Until I bought my first and only house six years ago, it never occurred to me that I might take on a kitchen remodel. I was an apartment dweller, with apartment dweller logic. Kitchens came with a place. The way to transform a kitchen into my kitchen was to put my cast-iron pots on the stove and my scales on the counter and to hang up the French dish towel rack with labels above the hook for what each towel may touch: hands, glasses, plates, cutlery. Presto. Home.
In the course of 11 moves, only three kitchens defeated dish towel transformations. One didn’t have a window. Another had aquamarine tiles with starfish. The kitchen in my current house had a mouse, make that a rat, make that a plague of rats. By the time I called the exterminators, the rats had eaten the wiring of the dishwasher, the washing machine and had started on the electrical system of the Thermador stove. Expecting my dish towels to rehabilitate that place would have been the equivalent of sending in fan dancers to clean up a Superfund site.
That’s one version. The other is that I let the rat problem get out of hand because I hated the kitchen. Its layout of crooked counters with a dog path running through it defeated me. Storage systems were an accident in waiting. Bread pans were too high, cutlery too low, the color scheme too dark, fitting too shoddy. The cherrywood cabinets were pretty enough but were in all the wrong places and the “breakfast bar” was an affront. It ate up space that could accommodate a table.
Unease with that room was so palpable that I could see it in my dogs. In former homes, when I would come in from walking them, they would run to the kitchen ahead of me because they knew that’s where I would go. But in the new place, they would creep upstairs, as if to say to one another: Forget it, guys, no nap by a warm oven tonight.
By the time the exterminators left and the rats were gone, I still wasn’t going into my kitchen. It wasn’t a question of whether it would stay but whether I would be the homeowner to rip it out.
An apartment dweller’s way out of the wrong kitchen is to move. Yet the compulsion to take it on was inexplicably powerful, like the sudden conviction in dreams that I can play the piano. The danger was also clear. Whoever had done that kitchen thought they knew what they were doing, then woke up and sold it to me. If I undertook a refit, the odds were high that I would merely update the vandalism.
I stayed and remodeled. The result isn’t just rat-proof, it’s a beautiful and utilitarian frontier between stove and garden. I got it right because I didn’t do it. I called in a designer and hired a contractor.
L.A. is full of good kitchen designers. I chose Karen Haas because she is a neighbor in West Adams, or as the house-proud locals insist on calling it, “historic West Adams.” Her specialty: updating Craftsman homes without any violent incongruities. She commands such deep loyalty among preservationists that when I bought and began restoring my 1904 house down the street from her home and design studio, I must have been referred to her 100 times. “Ask Karen” this. “Ask Karen” that. I affected interest, but frankly I found it annoying. It never occurred to me that I needed to ask anyone for help until what felt like every tradesman in the 10th District had overcharged me for often shoddy work on other parts of the house. Ballpark guess: What should have been $60,000 worth of rewiring, re-plumbing, stripping woodwork, staining, rebuilding windows and painting ended up costing $100,000.
The sense of loss went deeper than money. You can always earn more money. It’s far harder to regain the confidence to manage the refurbishment of an old house after finding yourself paying builders who have just left 2-inch gaps between drywall and skirting board just to make the shifty devils go away. I was interviewing real estate agents to sell the house when my brother and his wife redid their kitchen. They did ask Karen. The result was a flawless job. I saw it, I went home, picked up the phone and called Haas.
When she showed up to measure the kitchen, I might have admitted that I needed a designer, but it still felt like the equivalent of asking someone else to have good taste for me. Haas broke the ice with running commentary as she measured the room for a floor plan. “Ah, you’ve got enough space behind your refrigerator for a dead body.” Polite laughter from me. “Ah, a cutlery drawer for toddlers.” More polite laughter. “What happened to the laundry room doors?”
That turned the key. No sooner had I told her how they fell off their rails so often that they hit me once, I was in prosecution mode, pointing accusingly at how one cupboard opened into your face, and you couldn’t reach the glasses how the breakfast bar created a kind of dark Siberia back with the biggest rat holes how the sink was so small you couldn’t wash a large mixing bowl how the dog traffic on the pathway from the stairs to the backdoor made it dangerous to carry a pot from stove to sink how the floor was warping and none of the joints between it and the walls was complete.
