Arts & Crafts Kitchens
Recreating an Arts & Crafts Kitchen
The Arts & Crafts kitchen evolved far beyond the spare, utilitarian, Victorian beginnings. By the end of the Era, it had become an efficient meal preparation and cleanup center with cold and dry storage, distinct preparation areas, running water, electricity, and even sanitary waste disposal. General Electric had already invented and was selling the kitchen sink disposer that was later to become a market leader as the "Dispos-all". Still not quite the modern kitchen of today, but very close.
The modern Arts & Crafts kitchen is only a distant relative of the actual kitchens of the Arts & Crafts period. In fact, the contemporary kitchen is more accurately a modern kitchen in the Arts & Crafts style. What kitchen designers have done is take the best design elements of the Arts & Crafts house and combine them with modern kitchen features to produce a hybrid kitchen that looks and feels like it could have been completely at home in an Arts & Crafts house. But, it is anything but historically accurate. And, if it were, who would want it?
Fortunately, Arts & Crafts kitchens were usually fairly large because as well as cooking and washing up, they were often the place where laundry was done. The sink and washboard gave way to the wringer washer once electricity was available, and the laundry was often moved to a porch or the basement. A built-in drop-down ironing board was a standard feature. With the laundry moved elsewhere in the modern home, the ironing board recess has often been converted to a cup and glassware cupboard or spice cabinet — and in its new role is very functional. The fairly generous footprint of the Arts & Crafts kitchen makes it easier to modernize the kitchen without adding on.
By the 1920s and on into the 1930s, hygiene and sanitation were key elements of the Arts & Crafts kitchen. Above all else, any kitchen feature needed to be easily cleaned and unlikely to harbor germs.
Ceramic tile was a favored material. A tile wainscot was a common feature — often extending up the wall to as high as 56". Tile was hygienic and easy to keep clean.
The walls above the tile were painted in durable, washable enamel paint. Wallpaper in kitchens was not sanitary, and, therefore, less often used. If more decoration was wanted, stencils were used to paint designs on the walls.
Unlike the rest of the house, usually painted in somber earth tones, the most common colors for both tile and paint in kitchens were pastels. Illustrations from the period show that many of the colors that we commonly associate with post-war modernism were already well established in the Arts & Crafts kitchen palette: aqua, turquoise, peach, lemon yellow and nearly every shade of pink. (See Arts & Crafts Kitchens in Period Advertising below.)
Colors were frequently banded. One color to about midway up the windows, another color up to the top of the window, and a third color in the frieze above the window. Often the color bands were separated by horizontal moldings. Where a tile wainscot was used, the tile was often bordered in a contrasting color. Peach and aqua were popular combinations.
Original Arts & Crafts kitchens were workrooms where cooking and cleaning up was done. They were not "public" rooms that guests entered, so they were very utilitarian.
While the practice today favors stained fine wood kitchen cabinets, the cabinets of the actual period were usually pine, painted in light, "sanitary" colors. White was by far the most popular — not usually a bright "hospital" white, but a slightly "off-white". Variations of white were also used: cream, eggshell, and ivory were very popular. Pastels were introduced toward the end of the period.
Adjustable Shelves in Arts & Crafts Cabinets
If you think adjustable cabinet shelves are a recent innovation, you'd be wrong. They have been around since cabinets were invented, and without using those tiny, easily-lost metal-peg shelf supports.
The sawtooth shelf support is a method of making shelves adjustable that has been in use for hundreds of years. Notched wood supports at each corner hold adjustable cleats on which the shelves rest. Clever, simple to build, sturdier and more secure than today's shelf peg systems, we use the method frequently in period cabinetry for the touch of history it adds to the cabinets.
The elegant, fine wood cabinets you see in the modern interpretation of the Arts & Crafts kitchen cabinet did not originate in the kitchen, but in the more public living and dining rooms of the period. Fine hardwood was a feature of built-in living room and dining room furniture and fireplace mantels. However, since kitchens now have become public rooms, upgraded cabinet wood is an appropriate interpretation.
