Artisan Crafted Contemporary

by WOHe

Artisan Crafted Contemporary styling traces the rich expression of past woodworkers’ and metalsmiths’ artistry, helping designers get beyond the modern minimalistic kitchens of today. It incorporates the concept of woodworking as an artist’s expression of beauty, leading to unique hand-carved architectural elements in new spaces. Kitchens in this style feature design elements from the past, but translated into a softer Contemporary styling.

Four major historical design periods are linked to these Artisan Crafted, one-of-a-kind Contemporary spaces: North American Shaker/Pacific Rim Japanese, West Coast Craftsman Arts & Crafts, European Empire/ Biederman and Art Deco.

North American Shaker design has a lot in common with Pacific Rim Japanese design. Japanese design impacted both English and American Arts & Crafts styles. West Coast Craftsman, as reflected in Mission design and the bungalows dotting the West Coast, is a style deviation worth understanding, as well.

There is also a direct influence from the early 1800s, as the French Empire style led to the more casual Biedermeier style. In the same period, domestic classicism led to beautiful inlaid work in prized furniture pieces. Today’s artisans owe a clear debt to these furniture makers, who defined woodworking as a master’s skill with gilded and gold-tipped accents.

Lastly, the Roaring ’20s Art Deco and 1940s Moderne style, which co-existed with the emerging International School of Architecture, have also contributed to 21st Century Artisan Crafted Contemporary rooms, as seen in the Egyptian influence of forms and figures, as well as metal playing a major role in our current kitchen designs.

Most designers are familiar with the history of the Shaker community. As designers, our interest is not so much in their religious philosophy, but in the products this group created. The unerring beauty of these designs is guided by this Shaker craftsmen vision: “Whether a barn, a basket, or sacred song: if it is not useful or necessary, free yourself from imagining you need to make it. If it is useful and necessary, free yourself from imagining that you need to enhance it by adding what is not an integral part of its useful or necessity. And, finally: if it is both useful and necessary, and you can recognize and eliminate what is not essential, then go ahead and make it as beautiful as you can.”

This is similar to the philosophy behind Pacific Rim design.

There was no direct influence of Japanese culture among the Shaker or vice-versa, so how could two vastly different cultures produce similar pieces of woodworking? For both the Japanese craftsmen and the Shakers, form was primarily determined by function. The products of these two are similar because their philosophy about beauty and design is similar. Additionally, both cultures have a high regard for craftsmanship.

One of the best links between Shaker and Japanese style is exemplified by the work of American George Nakashima (1905 1990). Nakashima, born in Seattle of Japanese parents, trained as an architect and artisan in Paris and India, described his work as “Japanese Shaker.”

His admired tables are book matched and characterized by slabs of free-edged wood. There is a frank display of joinery and a celebration of the wood grain, which is echoed in the Shakers’ use of tiger stripe and bird’s-eye figures in the wood selected for furniture pieces. The functional simplicity of overall design exposed dovetail corners, a butterfly key connecting wood sections with no attempt made to file the mismatched center joint, and the use of solid woods reflect Shaker and Japanese influences.

Talented designers are well schooled in the basic philosophy and resulting design tenets of the Arts & Crafts movement. While much has been written about Gustav Stickley’s New York furniture and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Midwestern Arts & Crafts influenced Prairie design vision, kitchen specialists should learn more about the architectural team of the brothers Charles Sumner Greene and Henry Mather Greene, who built the Gambel House in Pasadena, CA in 1907. The Greens exemplified the intensity of devotion to fine workmanship characterizing the Arts & Crafts style, and yet expanded their view of beauty when they came under the spell of Franciscan Mission architecture and pursued the study of Japanese architecture and art.

An emphasis on the horizontal line, the use of built-in furniture, a taste for the asymmetrical, the absence of clutter and knickknacks, extensive areas of unpainted wood, a preponderance of natural and subdued colors, a close relationship with the outdoors all are elements from Japan that are incorporated into the Western Arts & Crafts styling known as “Craftsman.” The Gambel house and the other limited work produced by the Greene brothers are considered by many to be the foundation for the “Bungalow” home style.

A key element of the famous Gambel House is the joinery seen throughout the home, which softens the stark oversized shapes in Arts & Crafts furniture. The cabinetry has a curved shape abstraction (called the “cloud lift”), with woods such as cedar and fir combined in entry doors. A scarf-joint is used to splice together sections of a cabinet door rail. Rounded corners of wood door elements create a sculptural quality; shapes are emphasized when sanded profiles produce a shadow line between adjacent pieces. Repeatedly, the dark-end grain of a projecting tenon contrasts with the adjacent smooth lighter grain. Inlays of abalone, wrought iron stripes and creative designs in pounded metal hardware are all design elements easily transferable to the softer Contemporary styling currently emerging.

Don’t be shackled by the Northeastern definition of Arts & Crafts styling, which, in many cases, is square and bulky, focusing on oak. Study the brothers Greene and Greene, and realize how welcoming the Arts & Crafts movement is to Native American decorative arts’ deep, rich color palettes and intricate patterns created in relief tiles and mosaic pieces.

A unique accent element you’ll see in some of the beautiful Artisan Crafted Contemporary kitchens of noted English designers Mark Wilkinson, Smallbone Devizes and Johnny Grey include marquetry inlaid strips of veneer and parquetry complex geometric patterned inlays of contrasting woods. The foundation for this elegant design detail is found in the artistry of furniture from years past notably from Napoleon Bonaparte’s influence in creating Empire-styled furniture. This led to the more “countrified” Biedermeier styling and Federal design in the U.S. in 1830.

