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Alice in Wonderland’s imaginary kitchen

Fairy tales and children’s stories, remote though they seem for professionals offering advice or householders seeking practical improvement to their homes, are great source material. Often being stuck in the humdrum of our everyday lives, we need renewal. As a kitchen designer, I am often faced with the challenge of unblocking my clients and discouraging them from rigidly copying pictures they see in magazines, So is it possible to get real, practical ideas from what appear to be absurd fantasies? Transposing ideas is tremendously fun and challenging. And ethereal is good, as keeping the imagination loose brings flexibility to thinking.

Where better to start than with Alice in Wonderland, Wind in the Willows or the Secret Garden? Imagine a house with a hidden, metal studded front door hidden in the bushes. We recently created just such a passageway for a client on the coast near Chichester, England. Although it doesn’t involve a magical kingdom, the key idea was building an extension that hides behind an old garden wall. Literal translation of ideas is one approach but another is capturing of atmospheres and events, similar to the way scenes from films capture an emotion or experience we identify with.

There are plentiful examples where imaginary scenes can be translated into reality. Who has not thought of Aladdin’s cave when design a snug, cosy media room or Rapunzel’s tower or Treasure Island’s tree house when creating a bedroom? Robert Adam wanted to be an artist before becoming an architect and was inspired by Gothic fantasies, old ruins, imaginary places and tales of old Italian buildings. Places, studying buildings from history and previous lifetimes where children’s stories are often set are default starting points.

Rarely are children’s stories set in the present. The imagination seems to work better in the past although science fiction would argue for the future. An example of such a children’s story is Louis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, which is full of extreme spatial experiences such as Alice shrinking and falling fast through the rabbit’s hole, landing in a hallway with seemingly unending locked doors. She is puzzled, thwarted and confused. Ever had this experience with entering buildings? Carroll’s humour and his surrealist creation bring such pleasure. To escape is a great release; to dream and not quite understand is in some ways like visiting Venice, Machu Picchu or Gaudi’s Parc Guell.

One of the most memorable scenes in the book is the Mad Hatter’s Tea party, with the long table, white cloth, orderly cups and saucers offset by egotistical, high impact companions with extreme clothes. Everyone is chattering but no one is engaging in real conversation. No room, cries the March Hare, Mad Hatter and Doormouse There’s plenty, retorts Alice as she takes a seat. Alice quickly retreats from the madness and re-enters the wood.

Alice in Wonderland - at the kitchen table

After a consultation with the Caterpillar, she soon comes upon a house where the Duchess is feeding a baby. As our heroine enters the kitchen, the cook takes the cauldron of soup off the fire and then showers Alice with saucepans, plates and dishes. Taking no notice of the flying debris, the Queen announces her famous command, ‘Off with her head!’.

Tenniel’s illustration of this scene is dominated by the Queen’s oversized head, but you can see the vestiges of a kitchen around them. I speculate what kind of kitchen Lewis Carroll’s and his illustrator would have made for Alice. Witty chaos maybe, unpredictable meals made of strange Marinetti-like ingredients, a lot of talking, including speculation about the world’s geometry, and strange Harry Potter-like magic going on in the background. Plates flying through the air, magic carpets, talking chandeliers, clocks that run backwards and anthropomorphic animals gathered around the table.

Throughout Carroll’s story, the accelerated speed of events and unexpected changes of scale provide challenging experiences of space. Fast moving conversations and a variety of perching places remind me of the joys of large families and big rooms. The open fire and the cat curled up on the floor suggest a sort of normality.

If anyone reading this wants to sketch their imaginary Alice in Wonderland kitchen, I will post it here. Meanwhile I have booked my tickets for the Portsmouth premiere of Tim Burton’s cinematic interpretation of Carroll’s tale. I can’t wait to see how Burton and his creative team have imagined the interiors, although in some ways I would like to keep my unformed and innocent imaginings. Carroll’s writing, although energetic and full of colour and content, left an openness to the imagination that makes room for all of us.


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