect that network is where you're getting this need to categorize yourself. Contrary to how it looks, HGTV doesn't exist to educate you. It's there to sell you the products that pay to appear in their programs. Any time you see Genevieve Gorder or David Bromstad pick up or call out a branded product, that's a paid placement. It's easier to sell people stuff by forcing them into a category and that's what drives the idea that there are people who are country, contemporary, cottage or what have you.

Reality works a lot differently than that because people can't be categorized so easily. It's human nature to want to break massive amounts of information into manageable groups but resist the urge to do that with yourself.

Morning Sun, Edward Hopper - 1952; Oil on canvas, 28 1/8 x 40 1/8 inches; Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio

The other notion to rid yourself of is the idea that there's such a thing as timelessness when it comes to design. All design looks like the time when it was installed. Even retro styles are modern interpretations of other times. The reason for this is simple, times and people change. If you're looking for longevity, there are classics aplenty but even they are hardly timeless.

Rather than categorizing everything you see into a a specific style, concentrate on the individual elements of the rooms photos you're drawn to. Join a site like or and start collecting scrapbooks of photos. As you add each photo, write a note about what you like in the shot.

In a very short time you'll have a collection of images that can be called eclectic, which is what most people end up with. Eclectic means a bit of everything and it's a perfectly fine thing for an aesthetic sensibility to be.

Rooms by the Sea, Edward Hopper  - 1951; Oil on canvas, 29 x 40 inches; Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut 

Once you have a good collection going, start interviewing designers. Interview them as you would interview an employee. There's no real hurry but what you want is to find someone who can listen as well as he or she can advise. Good designers, not the ones who end up on HGTV, don't have specific styles they work in. Their job is to channel your sensibilities to give you the home you want. A good designer can look through your seemingly unrelated scrapbooks and find the common threads that will make you feel like your renovated home fits you.

If a designer you're interviewing doesn't listen or if you're not 100% comfortable, then move on. Don't expect the designers you meet with to do anything but talk to you about your project and expect them to ask what your budget is. Holding onto that piece of information in particular helps no one. Their goal is to help you spend your money more wisely, not to fleece you. Working with a designer will save you money, despite how counterintuitive that statement may sound.

But it's only a designer who can show you how to knit together all the disparate things you like. A good designer can make sleek, modern appliances work with antique Hoosier chests if that's your thing. A good designer can combine a Duncan Phyfe sofa with an Eames Lounge and an Arco floor lamp and make it work.

Hotel Room, Edward Hopper 1931; Oil on canvas, 60 x 65 inches; Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection

So the answer to your question is to stop trying to categorize yourself and find a good designer. I'm plugged into an amazing network of dedicated designers and if you need a referral I will find you someone.

10 January 2011

Reader question: How do I know how much to spend on a renovation?

I get reader questions from all over the place and this one arrived some time around the new year. Usually, I answer reader questions with a quick note and sometimes, they need a more thoughtful response. The following came from a reader in Melbourne and there was no way a quick e-mail response could have done it any kind of justice. I learn as much from my international readers as I hope they learn form me.
My holiday reading included McCloud's '43 principles of home'. In this book chapter 15 is devoted to 'things at home not worth investing in' and one of the sections in this chapter is 'kitchen cupboards and doors'.

"The bits that matter in the kitchen are the machines that so the work and the bits you come into contact with." Chapter 16 of the same book is devoted to things worth investing in and include kitchen door handles, taps and worktops. Knives and pans are also important. But door cupboards aren't. And frankly, the best made kitchens in the world are still 'carcassed out' using orientated strand board, chipboard or plywood. Structurally there's negligible difference in quality between a $10k kitchen and it's $100k equivalent. Moreover, high-street merchants like Ikea have got wise to this and are now retailing budget kit kitchens that mimic the bespoke German ones. It also seems daft to spend vast quantities on an aspect of the home that the next owners will invariably rip out and replace. Which they will, because it's human nature to territorialise the new cave with a new kitchen.  All of which demands that you invest in kitchen units and doors that are ecological, recyclable and for that matter probably recycled in the first place. (McCloud then suggest a suitable company for sourcing your kitchen carcass from.)"