But, whether painted pine or carefully finished hardwoods, Arts & Crafts cabinet styles are distinctive. The cabinets typically feature a flat 1- or 2-panel door with square, unadorned frame. Edge profiling typical of the Victorian era is almost completely absent except in very early kitchens.
The Three Faces of Oak
How oak is sawn affects its appearance and price.
Raised panel and flush cabinet doors are inconsistent with the period, as are arched panel doors. Glass-panel doors are, however, appropriate, especially with art or stained glass. Many architect-designed Prairie-style cabinet doors and drawers are more elaborate, but still rather plain. (For examples of Arts & Crafts cabinet doors and drawer fronts, see Cabinet Door Styles.)
Generally, each part of the country used wood that was common to its locality. Use of local materials was a key tenet of the Arts & Crafts philosophy. Oak was the most frequent wood of choice in the Midwest: usually red oak, either rift cut or quartersawn. Although major cabinet manufacturers often use flat sawn oak in most of their Craftsman cabinets, it is not actually authentic to the period. Rift or quartersawn elm and chestnut are also good choices.
Cherrywood was not commonly found in Arts & Crafts houses in the Midwest but was fairly common in the East. Some famous architects used more exotic woods. Cuban mahogany, for example, was the material of choice for most Greene & Greene cabinetry and furnishings in California. Unfortunately Cuban mahogany is now commercially extinct, as is its successor, Honduran mahogany, from overcutting. The "mahogany" available today is usually not a true mahogany, but a wood with a somewhat similar appearance.
Straight-grain, Douglas Fir was a staple of West Coast cabinetry. It was widely used to build period kitchen cabinets because it was cheap at the time, not so any longer. But, it makes a beautiful cabinet and is a basic wood in Japanese cabinetmaking. Light colored woods, such as maple, should be used only if they are painted. Whatever the wood, it should be well figured, high-quality wood. The color and grain of the wood were considered all the decoration needed in Arts & Crafts cabinetry.
Early countertops were often linoleum or what was then often called "oilcloth". Linoleum works well as flooring, but it doesn't suffer the kind of abuse a countertop gets and has to be replaced frequently. It is not a good choice for today's kitchen. Wood countertops were common, especially where any cutting was done.
Wood is actually a good countertop material, but it does require periodic maintenance to keep its good looks. If stone was used, it was typically a local stone such as limestone, or, in upscale kitchens, soapstone or slate imported from the East. Artificial stone will work if the color is kept dark to look a little like soapstone or slate.
Laminate countertops also work well. The high-pressure laminate countertop was invented in the early 20th century by Formica and was the upscale countertop by the 1920s — a notion that is a little hard to believe now — but true. It was used on the Queen Mary and in high-end Art Deco retail establishments as the luxury countertop and wall-covering material of the era.
It was expensive but still found its way into many late Arts & Crafts homes, often with wood banding on the edges. All laminate manufacturers make patterns very suited for Arts & Crafts homes.
The trick to laminates that look at home in an Arts & Crafts kitchen is to reduce the thickness of the countertop to 7/8" to 1" rather than today's standard 1-1/2". The current standard thickness did not become the standard until after 1945 when shop-produced laminate tops became common. The site-fabricated tops of the Arts & Crafts period were likely to be any thickness from 1/2" to 2", but 7/8" seems to have been the most common simply because it was the actual thickness of the 1" nominal lumber at the time.
Zinc was a common countertop treatment during Victorian times and was carried over into the Arts & Crafts era. Zinc countertops are still being made, as is Monel®, a nickel/copper alloy invented in 1901 by Robert Crooks Stanley and often used in period groceries as a countertop material. Both materials are corrosion resistant, and especially resistant to organic acids (acetic and fatty acids) associated with food. Both will change color with use over time, but aficianados of the materials believe that the patina associated with age and use contributes to the charm and warmth of the metals.
The disadvantage of zinc and Monel is that both are expensive, and few fabricators are familiar with the material today. The laminate companies have stepped in to fill the gap. Zinc-look laminates are available at reasonable prices, and while not an exact replica, are close enough to make most people look twice.
