The TL;dr here is that I screwed up the kitchen design and it took me a long time to accept that and I feel mad at myself about it and also embarrassed but also better now that I have in fact accepted it and am moving forward with a big layout change. You can skip to part 4 if you want to avoid the angst.
Let me start by saying that over the last few months I’ve built up a lot of shame and guilt around the kitchen. This sounds insane (and I am in fact insane, since I’m doing this project at all) and yet it’s true! I don’t have a therapist right now so am going to try to exorcise this by writing out my feelings here as I explain why it’s not done yet even though it really should have been done two months ago and why I’ve wasted a bunch of time and some (though fortunately not a ton) of money and am about to make a substantial layout change. I’m taking some comfort in the fact that I am not the only person in the world to make a series of big mistakes while in theory being able to do anything I want, and I am not the only person in the world to re-renovate a kitchen immediately after renovating it the first time, and I do feel better having decided to just go for some big changes now instead of trying to limp along with something I’m just not happy with. (And unlike the two links there, the amount of wasted money we’re talking about is closer to maybe $2000 all-in than to probably $15,000 or $20,000. Annoying definitely, makes me feel dumb definitely, but not the end of the world.)
- Let’s start with how we got here.
Pretty much since I first saw the house I knew I’d keep the basic layout of the existing sink wall, although shrinking a double sink to a single and reworking the lower cabinets on the right to make room for a dishwasher.
Here’s that wall in early August, refurbished in a variety of ways but recognizable:
Not much has changed on this wall since, though I clearly have more work to do. Some of the doors and drawers were salvaged from the old unit and just have to be sanded and painted, but three need to be made entirely new to fit the two different-sized lower cabinets, and I need new hardware and hinges as well. I’m also thinking of building upper cabinet boxes to the ceiling to store things like mason jars that it turned out I don’t really have room for anywhere else. But none of that will change the basic situation over there.
The other 2.5 walls have been giving me fits.
I have to be honest here, when I bought the house I was not expecting to have trouble with kitchen design. I’ve been cooking for a long time and I’ve used a lot of kitchens and I know and can articulate what I like — compact spaces with everything close to hand, good lighting, easy access in shallower cabinets or open wall storage rather than deep storage where I can’t reach the back. One thing that appealed to me about this house was that the kitchen was a decent size but not excessive, and that except for the sink wall it was also a blank slate, which I thought would make it easier. Maybe I was just overconfident? But also, looking back, I think I have to chalk a bunch of this up to exhaustion. What you’re supposed to do when you design a kitchen is sit down, think about what you have and what you want to have close to hand, envision yourself actually standing and cooking at various locations, and go from there. I know that, I know it’s really sensible, and I just…never did it. It’s not like I didn’t think about the layout at all, of course. For example, I did this drawing of two options on March 1, when I was in a huge hurry because the HVAC and plumbers and electricians had actually already started and were going to need to know where to put things very very soon. (The roughin was done months and months before the kitchen started to look more finished around about late summer.)
The layout on the right is roughly what I think they had before. The stove was definitely on the middle of that interior wall, anyway, and I can’t think of another good place for them to have had the fridge. Everything on that wall got cleared out after the fire, so I don’t really know, but it seems likely. Anyway, I considered this layout, with a big built in pantry in the former closet space to the left of the door, but talked myself out of it in favor of the layout on the left, which had the benefit of putting the stove on a (nearly) exterior wall where it would be easier to vent outside. In theory that’s ok, and it looks especially ok when you’re looking down at a layout rather than experiencing the space in 3D. But again, I never really just took an hour to visualize myself in the space and to walk through where I’d store things and how accessible that would make them. And then once I’d given everyone the go-ahead to rough in, I felt stuck with it.
The other thing that happened, though, was that I made three decisions while we were already in process that each, individually, was a pretty good decision, but that collectively added up to trouble. This is why you’re supposed to design the whole thing at once! But it just didn’t happen that way.
Decision #1, already mentioned, was to put the stove on the “exterior” wall. The upsides to that: I could vent to the exterior pretty easily, and I could stand at the stove and see out a window by looking sideways through the door.
