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A writer’s kitchen table

Andrew Solomon’s new book Far From the Tree: Children and the Search for Identity is book of the week on BBC Radio 4 and all over the review pages, here and in the USA at the moment – excitingly for me because I had the great good luck to design not one but two kitchens for Andrew, first in London and then in a New York brownstone. For his Notting Hill house he asked me to focus the design around a versatile table on which he could write, entertain at least eight people and prepare food while facing into the room, all in a tight space. This called for ingenuity. We came up with a portable chopping box that could be positioned on and off the end of the table nearest the cooker, to be removed for a dinner party when the guests appeared.

Andrew wrote his book over a ten year period, using the table in both kitchens, aided by tubs of ice cream.

Far from the Tree, a dozen kinds of love is about parents having to adapt to their children turning out entirely different from themselves, offspring that are uniquely challenging rather than reproductions of their parents. In a sense this is the position of all parents, but the cases researched with the greatest care and dedication for this book are extreme ones that include one of the Columbine massacre perpetrators as well as autism and physical disabilities. It is a rare and moving book that I feel will expand our empathy and tolerance for those who appear different, and explores the question of identity and illness.

As many have already pointed out, there is something of a personal connection here between writer and subject matter, given that Andrew Solomon is a gay parent. Apart from the publicity surrounding the book, he was been in my mind during the recent reporting of the House of Commons debate on legalizing gay marriage. Hardly surprisingly, I am in favour. What could possibly be wrong with the criteria for marriage being love and commitment rather than straight sexuality? The MPs who voted against – or, like ours, failed to support – this change for the better proposed by David Cameron seem to me to represent stultifying conformity.

In admittedly a very different context I have always fought this kind of thinking. I always ask why kitchens have to fit tight stereotypes of ‘farmhouse’ (bogus), units-round-walls etc. Instead, a kitchen can be out in the garden, or a large stiletto heel can support a chopping block. And decoration can come in personal shapes and sizes. Needless to say I enjoyed working with him on both projects and appreciate the amount of trust he gave me to interpret his requirements.

Russian art preferences to reflect Andrew’s experience in Moscow – Constructivist dinner plates, Cyrillic lettering and Coptic patterns on the cornice.*

Andrew’s New York kitchen, above, is more lavish than his Notting Hill house and features Russian script around its walls, as a tribute to time spent with dissidents around his kitchen table, while he worked through their passport applications with them.

*To my own benefit the inclusion of his Manhattan kitchen in my book Kitchen Culture may have contributed to its being published in a Russian Edition. It is still in print from Art Rosnik Publishing House, Moscow.

Far from the Tree is reviewed by Tim Adams in the Guardian.


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