Mountain Fixer: The Kitchen Cabinet Evolution
Remember that time we spent months and so many hours of sampling, sourcing, pinning and rendering to ultimately choose shaker cabinetry?? I feel like every day over here, we are dancing this super unsexy line dance that shuffles between doing something custom and interesting and still making sure it’s timeless and functional. Sometimes, we choose “fashion over function” as my contractor says, but in the kitchen, we want to make sure those two desires are equally thought out. We could have designed this kitchen SO much faster if we wanted to do something more standard and basic B. But when you are renovating and paying for the labor of a custom design anyway, then we shouldn’t miss an opportunity to have it look custom (or do you?)
If you’re just joining us, you might want to do a quick catch up on the cabinet function and final kitchen floor plan post here, as well as the materials vote from the I Design, You Decide post. Okay, all studied up and ready to move on? Good.
I want to take you through the process of how we designed the cabinet doors and drawers, because man has this kitchen lived MANY lives from inspiration to where we ended up landing on the design.
At first, I was desperate for what you’ll see below, by deVOL.
They partnered with wood worker Sebastien Cox on creating a rough sawn and stained wood plank cabinetry front. It’s the perfect “modern mountain” cabinet front in my opinion and since it’s stained, it mixes easily with any wood tone in the floors or ceiling. Part of me wishes I could go back in time and just book them to do the kitchen but at the time (like four months ago) their lead time was four to six months and while we didn’t get a quote, I would imagine it would be rather expensive (as it should be). The contractor for the mountain house has an in-house cabinetry team, which makes the process quite seamless, with a three-week lead time (this is very short compared to industry standard, by the way). Of course, we didn’t want to totally rip off what deVOL + Sebastien Cox designed, but I really really wanted that look. So we bought a bunch of wood—both rough sawn and smooth—and started staining them to experiment.
The samples turned out kinda scary, and definitely too much of a risk for me. Sure, we did this, not professionals and they aren’t perfectly done, but it didn’t make us feel confident. They looked silly and DIY. If you use paint, you lose most of the grain, so we used colored stains, but transparent and semi-transparent. The Newburyport Blue one is the closest to the look we wanted, but I wasn’t convinced it would look GOOD. If we were doing a DIY budget kitchen, I might have gone for it, but I didn’t want to spend $30K on cabinetry and have it look “cute” and DIY. The rough sawn seemed like it would be also really hard to keep clean and even if sealed, I wondered if it would it give my kids splinters.
My contractor was also super concerned about the planks being applied together to create a panel. It seems like deVOL has small gaps in between theirs with some sort of wood bracket on the back to keep them together. I think this can absolutely be done, but we weren’t convinced we had the resources, experience or skills to execute it. (My contractor has been doing this for 40 years so he’s super experience but not in doing this exact thing so even he was like “I’m nervous it won’t meet your expectation”). I mean, there is a reason that deVOL + Sebastien costs a lot; they are masters and spent years perfecting this design. We were not and have not. We researched how they created that perfect color variation and it’s a special combination/recipe of vegetable dye and stain. Also, I knew I couldn’t exactly knock it off and that we would have to take the same idea and do something different with it, but we weren’t sure what that would be.
We also had the added challenge of needing floor-to-ceiling cabinetry and my contractor DEFINITELY didn’t trust this wood on a larger scale. He knew it would warp, and change with the weather and he didn’t want to be responsible for that, especially since we were doing flush or inset cabinet fronts. Floor-to-ceiling wood cabinets tend to warp REGARDLESS (MDF does a better job of staying in place) so adding in this challenge of multiple planks of wood seemed like a bad idea. This, by the way, is why people apply cabinet fronts on top of stiles and rails instead of inset or flush—you have so much more room for error because the cabinet door can hide any small gaps (but it isn’t as modern or forward). (For example, the image below on the right…those are cabinet and drawer fronts sitting on top of the stiles and rails—the horizontal and vertical wood frame between each door.)
So my contractor said he would try to cook up his version, something that gave the vertical plank effect, but just in grooves. He took cabinet door fronts made out of alder wood and routed grooves in it, then spray painted it a Smurf blue :).
