Why Traditional Kitchen Design Needs Specialists

Traditional kitchen design and period architectural joinery design is a wonderful and highly skilled discipline.  It is also a minefield.  In the wrong hands it can produce lacklustre and uninspiring results. For important country houses and significant domestic projects, traditional and classical design is not something you can simply ‘have a go at’.   Naive is the client that hands responsibility for designing complex period joinery and traditional kitchen design detail over to a designer that doesn’t understand joinery construction or moulding detail or the rules and pitfalls of classical design detail, scale, proportion, joints and shadow.

 

french style dresser
The rounded shoulders on the elegant glazed doors of this Artichoke designed kitchen dresser make it completely unique and give it a Flemish feel.

In most cases, Artichoke is commissioned to design traditional bespoke kitchens and architectural joinery directly by the homeowner.  In rare cases however, we are presented with design work that has previously been undertaken by a third party for us to develop before making.  What is usually designed is not necessarily wrong, but in every case the joinery or kitchen design is restrained by its original designers’ lack of knowledge and understanding of classical and traditional furniture detailing. It is therefore not as good as it could be, and the glories and elegance of traditional design detail are usually not deployed.  The paying client is the loser.  Artichoke’s creative designers inevitably have to re-design it, which means the client pays twice for the design.  A lot of time is also wasted.

 

Moulding on a fireplace surround
Classical detail designed by Artichoke into a country house library in Cheshire.

Over the last 15 years or so we have witnessed a marked reduction in the number of designers capable of designing really successful traditional kitchen interiors and period detailed architectural joinery. There are a number of reasons for this in our view.

 

Contemporary Projects are seen as more exciting

Firstly, London has become the largest interior design market on earth, a boom that has been responsible for a welcome influx in young and enthusiastic interior designers choosing it as a career. Naturally, young people prefer to focus their attentions on pushing the boundaries of contemporary design as opposed to focusing on past styles where the boundaries have already been pushed and are now, in their minds, largely encased in aspic.  Young designers are either not interested in traditional design, or they are confused by it.

Further compounding the issue is that because contemporary joinery is quicker to design and make, it’s therefore more commercial.   The fact that contemporary design, by it’s very nature, goes out of fashion quite quickly is neither here nor there to designers putting profit first.

 

A Georgian kitchen design and island
Not cool in some quarters.  Artichoke designed the interior architecture and traditional kitchen to sit elegantly into this Georgian home.
Traditional Design scares some designers

Secondly, many designers find it is easier to design contemporary work (with flat doors and no handles) than to design traditional work (with framed and raised and fielded panelled doors with differing widths of rails, lock rails and styles, butt hinges, moulding types, aris moulds, panel depths, interactions with other mouldings, cock-beads, knobs, shadows and so on).  With traditional kitchen design and architectural joinery, there is much more detail and it is easier to trip up.  As a consequence, traditional detail scares many designers who tend to avoid tackling it, preferring to retract to a comfort zone of safety by drawing flat doors with finishes on and letting their joinery shop develop their designs further.

This approach sets off a dangerous chain reaction.  Most joinery companies do not offer an experienced creative front end design, let alone any with a skill in classical detailing.  It’s a bit like asking your builder to detail the architecture.   Most joinery shop business models rely on moving pre-designed projects through their workshop with minimal overhead, and usually a good draughtsman with no link to the end user or with any creative training is deployed to create the finished drawings.  With no creative skin in the game or emotional connection to the client or house, this often results in underwhelming designs inspired from poorly detailed originals.

 

Classical detail is not on the syllabus

Thirdly, designers, particularly interior designers, are simply not being trained to design traditional joinery, and most don’t have the experience.   Interior design courses (such as the KLC Diploma and BA (Hons)) have to cover huge subject areas and they simply cannot afford to specialise on the specifics of traditional joinery.  So they don’t offer it.  To design something well you really need to know how to make it first, and furniture making is sadly not covered in their syllabus either.  It’s too big and too specialist a subject.

