Three Fabulous Kitchens: From Dark and Cramped to Warm and Nurturing

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When architect Carol Venolia’s clients bought their country bungalow, the kitchen was cramped, dark, and funky.
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When Michelle Ruber bought her house, the kitchen layout was awkward, and the only window was in the pantry.
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In the walk-in “California cooler,” the homeowners can store grains, produce, and anything else that benefits from slightly lower air temperatures.
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Green marble countertops with recycled glass mosaic backsplash, wheatboard cabinets with whimsical driftwood handles, and a larger window transform this once-dark kitchen into a light and creative space.
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Designer Marsea Ilio liberated this bay window, formerly squeezed between a cabinet peninsula and a wall, and turned it into a sunny spot for enjoying breakfast with a view of the garden.
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In this kitchen plaster walls and a tile floor provide an earthy counterpoint to daylight, while sensuous cabinet fronts delight the eye.
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What was once a dark area next to the kitchen in this Sonoma County, California, home has become a warm, welcoming nook for reading or helping peel potatoes.
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An artful flower arrangement and small sculpture adorn this graceful niche.
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Transcending the merely utilitarian laundry area, Marsea used bamboo walls, a salvaged wood counter, indigo fabric from Africa, an Indonesian herb-drying rack, and collected artwork to create a sacred nook. The washer and dryer are under the counter.
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Michelle’s expanded kitchen glows with daylight coming in through salvaged windows and the warmth of cabinets made from salvaged cedar.
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The Slatescape countertop is made of cement and recycled wood fiber and goes well with a slate tile backsplash. A glass door leads directly to the garden, making fresh cuisine a snap.
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These cabinet door pulls from Aurora Glass are made of recycled window glass. Aurora’s profits fund programs for homeless and low-income people.

Truly a Hearth

The owners of this Sonoma County, California, home approached me several years ago to help transform the dark, cramped kitchen of their otherwise charming 1920s bungalow into a place of sensuous eco-healthy delights. Although the house sits on two bucolic acres of fields and trees, the kitchen had only a few small windows and no outdoor access. The appliances, cabinets, and finishes were all dilapidated, and the area around the kitchen was chopped up into a hallway, mudroom, and undefined woodstove/storage area.

We began by opening up the space, turning it into one big live-in kitchen. We added larger, double-pane, wood-frame windows, a skylight, and a pair of French doors that open onto a new deck. While this might have led to overheating in other locations, the tall surrounding trees filter the sunlight and keep the space comfortable. We also added insulation to the roof, walls, and floor to increase comfort and lower heating bills.

We transformed the no-man’s land at one end of the kitchen into a cozy Southwest-style inglenook with a built-in fireplace and plastered benches. My clients love this nook. “It serves many purposes: a place to rest, read, play the guitar, socialize, or warm up on a cold day,” says one.

I carved a “cool room” out of the kitchen’s north corner for storing grains and fresh produce. With insulation all around, screened vents high and low on a shady outside wall, and slatted shelves for airflow, it stays naturally cooler than the rest of the house without using electricity.

In rebuilding the kitchen, my clients wanted to avoid rectilinear cabinet fronts; through a local Waldorf school, they found a cabinetmaker who was happy to comply. They love the cabinets’ unique, sculptural look, which draws comments of delight from visitors.

Going with the Grain

Michelle Ruber knew her Portland, Oregon, kitchen needed help. The cabinets and finishes from a previous owner’s quick-and-dirty remodeling job were falling apart. With only one small window, electric lighting was needed even in midday, and she had to go out two doors to reach the yard–frustrating to an avid gardener. Michelle wanted to proceed in an ecologically responsible manner, and her job at Environmental Building Supplies ( provided the knowledge and materials she needed.

The kitchen redesign evolved in response to two major factors: input from architect Diana Moosman, and whatever salvaged materials Michelle and her contractor, Gene Wixson, managed to find. The first step was to tear out a galley partition and open up the kitchen–with Michelle separating demolition products for reuse or recycling.

Michelle and Wixson frequented the ReBuilding Center, a community nonprofit where contractors and homeowners donate salvaged building materials. There they found a glass door to connect the kitchen with the garden. “I love to watch our food growing; now all I have to do is walk out the door to harvest it,” Michelle says. They also found several salvaged double-pane windows, which soon graced the kitchen walls. “I enjoy cooking in here now,” she adds. “There’s tons of natural light.”

If she could do it all again, Michelle would plan ahead more. “We stayed open to possibilities as they came along. There’s creative freedom in that, but it also takes time and adds to the frustration. In retrospect, I think we should have just made some decisions ahead of time and stuck with them.”

