Cooking Contemporary

By Christy Baker and Erika Howsare

Few rooms in a house provide the opportunity to make such a strong statement as the kitchen. Perhaps because there are so many different materials involved—from countertops to drawer pulls, from faucets to stove burners—the kitchen is a place where a homeowner’s taste is clearly on display. That’s true whether you opt for the granite-and-cherry look, a country-style confection, or (as with the three kitchens we’re featuring below) something clean and modern.

If kitchens undeniably express an aesthetic, they’re also perennial attractors of people: family, guests and would-be helpers. Given all that traffic, improving the layout and flow of a kitchen may do more to improve quality of life than any other renovation project.

This month, drawing on Charlottesville’s rich store of contemporary-minded designers, we bring you a trio of local kitchen renovations that are firmly in the modern vein. Whether in a Victorian-era home or a mid-century ranch, a kitchen with simple lines and bold forms can—as these examples prove—fit right in. What’s more, it can allow a house to function and feel its best. Read on to learn how.

Original update

Architect: Bushman Dreyfus Architects
Builder: Ralph Dammann
Design Consultants: v2

From Rugby Road, Dr. George Beller’s house, built in 1906, looks much the way it always has, its white frame construction striking a traditional pose. Cleverly hidden behind this historic façade, though, is an utterly contemporary kitchen, installed in 2004—complete with Italian cabinetry and large expanses of glass. It’s a bold renovation that nonetheless strikes a careful bargain with preservation.

“We did everything we could to sustain the original structure of the house,” says Beller, standing in the driveway outside the kitchen. He points to a series of vertical posts that once marked the edge of a covered porch; now they serve as dividers between floor-to-ceiling windows. By enclosing the porch this way, architect Jeff Dreyfus was able to give Beller, who led UVA’s cardiology division for 27 years, a much bigger kitchen without expanding the house’s footprint.

The renovation solved other problems, too. Beller’s old country-style kitchen was cramped and cluttered. “Only three people could eat there,” he says; when his large extended family was visiting, they’d have to spread all over the house for breakfast. Meanwhile, “there was no view of the garden from anywhere in the house.” Expanding the kitchen, taking over side and back porches, and relocating a bathroom created a large, airy space that revels in a view of backyard greenery.

Even with big windows, though, the space feels private. For the sake of historic preservation, Dreyfus left two original windows facing Rugby Road—but buried them behind a wall of cabinets, so their only function is to maintain the look of the house from the street. Meanwhile, the kitchen turns its gaze toward large hemlocks and magnolias in the back.

As for the layout, it’s actually quite simple. “It’s essentially a galley kitchen,” says Dreyfus—“one long run of equipment on one side and workspace on the other.” A very large island holds the sink, dishwasher and range, while the refrigerator, ovens and most of the storage line up along the wall. Barstools pull up to the island, and the table and a green easy chair position near the windows.

“[With Beller] wanting a bright space, it was easy to go with white cabinets,” says Dreyfus. Light materials give the space a sleek feel: oak flooring, white Wilsonart countertops, and white Poliform cabinets. “In new kitchens you really don’t see the appliances,” says Beller, showing how his refrigerator and dishwasher are hidden behind cabinet doors. Double Miele ovens and a rectilinear vent hood are “almost like art,” he says.

A nearby pantry packs in yet more storage, keeping the room entirely clutter-free.

Beller says the kitchen has been great for entertaining—providing a welcoming space for all but the most formal dinner parties, letting lots of guests help with cooking at once, and in general serving as the focal point of the house. “I didn’t realize that guests would spend 80 percent of their waking hours in this room,” he says. “For parties I have to herd people out of here.”


Ease of use

Architect: Dan Zimmerman, Alloy Workshop
Builder: Alloy Workshop

Inside a seemingly nondescript 1950s ranch home off Rugby Road, an innovative and delightfully fresh take on a modern kitchen hums with life. From its bold blue walls, to the “ropey cherry” cabinets, there is nothing ordinary about this recent remodel.