Decision #2 was to open up the mudroom door by removing a stud. The upsides: much more natural light in the kitchen, general feeling of openness.
Decision #3 was to retain the half-chimney in the corner of the “exterior” wall, as a gesture to the house’s history. A lot has been removed from this house, so I valued the opportunity to hang onto something.
I don’t actually regret either decision 2 or 3 (maybe 3 a little), and decision 1 was pretty sensible insofar as it went. I think any one of those would probably have been ok. But collectively, they meant far less space to play with on the “exterior” wall where the stove was roughed in. And that meant that when I finally did put the stove in place, the entire layout on that wall felt super tight. If the kitchen were even a foot deeper along that “exterior” wall I think we wouldn’t be having this conversation, probably! And it wasn’t just the feeling, although that was bad enough. I really didn’t have enough places to put things I wanted to store close at hand, to be able to reach from the stove or by taking just a step or two away. I felt like I had a theoretically functional kitchen with a working sink, stove, and fridge, where the counter and cabinet design looked ok on paper, but that felt really awkward and weird to actually stand in, and that didn’t have a good place for either my most-used pots and pans, or for my large collection of things in bottles (spices, oils, vinegars, etc).
2. Moving on: less aggressive solutions that didn’t actually work
I want to stop here and stress again that I am kind of a crazy person about kitchens (which is why I should have done the visualization exercise, because I know I am a crazy person about kitchens! Again, I chalk it up to exhaustion), and this is all massively first world problems and I understand that.
But despite knowing this I really haven’t been able to let it go. In fact, while telling myself it was dumb and I should just work with what I had, I spent a bunch of September and October, when I wasn’t traveling, trying to solve the problem I felt in my body, even though I should have been doing many other theoretically much more urgent things. The kitchen is very important to me; I will spend a ton of time there and I want to actually like it; and how I was spending my time was telling me that even when my intellect would have said other stuff.
To make a long story short, I tried two main things, neither of which worked. First, I tried moving the fridge over to the wall opposite the sink, thinking that if I did that, I could rework the former fridge area to be a more robust storage/pantry as I’d suggested on one of the diagrams above. But it was immediately clear that was not going to work — totally cluttered.
Then, I was at a store that was having a going out of business sale and bought two very, very cheap cabinets, thinking maybe I could run them along that wall instead of the table I had originally planned and at least put my pots and pans into them.
This is definitely better than the move-the-fridge option. But there’s still no place for spices; the cabinets are too deep by several inches in relationship to the stove, which, again, I can’t move over to the left because now there’s a wide door there; and I just disliked in person (thought I was fine with it on paper) the gap on that wall between the cart next to the stove and the cabinet. I don’t like stepping into it in order to get things. I feel weird standing at the stove and knowing that there’s cabinets right behind me, and I don’t like standing at the stove and having to turn around and bend to get stuff from the cabinets. And finally, I really dislike the way the stove hood and the half-chimney are playing together visually. They’re too close to each other, too much going on.
But it was better than the fridge-on-this-wall option so at this point I put a lot of time and energy (and asked other people to put time and energy) into trying to get the cabinets to be three inches shallower, thinking that might work, which makes me want to cry and I’m not going to say anything else about it.
At this point I left town again (in fact, I’m still not back) and while I’ve been working and doing other things, my subconscious has been turning over the kitchen problem. It is probably actually good that I had some time away; I needed some distance to recognize that even with the slightly shallower cabinets I just put a bunch of work into, this l-shaped layout for that wall was still not going to feel right, because it would still have the stove too tight to the corner and leave me with the cabinets behind me. And there still wouldn’t be a place to put my spices, except in one of the top cabinet drawers, and I don’t like spice drawers; and no place to put the vinegar and oil bottles, either.
3. Giving up and starting over
It has been kind of a relief to just give up on that layout, though, despite feeling mad and guilty about having gotten it wrong. I spent so much of the last couple of months trying to accept it and make it work or make myself adapt to it, and it just wasn’t happening. I more or less started the design process over about ten days ago — went back to the beginning, looking at lots of pictures of kitchens online, made sketches, and this time I did the damn visualization exercise too — and while there is more work and (hopefully not too much) money ahead, I feel a lot more at peace than I think I would if I was going to make another attempt at solving the problem with the layout as is.