As I ranted, Haas began jotting notes, turning my litany into a wish list of what she had deduced I needed: a big sink, a safe route between stove and sink, cupboards where I could reach things, a tough new floor. She also noted that my dish cabinets were crowded with avocados, stone fruit and onions. She added an aerated fruit larder to the list.
Next she wanted to know about cabinet styles. Modern, I said. Modern, modern, modern, especially modern. With all due respect to “historic West Adams,” preservation taken too far can be hard to distinguish from escapism. There is something pessimistic about too much reverence for the past. Modernism is the design face of hope, belief that the future can be better. It’s hard to go Space Age in a Craftsman home, but at the very least, I wanted my kitchen to come from an era in which women had the vote. Haas cackled appreciatively at this. What about wall cabinets? Hate them, I said. They leave themselves open and bump me in the forehead. And floor? I have a secret love for linoleum, I said. Haas smiled, jotted it down and left.
The first floor plan came a little more than a year ago, in late February, and it was a shock. She closed off the door from the stairs, cutting the traffic pattern and extending the counter. She moved back a laundry room wall to justify the space. In the wasted space where the fridge had been, there was a new broom closet. At the far wall, she eliminated a small window and single door and punched in a pair of large French doors to the garden. At the heart of the kitchen, where an awkward breakfast bar affair had been, there was room for a long table. To the side, she created a new hallway to the dining room, with a built-in cupboard and fruit store. Where the rotten old bathroom had been, she created a handsome new washroom, respectfully separated from the kitchen.
I hadn’t planned on moving walls, never mind punching new windows and doors in and out of the outer walls of the house. But I kept imagining how good my garden would look through the rear wall. As I began a search for a contractor, I was disappointed that Haas would not supply one. Haas cut that sulk short. Designers, she said, should always be independent of contractors. Their job is to provide smart designs. It’s a conflict of interest if they profit from the cost of realizing them.
After I found a builder to bid the job and borrowed the $30,000 he said it would cost, he missed the first two site meetings with Haas. Paying her $85 an hour to wait for him was not in my future. I began a new search. A friend gave me the telephone number of Michael Henry, a preferred builder by members of the West Adams Heritage Assn. Henry surveyed the job, took weeks to bid it, then in late September turned in a carefully detailed written bid for $38,190, excluding cabinets, countertop and plumbing fixtures.
Haas already had cabinets in mind. They had drawers, not shelves. Everything was easily accessible with the pull of a handle. They were on legs too, so they had an elegant, floating quality. Stainless in historic West Adams, hee-hee. It was the design equivalent of going naked to church. Haas pushed the laboratory look even further by using a 30-inch surgical sink in the kitchen, one so big it can hold a draining rack.
As I bought the cabinets and ordered the plumbing fixtures, I went back for a second loan. The 40-grand kitchen was about to cost more like 60 once Haas’ fees and the appliances were added. My banker wasn’t fazed. Two-loan kitchens are so common they are practically the rule, he said.
The job took four months, Haas providing Henry a succession of drawings as work progressed: elevations, a lighting plan, a design for the floor.
Building work is like childbirth. People don’t want to hear the details, in this case about living in upheaval, grit and noise for a quarter of a year. They want to see the baby. Suffice to say, camping in a bedroom upstairs, living on Chinese takeout and salad in a bag, making coffee and washing dishes in the bathtub aren’t bad at first. But toward the end, you’re screaming. Looking back, the thing I didn’t anticipate was the most obvious. Even in the best-organized home improvement schedule, life can intrude. Six weeks into the job, my father died. To anyone who hasn’t hired a contractor but is thinking about it, my most important piece of advice: Choose someone whom you can face on your worst day.
I knew, vaguely, that Haas trained as a painter and was a quilt-maker, but I hadn’t connected that to my floor. All I gathered from Henry when it came time to do the floor was that it was urgent. The cabinets couldn’t go in until the linoleum was laid. Although Henry supplied all the other tradesmen, the linoleum would be hand-cut by her guy, Hass insisted, a specialist named Michael Nordan, but only after she designed the pattern. Before she did this, she wanted me to choose the tiles that would surround the sink.
