ABOVE: In a new kitchen by David Heide Design Studio for a 1904 Foursquare house, fully built-in cabinets run to the ceiling soffit for a fine finish. The kitchen offers modern function but follows historic precedent in scale, materials, and details. Photo by Susan Gilmore
Spec’ing new cabinets for your kitchen renovation? Several different approaches and cabinet designs date to the first third of the 20th century. Here’s advice from architects and cabinetmakers.
What details make kitchen cabinets “Arts & Crafts style”? We know a revival kitchen when we see one: natural hardwoods with furniture-quality details and artisan-made hardware. Cabinets of the period were generally simpler, though, often constructed of paint-grade wood. You may choose to specify cabinet designs taken from plain bungalow-era rooms, or from somewhat fancier kitchens in Prairie School or Greene & Greene houses. Or you may prefer the beautifully interpreted cabinets of today’s revival.
Here are design tidbits and advice from our favorite designers and cabinetmakers.
Bungalows and Craftsman-style houses of the first two decades of the 20th century generally had very simple kitchens. Although the housewife now entered the kitchen (it was no longer solely the domain of servants), the room was still utilitarian and never used for entertaining. Think “sanitary” and “practical” (what we might call “institutional” nowadays). There may have been a built-in pantry cabinet, but no runs of base and wall cabinets. Food prep typically was done on a central worktable; kitchenware and bulk items were stored in a freestanding Hoosier or hutch.
Cabinets were plain, made of whatever wood was the cheapest: heart pine in the South, birch in the Midwest, Douglas fir on the West Coast, oak or softwood in the Northeast. The cabinets were painted (in an off-white enamel) or clear-finished over shellac. Doors were face-framed and drawers inset or overlaid about 3/8”. These early cabinets were usually shallower than today’s typical 24” base cabinet (and 12” upper cabinet). Wall-hung cabinets often went to the ceiling. Base cabinets went flush to the floor; toe kicks came a decade or two later. Hardware was functional; look for spring-loaded cupboard latches, half moon-shaped bin pulls, and plain nickel-plated or glass knobs.
World War I dramatically altered American society; the middle class no longer relied on servants, and the family spent more time in the kitchen. Cabinets were built in as an integral part of the room’s layout, sometimes with runs of continuous cabinets along one or two walls with a freestanding work station in between. You can embrace color in your later Bungalow or Tudor Revival kitchen. As the Jazz Age shimmied across the country, color came in for the walls, in wallpaper patterns, in flooring and in dishware. Even the cabinets were painted in color: pastels like pink and yellow, light gray, and the popular jadeite green.
Construction was still basic. Doors were typically inset and drawers inset or finished with half-overlay fronts, the edges finished with just a plain bevel or quarter-round molding. Hardware was mostly nickel plated, with simple ball-tip butt hinges mortised into the door stile and cabinet frame, or butterfly hinges for half-overlay doors. Bin pulls remained popular and cabinets often had latches instead of knobs. Cabinetmaker Nancy Hiller says placement is critical: never put knobs near the top or bottom of a door, as it’s a dead giveaway of a modern redo. Knobs on upper doors were usually two-thirds of the way down the door, while base cabinet doors typically had knobs two-thirds of the way up from the bottom. Hiller advises taking cues from existing cabinets in your house or a neighbor’s. You can also copy molding and hardware details from your dining-room sideboard or a built-in bookcase; just go simpler, not fancier, for the kitchen.
Woodworking details from public rooms were adapted and carried into the kitchens of Greene & Greene-designed homes. Design was inspired by Chinese and Japanese woodwork details, including “cloud lifts,” seen as a hump or rising portion in the center of a door rail or valance, often with a parallel rising or lowering line below. Cabinet edges were soft and rounded, accented with square ebony or stained pegs. Several kitchen-cabinet companies offer Greene & Greene-inspired cabinets today, as do custom woodworkers. Mahogany is often the wood of choice.
Prairie-style cabinets emphasize geometry, with linear and repetitive lines, both vertical and horizontal. Look for square edges, flat panel doors, and exposed joinery with through tenons and pegs. Doors were fully inset, sometimes with stained or marbleized glass panels or cantilevered or stepped detailing. Drawers commonly had full inset fronts; a typical detail is a V groove where the boards in a panel are glued together. Oiled bronze, hand-hammered hardware with ball-tipped butt hinges adds to the finished effect. The wood species used was often quarter-sawn white oak, sometimes red oak.
Arts & Crafts Revival kitchens combine higher-end materials and furniture-quality period details with modern convenience. Kitchen designer Karla Pearlstein advises her clients to incorporate a salvaged cabinet or hutch in the kitchen’s design, to lend period flavor. You’re also free to use plain, painted cabinets—very much of the period—and splurge on say, an inlaid linoleum floor, reproduction lighting, or maybe a restored stove.
Contributors to this post:
- Dale Barnard the-cabinetmaker.com
- Crown Point Cabinetry crown-point.com
- David Heide DHDStudio.com
- Nancy Hiller nrhiller.com
- The Kennebec Company kennebeccompany.com
- Karla Pearlstein restoringhistory.com
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