Eclectic Ideas

by WOHe

There’s no question style and design are important, not just for their aesthetic value, but as a business and sales tool in the process of designing a kitchen. While they all strive to create beautiful rooms, successful designers understand they are in the business of design first, and that the artistic pleasure of creating beautiful spaces takes a distant third to the first two goals of profitable projects and pleased clients.

To do this effectively, designers must watch emerging trends, then apply them to their design practice, all while making sure they are “mainstream” enough to sell.

The new Millennium has brought about a shift in design, moving away from romantic rooms that recreate the patina of cherished but well-used antiques and environments from years’ past to focusing more on contemporary design ideals. The future of leading-edge design for fashion-conscious consumers will be focused on sophisticated spaces that have the sense of an apartment high above the streets of Milan or a Park Avenue co-op in New York City.

Rather than reproducing the Tuscan countryside, there’s a new emerging North American definition of contemporary styling resting on a firm foundation of a warmer, more informal interpretation of modern styling, while showing an appreciation for the freedom of self-expression reflected in eclectic settings.

Design has reached a fork in the road, so to speak: Those historically accurate rooms with European neo-classical designed cabinetry will still be seen against faux finished walls, but may now be mixed with a 1930s or 1940s dining room set from a Parisian salon. Within a new contemporary design, there may be carefully crafted details of the room harkening back to the Shaker villages of New York but these may sit side by side with a Marcel Brewer Barcelona chair.

This trend is becoming more prevalent even in the traditional kitchen, where blending styles without a shared pedigree extends the longevity of the room by incorporating items from various eras and locales, along with the architectural structure. This offers the added benefit of preventing a room from growing “dated” over time.

So, how does one successfully integrate new contemporary design in a kitchen project? Although no one wants to be forced to follow a “paint by numbers” design discipline, designers can still benefit from developing a better understanding of the various nuances of these new contemporary spaces.

To do this effectively, a designer must first understand what “eclectic design” means. As noted Atlanta interior designer Charles Gandy, FASID, IIDA, explains, “Quite simply, eclecticism can be defined as a mixture of more than one style, combining objects from dissimilar sources and aesthetics into a whole.”

However, eclecticism does not mean “anything goes with anything.” Rather, it means “some things go with other things.” So, how does one know which things go with which? While this design style leaves many of the traditional “rules” by the wayside, one thing remains consistent: Eclectic design focuses on combining elements of quality with “quality” defined not so much as rare or expensive, but rather as items that are important within the space and to the client.

Eclectic styling can be divided into four broad categories:

  • Combining Old with New
  • Combining New with Old
  • Showcasing a Collection: Planned Clutter, The Collector’s Mix, or Cross-Cultural Collection
  • The Signature Element

Combining old with new is typically executed when a new kitchen features a favorite antique or heirloom piece within the setting. During the initial appointment with the client, the designer needs to be observant of the family’s furnishings and ask questions about treasured items. Do the clients own something they’d like highlighted because they have a heritage of heirloom pieces? Do they wish to create this sense by purchasing antiques?
Here are some helpful hints when considering furniture or accent pieces that will work in an eclectic environment combining something old in a new room.

Furniture pieces that have some tie to storage or organization work well, and often times can be retrofit to serve new functions. Consider the following:

1. A free-standing piece of furniture, such as an antique oak icebox, can become a pantry.

2. A sideboard, chest or dresser-type chest (with a glass top added for protection) can store kitchen linens and provide wall space above for a collector’s art.

3. An antique transaction counter from a store can be beautifully reconfigured for an island.

4. A small antique chest of drawers can be added at the end of an island or peninsula as a baking cabinet with a reclaimed piece of Cararra marble and sink added.

5. A commercial steel table can be enhanced by adding an oversized butcher block.

6. An antique staircase balustrade or banister can be reconfigured to create a pot rack, used to support an extended island top, or used as decorative elements at the end of an island.

5. Columns can become table bases with a slab stone top, an interesting tiled accent piece, or an unusual combination of old woodwork and glass.

When combining pieces:

1. Mix old with new. Avoid mixing various antiques from different periods or various woods from one particular antique time frame.

2. Buy or select one good piece of furniture or one quality painting to be featured. Lots of mediocre pieces or too many family treasures confuse the eye, rather than please it.

3. Select one heroically proportioned piece, whether it’s an armoire to conceal the television or a very long, skinny table. Don’t include a collection of small pieces along one big wall, and don’t combine groups of small furniture pieces.

4. Use elevation drawings, thumbnail perspectives or actual renderings to make sure you get the scale of the room right. Nothing is worse than planning to use the client’s 60″ wide English armoire and finding its molding extends into a doorway. Detail these furniture plans just as you do cabinetry on the project documents.