 

Classical door sets designed by Artichoke’s design team for a private client.

Artichoke’s value is in our years of experience in  bespoke kitchen and joinery design; these skills have been learned through 25 years, day in day out, designing, making and fitting work into country houses, making mistakes and learning from them.   A recent Country Life Magazine article about us put it well, describing us as bridging the design void that exists between architects, interior designers and specialist joiners.

Private clients who really value their houses want design which sits comfortably in its surroundings, and they commission us because they want their joinery designed by an engaged specialist with experience in the subject.   With 25 years of experience designing the kitchens and domestic joinery for some of Britain’s finest country houses, we think we’ve more experience than most in understanding what works creatively and how to deliver it through design.

It’s a tremendously exciting and humbling position to be in.

 

Kitchen Design Inspired by Lanhydrock

There are many Victorian kitchen designs which have inspired Artichoke projects over the last 25 years, but few really hit the mark as soundly as the National Trust’s Lanhydrock house kitchen.   It is, in our view, one of the finest examples of Victorian back of house interior design and architecture in Britain.

 

The main kitchen at Lanhydrock house
Beautifully lit by natural light; the main kitchen at Lanhydrock house.

Originally Jacobean, the house was damaged by fire in 1881 and it was given an extensive restoration in the high Victorian style.  With the UK buoyed by the successes of the industrial revolution, the newly restored magnificent country house kitchen was updated with the very latest equipment and technology for staff to cook food for the owners, their guests and other staff.

The Artichoke kitchen design team has been quietly obsessed with Lanhydrock for many years.  When the opportunity arose to share our passion and interest with a client, we jumped at it, travelling down to Cornwall with him to help explain why we felt we should take inspiration from it for his bespoke kitchen design.  Our initial visit was about capturing some of the detail which makes this kitchen so special.

 

Cast iron ovens at Lanhydrock House kitchens
The huge cast iron oven forms the centrepiece of the Victorian kitchen design.  Note the recess in the background, framed with a cast iron mould
Artichokes Victorian Kitchen Designs

Much of Artichoke’s work involves designing kitchens with aesthetic links to the past.  More often than not this is because we are designing kitchens into period buildings where some link to the past is a sensitive and pragmatic way to ensure the kitchen design has longevity, does not date and sits comfortably within its architectural surroundings.  At the same time, we try not to let the past constrain us.  After all, we are designing kitchens and spaces which need to be used for modern living.

In this particular Victorian kitchen design project for a country house in Hampshire, we have been more exacting than we might usually be.  Surveys were taken of moulds and copies of the Victorian handles have been made using the same lost wax cast brass method used at the time of Lanhydrock’s restoration.

 

Render of Artichoke's bespoke kitchen design
Render of Artichoke’s bespoke kitchen design.

 

plate rack in Victorian kitchen design
Render of Artichoke’s bespoke kitchen design.

The plate rack Artichoke has designed above the brass sink is decorative and will be used to both store plates as well as dry them.  Each plate rack has a bespoke pewter drip-tray base.  The main sink is made from solid brass. During the late 1800’s Victorian kitchen designs often features metal sinks, usually made from copper or nickel alloy, a corrosion-resistant and robust lightweight material capable of standing up to the rigors of a large country house kitchen environment.

 

copper sink in the bakery
The copper sink in Lanhydrock’s bakery. The walls were painted blue as it was considered the colour least attractive to flies.
The Range Oven

A large cast iron range almost always formed the centrepiece to many Victorian kitchens.  Artichoke works regularly with Officine Gullo, a modern Italian company specialising in the design and manufacture of incredibly hard wearing cast iron kitchen ranges.  The ovens are known for their build quality and distinctive period character; they fit well into many of the country house projects Artichoke designs kitchens for.

This particular oven top features a pasta cooker, four large gas burners, a French plate (used typically for sauces) and put down.  A pot filler has been integrated into the back.

