Catch the Waves

by Kacey Larsen
Clean Curves

Stuffed under a dropped ceiling with an oversized soffit that hid sprinkler piping, the narrow, windowless kitchen in artist Deena Schnitman’s Boston loft was cramping her style, literally. With a scant 36 inches from counter edge to counter edge, the pass-through space—wedged in like an afterthought between the entryway and the unit’s open living area—hardly allowed her room to cook. It also did not afford her enough room to create her high-end, paste-paper designs, for which she needed the kitchen sink. The kitchen build-out was so tight, it was spilling out sloppily into the open part of the loft, marring its expansive volume.

Creating a larger, more usable kitchen was definitely a reconfiguration challenge, one made a little more complicated by the fact that Schnitman said at the first meeting, “Do you see all these angles? I need some curves. Think Frank Gehry, think Bilbao.”

Nat Rea Photography

The best place to recreate the kitchen was in the large loft space itself. The outsized industrial windows in that area brought in light from the north—the ideal artist’s light and certainly much better than the artificial light that had been rigged in the old, skinny kitchen cave. It would also give the client the room she needed to cook and entertain, which she does often, thereby taking a page out of the great room tradition to create a space that incorporated the living room, dining area and kitchen.

But we needed to make sure the mass of the new kitchen did not feel so massive that it took over the space. Everything in a loft kitchen becomes a kind of furniture because it’s all out in the open all the time, so it was important to make the cabinetry and appliances not feel too pronounced to overpower the space.

Seeking Curvature 

Originally, the client wanted curved cabinetry, but it didn’t fit the budget. She also didn’t want any upper cabinets right in the workspace. “I simply don’t like them and find them very disruptive,” she noted.

We were able to respond to her desire for something expressive, however, by curving the soffits; one of them is required for a sprinkler head location that we couldn’t move, anyway. Ultimately, we used the constraint to create a desired design element. The heft of the curves along the ceiling also allows the cabinetry underneath them to look much cleaner, more subdued and more in the background.

In addition, the waved soffits allowed us to hide—or at least minimize—the fact that we were adding depth to the wall to build the cabinets, while at the same time making the refrigerator seem flush and, again, helping the mass of the kitchen feel more unobtrusive. It’s kind of like a Brunelleschi effect, making a secondary surface (the soffits) appear to be the primary one. The soffit curves help hide the chase for the oven hood as well.

The clean look of the new kitchen, achieved with the wavy soffits helping frame the cabinetry and appliances, also becomes a more subdued backdrop to the soapstone backsplash and countertop with their “lightning bolt” veins of white.

No Unused Space

Nat Rea Photography

The old kitchen nook became a space for some occasional furniture and curved bookcases we built to presage the large curves in the great room one would see next. We also built a cased opening between the entryway and the old kitchen space so that when someone comes in, there’s now a sense of arrival and a vestibule—like an anteroom before you enter the living area.

Architecture is very similar to cinema in certain ways, and how you frame the experience of walking through the spaces is key. Each room becomes a different scene in the narrative.

Making the work go all the more smoothly was being able to count on the Adams + Beasley construction crew to execute the details, mocking up the curves and making sure to send photos as soon as they were up, so things could be tweaked before they went too far down the road.

How does Schnitman feel about the transformation of her space in Boston’s funky SoWa Art & Design District, a retrofitted parcel of once-neglected warehouses?

“It is a WOW! kitchen,” she says. “The size of my island now accommodates my paper-making needs. And I recently had a Day of the Dead party for 30 and just moved the island down a bit—it’s on wheels—and there was plenty of room.”

In other words, as they say in cinema, that’s a wrap. QR

Zac Culbreth, AIA, graduated from Brown University with degrees in Architectural Studies and Visual Arts and continued his study of architecture at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. After completing his education, Culbreth led design teams for William Rawn Associates, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, and Maryann Thompson Architects, and was instrumental in launching the project-planning wing of Adams + Beasley Associates, a high-end residential construction firm in the Boston area. During his time with Adams + Beasley, Culbreth led the loft renovation featured in this article. He is currently based in the Berkshires as founding principal of Zac Culbreth Architecture, where he continues to pursue his driving goal to create beautiful things.

Larry Lindner has written about home and design for publications including the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, Design New England, and Green Builder. He particularly enjoys preparing articles and other materials for Adams + Beasley, as that allows him to nosy around some of the most finely executed residential construction projects in and around Boston.

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