The idea of combining new with old will be especially familiar to those who’ve had the pleasure of studying architecture in Europe either in person or through beautiful books or entertaining travelogues.

Eclectic enthusiasts realize the architecture of the structure is in no way compromised if the interior transitions into a more modern room. For example, a very contemporary kitchen can be set against old plaster walls (either the real thing or newly crafted Venetian plaster) or a limestone floor. Arts & Crafts type cabinetry can be placed in a room where hand-hewn reclaimed beams are high above an oversized walk-in fireplace from Colonial days.

Europeans are very comfortable with this natural juxtaposition of material. But, while this type of design is most common in Europe, there is one great American design community that understands this eclectic style completely: those individuals lucky enough to live in lofts.

American loft living began with poor artists who occupied former industrial buildings in the 1950s in New York City. Everyone has seen the wonderful pictures: large oversized room, floor-to-ceiling glass, brick walls, cast iron columns, high ceilings and expansive wood flooring. While these are a bit stereotypical, the reference to lofts will help us all further appreciate this type of eclecticism combining new with old that’s very appropriate within the new, more naturalistic contemporary styles.

Here are some specific points to consider:

  • Study the space and identify floor, wall and ceiling treatments before beginning the planning of the kitchen design solution.
  • When combining new with old, respect the period of architecture already there by building some of the cabinetry consistent with the proportions and molding used in the space. With this type of combination, you enhance the age of the old structure while making the new materials that much more interesting.
  • Don’t use slender, unassuming profiles in a traditional room setting with heroic proportions.

To introduce “new” (defined as Bau Haus international Modernism from the 1920s through late-century Post-Modernism) into an old setting, consider looking for some of these pieces:

  • Modern abstract artwork in large scale.
  • 1950s industrial or military chairs or tables.
  • Oversized stainless steel counters, commercial racking systems or free-standing islands, oversized stainless steel hoods and commercial cooking or refrigerator systems.
  • Art Deco or mid-century Modern wardrobe cabinets.

One interesting source for these pieces comes from a catalog called “Design Within Reach” (see bibliography), a mail order house catalog offering wonderful reproductions of modern furniture pieces.

When showcasing a collection, both the architecture of the space and the style of the kitchen are of secondary importance to the presentation of the owner’s collection. There are three subcategories to this type of styling, and each works best with a different type of collection.

The first, which can be explained as “planned clutter,” is where the aesthetic has to do with abundance: The “collection” being showcased involves a number of items necessary to the function of cooking or eating, and these are placed in nearly every space and on every surface.

If you have a client planning this, think about the following:

  • Make sure you know the difference between collections to look at and useful clutter! Gather items used for the same task together. Measure the shelf space required to accommodate them.
  • Find places for open display space within the cabinetry which don’t compromise the functional storage spaces.
  • At the end of an oven or refrigerator, step the cabinetry in 12″ and build a floor-to-ceiling display cabinet with interior lighting at the end of the run. This is much more interesting, and a better investment, than an expensive custom end panel!
  • Rather than an ergonomically questionable pie-shaped corner cabinet, voided out corner space or those diagonal corner cabinets, create a display: Decrease the depth of cabinetry to 9″, extend at least 30″ out from each corner and design an open area. This area, which is difficult to use functionally, is typically well-positioned within sight of the cook and visitors to the space. For that reason, it can make a delightful display area.
  • Use wall space more effectively. For example, consider a display shelf above the window for vases (with a built-in step stool close-by). Or, above an integrated refrigerator system finishing at 72″ or 84″, create an open space rather than those hard-to-reach 12″ high storage cabinets.
  • Consider placing seating at the end of an island or peninsula, rather than along the back. Then, oversize the island top so display or open storage can be on the back side. Alternatively, do just the opposite: Step the counters in the seating area up to 42″ and finish them both off not with expensive decorative posts, but with open or glass storage (check to see if you need to use tempered or safety glass) facing the ends of the islands, or facing the seated side of the island. Note:

This is particularly effective in some of these huge rooms where a large flat island may look a bit too much like an airport runway. Changing the height levels of counters is good solution.

The second subcategory to this type of styling is the collector’s mix. Here, the look might be one of gallery-like niches or display shelves designed into the kitchen, providing an edited background for their treasured art collection to become the focal point.

However, since function is key to a kitchen even a kitchen designed to showcase treasures these kinds of niche and display shelves are typically designed high above the useful cabinets where display, not accessibility, is key. Treasured items can also be showcased on furniture pieces, built-in niches or other display centers in the adjacent great room or dining area.