He said that we could have the grooves any depth or width (the blade would determine this) and then the grooves could be spaced evenly or not. This seemed like a decent idea, but we were still concerned about the paint color, tone and finish. Those above were just spray painted and obviously not what we were going for.
So again, we shifted. I didn’t so much give up on creating our version of the deVOL design but instead, I found some imagery that got me excited about staining reclaimed wood black.
A slowly emerging trend of this type of almost “burnt” looking wood is certainly on the rise. It’s called shou sugi ban and it’s STUNNING. It’s a Japanese technique of preserving wood (which is normally used outdoors) by charring the surface.
A company in Oregon deals it out and we LOVE it. We saw it in person at a store in San Francisco called The Future Perfect during a team trip earlier this summer, see below.
While I really wanted that look, around the same time we found this reclaimed wood near us in LA and stained it black. It didn’t have the crackle of the shou sugi ban but we loved it and it was STUNNING.
Here’s an example of a similar look in action:
The key is that it needs a lot of texture and grooves, otherwise it just looks like newly painted wood. The stain sunk into it perfectly in this beautiful matte finish.
But our contractor still had a lot of concerns about the stability of this wood for the floor-to-ceiling cabinetry. He said that he trusted it on the island because it would mostly be clad (besides the panel-ready dishwasher and the trash pull-out). So we decided to do this treatment on just the island and then rethink the cabinetry front on all the lowers and the floor-to-ceiling. Now can it be done? Sure, but I think to make it super stable and not warp it would take us hiring someone who has done this many many times and can guarantee that.
Next, we actually fell in love with the alder that he had used as a sample and we threw that into a rendering.
Honestly, I really wanted real wood cabinetry in here in the first place, but there were so many variables: A. We hadn’t chosen the wood floor yet (and still haven’t) mostly because trying to get it to work with the ceiling and not have it be $60k is proving VERY, VERY DIFFICULT, and B. I’m still not happy with the ceiling so even picking the wood for the floor and cabinets gives me anxiety. So trying to mix three different very important woods, in addition to the black on the island was starting to scare me. It would have to be PERFECT and I didn’t feel 100% confident. We ordered more samples of the alder and THANK GOODNESS we did because it came in WAY too pink.
Now, in a perfect world, I would have had the wood floor locked down, and then maybe we could have had wood on the cabinetry. But things have to move forward and as of now, there is no wood floor, therefore it’s hard to choose the perfect tone of wood for the cabinetry.
Of course, you can stain a wood “any color” in theory, but getting that pink out of the wood and creating that perfect tone is not as easy as you think without going really dark and we didn’t know what tone we wanted because it was all based on the ceiling that has like 95 different tones of yellow and pink (SEE WHY I JUST WANT TO PAINT THE CEILING WHITE SO WE CAN HAVE WOOD TONE FREEDOM IN THE REST OF THE HOUSE?????)
Honestly. There are just so many ways to skin a cat and decisions had to be made.
So then we decided to do the grooves in the alder, but painted, like so:
We like this a lot but then realized it’s pretty much the same thing that my friend Sara Sherman Samuel + Semihandmade had done.
As much as I love this, I didn’t want to do exactly what another designer had designed and have them think we knocked them off. Again, when you are doing something custom you really should do something CUSTOM and special.
So we started playing with the scale of the grooves and brought them way closer, inspired by the below shots.
We popped that scale into a rendering and showed Brian. We were all pretty into it, although the shadow lines did make it busier, but just a flat panel could look like closet doors which is NOT what we wanted.
Brian didn’t like this. He thought it was way too contemporary, and it didn’t feel like the cabin that he had envisioned. And I understood that and tried to make it feel a bit more traditional by adding a Shaker panel around it and that is where we landed.
We went with a 2-inch panel that meant our hardware had to be tiny in order to fit, but we loved that look. The fridge that we chose (which was ordered months and months ago) had two freezer drawers and those lines broke up the floor the ceiling, so to balance that we broke it up in even more places so it didn’t look so random. Instead of one continuous line from floor-to-ceiling, we broke it up where the top freezer drawer is all the way across the wall.