Here are a few pictures I saved from the most recent round. None of these are layout pics, they’re mostly about looking at cabinet storage that will solve some of the problems I don’t currently have great solutions to (pot lid storage, spice storage).
I’m looking at stacks of drawers there. Both my main attempts to solve that long wall so far have involved horizontal rather than vertical lower cabinets. My first thought was a kitchen table with baskets underneath; my second was the drawer stack concept. I actually love the kitchen table idea, but I think I’d need a third viable wall in the kitchen to make it work, and I only really have two; I need cabinet space more. Also loving the clever use of verticals in these pictures: the open filler cabinet for baking sheets, the cutting board storage on the cabinet door, the pull-up appliance lift.
Here, I’m looking at two things: the narrow vertical pullouts, and the vertical pot lid storage. The latter is a longtime favorite of mine — you can do it different ways but it’s just nice to have the lids vertical/flat rather than horizontal/stacked.
And I spent a bunch of time looking at pictures of over the stove pot racks (chose these two nearly at random, though what I like about them both is they’re not overwhelming — a simple bar, maybe with a small rack and a plant above). I’ve loved pot racks in both kitchens I’ve used that had them — one, in a probably 25 square foot New York kitchen, hung them directly over the stove, while the most recent kitchen had them on a short wall. I feel like maybe I always wanted a pot rack in this kitchen and that was why I didn’t ever truly decide where to store the pots and pans? I also realized through this process that I very much want the stove not to feel like it’s in a corner. It needs some breathing room on each side.
4. The next try: move everything and build some cabinets
I feel like at least there are some things we’re starting with now. One: the opened up door and the half-chimney are staying, so I really do have to work around those, and there’s also no question about the fridge location anymore; it needs to stay where it is. Two: in the interim I’ve taught myself to build cabinets which, if not remotely up to today’s pro standards, are probably up to the homemade standards of 1920. When I started this project a year ago the thought of making some custom cabinets for this wall was totally out of the picture, and now it’s not.
My current layout thinking goes something like this:
Left to right, this is: cabinet under the half chimney, then stove, then more cabinets, then the trash can, then the door.
I’ve tried to really spend a bunch of time thinking through the cabinet design, though since I haven’t been home to measure, I haven’t made an exact plan yet. (I know I have roughly 9.5 feet along that wall but I’m not sure to the inch.) Here was my first iteration of the new wall design:
This is pretty good, I think, although you can see that I started sketching over it as I refined some details. First: I’m going to try adding a narrow slider underneath the half chimney. It’ll have spices on the top, maybe a vertical pot lid or two on the bottom, or maybe vinegar bottles. I don’t know what height or width I’m looking at precisely there either, so tbd.
Then, to the right of that will be an open cupboard with I think three shelves, if I can fit them (need to measure cookware.) The top will be a rack for shorter pot lids, then two compartments for my dutch ovens and my canning pot. On the countertop I’ll have a utensil crock and a basic olive oil, and I think I can hang my paper towel/potholder rack (formerly attached to a fridge, but that won’t work here) on the spice pullout.
Then the stove with a small pot rack over it for three saucepans and two frying pans that are in constant rotation. Then a custom cabinet with a drawer stack and a mixer lift cabinet, then the trash can, then the door.
I got some more ideas and started scribbling over that, so here’s a cleaner version with the new details incorporated:
The scale isn’t as good on this as on the earlier sketch — I made all the counters too high and so everything looks pulled out and narrow — but the idea is clear enough. This is basically very similar, but I stole something from one of the photos above and added a narrow but undoored vertical for baking sheets to the right of the stove, which means I can put casserole dishes in the broiler drawer, which gives me an extra drawer in the vertical stack. I need a relatively deep one for mixing bowls, because there’s no upper cabinet there and I don’t want to have to get them from across the room every time I need one (ie multiple times a day). The big question is how wide this whole unit will be. I think I have somewhere between 40 and 50 inches to work with. It’ll be fine, once I’ve measured (wall, chimney, and cookware) I just have to sit down and work out all the math. If I can fit my biggest pot lids (13″) behind the pot rack that would help a lot; otherwise they’ll have to go on the bottom of the spice slideout, which would be all right but would displace the vinegar bottles, likely to the pantry next to the fridge.