 

Officine Gullo coup de feu top
The heavy gauge cast iron Coup de Feu or French plate is an essential piece of kit in professional kitchens.
Casting the frame mould

The original moulding which surrounds the recess on Lanhydrock’s kitchen is made from cast iron, which Artichoke has replicated for this bespoke kitchen

 

Officine Gullo range oven in Victorian kitchen

 

The moulding is being cast by a foundry in Somerset and is a highly involved process.  Starting with the mould frame pattern (made from timber), a reverse sand mould is made into specialist casting sand along with tapered edges to ensure it can be removed (similar to the reason children’s beach buckets have tapers on).  Poured molten pig iron is then poured into the mould and left to solidify and cool for 24 hours before it is then shot blasted and fettled.  The finished mould will be very dark grey in its natural state.

 

Cast iron moulds

 

Cooling in the original Kitchen

Domestic fridges were not invented until 1913, and until that point, a host of relatively creative methods were deployed to keep food cool in large country houses.

 

Cold water feed in a cast iron trench system with marble and slate

 

The method above, as seen in Lanhydrock’s dairy, is one such example and not one we’ve seen anywhere else.  A cold water feed distributed water (from the hills above the house) around a cast iron trench system to keep dairy products cool.  The dairy room uses both marble and slate to keep the dairy products and desserts cool. However, more modern cooling methods were decided upon for this Victorian kitchen design with a Sub Zero refrigerator being integrated into the wall next to the cast iron range oven.

 

Victorian Pull Handles

During Artichoke’s numerous visits to Lanhydrock, we surveyed the handles on the cook’s table which we will be copying using the traditional method of casting them in brass.

 

Brass pull handle for kitchen
Stage 1:  Surveying one of the original kitchen handles from Lanhydrock.

 

Technical drawing in preparation for creating a mould for a new handle
Stage 2: Artichoke technically draws and details the handle in preparation for creating a mould for the brass team.

 

Scale version of the Lanhydrock handles in timber 
Stage 3: Artichoke makes a 1:1 scale version of the Lanhydrock handles in timber for the casting team to then use as a model

 

 

Completed copies of the new handle design
Stage 4: The completed copies, ready for client approval
Technically detailing the Cooks Table

Because Artichoke only designs one off projects, each is unique, so it is imperative to ensure the cabinet-making team is given the clearest possible information to make from.  To do this we design each component part using a specialist 3D technical drawing package.  This modern version of what used to be called ROD drawings allows us to provide our team with detailed drawings of incredible clarity, meaning that regardless of whether this is the first time the furniture has been made, they know exactly what to make it and how.

 

Technical drawings of a kitchen island

 

Cabinet maker making an island
Artichoke cabinet-maker Arthur making the Cook’s kitchen table.
Assembling the Kitchen

An important element of Artichoke’s cabinet-making work is the assembly phase.  It is the first time we get to see the kitchen come together.  The assembly phase allows us to fit the appliances, cut in the butt hinges and shoot in the doors and drawer fronts into their frames (“shooting in” where a cabinet makers uses a well sharpened plane to dimension a component to exactly the correct size.  Because all of our kitchens are bespoke, we are making each project for the first time, and doing this work on our premises means that we can avoid undertaking it at our clients homes, making the final installation more efficient.

Once the fully assembled kitchen has been signed off by our Production Manager, it is disassembled and prepared for finishing.

 

kitchen island table
Cook’s table island with wrought iron tie bars and visible joints.
Large plate rack
The kitchen’s large plate rack, ready for the sink and surfaces.
Close up image of how the frame of the Cook’s Table is jointed into the top of the turned leg
A close up of how the frame of the Cook’s Table is jointed into the top of the turned leg. The hole allows us to pass electricity cables through it.

