January 1, 2018

How a Gardener Reinvents His Kitchen

As anyone who had lived through a major kitchen renovation knows, the process seems endless until that moment when it is complete - I'm a cook and a cook and gardener, so perhaps that didn't help! Curtis, Joe's nephew above helped convince us that he could handle the labor like plastering, removing walls like the mural on the right, and flooring.

It's been a long year since we began this kitchen remodel, now that the project is finally we can move onto other projects (like writing my book, and for this blog which I have been neglecting - not to mention trying to regroup myself after being laid off last March. Our greatest setback has been the tragic loss of Curtis last January - when we just didnt feel like doing anything more with the kitchen, until this October when we decided to just move ahead and finish it the best that we could.

I'm sharing this project here because I know many of you have been asking about the kitchen, or you've been here while we had been under construction. Now that it is complete, the good thing is that we finally have a great new kitchen and dining area, the bad thing is that we can no longer use the excuse that the house is a mess because of the construction!

Our brand new completed kitchen reno is spectacular, and just in time for the Holiday season.

This post is long, but it shows before, during and after images of how we combines two big rooms in an old house which was my parents, and my grandparents. I had to overcome some emotional attachment with murals that my dad painted in the 1940's and 1950's, as well as cabinetry that he also custom painted back then.

We also were working with a limited budget, one that we probably went over now that we were not getting labor from Curtis for free, but without adding it all up, I think that all of this was completed for less that 20k, which whh broke into smaller installments, 3k here, 4k there, $500 there, etc. No one really wants to know but one day, I may sit down and add it all up.

 I'm open to share anything about this project if you want, especially comments about Ikea, Pergo, paint colors or any lighting, tiles or fabric. No one sponsored this post or offered free produt (what was I thinking?) but that does allow me to be honest about everything.

I began with gathering images of what I didn't want - entitled, "Kitchens I Hate", I think this might have been the main reason why my kitchen designer backed out as I realized that these sort of posh 'McMansion kitchens' were his specialty. They're nice, but just not my style. 


I'll admit it - while I consider myself a nice and reasonable guy when it comes to aesthetics and design, I just can't be the easiest person to please (Joe says that I am a design snob). I like to think of myself as a serious cook as well and yes, certainly I have strong opinions when it comes to design, be it color, materials, and forms. I'm a creative professional and that comes with the territory - sorry.

Then, there is that plant thing, which adds to the complexity.

I can understand a kitchen designer not appreciating the value which I felt that a plant window or plant display area would bring, but he should have been curious enough to listen and try to solve this wish - not discourage it. When I tried to tell him that I didn't want cabinetry in some areas, or that I wanted to have stone shelves that could handle seasonal displays heavy pots or plants like camellias and forced bulbs from the greenhouse - he seemed disinterested.

OK, that not cool but I persisted telling him that I like to cook challenging dishes, often making things which require large pots and various ethnic dishes which required tagines or a place where I could keep just Indian spices. Am I wrong in assuming that a good kitchen consultant should get off on finding storage places for things that chefs of cooks might have? Things like tagines, heavy Le Creuset pots, tart rings, proofing containers and pickling crocks?

We weren't like most people. We didn't need a place to hide a Keurig or a built-in microwave dont make Hot Pockets or Lean Cuisine. We hack off chicken feet for stock pots and are proud to make temporary displays of topiaried rosemaries and myrtle trees.

Somehow I ended up with the sort of kitchen designer who defaulted to a style which was probably more suitable for the Housewives-of-Atlanta.

Kitchen remodels can be tiresome, endless projects. Weasley, our male Irigh Terrier agreeds. 

After the kitchen consultant disaster, I took a few days to get my thoughts together and with Joe and Curt's 'support and promise to help, I created my own little style guide on what I would really want, within reason, after all, we don't live in a fancy neighborhood and regardless of how posh the greenhouse pictures look, the reality is that property values here are low, and so was my budget. As any designer knows, a big budget is a luxury, but a small one is just a challenge. I knew that once I started looking at Ikea and professional restaurant products, that I could assemble a somewhat decent facsimile of a kitchen that might be magazine or Pinterest-worthy.