Overall, however, Michelle is delighted. “I’m proud of how my kitchen looks and feels. Our commitment to using low-toxic materials paid off; subcontractors enjoyed working with them, and they don’t have that synthetic smell. I love it when people walk in and say, ‘Oh my God, this is amazing; it’s lovely.’ You can tell we put a lot of heart into it. We took our time and did the creative things we wanted to explore.”

Cabinets and trim: Wheatboard with salvaged cedar fronts and sealed with natural OS Hardwax Oil. Michelle and Wixson were at the ReBuilding Center when a truck full of cedar siding from an old administration building at Lewis and Clark College arrived. Under the dreary brown paint, they saw beautiful grain. “The cabinets were time-consuming,” Michelle admits, “but now we have something you just don’t see everywhere.”

Cabinet pulls: Recycled-glass handles from Aurora Glass, a nonprofit job training and placement organization in Eugene, Oregon, for disabled and at-risk people.

Countertop: SlateScape, a durable solid-surface composite of cement and recycled wood fibers, made by American Fiber Cement.

Backsplash: Slate tile sealed with OS Hardwax Oil and set with AFM 3-in-1 Adhesive and AFM Grout Sealer.

Flooring: Marmoleum natural linoleum. “I love the fact that my floor looks great no matter what,” says Michelle.

Paint: Aglaia plant- and mineral-based paint. Michelle appreciates that the no-sheen paint can be wiped down.

Framinglumber: Salvaged wood from deconstruction, supplemented with Forest Stewardship Council-certified framing lumber and plywood from Collins Companies.

Insulation: Salvaged fiberglass batts.

Breathing Room

Artist Marsea Ilio, whose 1942 home is perched on a wooded hillside in California’s Marin County, had already worked her interior design magic on numerous Whole Foods stores when she decided to remodel her own kitchen. The scale was different, but her guiding principles were the same: sustainable natural materials, sensuous surprises, expansiveness, beauty, and flow. The kitchen she’d inherited presented plenty of challenges. It was plain, cramped, and dark, and gave little hint of the beautiful garden outside.

Marsea’s project began when a leak in the adjacent laundry room stained the kitchen’s “nasty” brown indoor/outdoor carpet. One thing led to another, and soon Marsea had her “carpenter extraordinaire,” Paul Nice, tearing out the cabinets and the flat acoustic-tile ceiling. Removing an L-shaped cabinet peninsula improved circulation and brought a new sense of openness to the existing bay-windowed breakfast nook.

Now the small (single-pane) window over the sink felt intolerable, so they replaced it with a twelve-foot-long, double-pane, wood-frame window that brings in more daylight and expands the view of the garden. On a roll, they also added extensive pantries in the wide hallway between the kitchen and the laundry room, allowing Marsea to keep new cabinetry to a minimum in the main part of the kitchen, retaining the open feeling. She kept the classic wood- and gas-fired stove, and exposed its brick chimney as a design feature.

“I’m absolutely delighted with the kitchen,” says Marsea. “I love the sensuousness. The marble countertop is the first place my hand rests in the morning. The patterns in the marble never cease to delight and draw me in. When I come home after a day out in the world wearing shoes, I go barefoot in the kitchen. I love the contrast of my bare feet on the bamboo floor with its straight grain, then walking into the pantry and feeling the organic earthiness of the Arizona flagstone. The bamboo is warm in winter, and the stone stays refreshingly cool in summer. And with the new window, the kitchen breathes with the seasons of the garden. I wouldn’t do anything different!”

Cabinets: The sink cabinet is made of wheatboard (medium-density fiberboard made of wheat straw) with driftwood handles. The drawer edges are colored with plant dyes, each in a different color to elicit surprise.

Countertopandbacksplash: Remnant pieces of green marble are pieced together to form the countertop; the backsplash mosaic is made of tumbled, recycled glass. “The backsplash is fun,” says Marsea. “It’s my favorite part of the kitchen because it makes me laugh.”

Flooring: The main kitchen area has bamboo flooring, which also graces the walls of the laundry room. In the pantry and laundry, the flooring is flagstone; recycled glass, shells, and jewelry are whimsically pressed into the grout lines.

Shelves, cutting board and laundry counter: Paul Nice crafted shelves and counters out of salvaged, whorled redwood that was milled with the tree’s outer edge intact, giving the front edges a sinuous, fluted character.

Ceiling: “Raising the ceiling was totally uplifting,” says Marsea. Nice finished the newly sloping ceiling with sustainably forested pine to complement the bamboo and wood.

Pantry: The pantry doors have sustainably forested redwood frames, with insets of handwoven, hand-dyed indigo fabric from a friend’s village in Burkina Faso.

Light fixtures: Marsea mixed reclaimed brass fixtures with custom-made pendant lights of handspun copper.

Paint: The newly exposed walls and curvaceous archways were blessed with a coat of plant-based BioShield paint.

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