Stone is also a countertop surface suitable for a period kitchen. It is probably the oldest work surface, dating back to prehistoric times. Soapstone and slate have been quarried for at least 250 years in New England and have been used for both dry and wet sinks since Colonial times. Marble is another traditional stone with a long history of use as a working surface dating back at least 100 years. But, because it stains easily and can be etched by acids, it may not be as appropriate for kitchen countertops as other stone varieties.
Soapstone is extremely durable, nonporous, and unaffected by chemicals or acids like lemon juice or vinegar. In fact, it is so imperveous to just about everything that it is used as countertops in chemical laboratories. It darkens over time through oxidation and the veining in the material becomes more prominent with age. If you don't want to wait for natural aging, the material can be darkened with oil or special waxes.
Fine-grained slate from the Northeast United States is dense and nonporous and has been used as a working surface material since early in the nation's history. In the Arts & Crafts period, slate sinks were very common and could be purchased through plumbing catalogs such as those published by HaJoCa since 1858. Its many hues and patterns: gray, purple, green, and soft red make it suitable for different decors and tastes.
Marble, common as a pantry countertop in the 19th century, is making a comeback despite its relative fragility. However, for a marble look with more resistance to damage and much less maintenance, consider an engineered man-made marble substitute.
Ceramic Tile Countertops
Ceramic tile was common for floors in the Arts & Crafts period but not as common as a countertop material in kitchens. With the new care-free urethane grouts, it is among the most maintenance-free countertop materials — requiring much less attention than any natural stone. It is also the material that permits the most creativity. There are literally thousands of patterns and colors of ceramic tile, so mix, match and experiment until you get a look you love.
In the early Arts & Crafts period tables were the preferred work surface, a holdover from Victorian kitchens. Even after fitted cabinets became more common and raised countertops suitable for standing work more ubiquitous, tables remained in most kitchens and dining surfaces.
These often would have been fitted with an enamel-on-steel working surface. "Porceliron" was a common trade name for the material. Enamel-on-steel tended to chip, so unmarred examples are difficult to find, and auction prices are numbing for exceptional pieces.
The working surfaces of Hoosier cabinets were also often enamel-on-steel. Unfortunately, as for as we can tell, enamel-on-steel tabletops are not available today. (But, if you know of a source, please contact us or leave a comment below.)
For more on kitchen countertops in general, see New & Traditional Countertop Choices.
The hygiene movement encouraged homeowners to use sanitary surfaces in their homes. Flooring was of particular focus. Christine Frederick, a pioneer home economist of the Arts & Crafts period summed up flooring choices for the "modern" kitchen this way…
Many contemporary flooring materials are not appropriate for Arts & Crafts kitchens, but most natural and traditional materials work well. For a complete account of flooring suitable for kitchens and baths, see Flooring Options for Kitchens & Baths.
In the immediate post-Victorian period, wood floors were common in kitchens, sometimes shellacked and waxed, sometimes not. Shellac — which is dissolved by alcohol and turns white when wet — was not a very satisfactory finish, but it was what was available. The shellac protected the floor and wax protected the shellac. The wax had to be renewed frequently.
By the 1920s paint companies had begun offering floor varnishes and paints that were more durable. Paints in such hues as orange, brown, gray and maroon were often used to brighten a kitchen and disguise or minimize earlier damage to the kitchen floor.
The sanitation movement, at its height during the Arts & Crafts period, virtually dictated that that kitchen floors be kept hygienic — which meant weekly cleaning and monthly waxing in many homes — a labor-intensive process when waxes had to be polished by hand. There were no low maintenance floors during the Arts & Crafts period.
Yearly re-painting or re-varnishing as part of general Spring Cleaning was encouraged by paint companies — although it was very inconvenient since it usually took more than a week for the paint or varnish to dry and the odor of the high VOC paint and varnish of the time could be suffocating.
Painted floors are not usually durable enough for the modern kitchen, although we have done some. Fortunately, modern paints are last longer than those available during the Arts & Craft period, so yearly repainting is no longer required. Painting is especially appropriate where the original flooring is in good shape but stained and discolored to the extent that the wood cannot be restored — pretty much the same reason homeowners painted kitchen floors in the first place. Figure on repainting every three to five years — more often in high traffic areas. Fortunately, today's floor paint dries overnight, and low VOC formulations have virtually eliminated odor.