 

 

The project is ongoing and will be added to as the project progresses.  For further information, contact Artichoke on 01934 745270 or email newprojects@artichoke.co.uk

Historical & Period Kitchen Reference Images

At Artichoke, a significant number of the bespoke period kitchens we are commissioned to design are in English country houses, many dating back many hundreds of years.  When designing for these clients, we find referencing from kitchens from the past a particularly useful way to gain inspiration.  Here are a few of the period kitchens that have inspired our work:

 

The scullery at Dunham Massey, Cheshire

 

The kitchen, Avebury Manor, Wiltshire (prior to its redecoration)

 

The Kitchen in the Basement at Ickworth, Suffolk.

 

The Kitchen at Attingham Park, Shropshire. The elm-topped table and dresser are filled with the copper batterie de cuisine.

 

The range and surrounding stonework with carved inscription in the Kitchen at Gawthorpe Hall, Lancashire.

 

The double sink and taps in the Scullery at Dunham Massey, Cheshire.

 

The Kitchen at Dunham Massey, Cheshire.

 

The Kitchen with the Philip Webb dresser at Standen, West Sussex.

 

The Scullery at Tredegar House, Newport, South Wales. The wooden draining boards and sinks and plate rack are a modern replacement for the original fittings.

 

The Great Kitchen at Tredegar House, Newport, South Wales. The walls are partly tiled with 1880s Maw and Company tiles, with the upper parts painted blue which was a colour believed to repel flies.

 

Old kitchen equipment including graters, a corkscrew, a toasting fork and a sieve at Sunnycroft, Shropshire.

 

Old kitchen utensils used as display at Polesden Lacey restaurant, Surrey.

 

Part of the copper batterie de cuisine on the dresser shelves in the Kitchen at Attingham Park, Shropshire.

 

The Kitchen with wooden table, and range, at Osterley Park, Middlesex. The room has been a kitchen since the 1760s and is in the opposite corner of the house to the Eating Room, so that no noise or cooking odours should disturb the diners.

 

The sixteenth century kitchen built by Sir Richard Grenville at Buckland Abbey, Yelverton, Devon. The kitchen was re-sited to be near to the Great Hall and the room is dominated by two open hearths used for cooking. The walls are painted in a traditional pink limewash.

 

The Kitchen at Castle Drogo, Devon, with the circular beechwood table designed by the architect of the house, Edwin Lutyens. The only natural light in the room comes from the circular lantern window above the table, echoing its shape.

 

Partial view of the oak table designed by Lutyens and made by Dart & Francis in 1927 in the Butler’s Pantry at Castle Drogo, Devon.

 

Three large oak-framed sinks and the long rows of plate racks above partially lit in the Scullery at Castle Drogo.

 

The Larder with a food safe at Wightwick Manor, Wolverhampton, West Midlands.

 

The Regency Cooks Kitchen

Fota House is a magnificent Regency mansion with over 70 rooms (including a stunning cooks kitchen).  It is sited on Fota Island near Cork, Eire and was owned by the Smith Barry family. Following some years of neglect it has been lovingly restored by its current guardians, Irish Heritage Trust.   A direct family connection with its last private owners, Dorothy Bell of the Smith Barry family, recently drew me back, partly out of curiosity, and partly because I had possession of numerous items which were more useful to Fota than us.

 

Fota House, Co Cork, Eire

As with many grand houses of the period, Fota was designed specifically to support the most important element of Regency life; entertaining.  The interior architecture was configured to allow an army to work discreetly in order to support the flambouyant lifestyle of the then owner, John “The Magnificent” Smith Barry.  The architects, William and Richard Morrison designed the house so cleverly that there was little evidence of the dozens of domestic staff employed.

 

The Cooks Kitchen

One of the busiest zones on the house was the kitchen; it would have been an animated hub of activity and filled with noise, clattering, calling and would have been filled with steam and heat. In a well planned house such as Fota, the kitchen was placed as far away as possible from the main house to minimise the risk of accidental fire spreading through the grand rooms.  Extra turns were added to the corridors to reduce the spread of cooking smells, often at the expense of the John “The Magnificent’s” hot food which had to travel a fair distance to the dining room.

