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Making and/or doing: kitchen design 40 years on

The robots at Linked-In found me out pointing out there was an anniversary of 40 years designing kitchens. Well wishers sent in their congratulations and I write this in response. I built my first kitchen for my mum at fifteen years old. Her vision was to restore our farm cottage’s authentic furnishing and this, combined with her love of the Georgian period, gave me some clear design guidance. When my father suggested – to my slight horror – that I build a new wooden wall to cut down the draught from the entrance door opening straight into the room and build a dresser, my first attempt at making a kitchen was launched. My dad offered to help and stepped in occasionally, mostly to offer moral support: he was a doctor and an amateur carpenter. The work quickly grew to include remodelling the whole kitchen as the walking washing machine (as we called it) was replaced with a modern, compact, front loader, freeing up space and work surface. We hoped it might wash the clothes better and not the floor as the walking washing machine regularly did.

We lived in the kitchen after my carpentry efforts were complete, and for five years until she died my mum especially treated the kitchen as her base. My favourite photo of her is smoking a cigarette outside the kitchen door, whistling and surveying the garden.

Johnny Grey's mother

My first commissioned kitchen came ten years later in 1976 from a neighbour and friend, Sam Chesterton, and was a similar learning experience. I discovered the possibilities of well organised furniture in forming an effective kitchen, with some thoughtful ergonomics thrown in. In the spirit of punk (in tune with the times) every piece was inspired by a different historic or ethnic style – Georgian, Chinoiserie Islamic – and given a gothic inflection. Aiming to create something historical and rebellious at the same time – my personal rebellion against the aesthetic orthodoxy of the time I felt that the curiosity of gothic could count in its way as an alternative International Style. It was also the perfect antidote to the fast-growing hegemony of the then new ‘fitted kitchen’.

Sam's Chesterton kitchen

I made these pieces with two friends, also trainee woodworkers, in the same threshing barn as my mum’s kitchen was constructed in. Light came from opening the giant barn doors, benches stood on the earth floor, placed strategically away from holes in the thatched roof. This time I had two new tools, a router and power jigsaw. Mouldings, curved shapes and better jointing were suddenly possible and over indulged. Solid ash planks were slowly, amateurly and enthusiastically turned into furniture. Hours disappeared into days full of tremendous excitement and satisfaction…there was never enough time. One piece I was particularly proud of was a tall settle that stood at right angles to the wall. It turned the table into a cosy enclave, its back and side panels of gothic tracery giving eating in this kitchen a strong sense of intimacy. It was also something my American clients taught me later was a key requirement in a kitchen, a breakfast nook.

Shortly afterwards I realised that the gap between making and designing was too wide for me to breach in terms of financial investment. I had to choose between being a designer and a maker. The barn workshop, such as it was, badly needed professional woodworking machines, proper insulation and investment. My in-born impatience is better suited to design because others can help with making more easily than the other way round, thinking generally easier than doing and ideas executed faster than solid furniture. My journey to kitchen designer was happening, in hindsight was not so much accidental as inevitable. The scale of kitchens is suitable for a designer who wants to exceed the proportions of individual furniture, stay below that of an entire building but enjoy the scope of planning a room that affects the way its users live in a holistic way. The holy grail for me is to impact on my clients senses and emotions on an everyday basis.

Today I remain happy with the choice of being a designer not a maker but I’ve never forgotten how hard and pleasurable it is to make things and my respect for artisan makers remains huge. I still make simple furniture, do household maintenance and fiddle around in my workshop but there is no way I could match the high standard of the cabinet makers I work with. GK Chesterton, Sam Chesterton’s great uncle, once commented that ‘if a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly’, in other words, just get on with it and stop being held back by perfectionism. The spirit of this helped me find my direction and an empathy for the whole process of making kitchens in its oblique way. This has to be combined with putting in time, refining what you do and getting the thinking in line with the making.

Classic kitchen design
Kitchen larder
kitchen plate rack design

Today I am passing this experience on to students in my new role as educator at the Kitchen Design Course at Bucks New University, in my research programme on the 3G kitchen and to private clients who are still commissioning my kitchens, both large and small.

This blog was inspired by the Linked-In robot and has been posted on my page


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