December 10, 2012

Wall removal makes for best of both worlds

1920s home retains its charm with an open, efficient workspace and an elegant dining area

Victoria Times Colonist

Taking down the “great divide” between a kitchen and dining room can be a traumatic experience, especially when homeowners have grown up with a separate dining space and enjoyed the intimate atmosphere it creates. “I always loved the idea of a formal dining room, so when our designer first suggested removing the wall, I fought against it,” explained the owner of this impeccable 1921 home in the Uplands area of Victoria.

“I was not open to the modern look,” she said, adding she valued the traditional, old world feeling that was in keeping with her near-century-old house. She and her husband, who asked not to be identified, had many long and intense discussions about it. But eventually designer Jenny Martin convinced them it was the right move, and they are delighted with the new space, the flow and sense of connection.

“Most people spend most of their time in the kitchen and want to feel part of the action when they’re entertaining,” said Martin, who described the former space as a cramped galley kitchen with barely enough room to walk by when the fridge door was open. She said the wife’s hesitation stemmed from a history of formal dining. “She loves entertaining and doesn’t like the idea of staring at a messy kitchen all evening … so it was a struggle for her to let go.” The owners finally agreed, with the caveat that the new dining area should remain a discrete space, and retain its charm and elegance.

“I took all these factors into consideration with the new plan,” said Martin, who won a CARE award (Construction Achievements and Renovations of Excellence) for her efforts, along with builder Maximilian Huxley Construction. “First, we made sure no kitchen mess would be in a direct line of view from the dining area.” Then, any potential mess was minimized in advance, by ensuring every aspect of the kitchen was highly organized. “Everything has its place and there is a very deep sink for the owners to put lots of stuff.”

The space is uncluttered looking, thanks to integrated panelling that covers everything from fridge and dishwasher to freezer drawers that were installed opposite the fridge, in the island. “All you really see is a beautiful range,” said the designer, who doesn’t like too many focal points in a kitchen. “I don’t like the look of a whole wall of stainless steel appliances, for instance.” She prefers to highlight just one item, such as a beautiful stove or cooktop.

Another departure was the central island design. Martin decided not to have one side slightly raised — a common solution to the clutter problem, since it provides a visual barrier. “And you would usually contrast the counter’s top with the cabinets, but on this island, we kept the top the same as the wood stain, so it looks like one massive piece of furniture.”

The mirror-finish surface makes the piece look more like a gorgeous Georgian sideboard than a work island. The overall result is a sophisticated-looking kitchen and dining area that feels modern yet traditional, with a coffered ceiling spanning both. (The old coffered ceiling in the dining room had to be replaced when the space was enlarged, as were all the floors, because of the difficulty of matching wood once three walls came down.)

The dining half of the room retains its formal ambience, thanks to balanced lighting and chic floor-to-ceiling curtains that pool slightly on the floor. “The trick is to keep all the details symmetrical and balanced,” said Martin, who added the owners now have the best of both worlds: an open, efficient workspace and an elegant dining area. She chose linen for the drapes because of the pleasing natural texture, “and for their sense of luxury and quality as the light reflects on them.”

One of the challenges was creating enough storage after taking down so many walls. Martin solved the problem by designing a shallow bank of cupboards for dry goods on the side of the room facing the windows. This broad, new pantry area is about six inches narrower than a typical cabinet, so it’s an efficient space-saver. “I’m so glad we opened the room up, and I think the transition is beautiful,” said the wife, who especially appreciates the lights over the kitchen island. The sparkling, German-made pendants add a glow of romance. Made by Schonbek and called Bagatelle, they feature crystal and metal trim.

Long-stemmed wall sconces in the dining area are repeated on either side of the living room fireplace. One of the major changes, and a subject of more “agonizing” debate during the reno, was whether to brighten all the dark woodwork with paint. “It was a major stumbling block for the owners,” said Martin, who noted men like the warmth of wood in its natural state. “It’s part of their nature,” she said with a chuckle. Although it went against the grain initially, both owners now love the light, taupe palette.

While they were at it, they replaced all the baseboards, removed some of the plate and picture rails, and took off all the door hardware and replaced it with highly polished nickel. “When we first moved in it was a lovely and very livable home,” said the wife. “It had been very well cared for, but was just a bit tired. We weren’t sure which designer to hire, but our builder Max suggested Jenny.

“The minute I saw her website I knew she was right for us. She is very detail-oriented, very organized … very good at doing everything.” Martin said she was able to connect to the owners’ wishes quickly, partly because they have been collecting art for a long time. “Looking at people’s art helps me tune into them much faster and translate their taste.”

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