Kathi Packer's West Hartford home is filled with fascinating objects collected from her worldwide travels and several of her own complex and exotic paintings, which Douglas Hyland, director of the New Britain Museum of American Art, calls "mesmerizing."
But her kitchen? Well, for 22 of the 23 years Packer has lived in the house, it just didn't work.
"Everything was in the wrong place," she says, adding that she made "a lot of false starts and half-baked attempts" at renovating it. But then she'd let things slide.
Her family of boys ("big-time eaters") meant the garbage can was typically pulled out from under the sink. She didn't have enough counter space. The upper cabinets were short and stubby and dark. The ceiling in part of the room was dropped, and the room felt like "a cave." The sink was wedged into a corner.
"It was a very depressing kitchen," she says.
And, she adds, every time you'd open the refrigerator, "it would hit you." She laughs to recall how she became "perversely attached to the problem" and reluctant to consider any other arrangement.
"You get so used to the problem, you think if you change it, you're only creating another one."
There was a beautiful set of French doors, Packer allows, but they're now downstairs in the basement, her "little shop of doors — and horrors."
Last year, Packer again began toying with the idea of updating the kitchen. She talked with about five contractors, she says, but none seemed to embrace the totality of the project. They kept saying, "We're going to take care of this, but this guy will take care of that."
And nobody was quite sure what to do with the load-bearing column that went up to the attic.
Finally, when she saw a friend's new kitchen — designed by Lorey Cavanaugh, owner of Kitchen + Bath | Design + Construction — "I was just blown away," Packer says.
Packer says she worried that she couldn't afford a kitchen designer and that a designer wouldn't want to be bothered with her modest project. When Cavanaugh first did some measurements and talked about possible solutions, Packer says she was stunned to realize that a new kitchen — something she had wanted for so long — wouldn't need to remain a dream any longer.
"I know I was acting a little peculiar, but I was so surprised that we could do this project together and it was within my price range."
First Things First
Cavanaugh says many people undertaking a kitchen design make the mistake — as Packer did before they met — of thinking they first should choose their cabinets.
"We'll talk about that later," Cavanaugh recalls telling her. "Cabinets are not the thing that make a kitchen successful. Solving the design problem is always the bigger issue."
She says a kitchen design has to entail a real understanding of how people use their space.
Packer says that made sense to her, particularly as an artist. "When you start any kind of artwork," she says, what comes first is "the design, the composition, how you compose the space."
Even so, she adds, people assume that because she's an artist, it must be easy for her to make decisions about appliances, tile and so forth. "I agonized!" she laughs.
But Cavanaugh was patient. "She said, it's better to put the time into the front end of the project."
Cavanaugh says she and Packer worked on a number of layouts, and they both laugh recalling how hesitant Packer was about moving the refrigerator.
"I was talking with my mother," who is now 80, Packer recalls, "and she said, 'Every time you're cooking over there, someone hits you in the butt!' "
Moving the refrigerator also has opened up the flow toward the dining room, she now realizes.
Choosing materials, Packer wanted a look that felt serene, inspired in part by some seashells.
"It's the kind of kitchen where I can bring color in and out," she says. "I didn't want to be tied to a particular color."
She also wanted to marry traditional elements — in a nod to the house, which dates from 1927 — with a more contemporary feel, which she and Cavanaugh achieved with some high contrasts — light and dark, gleaming and more subdued.
Cavanaugh decided to box in the problematic column with tile, then extended it over and repeated the line on the other side of the repositioned sink to make it seem like a deliberate decision. She also bumped out the counter to compensate.
The walls are taupe, and the maple cabinets are painted a calming sand color; the porcelain floor tiles look like a pale slate. The upper cabinets are now 36 inches high, rather than 30 inches. Cavanaugh extended the formerly unlevel peninsula, for added storage on both sides. The cabinet doors have recessed panels, in keeping with the doors in the house, rather than raised panels, which would have added another line and made them look more busy. The hardware is a mix of handles and knobs in a contemporary brushed nickel.
It was Packer who found the Holtkötter chandelier, an adjustable ring of small amber lights controlled by a bronze central ball.
"I wanted to be able to see through it," Packer says.
And no wonder. What you see through it is one of her paintings, "Noah's Daughter."
>> Kathi Packer is working on a series on zebras, many of them rolling on the ground, based on her observations of the animals during a three-week photographic safari. She will show the works (in ink, acrylic, pastel and charcoal) during Open Studio Hartford weekend Nov. 13 and 14 from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. at her studio at the Arbor Art Center (at Real Art Ways), 56 Arbor St., Suite 314, Hartford. For more on her work, go to http://www.kathipacker.com.
>> Lorey Cavanaugh, owner of Kitchen + Bath | Design + Construction, will present a seminar on cabinets Saturday from 9 to 9:45 a.m. at the KBDC showroom, 13 Sedgwick Road, West Hartford. Future workshop topics include countertops (Nov. 13); appliances (Nov. 20); lighting/electrical (Dec. 4); plumbing/fixtures (Dec. 11); flooring (Dec. 18); cabinet hardware and backsplashes (Jan. 8); and trends (Jan. 15). The fee is $10 per session, donated to Habitat for Humanity. To register, call 860-953-1101, or e-mail email@example.com.