So to be fair this issues probably needs the context of the entire book. But this  little tidbit of advice worried me because it seems like sound advice, and yet I don't like the idea of a chipboard kitchen from Ikea or from bontempi for that matter. But does it make sense to get a carpenter in to hand make all my cupboards in native hardwood?

Intuitively I'd have thought this was the right thing to do. Although we're not planning on moving, are kitchens are so subject to trends and fashions, and am I so merely mortal  that 10 to 20 years the life span for a kitchen?  And if so, is chipboard ok?

I remember your post of kitchens through the ages... So the evidence is weighing in on the side of limiting the investment in the carcass.

Ikea carcass and doors tricked up with wolf appliances a subzero fridge an integrated stainless steel sink bench top on one side of the galley and a cool stone bench top on the other (for rolling pastry and for pasta making) on the other, and the best taps and handles to finish it off.... Would this work?

That was a long question I know, but I thought it was important to run the whole thing. The question came to me from Fleur, a reader from Australia and she raises a couple of good points. Before I could answer this I had to dig in a bit and find out about the source of her question, Kevin McCloud's 43 Principles of Home.

Kevin McCloud is a designer, writer and television presenter based in the UK. He has an enormous following there and in the rest of the English-speaking world. Everywhere it seems, except for the US. His latest book, 43 Things isn't available in the US and it drives me crazy that I can't get my hands on it. Maybe I'll find it in Germany in a few weeks.

The book's published by Harper-Collins-UK and they prepared this overview video I found on YouTube.

I like this guy's style and I like what he has to say. Sort of. I know more about the renovation scene in Europe than I do the scene in Australia unfortunately, but from what I've learned from other Australian readers, it's quite different from that in the US and Canada. As I understand it, there's a wide middle of the market here that's not quite so wide in your part of the world but there are a couple of things that hold true everywhere.

Kevin McCloud's opinion not withstanding, there's an enormous difference in the quality of a $100K when compared to a $10K kitchen. There just is. Whether or not a carcass is made from particle board, MDF or plywood isn't an automatic indicator of quality. There are plywood-sided cabinets I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy and there are particle board-sided cabinets I'l give a kidney for the privilege to own. What makes a quality carcass is the thickness of it and the manner in which it's joined. You make a $10K set of kitchen cabinets by making those carcasses thinner and less well joined. Another way you make a cheap set of cabinets is you skimp on the quality of the finish on the door.

A $10K kitchen will need to be replaced in ten years or less. A $100K kitchen will last forever. It's not possible to separate the doors from the carcasses, especially when you start customizing the sizes of things. Even when you don't customize, manufacturers build both together and they do so using proprietary sizes. A door from company A won't fit a carcass from company B properly. Part of that door and carcass package and what's usually a bigger driver of quality than either is the hinges. Hinges tend to be made by third party companies and they come in a wide variety of qualities and price points. A nice-looking, well-made cabinet door with a cheap hinge makes for a cheap cabinet.

So what there is to do is learn from the good stuff and find a more cost-effective supplier who uses as many of those quality points as you can find. Most people don't need or want a forever kitchen. However, nobody wants a kitchen that falls apart in five years.

So look for things like hinges and hardware from Blum, a German hardware manufacturer with plants all over the world. Pay attention to the thickness of the sides of a cabinet and the manner in which the sides join the back and the floor. Ask about things like rabbeted joints and catalyzed glue. You may get funny looks but those things are important. The US market is starting to become flooded with cheap in every sense of the word cabinetry from China. I'm sure that stuff hit Australia before it washed up on our shores. Avoid it.

Back to your actual question though, people do combine cabinetry from IKEA with Wolf/ Sub-Zero appliances all the time. There are a couple of pitfalls to this method though. Sub-Zero refrigerators are built in and don't come with finished sides. Better cabinet lines sell the parts to finish them off but cabinetry from IKEA can't panel in a Sub-Zero. So be sure the refrigerator model you buy and the design you choose for your kitchen work with the cabinet supplier you end up with.