Kitchens that I liked - a mix of classic period 20's inspired design combined with elements of modernity that I listed out.

My statements for the remodel included 'late 19th century and early 20th  estate kitchen-meets- contemporary-restaurant- keywords like pure, honest, clean, modern, bright, professional, comfortable, lived-in, working-kitchen, functional and practical storage all felt right. Interpreted, these statements and keywords could be interpreted as: Open shelving which was both functional and coud display cookware proudly because it was actually usable - I love the look of stacks of white dishes and noodle bowls on shelves, or bottles lined up ready for use.

Open shelving felt more usable that cabinets as one gets closer to the cooking area. This area could serve as a bar during holidays and events, or used as a long plating area for larger parties. A case of Pellegrino is an inexpensive display when you really think about it - practical and useful too. Back-lit with under-the-shelf LED lighting used on top of the shelf, it's like a bar at a hip boutique hotel. Why not?

A before and after - the same view looking across the kitchen from the cooking area. The left image is from last October when we were about halfway through the reno, and the image on the right is from last week.

An early shot of the kitchen showing some of the old 1940's cabinetry and the door which led to our old dining room The mural that my father painted had to be torn out (half of it, anyway). The part with my family on it (on the right side wall) remains. The cabinet doors we saved, of course. I may paint some of the images on the new doors.

This old house is old, built in 1906, quirky and full of emotional attachment. A family house where 3 generations were raised afer my grandfather built it in 1906. Remove wall paper and you never know what you are going to find - pencil doodles from 1921, a news paper from 1899 (The Worcester Spy!) or bottles of old medicind from 1909. To get through this successfully, we would have to be there to evalute and make changes along the way. Yes, you can throw that out, no, let's save that pieve of old linoleum as it might make a nice pattern for inside a book that I might right.

Still, very hard decisions were made, the greatest being what to do with a huge mural on two walls that my dad had painted in the early 1950's. Removing a 70 year old mural that was the showpiece of this family kitchen is one thing, but when actual family members are in the mural, that's another thing. I wasnt about to takea sledge hammer to my mother or siblings just because I needed more space to store Doritos or Triscuit's.

AT the begining of the project, the bog mural that my dad painted had to lose about 8 feet so that we could open up the wall and combine a formal dining room with what was then, a kitchen which had last been updated in 1945.  

Storage was a big concern in our reno, as well as finding a place where the refrigerator could sit. There was just no ideal place to set the fridge, but we decided to deviate from the suggestion of a work-triangle (which we had originally), so that we could open up the space more, and use the window area for seating and as a bar or buffet area. In the image above, we removed the door which led to the old dining room, as well as 8 feet of the mural and wall. It was fun to see the old flooring under the old checkered vinyl floor - I remember it from when I was a kid, my dad waxing it with a special wax because it was a rubber tile. He had created a fancy pattern and image with it that you cannot see here, but he was very proud of it.

A fake column was built to both reinforce the ceiling, and to nestle against the fridge to give the space a built-in feel. Later, we tiled the column and opened it up to make a bookcase for my cookbooks because it was hollow and while structurally neccessary, it was still wastes space.

Getting through the mess and disorder is the worst part of any renovation project, weeks feel like months. And those months felt like years.

From the opposite directions, the new column and a fake wall added -  though it reduced the more-open space that I was trying to achieve.These new walls allowed us to tuck in a new set of cabinets and a new closet on the left for large pots. 

From the dining room, the view looking towards the kitchen was now opened up now that the door was removed along with part of the mural and wall. Since we lost a built-in china closet that had drawers and glass doors, a column was added so that I could fit it a set of ceiling-to-floor cabinets with glass doors and many drawers. Storage, storage, storage.