So there’s details to work out. But I love the compactness of this setup and it makes my body feel good to imagine working there. It has dedicated spaces for spices, oil, utensils, pots, cleaning supplies — the basics I reach for when I’m already in the middle of a project. When I envision myself standing at the stove, most of what I need will be either directly to my left or in front of/slightly above me. When I envision myself standing at the workspace assembling a cake or chopping vegetables, most of what I need will be right below or above or in front of me, and if it’s not it’s probably a couple of steps to the right in the fridge or the pantry cabinet. There’s some side to side and up and down motion here, but not a lot of straight up turning around, unlike with the stove on the “exterior” wall when everything felt at my back. And there’s no weird visual break, either. It’s basically become a standard U-shaped kitchen with a few doors interrupting it.
What about that “exterior” wall anyway? I’m not completely sure. This setup will, I think, work really well for almost everything except ventilation. You’ll note that my drawings don’t have a stove hood, both because I’m now really wary, visually speaking, of putting one that close to the half chimney, and because actually getting the vent out from that position would be a big production. For now, I’m going to put a pull-chain exhaust fan on that wall (using the duct that we installed already). Then a lot of the lower part needs to stay clear so that the spice pullout can slide in front of it. So I might just put up a piece of art and call it a day. Or there might be room for another hanging rod. I don’t want to clutter it though, so I think I’ll see what it looks and feels like after the main wall is put back together.
5. Hey, what about the pantry cabinet?
It’s a work in progress; I’ve actually reconstructed it three times now and I’m debating a fourth because, as is now abundantly obvious, I’m a crazy person. The first time, I put the uprights in place but didn’t cross-brace them across the back, so nothing was square enough. Try #2 worked better, but the cabinet was SO deep — I’d done it that way on purpose to use most of the space (there’s about 40 inches there and I got the uprights cut to 36 inches) but in person it felt overwhelming and I could tell I was just never going to use the back parts of the cabinet. I could have left it like that and just used the fronts of the shelves, of course, but I realized that if I pulled it down, trimmed the back, and rebuilt it, I could still use a lot of the dead space, this time for storage inside the guest bedroom closet on the other side of the wall. So in October I did that — took everything out, cut the uprights down, put it all back up again. It’s much more usable now, so that’s good! But I’m now thinking I’d like to include a narrow vertical pullout like the ones in the pictures above. This would occupy either 3 or 6 of the 24 inches of pantry width, if I put it together from a stock pullout solution, or if I custom made it, maybe 4 inches. It would hold canned goods and bottles and some less used spices, so that would be super useful. The problem is I would have to take out and cut down all the horizontal shelves, pull the lid and both uprights down, rebuild the whole thing as an 18″ rather than a 24″ cabinet, then slide the pullout in on the right. It’s tempting to say “well I’ll do that in the future if I feel like it,” but if I am going to do it at all, now is a better time than two years from now. I haven’t done the finishes yet — the face frame, the internal lower cabinet structure, the countertop — so if I’m going to change the dimensions of those things it’s a better idea to just do it now. On the upside, even though I didn’t get it right the first or possibly the third time, my actual construction abilities have increased dramatically over the course of this project. Every time I rebuild it I get better at making even cuts and squaring things up. Picture a laughsob emoji here.
 Ventilation. Sigh. I know I ought to have more of it. At least I do, now, feel that it is possible to run a vent out from that interior wall to the exterior. When I first did the kitchen layout I didn’t think that was the case, because we weren’t sure what was behind the framed out and plastered box that turned out to have the half chimney, and for all we knew we were talking about drilling through heating pipes or something. Now that this has all been uncovered and peeled back, it seems we probably could run a vent horizontally between the ceiling joists to the exterior. But it’s a big expensive project I don’t want to get into right now, and I think I can live with a wall exhaust to the left of the stove for a while, especially since I don’t generally produce a ton of grease when I cook.