The kitchen you describe sounds wonderful but be careful about spending too little on your cabinetry. When it comes to building products, price point is a pretty good indicator of quality. A $100 faucet is one you'll be replacing in a year. A $3000 faucet is overkill for most people, but you can rest assured that it will never need to be replaced.

Does that help?

23 December 2010

Reader question: Is it island time for me?

Help! I live in a small house and I'm thinking about replacing my kitchen table and chairs with an island. Would this be a good or a bad idea? It's the only eating area we have in our small house.


I can't tell really because I can't see the space or the size of the table in question. So I'm going to answer this from the gut. My gut answer is no; don't do it.

Let me preface all of this by saying that all rooms and all clients are different. Some people get a lot of use out of an island and some rooms can accommodate one with little difficulty. However, you told me two things that are offering a clue. First, your house is small. Islands tend to work better in large rooms. Second, you tell me that your current table is your only eating area. So putting in an island means that you're sentencing yourself to a lifetime of eating at a counter.

I talk about this topic a lot. I suppose I'm some kind of a kitchen table advocate. I write for and I devoted a whole IdeaBook to kitchen tables a couple of weeks ago. Here it is:

Forgoing eating at a table and instead eating at a counter does a couple of things that I think are important. More important than any storage gains you might get out of an island.

The most important thing that happens at a kitchen table is that you eat across from someone, not side by side like you would at an island bar. When you eat across from someone, your dinner mate is the focus of your attention. Human beings don't just communicate verbally. We communicate non-verbally just as much and in order to pick up the visual cues someone else is sending, you need to be able to see his or her face. This visual communication happens a lot more easily at a table then it does at a counter.

In addition to the communication thing, when you're eating at a table you're having dinner in a place set aside specifically for eating. But more than that, it's a space set aside for eating with other people. It's a lot easier to make meals matter when they happen in a space set aside for them specifically. Island counters are by definition multi-purpose surfaces. Eating at one isn't an event, no matter how mundane.

But at a table, it's easier to turn off the electronics and focus on what's important --your loved ones.

When the only eating area you have is a counter, it becomes to easy to have shared meals fall by the wayside. It makes the "we're too busy nowadays" lie easy to internalize and make true in your own life. The fact of the matter isn't at all that "we're too busy." Instead, what "we" have is an inability to prioritize. If you make shared meals a priority you will have them. An important statement that you're making them a priority is to keep your kitchen table.

So, you asked and I answered. While it's true that installing an island doesn't doom you to divorce and delinquent kids, keeping your table will make shared meals a more common occurrence in your home.

03 October 2010

Early autumn re-runs: How do I decorate my Tuscany dining room

This post ran originally on 27 February 2009. I used to be a lot more blunt in my reader question posts then I am these days but I think if I were asked this same question tomorrow I'd respond the same way.

Help! I am in the process of gutting my first floor and I'm going to get a Tuscany dining room. I want to decorate the room with bunches of dried roses but I'm worried that they're not right for a Tuscany theme.
Oh man, there is so much wrong here I don't know where to start. Before you spend a dime, stop what you're doing. Stop and then take $1500 out of your budget and fly to Florence for a couple of days. Well, maybe $2000. Whatever it costs, it will have a value that transcends its price. You see, while you're there you'll gaze at what the real Tuscany looks like and hopefully you'll forget all about this dining room you have in mind. Oh, and as a point of order, Tuscany is a noun and Tuscan is an adjective. What you have in mind is a Tuscan dining room, not a Tuscany dining room. If I have anything to say about it you won't have either, but I'm getting ahead of myself.

This Tuscan thing that you see in your mind is an entirely American invention. It's not even an homage, it's a cartoon. Here's what a dining room in the real Tuscany looks like. 

Note the lack of bunches of dried roses. There are no fake sunflowers or clots of plastic grapes either. There aren't any framed posters with nonsensical Italian phrases hanging on the wall, nor is there any faux painted brick. It's a basic, small table jammed into the space not already taken up by a tiny kitchen. It's neat as a pin, it's simple and it's orderly. But real Tuscan style isn't about decor or themed dining rooms. It's about views like this.