As for flooring, I wish I could have afforded real wood, or even to refinish the hardwood floors that were already there, but we decided on Pergo, which wasn't the best choice because the dog's nails sound as if they are running and sliding on a cookie sheet, but it will have to do. At least it looks nice, and it's easy to clean. With a doggie door that leads into a garden with dirt and mud, our floor gets really dirty. We ended up with the weathered oak pattern that looks incredibly real - Warm Grey Oak.

I'm not thrilled with the Pergo now, I mean it looks great and seems to handle the dogs well, but it sounds as if the dogs are walking on plastic milk jugs (dogs nails) and some of the seams arre bulging  a bit, not to mention that a few corner chips have happened. The price was right for us though, so it will need to stay for a while - I can't imagine how we would, or could replace it.

Given a bigger budget, I would have gone with real wood or a nice, mod geometric tile in dark and light or a pattern.

Living with a mess for a year is difficult, but now, we have just about forgotton about this part!

Anther before and after sequence - the old kitchen with the cabinetry removed on the left, and on the right, the same view completed showing the all removed and the fridge covering up half of my dads mural.

This before and after is slightly different, looking from the stove across towards the dining room.

Nearly completed now (see the old wiring at the top?) This view shows how we replaced our old china closet with an Ikea version, with lots of little drawer for things like linens , pastry making equipment, and things that little drawers attract. The pendant lamps in the foreground are Vintage Sinclair Gas Station grey enamel lights from Barn Light.com. 

The fake column was controversial at first, as it wasted space but it was needed so that I could run cabinets along a new route. The piano was a problem as well. We planned on moving it to the studio, but that's on a different level and I didnt want to bring in piano movers. In the end, it fit nearly where it was, moving it only a bit to the left.

One day I sketched books onto the fake column hoping that someone might get the hint. "wouldn't a built-in bookcase look great here? Our new carpenter Mike helped me make it a reality. It has thick Brazillian slate walls from slate that our neighbor Joe had left over from a tiling job in Boston and then we illuminated the shelves with Ikea LED lights. The sort that the install in drawers. Inside the bookcase, I asked for more horizontal beadboard.

The bookcase was designed later, once Curtis had built the fake column to serve as a corner between where we were moving the refrigerator, and then on the otherside, a place were we could abut a new set of cabinets that would run from floor to ceiling to serve as a china closet with lots of little drawers for cloth napkins, place mats and pastry tips. Little drawers for all sorts of things was a luxury I dreamed of.

A view from the stove, across through where the door used to lead to the dining room. A new dining table sits in a new position next to the piano, while the breakfast counter adds a new place to sit.


While the kitchen and dining area (half of our house) was under deconstruction, we had fallen into the bad habit of eating in front of the TV so I still wanted a dining table of some sort because we had nixed both the kitchen table and our dining room. I bought a rate & Barrel Parsons dining table with a concrete top because I felt that it was daring, so modern and juxtaposed with the older elements, might make the space feel new.

On the wall in the dining room `out turn-of -the-century horsehair plaster and uneven century-old walls were problematic, to say the least. My solution was an easy one - the illusion of wainscotting and woodwork, achieved here with Masonite and wood, along with a handyman. Painted white, it allowed us to cover the walls for only a few hundred dollars.

Once painted with a glossy white, I topped it off with inexpensive wood paneling that looks like beadboard. The difference here is that I wanted the look of a 1910 boathouse on an estate that my family used to visit in the summer in Kennebunkport Maine on vacation (don't ask). It's horizontal lines always struck me as interesting, and when I saw it used again at a seafood restaurant, I knew that I had to use it somewhere. Horizontal rather than verticle beadboard elevates the look of a $19 panel from Home Depot. It's a motif that is repeated in the bookcase, and on other walls. 