Arts & Crafts Kitchens in Period Advertising
Hardwood flooring was preferred to softer woods like pine. Hardwood is a good choice for today's kitchen since modern finishes give excellent protection against wear and water damage. It was almost always narrow strip wood. Wide plank flooring was unusual, although frequently seen in reproduced Arts & Crafts kitchens. The floor was rarely stained, although it might be fumed to a very dark, almost black, color. Most of the dark staining we see in old pre-war floors, however, is the result of embedded dirt and darkened varnish. The wood was typically oak, but also elm, chestnut or maple. Maple was particularly popular for kitchens since its closed pore structure prevented stains from penetrating.
Kitchens that appear in period advertising are usually more inspirational than actual; but advertising does give us a good idea of what American homeowners of the time thought were ideal kitchens. These illustrations run the gamut from primitive early period kitchens to streamlined Art Deco styles of the late Arts & Crafts period. Notice the absence of stained wood cabinets. Stained wood cabinets in kitchens were rare in the Arts & Crafts period.
For many more vintage advertising illustrations and expert information on vintage kitchens and baths, we urge you to visit Antique Home Styles.
The economy flooring in the Midwest was often red oak in 1-1/2" strips just 3/8" thick. We have always been impressed with how well this material has held up over nearly a century. Dimensioned flooring in this size is still available from our local woodcutters and commercially from Canada.
One of the more interesting discoveries we have made over the years is that there is sometimes a wood strip floor under the many layers of linoleum and vinyl in an Arts & Crafts kitchen. We think it is an accident of history. Most of the period houses built around 1927 seem to have had oak kitchen floors, which were almost immediately covered in linoleum — the "miracle" material of the day. What the covering has done is keep the oak in pristine condition, without the wear common to other parts of the house. A few hours work removing the asphalt tile adhesive and some sanding and refinishing results in a floor that looks brand new, even though it is actually nearly 100 years old.
Ceramic & Stone TileStone tile and ceramic tile are good choices for an Arts & Crafts kitchen. Stone fits the Arts & Crafts preference for natural materials. Ceramic tile works best if it looks like stone The brightly color floor tile that was frequently used in post-war modern kitchens was less frequently used in Arts & Crafts kitchen, more in bathrooms. But, it was used here and there especially toward the end of the era when what we think of as Post-War modern kitchens were already being featured in period magazines in bright and pastel colors.
Stone tile includes marble, slate, and limestone. Slate and limestone were most popular. Marble was less commonly used in kitchens (but often a feature of upscale baths). Marble and limestone are vulnerable to scratching, cracking, and other wear. Granite, the hardest stone used today, ware rare in the Arts & Crafts period since it was difficult to work with the tools available at the time. Some stones commonly used for countertops, such as soapstone, are too soft for use on a floor.
The disadvantage of natural stone and unglazed tile is that they need a surprising amount of regular maintenance. Stone and unglazed tile need to be kept clean and dry, and it needs to be resealed regularly. Manufacturers usually recommend that it be resealed annually, but it may be necessary more often in high-traffic areas — as often as every three months in a busy kitchen. So, our first choice for a stone look is usually low-maintenance glazed tile made to look like stone, especially the slates and limestone.
True linoleum is also an authentic and excellent choice. Genuine linoleum was the original sheet flooring material, first patented by Englishman Frederick Walton in 1863. Although some people still call all sheet floors "linoleum," the real thing is quite different from petroleum-based sheet vinyl floors that are the modern replacement for linoleum.
Its name derives from its main ingredient, linseed oil. (In Latin, linum is the word for linseed and oleum means oil.) The oil is boiled, mixed with melted resins, and combined with powdered cork, wood flour, ground limestone, and other natural materials. Mineral pigments provide the color. This mixture is formed into a durable sheet by applying heat and pressure. Through most of the Arts & Crafts period, linoleum would have been the first choice for an upscale "modern" kitchen. Vinyl sheet flooring can simulate linoleum, but it is difficult to reproduce the original linoleum texture and finish in vinyl, so substitutes are not always entirely convincing.