Or views like this.

Views like that beget a worldview that's entirely Tuscan and how things look over there are a product of that worldview. The real Tuscany is about making the best use of a small space. The real Tuscany is about embracing life, it's about authenticity, it's about quality over quantity in everything. There's no theme here, there's no attempt to recreate a magazine spread or a dream house from some Developer's unimaginative mind. The truth of the matter is that unless you can see the Arno river pass under your dining room window, no amount of clutter will give you a "Tuscany dining room."

Man! That room up there burns my eyes. Please don't do something like that in your home. Sorry to be so brutal but what you're asking is for some kind of permission to turn your home into a miniature Las Vegas and that's something I refuse to go along with.

Listen, your dining room and indeed your whole home should tell your story, not somebody else's. The things you decorate with should be your things and if you're going to buy a dining table, buy one that's classic enough and made well enough that you can pass it on to your kids. Then in 50 years when it's in your daughter's home that same table will tell your story as it passes into her story. I suspect that's the feeling you're after. A feeling of permanence and a feeling of knowing you belong somewhere. That sort of thing isn't a theme, it's a way of life.

So if you want to bring some Tuscan sensibilities to your dining room, by all means do so. But study the real place, not The Venetian or the Bellagio. While you're enjoying the quick jaunt over to Florence I so strongly recommend, have your photo taken with the Duomo in the background then get it blown up and framed. Hang it in your dining room. I don't think it's possible to get more Tuscan than Florence, and it'll be yours. Authentically.

If you like bunches of dried roses, go for it. Just be sure that you like them and that you're not just adding them to advance some kind of ill-advised theme. So instead of asking me if they're appropriate, the person to ask is you. What do bunches of dried roses say about you? If you're happy with the answer than hang them by the bushel. If you're not happy with the answer then don't. If you're not sure then don't do anything. It's pretty simple really.

25 September 2010

Early fall re-runs reader question: What never goes out of style?

In an effort to reclaim something of a personal life, I'm re-running archived posts on Saturdays and Sunday until I'm good and ready to start writing seven original posts a week again. My archives go back pretty far and a lot of my earlier posts never see the light of day anymore and now's my chance to change that a bit. This post ran originally on 23 March 2009 and was a response to a question from a reader I received shortly before that.

Help! My husband and I are about to renovate our kitchen and I want to know what never goes out of style before we start spending money on this project. What style, in wood type and color never goes out of style?

Hmmm. I hear this question a lot and I'm going to answer it by not answering it. At least not yet. First, let's start by taking a stroll through some kitchen designs of the last 100 years. This is by no means an exhaustive survey of every kitchen style that's come and gone in that time period, but it will help me make my point so bear with me.

Here's a kitchen from 1921.

Here's one from 1931.

Here's 1941



Here's 1971

And 1981

Here's a kitchen from 1991

2001 already looks pretty dated already

And here's what's being billed as a traditional style right now.

As you can see, the words timeless and kitchen don't belong in the same sentence. Even the last photo, the "traditional" one, is pure trend. That layout, those appliances, that cabinetry... it's all very right now. It may take a page from some past styles, but in the era it's invoking (1910-1920), a kitchen looked nothing like that.

Contemporary kitchen design is new, regardless of the style of the room. The idea of a kitchen being the center of activity in a home was unheard of until 30 years ago. Pretend for a moment that it's 1955 and you're talking to your grandmother. Imagine her reaction to the news that you're planning to spend the equivalent of half your annual income on a kitchen renovation that will become the focal point of your home. She'd think you'd lost your mind and then she'd tell you to get out of the way so that she could get back to boiling the pot of diapers she'd been working on all morning.

Kitchen designs change because our culture changes, and it's not just a function of trends in taste. Social changes, technological changes, economic changes, etc., evolve and reinforce each other over time. You'd hate an authentically period kitchen because you don't live the way people lived 20, 30, 40 or 50 years ago. How things look is inextricably linked to how things work.

I say that there's no real answer to your question. Renovation and construction always look like the time when they were built or renovated. The minute you start swinging a hammer is the same moment that time stops and how you live right now gets preserved for all time. Or for as long as whatever you're building lasts. So even though I say that there's no answer to your question, here's some advice as you go about deciding how to spend your money. 

