Design Notes on a Galley Kitchen Remodel

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Lara Downes says her family's life has been changed by the ability to congregate in their beautifully renovated kitchen.
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Concert pianist Lara Downes decorated her renovated kitchen with reclaimed materials including powder-coated vintage bar stools, a 1930s wall-mounted school clock, an old stainless steel medical table, and vintage sign letters and a mid-century light fixture she found on eBay.

When concert pianist Lara Downes and her husband, Rick, a marine biologist, wanted to open up the dark, narrow galley kitchen in their 1962 home in Davis, California, they did so with character and sustainability in mind. A vintage clothing and décor enthusiast, Lara searched in secondhand stores, on eBay and craigslist for treasures she could put to work in her galley kitchen remodel. Guided by her own sense of style and artistic nature, Lara used creativity and open-mindedness to design a kitchen that offers a modern point of view with a link to the past–much as she does in her musical career. Her most recent concert and record, “13 Ways of Looking at the Goldberg,” includes Lara’s re-imagining of Bach’s classic 1741 “Goldberg Variations,” one of the most famous works in all of classical music history.

What inspired the design of this kitchen? What were your main objectives in design?

We were inspired by the light and open feeling of our 1962 house, which felt contradicted by the original dark, narrow galley kitchen. We wanted to make the kitchen more consistent with the rest of the house, as well as acknowledge the role of the kitchen, especially in our house, as a family hub and center. Our family life has been tremendously affected by the ability to congregate in this beautiful space.

What were your main motivations in designing this renovated kitchen?

We wanted to create a flexible space that could serve as a family gathering/dining/work/crafts area; an entertaining center; and a serious cooking space. The original kitchen kept everyone out of the room when cooking was in progress. We wanted a spacious, open area where our whole family could be together and the person who is cooking (usually my husband, Rick) could be part of a group (family and/or friends) during the process.

Which items in this kitchen are reclaimed or antique?

The free-standing wall cabinets are 1940s medical cabinets salvaged from a veterinary hospital; our barstools are vintage stools we outfitted with new seats and had powder-coated at a local autobody shop; our center island is a stainless steel medical table; the corner “office” desk is an old elementary school desk with a top made out of bowling lanes from a condemned 1950s bowling alley in Sacramento.

Some of the standout décor items include the light fixture, the clock, the word “Eat” and the benches. Where did those come from?

The light fixture is a wonderful mid-century piece we found on Craigslist years ago. It hung in our living room for quite a while, and now hangs in a place of pride over the bar in the kitchen. I love its color and shape. The clock is a double-sided 1930s Cincinnati school clock. I found it on eBay and had to have the crazy old wiring removed (these clocks were made to run off of a central clock in the principal’s office!) and replaced with a simple battery mechanism. I assembled the EAT sign from individual vintage letters I found piece by piece on eBay. I wanted a mix of styles and colors, so I’m really happy with the result. We also found a wonderful 1930s Toledo scale on Craigslist, an old butcher shop or candy shop scale that we keep out on the island where it serves both a decorative and functional purpose.

How does the art of design work your artistic nature as a musician?

As a musician, I live with an artistic flexibility that takes me from interest to interest, project to project. I am always designing musical structures in the course of my work, creating mood, color and emotional impact with my musical choices. I think that side of my creative work is echoed in my aesthetics around design and fashion?it’s just another way that I express myself in the world. As far as my artistic persona goes, the words that most often describe my work are communicative, expressive, exciting, cutting-edge and visionary. I guess all the qualities I embody musically are the same ones that come through in the rest of my creative expressions.

What part or aspect of this kitchen remodel are you happiest with?

I love the fun of it?the unexpected, quirky things like occasional blue doors on the cabinets, the orange stools, the EAT sign. I think our kitchen is both efficient and irreverent, just like we are!

What part of the kitchen remodel was most challenging?

It was surprisingly easy! I had never done a major remodel before, but my husband had. He is really the head chef in the family, so he had the main input into appliances and fixtures, and I got the fun job of thinking about color, finishes and furnishings. We collaborated really well and found a balance of roles and responsibilities. And our contractor was a dream?not a single hitch as far as the actual building went. I guess the hardest part was simply being kitchenless for about 5 months. We had a tiny kitchenette (microwave and mini-fridge) set up in the living room! Dishes were done in the bathroom. Luckily a big Trader Joes opened up four blocks from home just before we started the job. But with two kids, the eating out and “camping in” got old pretty fast.

How would you encourage the average person to approach design in her home?

I think you have to take cues from your other design choices: what you wear, what draws you on every aesthetic level. What historical periods are interesting to you and why? Never just copy someone else’s choices without first processing them through your own personal style mill. I love sourcing for ideas, but letting them change somewhat in translation to become personal and unique.

How would you describe your personal design style?

I love mixing old and new, delineating spaces with color, finding the connections between industrial and softer materials, vintage and cutting edge. This again goes back to my music and my fascination with the dialogues that exist between older and newer pieces of music, and between pieces of different styles and backgrounds. I love to create a continuum between the past and the future by finding common references and letting a harmonic balance develop.

What elements of this kitchen design could readers use in their own homes?

I think the vintage industrial pieces we found are absolute treasures. The school and medical furniture from the ’40s and ’50s is so beautiful in its lines, made of indestructible materials, and a fantastic way to recycle materials and give them new life. The bright powder-coat finishes we gave some of the pieces was a great choice, I think. Sometimes we had to cover up badly dinged or rusted metal bases, and now with the bright color accents, the pieces look really lively and fresh, while keeping the reference to the past. Found objects can be incredibly inspiring! I found that the decision to use a reclaimed piece?for example the school clock on the wall?often turned around other ideas and sent us in new directions, in a very happy way.