Cooking up a black kitchen

HOUSTON • Mr Douglas Friedman's kitchen in Marfa, Texas, looks more like a mysterious appliance or a piece of art furniture than a room.

The kitchen - made of powdered steel by Vipp, a 78-year-old Danish company that for most of the 20th century produced only one product, a pedal-operated trash can that is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art - comes in one colour, black.

It is embedded not just with appliances and equipment, but design-icon flourishes such as a brushed steel countertop that floats above the drawers below.

Mr Friedman, a portrait, interiors and fine arts photographer, liked its toughness - stainless-steel countertop invites scratches and dents - which made sense in an environment in which you live hard, as he put it.

He was also drawn to its utilitarian beauty, appropriate for the glass house he has built in the West Texas desert. "I didn't want to distract from what's outside," he said. "Because it's black, it just disappears. It's not a showy thing. It doesn't look like a kitchen," he added.

He is not alone in wanting his kitchen to look like something else.

For much of the first decade of the 21st century, the popular kitchen archetype was derived mostly from those in the post-menopausal romances of film-maker Nancy Meyers.

Expressed in the glossy white English cabinetry and honey-hued Mediterranean kitchens, these were sensual sets that telegraphed the success and sexual potency of their female commanders.

Then Pinterest made the look ubiquitous and builders made it suburban, rolling out ever larger and ever blander imitations.

Americans are still spending billions on their kitchens - more than US$67 billion (S$91.5 billion) on products alone last year, reported the National Kitchen & Bath Association.

But they have moved on, aesthetically, and outfitting this space is a fraught endeavour, said Ms Amy Astley, editor of Architectural Digest magazine. "Today's dream kitchens are all about personality - embracing creativity rather than adhering to any one formula or Pinterest board."

High-end brokers like to say breathlessly that the kitchen is the jewellery of a place. It may be more accurate to say that the kitchen has replaced the art wall and the living room as a locus for self-expression.

Kitchens are for your stuff, not your food, said designer and builder Kim Gordon of Venice Beach, California, who makes glassy/rustic houses with open living room kitchens for clients that include executives at Snapchat, Vice media and Toms, the shoe company.

"They have beautiful plates and barware to die for," she said.

"Work and life are all combined. They want to have everybody over and the kitchen has to look like furniture.

"Yes, you need refrigeration, but if you're buying your food every day, you don't need much. And you need less space to store your dry goods because you are buying small (batches)."

But not everyone is swept 100 per cent by the winds of change.

Ms Julie Carlson is the editor-in-chief and a founder of Remodelista, a design-forward remodelling blog that will be 10 next month.

This anniversary means she has overseen a decade of kitchen trends - open shelves; Ikea hacks; vintage-style appliances; plywood cabinetry; deconstructed kitchens and those are in every shade of blue - and black, yellow and bright green.

Last year, she moved from California to Brooklyn Heights in New York and she has nearly finished a kitchen renovation in her brownstone parlour-floor apartment there.

She is trying to play the long game.

"Trends are cycling through so quickly," she said. "What seems new and fresh feels dated in a year or two. I can't look at another blue kitchen. Brass faucets? In a couple of years, everyone will be looking at them in despair.

"I wanted to do the most boring, most unobtrusive kitchen."

She took her inspiration from Anna Valentine, an English fashion designer whose minimalist white kitchen was designed by DRDH, a London-based architectural firm, and was itself inspired by the work of Vilhelm Hammershoi, a Danish painter of quiet interiors marked by pale, wintry light.

Composed of three elements - a white free-standing cupboard, a long pale wood table and chairs, and a counter-height cabinet topped only with white marble - there is not a shelf, tile or piece of equipment in sight.

"It's the idea of the uniform applied to the kitchen," said Ms Carlson. "Hopefully, it will age gracefully and I won't get sick of it."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 07, 2017, with the headline 'Cooking up a black kitchen'. Print Edition | Subscribe