Since this is typically not a requirement of kitchen planning, it’s not something we do every day. So, following are a few helpful hints for displaying art collections.

  • Lower light levels in the immediate adjacent spaces so art objects can be showcased.
  • Use light-colored, neutral backgrounds.
  • For like items, group them symmetrically in a grid. Typically, they should be grouped small to large, colorful to neutral, and so forth.
  • If colors differentiate the collection, arrange by the color spectrum to create a unified look.
  • If the treasures are eccentrically humorous as well, place them at or near eye level in a grouping so they’re a feast for the eyes.
  • Probably the most important thing to remember is to let your clients lead you in what’s the most important object of their collection. If they’re collectors, they’re probably also artists at heart. Don’t try to work with a formula; instead, make use of your clients’ instincts. You want the room to be personalized, and to that end, their intuition will help define how the space should be used to highlight the objects they most treasure.

A third type of collection, which we’ll call the cross cultural collection, is, in many ways, simply an extension of the artist’s collection: The difference is the pieces are from around the world. Depending on what the collection is, items from different cultures may be best set in a gallery setting, or stepped over into the “organized clutter” category. It’s important to talk to the client so you understand what the items are and what they’re used for.

When using a signature element, the designer’s skills become critical, since the designer must be able to create a space where the signature element becomes the focal point – or the counterpoint to the room’s overall focal point.

When a signature element is used, the designer needs to understand how important proportion, light, color and space is. To make the most effective use of this kind of design style, consider the following:

  • Make sure the object or key element is in clear sight of either the cook or his or her guest. A space created for the pleasure of the cook alone has very different sight lines than one where the cook plans to entertain while cooking. I recently worked with a client who said, very carefully, to explain her desires, “I don’t want a kitchen, I want a cooking room.”
  • Work with what you have architecturally. To that end, many international designers recommend dark rooms be decorated with dark colors, and sunny rooms with light colors.
  • Symmetry doesn’t really work in eclectic environments focusing on one signature element because, typically, the key object is just that: one item. Therefore, asymmetrical balance is the best way to work within the space, where equilibrium is created by combining elements of equal importance or scale.
  • Be extra careful about scale and proportion. If in doubt about scale, take the oversized option. Groups of small items just get lost.
  • If you’re building in a signature element, out of respect for the period of architecture, keep that piece consistent with the space. You can build in cabinetry or an architectural element that is completely different from the storage cabinetry surrounding it. For example, mix your fitted built-in furniture, which extends to the cornice in the room, with other cabinetry pieces much shorter aligned with door casings.

What are some specific design ideas you might consider?

  • Large mantels or chimney hoods seem to be all the rage today. I think they’ll continue to be, but will transition from a mantel to a large, airy wall space with a decorative hood massive in its proportions. The hood/cooking area is an ideal signature element in an eclectic environment.
  • Leave blank space. That’s right don’t fill up the walls with cabinets. Oftentimes, interesting elements in a kitchen are simply so jammed in, they’re suffocating. If you have an important piece you’ve created, make sure there’s enough “negative” space around it to let the viewer really enjoy the piece.
  • If the signature element is not cabinetry, but some very important treasure of the family’s, consider utilizing the mid-height cabinet (finished anywhere from 48″ to 72″ off the floor) with a capped finish top so the element can sit above it.

There’s no doubt that creating an eclectic environment takes a lot of organization. The key to doing this successfully is to first identify the client’s interest in such an immensely personalized and visually active space. Next, carefully question the client to see if he or she wants to combine something old within a new space, add a new kitchen in an old space, highlight a mix of treasured useful kitchen utensils, showcase an art collection or a cross-cultural grouping, or create a hard-working kitchen with one special space for one unique, interesting object.

Once you’ve identified which one of these broad four approaches to eclectic design suits the client needs, you can use some of the ideas provided in this article to get you started in the right direction.

If I have sparked your interest and you want to learn more about eclecticism, check out these sources from your local library, or visit a bookstore and add them to your design source room.

Design Within Reach, 455 Jackson St., San Francisco CA 94111. Tel: 1-800-944-2233; Fax: 1-800-846-0411.

Eclectic Style in Interior Design, Carol Meredith, 1998. Rockport Publishers, 33 Commercial St., Gloucester, MA 01930

Classic Meets Contemporary, Henrietta Spencer Churchill, 1998. Rizzoli International Publications Inc., 300 Park Ave. South, New York, NY 10010

Lofts, Marcus Field and Mark Irving, 1999. Gingko Press Inc., 5768 Paradise Dr., Corte Madera, CA 94925

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