This large table was at the heart of Fota’s kitchen and was used solely for food preparation rather than dining.  The crucial ingredient for many of the soups and stews was stock, which were kept in stock pots and kept on the stove in the corner of the room to keep warm.

 

Screen shot 2013-08-31 at 14_50_51

 

Fota’s cook had the option of numerous methods of cooking.  At the main fire there is a turnspit for roasting (the preferred method of cooking in 19th century). Meat was secured on the skewers that roasted slowly in front of the fire.  The juices were kept in a tray below in which Yorkshire puddings were made.  The size of the fire could be adjusted to suite the size of the meat, and a spit boy was employed to turn the spit evenly.  Later the spit was rigged up to a system that used the rising hot air in the chimney to turn the wheel that rotated the spit.

 

Screen shot 2013-08-31 at 17_19_58

 

Copper pots and pans were cleaned every evening by the scullery maids before being replaced ready for another day’s use.  The units under the windows acted as a type of indoor barbeque and used for frying, making sauces and cooking vegetables

 

The Regency Cook

In the same way a head Chef runs a restaurant kitchen, the Regency cook would have rulled the roost and would have been considered one of the upper servants.  She had similar powers as the housekeeper and would have been called “Mrs”, regardless of whether she was married or not.  Similar to modern day chefs, Regency cooks would have been considered pretty temperamental and secretive with their recipes; as a consequence, finding a good cook was hard.  The last cook at Fota, Mrs Jones, was one such a lady.  She was vivacious with dark curly hair and very assertive; servants would not dare enter the kitchen unless they’d been told to; she had complete control over who went into the kitchen.  Indeed, it was extremely rare for members of the Smith Barry family to go there either.

The Regency cook was responsible for feeding the family and servants every day and also when they entertained guests during house parties, shoots and dinner parties.  John The Magnificent’s favourite party trick was to ask the servants to bring as much wine to the dining room as possible, after which he would lock himself and his guests in and throw the keys out of the window.  Lunch sometimes went on for days!.

 

The well stocked game larder at Fota.

Hospitality was an important part of life at Fota, as well as at any Regency house of this type, and the reputation of the family was on show. The entertaining started when the raw materials were left at the scullery door.  In a Regency kitchen, each servant had their job and each room had its own purpose.  Produce was sorted, cleaned, prepared and stored in large quantities, and consequently the cook worked closely with the head gardener so she could understand what fruits and vegetables were in season.

Many of the tasks carried out in kitchens today are the same, although carried out in a different way.  In the Fota kitchen, everything was prepared using manual labour – much of the work of grinding, chopping, mixing, beating and mincing was carried out with the help of kitchen maids.  The cook and her assistants used the large table at the centre of the room for preparation, with implements stored in drawers.  Kitchen maids were also in charge of keeping the kitchen clean and a major every day task was to scour the tables, shelves, dressers and ovens with soap and hot water.

The Regency Cooks kitchen was in many ways the precursor to the modern domestic kitchen and it’s certainly been the inspiration for a number of Artichoke design commissions, including Project 813.  

 

A bespoke kitchen for a client, with inspiration taken from The Regency kitchen

If you find yourself in Cork, I would thoroughly recommend a visit to Fota House, not just for the house itself, but for the stunning arboretum and gardens.

With thanks to Eileen Cronin, the niece of Patty Butler who is the last surviving servant from Fota House and whose kind permission we have for re-producing these memoirs. Thanks also to Niall Foley and our friends at Irish Heritage Trust, Jennifer McCrea and Laura Murtagh, authors of Aspects of Fota, Stories from the Back Stairs.

To discuss Cooks kitchen design with us, call (0)1934 745270.

Read more about Irish Heritage Trust.