Prompted by a need for accessible storage and a desire for a more open floor plan, the clients approached architect Dan Zimmerman from Alloy Workshop with the challenge of working within the building’s existing footprint, relying on his creativity to improve the kitchen’s function and style.

Zimmerman started by asking himself, his design team and the clients: “How do you fit a better kitchen into an existing spot? How do you use what you have and just make it better?”

A central goal was to bring the majority of storage to a lower and more accessible level. What once was predominantly out of reach became an abundance of large, easy-to-open drawers and doors.

Although sleek and modern, the new space is punctuated with personality and grand splashes of warmth. Of Alloy’s aesthetic approach on the project, Zimmerman says, “What we tried to do was actually to take away some things and have fewer colors. Even though we introduced a bright blue…the material palette is restrained.”

Appliances such as the refrigerator and microwave are neatly tucked behind faces of custom-milled wood, creating a unified look. On the adjacent wall, an artful arrangement of the same ropey cherry acts as a central focal point in the kitchen. (The term “ropey” comes from the undulating wood grain revealed by a unique cut of the tree.)

“We always knew it was going to be a powerful wall,” explains Zimmerman. “It was going to be the backdrop for the house and for the kitchen, specifically.”

Thin strips of aluminum form seams between the panels and a few function as narrow shelves that delicately jut out near the cook-top. On the left side, an ethereal vellum mock-up of a stained glass work-in-progress, made by the client’s son, is framed into the wall.

After living in the home for more than 20 years, tackling the kitchen is the first major project that the homeowners have undertaken—and it won’t be the last. Alloy is already working on redesigning the home’s master suite, entryway and living room in order to make the whole home more accessible and generally better.


Light and layout

Architect: Formwork Architecture
Builder: Sugar Hollow Builders

Lavender lines the front footpath leading to a classic white Victorian home in the Locust Avenue neighborhood of Charlottesville. From the trim to the window casings, everything seems to fit nonchalantly into an era and style firmly planted in the building’s history. And then you enter the newly remodeled kitchen.

The original kitchen, which was once walled off, dim and cramped, has now been replaced with natural light and room for multiple cooks.

“We didn’t have enough space,” one of the homeowners explains. “The kitchen looked large, but the layout was very inconvenient. We both like to cook together and there wasn’t room for more than one person to get in and out. Also, everything just started falling apart.” It had been about 20 years since any work had been done to the kitchen. Appliances needed to be replaced and with two young children underfoot, more space was essential.

The homeowners asked Robert and Cecilia Nichols of Formwork Architecture to reimagine the room.

Early on it became obvious that in order to create the desired space, a bathtub and entire staircase needed to go. Corey Gerlach of Sugar Hollow Builders, the chief builder for the remodel, worked closely with the architects and clients to safely remove the stairs, by far the most challenging and important part of the remodel.

However, the most striking and fundamental change, surprisingly, had more to do with what was outside than inside.

“We wanted daylight to [have] the biggest impact,” says Robert Nichols, the lead architect. “We’re modernists and so in a lot of cases that means…open spaces, and larger expanses of light.”

The rear, northwest-facing wall is now mostly glass (“We consider it more of an absence of wall,” clarifies Mr. Nichols). It overlooks a tidy backyard and the treetops beyond, where the natural scene changes daily.

One of the homeowners points out, “We didn’t realize that we had a house with kind of a view. Since there was no window there, we didn’t really know what was there.”

Here and there, distinctively modern touches solidify a cohesive and yet personal aesthetic. Light fixtures are crisp and clean-lined, the color scheme is predominantly black, white and gray, and the open floor plan speaks to a more contemporary lifestyle.

Despite the age of the house (built in 1896), the freshly redesigned kitchen is far from jarring. There are subtle cues that remind one of the rest of the building interspersed with modern innovation, style and convenience. And the natural light streaming in and bouncing off the marble-top island is abundant and timeless. 

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