The first being that quality doesn't go out of style. Well-made cabinetry and appliances that are made to last will get you more years of use and satisfaction than cheap stuff will. In it for the long haul? Stay out of big box stores and get ready to spend some money.

Second, I'd advise you to avoid specialty finishes on your cabinetry. That means anything with a glaze, a distressed paint or anything intended to give new cabinetry or furniture instant character. Character has to be earned and that's as true of your cabinetry and furniture as it is about your personality. Short cuts to character don't work. 

Third, avoid adding colors that are right now to things you can't change easily. A good case in point is the light blue and brown color palettes that are still all over the place. Getting light blue appliances, a finish color available from Dacor right now, might look good for now but five years from now you will hate them. If you love that blue and brown palette, get blue and brown throw rugs, not appliances. A blue throw rug costs $20 a blue fridge $3000 to $4000. You tell me, which would you rather replace in a couple of years? So the lesson here is to accessorize with trendy colors, don't build them in.

Finally, do some research on where kitchen design has been and where the experts think it's headed. You cannot anticipate what's next with any degree of certainty, but you can take steps from getting yourself locked in the past too tightly. The idea that the kitchen is the center of a home in 2009 is not something that's going away any time soon. But this Old World style that can't go away fast enough is a recipe for heartache later. Where to turn for guidance you ask? Hire a professional kitchen designer to help you realize your dream. Explain very clearly to him or her what you want to do and have this designer be standing in your home while you do this explaining. Think this through and have a detailed plan before you start writing checks and you'll be a lot happier in 10 years than you would be otherwise. Whatever you end up with, be sure that it reflects your life, your hopes, your needs and your wants.

05 September 2010

Reader question: Can I get a living finish to look the way it used to?

Hi! I was reading your blog piece on patinas of Feb.10 2009  but silly me I cannot figure out how to find the next day (you said it would be continued tomorrow.)

I impulse bought a hammered fired huge bathtub on Craigslist for a song, and am designing my bathroom. Due to space limitations, I will use the tub also as a shower, behind a wall of heavy glass doors. I read today on another site that the dark fired finish will turn as it is a living finish unless I treat monthly with beeswax. I'm trying to decide if I want to just let it go into its living finish and enjoy that evolution or treat it now. It's been in the garage for some months and I notice that where a drip of water got on it it is green patina'd. Do you know if it's possible to bring it back to a dark fired finish after I let it go green and beyond? I am chemically sensitive so I wouldn't want to use caustic chemicals to do so.

The problem with buying things for a song on Craig's List is that you have no idea where something's been. Seriously, unless you can find out the name of the manufacturer and contact them, you're shooting in the dark. That tub appears to be copper from that photo and based on the fact that it developed a green color in reaction to a water drip. But beyond my assumption that you're dealing with a copper tub, I haven't a clue whether or not your tub's been patina-d or spray painted to look the way it does.

So here are a few things I know about patinas and living finishes. I wrote a five-part series on this topic in February of '09 and those posts are here:

So What the Devil's a "Living Finish" Anyway?

No Really, What's a Living Finish?

Patinas on a Budget

The Peoples' Faucetry

All Good Things Must End: My Last Post on Faucets for a While

In a nutshell, metals like copper are reactive. That means they react to chemicals in their environments. Copper usually reacts to acids and alkilis to form a variety of chlorides, sulphides and carbonates known collectively as verdigris. Verdigris is composed of  copper carbonate or copper chloride primarily and those chemicals make up the green patina most people associate with copper. However, not all patinas on copper are green and not all patinas are the result of natural, chemical processes.

That's a lot of chemistry for somebody who says she's chemically sensitive, whatever that means, but reality has a way of intruding on the best-laid plans.

Pure copper develops a patina in what's essentially a process of decay. Patinas are the symptom of that decay but they also serve as a protective surface. A patina-d surface layer on copper seals off the copper from the outside world and the decay stops. Remove the patina and the decay starts again until it forms a new patina then it stops again. Repeat this process for a thousand years or so and your copper object will disappear.