The influence of Federal (1790-1830) and Empire (1820-1860) design is powerful. These two overlapping periods in history were filled with beautiful furnishings, colors and patterns.

The U.S., under the leadership of Thomas Jefferson, sought an architectural style that would define its new role as an independent, democratic republic. Architects Benjamin Latrobe from the U.S. and Robert Adam of Britain traveled to the ruins of classical Greece and democratic Rome. The discovery of Pompeii shot waves of excitement through Europe and America, stirring interest in ancient, classical design in the U.S., England and even in the architecture and design of French King Louis XVI.

In addition, English cabinet makers George Hepplewhite and Thomas Sheraton developed delicate and gracious furniture.

The Empire style was officially known as “Greek Revival.” Empire furniture was inspired by Pompeii, and featured gold leafing, gold edging, a combination of wood, gold and black, as well as inlay work.

Although there was little carving, a good deal of rich inlay led to great similarities between these two furniture styles. The use of parquetry and marquetry can be seen in many contemporary woodworking elements of kitchens in the 21st century.

Empire, as a decorative style under Napoleon I, is classically based and borrowed heavily on Imperial Roman icons and Egyptian motifs. The Empire lines are masculine and dramatic.

More appropriate for kitchens and bathrooms today is the German/Austrian version of French Empire, called “Biedermeier.” It flourished from 1820 to the middle of 1850, and has recently been revived because of the warm fruit woods and cherry woods used and its detailing, which makes it an interesting element in a Transitional room. The style is simplified yet uses sophisticated geometric and classical forms. Of importance is the strong contrast between dark and pale woods and gilded accents, which is one its hallmarks.

The last style impacting this softer Contemporary is Art Deco, which was largely a reaction to the revolutions of the time. At the turn of the century, two European cities Glasgow and Vienna helped set the stage for Art Deco. The style was officially launched at the French Exposition Internationale Des Art Decoratif, although the name “Art Deco” didn’t really become popular until the 1960s.

Farseeing Parisian designers looked toward a wide range of sources for inspiration.

Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamen’s Tomb, and the ensuing Egyptian-mania of the 1920s, had a direct impact on the development of Art Deco. The papyri, lotus blossom and scarab beetles of Pharaohnic Egypt repeatedly appeared in Art Deco designs. The exteriors of urban skyscrapers we admire today for their Art Deco styling reflect the Egyptian pyramids, as well as the impact of Mayan and Aztec South American design shapes.

As Kathleen Donohue, CKD, CBD, notes in her book Kitchen & Bath Theme Design, “Art Deco occurred during a period of pronounced poverty, so this style was associated with a special kind of sophistication revolving around taking chaste, classical forms and reworking them to the point of absolute reduction and minimalism.”

Equally influential on Art Deco designers, especially those in Paris, was tribal Africa. African art was being collected in great quantities at the time, and it’s not surprising Art Deco designers adopted the primitive forms of the masks, furniture and ritual objects of African tribes in their modern tastes.

Art Deco was developed in tandem with the Bau Haus School of International Design and was called “Moderne.” Although both were very different in shape and form, they had a combined bias for metal.

As designers look at published works of noted kitchen specialists, it’s important to realize how significant the thread of historical design is for rooms we create today. The emerging softer Contemporary styling we see throughout Europe and North America can be directly tied to these design periods.

For inspiration, focus on the key elements below:

  • Wood is a material the artist uses to create design statements. It’s not simply a material of construction.
    1. Pay particular attention to woodworking details in island configurations, unfitted pieces of kitchen furniture included in a functional room, mantel enclosures, signature designed sink surrounds, highlighted or focal point moulding or crown details.
    2. Realize the effectiveness of geometric, alternating patterns of wood fret work in valances, soffits, stepped shelves, plinth mouldings or other areas ideally suited for a horizontal band of woodworking.
    3. Learn about sources for marquetry or parquetry work in your area. A special note: If the craftsmen are not available in your area to create this type of woodworking, DON’T DO IT!
  • Realize the importance of combining wood species in one elevation, whether it be:
    1. Different veneers combined in sketch face details.
    2. Woods being used as architectural detail in hand-carved pyramid pegs, or scarf joints, or lineal stacked details
    3. Soft-edged wood, whose details are an elegant addition to these new spaces.
  • Appreciate the impact of stepped geometric shapes echoing back to Egyptian times, as well as intricately detailed geometric patterns in Native American or tribal African art.
  • Don’t be afraid of color, yet consider its application in moderation: Backsplash details, “rug” tile floor details, 36″ to 60″ high wrap-around room wainscoting treatments, decorative hoods, butler’s pantries or sink areas.
  • Sprinkle your designs with wonderful memories from these past design periods. Try Shaker plaid fabric in a room with sleek veneer doors, for example.
    Learn from the work of others by studying their designs, but never attempt to copy it. Use their work for inspiration as you tailor a room to an individual client’s needs, budget and space.

Ellen Cheever, CMKBD, ASID, is a well-known author, designer, speaker and marketing specialist whose design and business leadership have helped to shape the kitchen industry over the past three decades.
A member of the NKBA Hall of Fame, Cheever gained prominence in the industry early on as the author of two textbooks in the area of design education.
Cheever manages an award-winning design firm, Ellen Cheever & Associates, and has been part of the management team of several major cabinet companies. She is a volunteer on NKBA’s Ad Hoc International Affiliations Committee and Ad Hoc Planning Guidelines Committee.
Cheever’s article is the third of a special four-part series, “Kitchens of the New Millennium,” which will appear exclusively in Kitchen & Bath Design News.

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