The Kitchen as a Work of Art

June 14, 2010

By William Thrift
Photography by John Wrightenberry

Fred and Elaine Delk and their two daughters are a busy family.  While their careers, studies, and interests pull them in various directions, they all seem to cross paths, as most families do, in the kitchen and immediate surrounding areas like their breakfast area or stairwell with the laundry nook.  If anyone needs to get into the back yard, they have to pass through the kitchen, since the back door is located, as in most 1920’s homes, at the end of the counter.

A view of the kitchen before renovation, with its stock white cabinets and bright lime green walls.

The previous owner had modernized the kitchen in 1994.  But while the Delks bedecked the rest of their brick cottage in a self-described “eclectic” motif (meaning lots of whimsical art and unusual antique furniture), the kitchen remained as it was, standing out starkly as the home’s last bastion of mediocrity.  It had decent white appliances, a ceramic white sink, and stock cabinets from a big box hardware store, tastefully done in white. The previous owner had even rolled out a vinyl swath to cover the old hardwood floor.  The only element of the kitchen that came close to matching the rest of the house was the wall color: a bright lime green that could almost pass for yellow when the weather conditions were just right.

On the cabinets, the wood grain running sideways gives the sense of flowing water.

Although the kitchen was quite functional, it fell short of the Delk’s sensibilities.  Fred and Elaine collect art pieces from local and regional artists and galleries (like Columbia’s City Art).  Most of the switch plates in their home are hand-made designs from a Rock Hill artist.  They use an antique dentist’s cabinet to hold linens and cutlery in their dining room.  A stainless steel hospital medicine cabinet provides storage in their master bathroom.  Fred created the dining room light fixture with parts from Ikea and other items like a whiffle ball.  The bed used by their daughter, Farzona, is a handmade welded burnished metal-and-springs production titled “Let’s Be Friends” bed, and was reclaimed from the scrap yard of Fred’s brother, a metal artist.  So the bland kitchen just didn’t fit.

A limited edition kimono cupboard guards a wall in the breakfast area.

Being devout art patrons, one of Fred and Elaine’s close friends happens to be Clark Ellefson (see A Note on…).  They were relaxing with Clark in their simple, adequate kitchen one day and happened to mention to him that they were thinking of resurfacing their cabinets to give it a new look.  They liked the existing layout of the kitchen with its ample counter space, island, and numerous cabinets.  They just wanted to give it a twist to make it more congruent with the rest of the house.  Since kitchen design had been one of his forays in the past, Clark’s wheels began turning.  He picked up on what his friends really wanted and convinced them that simply resurfacing the cabinets wouldn’t render the desired effect.  But they were still apprehensive about taking the plunge and demolishing the kitchen.

In the meantime, Fred and Elaine decided to give Clark a test project and let him redesign a portion of their master bathroom, specifically the vanity area.  Clark asked his friend and colleague Billy Mustard to construct the cabinet.  He finished the project with Kohler sinks and faucets from Ikea.  The Delks were very pleased with the results.  The clean lines of Clark’s design and Billy’s rendering worked perfectly with the other elements of the room, and they decided to go ahead with the kitchen redesign after all.  Their ambitious caveat: it had to be done in time for the family to use the space to celebrate Christmas.

The dining room light was created by fred of an Ikea fixture, a whiffle ball, and a few other items.

Over Thanksgiving weekend, Elaine stayed with relatives while Fred and daughter Audrey began stripping everything out of the old kitchen.  They removed all of the appliances, cabinets, sink, and counters down to the old plaster walls (circa 1929).  They saved as much of the material as possible to donate to Habitat for Humanity.

Meanwhile, Clark had taken measurements of the space and redesigned the basic elements, but kept them in the same positions: on one wall were the refrigerator and cabinets with the sink, the adjacent wall housed more cabinets with a built-in oven and microwave, and an island sat in the middle creating a division between the kitchen and large breakfast area.  The only element that Clark insisted on removing was a large cabinet over the island blocking most of the view of the kitchen.  But he convinced Elaine that it was worth it to sacrifice some cabinet space in order to improve the functionality of the entire kitchen/breakfast-area.

Since there was no need for a formal presentation of his ideas, Clark simply made a sample cabinet door (honey-colored wood with a wire design).  However, the Delks wanted colors a bit less conventional.  So Clark walked around, tabbing through his palette, and selected a blend of bold colors that would be compatible with other neutrals and accents throughout the house.  He decided on stains for the wood cabinets, one of which was unique and had to be created by Sherwin Williams.  Clark once again tapped his friend Billy Mustard to construct cabinets to his specifications.

A close-up of the tile used for the backsplash.

A single piece of oak was used for several adjacent cabinet doors.  However, Clark wanted the grain turned sideways enabling it to flow like waves from door to door.  Since Elaine said she was always snagging her sweater on the old drawer pulls, Clark used holes in the front of the drawers that allowed a person to just insert their finger to pull them open.

The cabinet doors on top of the refrigerator are frosted glass.  Behind them are LED lights, which phase slowly across the color spectrum.  The Delks have caught their cat, Nikki, staring mesmerized as one color slowly overtakes another.  The cabinet tops were left open and smooth, creating a neat shelf for the Delks to display their collection of face jug folk art ceramic pieces.

The Delks have a collection of very unusual ceramic face jug folk art pieces, along with a few robot visitors.

Black/brown granite counters were installed around the sink and on the island.  The Delks liked the position of the stove on the island, but installing a range hood overhead would have created an unwanted barrier between the breakfast area and the kitchen.  So they installed a sleek, black Kitchen Aid stovetop with a downdraft vent.  Just above it, the tiny track lights can be positioned to highlight any of the face jugs or simply to accent one of Clark’s subtle hues for alternatives in ambiance.

At first, the curve of the granite on the island appears to be some parabolic calculation that would have made a Greek mathematician proud.  But Clark stayed true to his sensibilities and, with a simple swoop of his arm, drew out a template that the stonecutters used to create the unique shape.  He then created a custom stainless steel support for the overhang, and skewed it off-center to brace the granite in just the right spot.

The headboard and footboard of the "Let's Be Friends Bed" was made of reclaimed metal by Fred Delk's brother.

For the rest of the appliances, the Delks selected stainless steel to match some of the other elements Clark used such as metal shoe molding and door handles.  Rather than using a cold, hard ceramic tile for the floor, Elaine wanted something a little softer, but a step up from the existing vinyl.  Clark suggested a commercial vinyl tile for durability and ease of maintenance in a dark gray combination with hints of metallic gold which complement the other major flat surface: the glinting granite.

There are so many color and texture options when it comes to backsplashes that Clark left it as the final element to be selected.  After a little searching around town, he found small glass tiles

As a test project, the Delks had Clark Ellepson design their bathroom vanity, seen here with the stainless hospital medicine cabinet.

dubbed “Waterfall” from Palmetto Tile.  The colors were the perfect fit with the steel, granite and stained cabinets.  The iridescent metallic flecks in the glass change with the different angles of the sunlight throughout the day and take on a new life in the spots and other ambient light at night.

With the exception of a few minor details, the project was completed in time for holiday entertainment.  Now, instead of the kitchen being the mediocre place where everyone just happens to gather, it’s become the house’s showpiece where everyone has to be (including Nikki).  Whether someone wants to use the kitchen in the traditional sense, relax at the island, or take a seat in an aluminum naval chair at the breakfast table (another of Clark’s creations), the kitchen now offers stylized variety for the Delks and their guests.

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