The Arts & Crafts Society offers a slideshow of linoleum patterns common in the 1930s. While most of these are no longer made, the show gives you a good idea of what your great-grandmother thought was trendy and modern. Today's linoleum usually has much less dramatic patterns and more neutral colors.
Many people believe cork to be a relatively fragile material and are surprised to see cork listed as one of the original Art & Crafts flooring materials. In fact, cork used in flooring is very robust and has a long history as a resilient flooring going back to the early Victorian period.
It reached its zenith in 1927 when 2.9 million square feet of cork floors were sold. It is very durable. The cork floor in the lobby of the Department of Commerce building in Washington, D.C., installed in 1930, is still in use today, as is the cork floor specified by Frank Lloyd Wright for his "Fallingwater" house in Pennsylvania in 1935.
Cork was not only the first but is in many ways the best resilient flooring for a kitchen. Due to its unique cellular structure (about 2.4 million air-filled cells per cubic inch), cork is a very resilient floor. It has a little "give" and feels soft to the foot. Yet it is extremely tough and durable. Modern finishes give cork a high level of protection from dirt and chemicals, and cork is naturally waterproof. Its cellular structure prevents it from absorbing water, which is why it was the original material for fishing bobbers and life vests. With proper care, cork floors last 100+ years, and if damaged, can be easily repaired, although most cork aficianados don't bother — a little scratch or gouge just adds to the patina.
Cork is also the "greenest" flooring available. It is completely sustainable and renewable. Cork is the bark of the Cork Oak tree. The tree, grown predominately in Europe and North Africa, has a lifespan ranging from 150-200 years. Cork is harvested using methods that have remained virtually unchanged since the uses of cork were first discovered. Once the tree has reached maturity (typically 25 years), the first harvest of cork bark is removed from the tree. The process is repeated at intervals of nine years (the minimum interval required by law), at no time affecting the health of the tree. During each harvest, no more than 50% of the bark is removed, allowing the tree to protect itself using its natural defenses.
To produce cork flooring, waste cork bark left over from making wine corks is ground into small granules. The granules are baked under pressure in molds at varying temperatures producing shade variations in the finished tile product. A dye may also be applied, but most of the color you see in cork is just the result of baking. The cork slab is then cut into slabs, smoothed and finished with several applications of polyurethane or some other durable coating. The coating adds to the natural resistance of the cork to dirt and stains. Damp mopping with a mild detergent is all that is required to maintain a cork floor. Cork does not stain easily nor require cleaning with harsh chemicals.
The toughest part of reproducing an Arts & Crafts kitchen are the appliances. Electric appliances from the period are available here and there, and many in working order. But, as a rule, they just don't work as well as modern electric appliances and are not suited to modern kitchens for safety as well as practical reasons.
Nor are they very efficient. In fact, a small five cubic foot GE Monitor refrigerator is so inefficient that it takes more electricity to operate than a modern 36" side-by-side refrigerator with four times the capacity (and an ice maker). Since, in the end, a kitchen is a workroom where the tasks of preparing and serving food are done, we don't want any notions of rigid authenticity to interfere with the process.
So, how to incorporate modern appliances into an Arts & Crafts kitchen without destroying the historic look and feel. There are ways, which boil down to four basic approaches.
Original Period Appliances
The first is using an actual period appliance.
While most period appliances are unsuited to a modern kitchen, some pre-war appliances can be used in their original form or modernized with new innards to keep the look of the period with the convenience of modern functionality.
Gas ranges fit nicely into this category. The technology of using natural gas to produce heat has not changed much in 100 years. All it takes is a supply of gas, and a burner.
The modern burner is not very different from the burners used 100 years ago. The big improvement is that modern burners are sealed so that any spills stay on top of the stove instead of migrating inside.
The other significant change is the safety and reliability of ignition. Today we use electric ignition. Our grandparents used kitchen matches or a pilot light — not nearly as safe or convenient. However, it is not a difficult process to add modern electric ignition and sealed burners to a period stove.
It's a little more complicated to modify an old range to use electricity, but again it is possible. We much prefer, however, to stick with gas. Gas cooks better (which is why almost all professional chef stoves are gas) and is more authentic to the period.