The confusion with all of this comes from the imprecise language used to describe patinas. In the commercial sense, a patina is a surface treatment of a metal. The same word gets used to describe a patina that occurs naturally and a patina that's applied. Copper left out in the rain and elements will eventually turn green in reaction to oxygen in air and water. The brown color on the tub in the photo got there as a result of some chemical or several chemicals and pigments being applied to its surface.

Whether or not its a living finish is a function of it either having or not having a clear coat on its surface. Applying a clear coat stops the chemical reaction driving the patina. Not applying a clear coat allows the patina to evolve.

Don't waste your time applying beeswax. Use polyurethane instead. It lasts forever (more or less) and beeswax will have its own effect on copper over time. Just because one material comes from a bee and another material was developed in a lab doesn't make beeswax a better sealer, nor is it automatically benign. Whatever you end up doing, never scrub your copper tub because you'll disturb either the patina or the clear coat preserving the patina.

So to answer your question, once your tub starts to change color, it won't ever go back to what it was when you bought it.

05 August 2010

Follow up to yesterday's question about switch plates

That switch plate and outlet cover post really struck a nerve yesterday. Everybody has an idea about how to deal with them and that's terrific. I love being a clearing house for this kind of information and it adds heft to my belief that there are no right answers. At least no blanket right answers anyway. As the day played out I received  four referrals that are worthy of particular note.

First up is a new offering from a company called Trufig. Trufig makes a variety of minimized-to-disappearing switch plates and outlet covers. Check this out.

Somewhere on this wall of granite is a double light switch next to a double outlet. See it?

I didn't think so. How about now?

Amazing, isn't it? Here's another shot of the same wall from a different perspective.

Look through the rest of Trufig's offerings, you should see how they hide a speaker.

The great Mike Hines from Home Path Products knows a thing or two about home wiring. He recommended that I check out Pass and Larson. I did check out their 1400 flavors and found these beauties.

If you want to be playful and bright against a playful and bright back splash this may just be the solution. Pass and Larson has seemingly endless variations on the theme of switch plates and it's not hard to kill an hour on their site.

The great and powerful Kelly Morisseau recommended that people explore the offerings of Lutron. Lutron sells entire switching systems and their Diva line comes in a mind boggling array of colors.

And finally, my favorite Portland mother of two (how's that for playing it safe?) and kitchen designer to the stars Rachele Harless-Gorsegner, reminded me of a post I wrote in December '08 on plate-less outlets and switches from the Canadian company Bocci.

I don't think that Bocci works with anything other than drywall, but man oh man is it distinctive. Thanks for the reminder Rachele, I'd nearly forgotten about those things. Check out Bocci's website.

So there's my follow up to yesterday's switch plate post. What am I missing? Anybody have anything else to add?

04 August 2010

Reader question: How do I handle switch plate and outlet covers on glass tile?

Help! What are your thoughts for how to treat switch plates and electrical outlets in a back splash covered in glass tile?  I've been browsing galleries online, and I find that outlets always seem to be an eyesore unless the surface is white subway tile.  We are still shopping tile, and haven't landed on a specific shade, texture or size, but we are thinking translucent green in some brick shape.  Is there some way to let the outlets appear more like a part of the back splash and less interruptive?

Thanks for your question and it's a good one; something I run into all the time.

The answer of course is that there's no answer, everything depends on the tile you end up selecting and how you want the final project to appear. Probably the only constant I can think of on this topic is not to use white switch plates from a home center.

In June, I wrote a post about new light switch plates and outlet covers made by Forbes and Lomax. They are as close to invisible as any I've ever seen but I don't know enough about them to know how they behave over tile. They're sure pretty to look at though.

So that's the first idea, pretend they're not there.

The second plan of attack is to go in the opposite direction and draw attention to them. Find a decorative plate in metal, stone, glass, enamel, porcelain or anything else you can think of and use that.