Then we added another line to balance that out (where the microwave is, and I think it’s actually a lift-up cabinet but more on that later).
But it still felt a little cold and contemporary and just like A LOT of white.
Next, we started playing with the idea of breaking up the cabinetry with glass panels to add depth, dimension and warmth.
We instantly loved the idea, although three felt too heavy. Besides, we didn’t want to see the food inside the pantry, but seeing into the dry bar and the appliance cabinet would be fine and also help guests figure out where things are located (which I realize might be a challenge).
So we reduced the glass to two cabinets and loved how it looked (you’ll also see how we played with different hardware).
In these versions, we have this thicker, wavier glass but Brian wasn’t into that so I think we are going to do clear glass. The original idea was so that the “blurrier” glass would mask the contents, but once we decided to only do it on the dry bar and the appliance cabinetry, we are okay with seeing inside as it’s going to be pretty.
We loved how it looked and you guys voted for the above version (off-white cabinetry and the matte black dark island)…
BUT…one morning I was in my kitchen, trying to clean the front of our current cabinets and was annoyed by how the food sticks in the corners of the Shaker cabinetry and when you try to get it out, you often can chip the lacquer paint. That’s when I realized (and some of you mentioned this) UGH, those tiny grooves are going to be impossible to clean and will be disgusting within a year.
Turns out, there is a reason people use Shaker or flat-paneled cabinet doors and drawers—they are easy to keep clean.
So after all of that, can you believe we are down to this?
Shaker. SHAKER!!!! I mean, I LOVE a Shaker, but am I being super boring? I KNOW I’ll never get sick of it, I KNOW it’ll be a classic forever, and we are customizing it a bit with a super slim panel (2 1/4 inches). We are also putting wood inside the glass cabinets, I think that will be pretty and look custom. Inside those cabinets, we have some really pretty detailing which I think will help elevate them, as well. Also, the island with the black wood is more of the “moment” and you can’t have like five moments in a kitchen. Also, that stone is SO pretty which you can’t tell in the renderings and we are doing a 2-inch face on it which I think will make it look edgier. But, I always try to do something a little unexpected—just a twist on something traditional—like my brass grout in my first kitchen or the grates on the cabinet in our current kitchen. So I suppose this glass cabinet with the sweet little latches maybe is our other moment?
I do feel like I might be missing an opportunity, but I also don’t want to “over design” this house, which is something that I know I’m prone to. I promised myself that I would limit the materials and finishes in this house to help it feel more minimal, clean and Scandinavian, but I still need SOME contrast and warmth to ensure it meets Brian’s “rustic cabin” needs. Shaker feels classic and can go “cabin” or “chalet” really easily.
We are mixing flat panel and shaker and as I’m writing that I’m realizing that we may need to tweak them a bit. That is totally another story and stay tuned.
So as I’m staring at this, I can say that we aren’t doing anything too innovative in this cabinetry and that makes me kinda sad. We are only using a 2-inch panel around the cabinetry and it’s usually 2 1/2 so that slimmer line will be nice. Also, the lighting is INSANE and that stone is far more beautiful in person than it is in the rendering, I PROMISE.
Once you see the black wood, you get reminded why the rest is more simple, and it really does work in our rustic/refined/Scandi/cabin/chalet/kill me/California vibe. But the shaker on its own is not setting any innovation records (and I’m clearly a little bummed about it).
So, what would we do if we could go back in time? I think probably hire a local cabinet maker who could take over the design of the fronts to ensure that something more interesting could work. Or hell, hire Sebastien Cox himself and deVOL to do their beautiful work.
But it’s in production, folks. And I have to remind myself that sometimes doing what is simpler and more classic is actually more beautiful and will ultimately be more timeless. CAN YOU PLEASE ALL AGREE WITH ME IN THE COMMENTS BEFORE I STOP THE PRODUCTION WHICH WOULD THEN PUT US PAST OUR CONTENT DEADLINES?
The former human being that used to be Emily Henderson but is currently taken over by an indecisive crazy person who gets to talk about her indecision on a daily basis for her job.