The second alternative is to find a modern appliance that looks like it could have been around in the 1920's and 30s. There are such things, but they're not made by GE, LG or Amana; or, in fact, any other appliance maker you have ever heard of.
They are made by small companies like Big Chill and Elmira Stove Works. Some reproductions are totally convincing. Others less so. Modern ranges and wall ovens with 1920s styling are virtually indistinguishable from the original and fit right into an Arts & Crafts kitchen. The differences are apparent only when the appliance is in use and the modern electronic controls and ventilation systems are exposed.
Other appliances like dishwasher panels and microwaves are less successful. Nothing makes a microwave look like it belongs in an Arts & Crafts kitchen. The best solution for a microwave is to hide it in a cabinet. Similarly, a retro dishwasher panel looks like… Well, we're not really sure what it looks like, but it does not look like it should be there. We suggest using reproductions for ranges and ovens and leaving dishwashers and microwaves to be handled another way.
Hiding & Disguising Appliances
Which brings us to our third approach: hiding.
Hiding works well for dishwashers. A panel that looks like the rest of the cabinet doors can be made that is very good at concealing the fact that the "cabinet" is actually a modern dishwasher. Generally, dishwashers must be designed to accommodate wood panels for this approach to work well. Hiding also works for microwaves, which can be built into a cabinet and concealed behind a cabinet door when not in use.
Refrigerators are more difficult to hide. But, there are options.
Using Modern Appliances
The final appliance option is to simply use modern appliances. Ok, it's not strictly to period, but, so what?
A home kitchen is not a museum. It needs first and foremost to be fully functional. Style comes in at a distant second. If it takes modern appliances to get to full functionality on your remodeling budget, so be it. If any of your family, friends or neighbors are offended by your lack of pure historic authenticity, ban them from your kitchen. There, problem solved — and very inexpensively.
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One big advantage of staying with strictly modern appliances is that they are a lot cheaper. Many of the retro-look appliances available on the market cost two or even three times the price of a non-retro-look equivalent appliance. So, sacrificing a little authenticity for a leaner budget is, for many homeowners, a sterling idea.
Small appliances can be more easily integrated into your heritage Arts & Crafts kitchen, simply because there are scads of modern appliances designed to look vintage. The iconic Sunbeam ToastMaster automatic toaster has been reproduced in more or less authentic styling by a number of different companies, as has the old Sunbeam MixMaster.
Some small appliances have not changed in appearance in 100 years, and the modern version is still right at home in an Arts & Crafts kitchen. The most notable of these is probably the iconic Kitchen Aid Stand Mixer. It has looked almost exactly the same since 1919 and fits right into any kitchen of almost any period.
Coffeemakers are a little bit of a problem. These things seem to be almost uniformly starkly modern, stainless and glass contraptions. But, the one thing you don't want to do is buy a percolator, vintage or otherwise. These things make truly terrible coffee.
Kenwood has gotten into the business of making retro-look appliances, and one of its more successful efforts is its coffeemakers and espresso machines. The Kenwood Mix line of retro appliances includes a coffeemaker that looks like what a coffeemaker could have looked like if there had been automatic coffeemakers 80 years ago. For espresso and cappuccino fans, there is the Kenwood Cafe Retro espresso machine. Both in stainless and ten retro colors.
Most Requested Feature
We have never seen an original Arts & Crafts kitchen cabinet with a glass panel door. But, glass panelss were common in built-in dining room breakfronts. Kitchen designers have simply adopted the style of these glass doors and Craftsman windows to kitchen cabinets. Glass is common in reproduction Arts & Crafts kitchens, particularly stained or art glass in Arts & Crafts and Art Deco designs.
It may not be original, but it is authentic, and the most requested kitchen feature of Arts & Crafts kitchen renovations. Put a little low-voltage light inside the cabinets, and you have a built-in display case for grandma's Irish china.
The Arts & Crafts Bath
In the early part of the Arts & Crafts era, the bath was merely a continuation of the Victorian bathroom with its stand-alone claw-foot tub and wall-mounted lavatory sink. This was often a very monochromatic room — with a subway tile wainscot, white floor tile and. . . . (Continues)