We drove to Mission Tile West in South Pasadena. I can’t remember which of us lighted on the panel of irregular glass tiles in smoky California colors. But when we found the one the color of the Pacific after a storm, neither of us looked further.
Next phase: the floor. You need to pump heat through a house to make the linoleum flexible enough to cut. As Nordan and his crew measured, cut, glued, pressed and rolled the floor, I sweated and realized this was an art, a latter day answer to parquet-fitting.
No sooner was the lino down than it was covered for the carpenters and painters to come back in. As they neared completion, I couldn’t stand it anymore and ripped away Henry’s protective coverings like someone tearing into a Christmas present on Dec. 23. The full metal counter sat happily in a Craftsman house. Haas had pulled it off by carrying Craftsman woodwork throughout the room to preserve the period integrity. Henry’s work was seamless. The play of color — from ochre floor to gray steel cabinetry to blue-green tiles to tan walls — was subtle, strong and somehow profoundly California. The pattern was an elegant joke: She had picked it up in the dining room carpet and marched it through the kitchen.
But kitchens aren’t displays, they’re workrooms; having cooked in the kitchen for six weeks now, I give my highest praise to how well it functions. I am not only back in the kitchen, I am hard to pry out of it. I am baking tarts, making jam. The dogs have staked out their new spots so consistently that I can step over them without looking down.
Money. The job, including a bright new bathroom off the kitchen, a new Miele dishwasher, new Kenmore washer and dryer and refurbishment of the Thermador, cost $55,681.53. Expensive, yes. But every cent feels well spent. It will last, because we didn’t decorate over structural problems. We took a troubled corner of the house down to the clapboard and foundations, then rebuilt it from the ground up. I say “we.” I am already forgetting that before the job began, my special talent was with dish towels.
Form, function and the price tag
Designer: Haas Design; (323) 734-6177. firstname.lastname@example.org. Design, including floor plan, elevations, lighting plan, linoleum design, cabinet and fitting selection, knobs and consulting with contractor for kitchen, hallway and bath. $6,082.50.
Contractor: Michael Henry Construction, (310) 713-0505. Demolition in bathroom and kitchen, rebuilding floor, drywalling, wiring and plumbing, custom carpentry for doors and windows, recessed lighting system with dimmers, painting and wood staining, including all materials; installation of cabinets, knobs, sinks and plumbing hardware. $41,995.
Cabinets: IKEA stainless steel system, including five counter units and two wall units, excluding handles: $1,500.
Cabinet handles: Duluth Satin Nickel 4-inch handles, $6.95 each; Restoration Hardware, Beverly Center, 131 N. La Cienega Blvd, Los Angeles; (310) 360-9651, https://www.restorationhardware.com .
Sink: Gilford 30-by 22-inch scrub sink from Kohler, $704.27; George’s Pipe and Plumbing 690 S. Fair Oaks Ave., Pasadena; (626) 792-5547.
Tile: Spruce glass tiles, No. 167, $39.10 per 12 3/4- by 12 1/4-inch sheet, $619.35 for spread shown, Mission Tile West, 853 Mission St., South Pasadena; (626) 799-4595, https://www.missiontilewest.com/index.html
Stainless steel step cans: large (38 liter) $89.95 for recycling, medium (30 liter) $69.96 for garbage and small (10 liter) $36.95 for compost, Crate & Barrel, the Grove, 189 the Grove Drive, (323) 297-0370; https://www.crateandbarrel.com
Pot rack: Enclume hammered steel bookshelf with hooks. $200. Sur la Table, 6333 W. 3rd St., Los Angeles (323) 954-9190.
Linoleum floor: pattern by Haas Design and included in contractor’s fee; installation by Michael Nordan (818) 260-9422, overseen by Michael Henry; linoleum from Linoleum City, 5657 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles (323) 469-0063. Materials and installation of floor in kitchen, hallway and bathroom plus contractor oversight. $4,500.
Dishwasher: Miele Ignoto dishwasher, $1,399 plus stainless door panel with curved handle, $199; California Kitchens, 2305 W. Alameda Ave., Burbank (818) 841-7222.
Stove: Thermador 30-inch gas range. Came with house. New models with convection from $3,600.