The piano fits nicely into the old dining room looking east. Here is a before and after.
The table works visually, but boy that concrete surface was a big mistake. It is very fussy to maintain (it stained permanently on the first day that we used it when I set a large vase with pickled vegetables on it on Christmas eve which left a permanent ring. Apparently, I am not alone, after reading the comments on their website so now I don't know what to do. Live with it, I guess.

On the left, our new concrete dining room Parsons table from Crate &Barrel was a disappointment (the concrete finish is impractical as it stains) but it works great as a backdrop for photos. On the right, the plant window works very well with real slate sills allowing me to bring plants in from the greenhouse and display them fearlessly.

For some reason, I felt that the concrete option would be the most durable, knowing that plants in clay pots, potting soil and trays and who knows what will end up on it here. Later, I read that even butter or water will stain it. It's a freakin dining room table! What were they thinking? It has some sort of special beeswax finish on it, and you cant even use Windex or water to clean it. I should have gone with the marble option, but that looked like a table from a morgue. Stuck with it now, I do like how it looks, but the downfalls are that it stains, and it's very cold to touch in the winter. I will say that it makes a great backdrop for photos though!

In the second phase of our remodel, we had to plaster the original pink walls that my dad had painted, and then tile all of the other surfaces. This meant dust, and more dust just between Thanksgiving and Christmas. I settled on three designs of tile, all from Home Dept. White, shiny subway tile near the fridge, and later in phase 3 near the stove and sink, and a digitally printed marble tile in two different shades.

Being a graphic designer can be a burden, but sometimes it all works out. I had selected paint chips earlier before we began but discovered under layers of wallpaper that in 1919, my grandparents had the same idea.


Color is so important, but we were limited because of the Ikea Bodbyn grey. I began with matching the grey with paint (from Sherwin Williams) and then creating a light grey which was 50% whiter on some walls. In the end, I settled on 4 different shades of the Bodbyn Grey match, which I am using on the plaster walls. Real color will be added as an accent here and there with dishes, pillows, and fabric. I had intended to use a dark teal somewhere, surprised to discover that the samples I have pulled matched what we found under the old 1920's wallpaper, but it felt too dark in the end. We did buy some dishes to match this color, though.

Inspiration can come from anywhere or anything. One day we discovered that the original kitchen had pink walls (oh, dad), but the color was so ugly that it challenged me to see if I could get pink, or salmon to work. I saw this turban squash that I grew for my book sitting in my studio and thought - hey, if salmon and teal, grey and orange can live together on a squash, why not in a kitchen? Since then, it's become a running gag with our carpenter that this squash was our color inspiration.

Later, a turban squash became the inspiration for color. I always loved the coral, grey and green combined with orange on these squashes, and I couldn't fight the challenge once we discovered that the kitchen walls were originally pink -  light coral -pink which matched some of our winter squashes exactly. This is still the color inspiration and challenge, but we have not found the perfect place for the pink highlights. I am thinking about introducing some pink or coral/orange LeCruset pots on our new stainless steel shelves to tie it all together.

Chrome was also our first choice for hardware, as brass and gold just felt too 1970's and didn't match well with all of the grey and stainless steel, yet later on in the project, after the walnut countertops arrived (new, from Ikea), we changed our mind. What first felt too trendy and 70's. suddenly worked for me. I don't think that I could go with brass or gold silverware which is shown everywhere now in homemaking magazines, but as hardware with dark walnut, it completely works.

Mike our carpenter helped us customized the Ikea cabinets with solid maple farm table legs from Osborne Wood Products and then extended a walnut countertop across a sort-of farm table center so that our heating pipes wouldn't have to be moved. It's now a comfortable seating area and storage area, with dog food stored in the far cabinet in a pull out drawer with makes Doodles very happy.

Designing along the way

Some elements in the kitchen had to be developed during the process, but most of these became the real stars of the kitchen. A big challenge was the space along the east wall where the refrigerator used to be along with our kitchen table. For a year now, this was just an open space, with a desk and a shelving unit. A double casement window added to the problem, and the only source of heat for the room - a baseboard pipe, would not allow us to close the entire space in with cabinets.