The trick when taking that path is to tread a fine line between enhancing your tile and overwhelming it. That decision is best made after you've selected your tile. The switch plate covers above are from Switch Hits, a website that boasts that it has 160,000 plates in stock. After having looked over their website, I believe them. It's an exhaustive collection (with varying taste levels), but it's a terrific place to spend some time to get you thinking about the unexpected.

Any good houseware or cabinet hardware store will have a selection of decorative plates. A good glass cutter can make you any switch plates you'll need too.

So that's what I say at any rate. Anybody else out there have a suggestion for my reader here? Anybody handle this dilemma in a way they're particularly proud of? Anybody handle it poorly, learn a lesson, and care to share some hard-won wisdom? No judgement  I promise. If anybody's so motivated to lend a hand that he or she wants to send in some photos, e-mail them to me and I'll add them to this post.

And that, dear reader, is how I'd approach handling switch plate and outlet covers on a glass tile back splash.

However, be glad you're in Indianapolis and thinking about this. If you were in London, you'd have to try to minimize this.

Side note to to British readers, how on earth do you deal with these things?

09 May 2010

Reader question: Can I have three finish colors in my new kitchen?

The following question came from a reader with whom I've been corresponding for the last few months as she undergoes a major renovation of a historic home.
I was wondering if you might discuss the use of color in kitchen cabinets in a future post, especially multiple colors. When I Google the topic, I often just get black and white, or wood and white or wood and black, etc.

I just got color samples in from Timeless Kitchen Designs, and we are leaning toward a combination of three different paint colors for the cabinets. Walls will be a neutral I've yet to settle on,  the floors will be a nearly uniform gray slate, I'm getting hammered zinc counters and a Shaw's Original sink.

Upon showing certain people our color choices, I have heard the comment that we are breaking a few "design rules" by having 1) more than two colors featured in the kitchen and 2) featuring those colors on the cabinets instead of on the walls or as accessories. I believe the thought is that the room will be too busy, or perhaps we will tire of these colors one day and be unable to change them without a great deal of trouble, or if we need to sell (no plans to, ever) no one in their right mind would buy a house with these colors in a kitchen.

It is true that I am unable to google a kitchen with this combination of colors, or even many kitchens with more than two cabinet colors. However, this just makes me like it even more! So, from a professional point of view, are we making a mistake? Would you advise clients to tone down the colors, or get what they love regardless? We don't think we will regret it, but it is somewhat frustrating to feel so proud and excited and have people come in and say we should stick with all off-white, or something like that.

I obviously will get what I love regardless, and I did defend my choices, but was met with shrugs and 'well, okaaaays'....Are we just more 'out there' than the average kitchen remodeler? It's not like I'm picking lime green/magenta/day-glo pink, after all.
Thanks for the question and before I wade into an answer, congratulations on choosing Timeless Kitchen Designs. Kevin Ritter is an artist in every sense of the word and I cannot wait to see what he does in your home.

Now, onto your question. I searched the web for some multiple finish kitchens and as luck would have it I came across one by Kevin, so you're in good hands. If I believed in signs I'd definitely call it that.

Look! Three paint colors!

Here are some others using three finishes and all of the following rooms are by Medallion Cabinetry. I have their image library, so these shots were easy to come by.

See? The rooms shown above look fantastic and I encourage you to throw that in the faces of the naysayers who disapprove of your choices.

I hate it when I hear someone say that something breaks a design rule. Especially when it's being said about color combinations. Short of some technical rules about form and function, there aren't any real design rules. Whatever design rules exist are trumped by the Great Commandment (at least according to me). That Great Commandment is of course Be Intentional.

Generally, the people who tell you that you're breaking a design rule are getting this nonsense from HGTV or the Garden Web and I'd ignore their "advice" without hesitation. It sounds too like they're worshiping the graven image of resale value, another dead end when we're talking about a kitchen such as the one you're planning for.

But back to my Great Commandment. When your finishes follow a narrative and they make sense for the room they're in you're on the right track. Being intentional isn't so much a question of the finishes you're using, it's more about the motives behind them. Based on our conversations, your motives are spot on and you have terrific taste. So be confident and enjoy your multiple hues. When your renovation's completed, your naysayers will go home to their off whites and envy you. Go for it!