I started to think about a farm table for the wall, but we still needed more storage. Measurements informed us that we could add a 40-inch drawer unit on the left side, and a 15 inch on the right that wouldn't interfere with the heating pipe, but I just didn't want to extend a counter between the two. It had to look custom and built in. Mike, our able and talented carpenter/neighbor who I hired for the past three months to complete the job helped me make it all work.

Customizing a couple of Ikea cabinets with farm table legs bought from Osborne Wood Products and a new walnut Ikea countertop and a place where we could hide dogfood (in a pull-out recycling drawer) plus more storage underneath where it is open to allow heat to rise from heating pipes. Ikea stools in orange leather, and new poplar woodwork around the windows is just waxed, and not stained as we liked the pale look.

Since I wanted a farm table look, I found maple farm table legs from Osborne Wood Products online. They arrived in 3 days, solid maple, and I had they cut two of them into 3/4 pieces so that I could have Mike our neighbor/master carpenter attach them to the edges of two Ikea cabinets, one wide one, and one 15 inch cabinet designed for a pull-out trash bin, but we are using it for doggy kibble.

These were a bit of a splurge, but we opted for hardwood - I felt that maple was a better choice than pine. The $400 investment really converted this unit into a piece of furniture that looked like I had spent 6 times the amount.

We kept our old Viking 8 burner range and saved money by not having to buy a new range, refrigerator or sink. This portion of the kitchen still needs some reno work, but that will have to wait until next year. The new island surface is white quartz from Ikea. Now that the new unit with the farm table legs is complete, I would love to redesign the island, but that must wait.

Our home needs to be pet-friendly and garden friendly, so Pergo floors with a few carpets had to do, along with slate on the plant window, on shelves and on the window sills for heavy clay pots or dog dishes.

In the end, the kitchen is delightfully a mixture of new and old. It adds value in so many ways to what we do every day, from blogging and photographing plants, to feeding the dogs, cooking and researching. People naturally want to hang out in the space, listening to jazz music and enjoying coffee, pastry from the oven or a meal at the counter.

On Christmas Eve, we hosted nearly 40 people, family and friends put the kitchen to the test. It had the perfect vibe of hip restaurant and cafe, but homey and not really pretentious.

Splurging on extra lighting under every shelf, in cabinets and drawers makes a huge difference - it's these little details that make a space so much more beautiful.  I call it 'home merchandising'. Don't be afraid to display your cherished books, china, vases or cookware.

Wishing all of you and yours, a very prosperous and happy new year! Let's hope that 2018 is the best year ever!


  1. All I can say is that I LOVE your kitchen. I mean it. Also quartz counters are fabulous. Over the past 10 years we have gutted the kitchen and 2 bathrooms. Quartz counters in all rooms. I frankly found granite and marble to be a pain, but quartz is so easy to take care of and there are so many great takes on marble now compared to years ago. Also the piano is fabulous. Glad you ditched the designer. What you have accomplished took my breath away.

  2. Respect the creativity and passion that went into this design. Would gladly give up a precious designer kitchen to have something this unique. Trouble shooting around problems instead of throwing money at them is a challenge you have mastered. You are an inspiration.

  3. Wow, that is gorgeous! The mess stage is what always makes me not want to take on projects like this--but wow, the results!

  4. Anonymous7:21 AM

    So so nice.....!
    / Vendela from Sweden

  5. Is your white tile with grey vein marble, tile with veining, or did you add the veining?

  6. Anonymous7:48 AM

    dear matt

    i am sure i'm not the only reader who's been waiting to see the progress. it is very good-looking, and styled without being slick or soulless. the plants look lovely on the shelf. congratulations and thanks for inviting us in!
    (oddly enough, the old kitchen always looked pretty nice too.)
    all best for 2018,
    ~ 02568


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