2000s Archive

Dollars and Sense

Originally Published February 2005
Armed with imagination, a couple find that a cost-conscious approach to remodeling their kitchen doesn’t mean cutting corners

If someone were paying you to eat out six nights a week, remodeling your kitchen would probably be at the very bottom of the to-do list. Unless—like Los Angeles Times restaurant critics Irene Virbila and her husband, Fred Seidman—you were also an avid cook whose kitchen was stuck in a 1960s time warp. Renters before they moved into a 1923 Silver Lake cottage last year, the couple were experiencing their first opportunity to choose appliances and try their hand at design. Undaunted, they looked forward to the “fantasy exercise” of doing their first kitchen—and were determined to do so without breaking the bank.

The first steps were to literally open up the space by removing an 11-foot wall that separated the kitchen from the dining room and to replace the old-fashioned linoleum with walnut flooring that continues into the dining room. But the real design spark—a sheet of copper that was transformed into a beautifully patinated sink—occurred long before they had bought their house. “We knew we wanted to have a lot of textures and have everything be very tactile,” says Virbila.

Other crucial design elements—a 19th-century Chinese vegetable cabinet and a wine cabinet—were also purchased before they found the house. Later, they came across an Indonesian teak pharmacy cabinet that complemented the other cabinets and now serves as a pantry. Freestanding furniture negated the need for overhead cabinets, which reduced costs and, thought Virbila, “helped make a fairly small space seem larger and less cluttered.” It also fulfilled their desire to have everything go together but not match.

Seidman had the most fun choosing the oven. Believing that you don’t know what you’re getting until you’ve really worked with the equipment, he dropped in to a Purcell Murray showroom with a bagful of groceries, including two chickens. His litmus test: which oven—rotisserie or convection—would roast the crispest chicken. (A Gaggenau rotisserie won.) He also tried out stovetops before choosing a six-burner Thermador. In this case, his criteria were the position of the knobs, the way pans slid across the stovetop, whether or not he could get really low and really high BTUs for some serious sautéing, and how easy it was to clean.

Meanwhile, Virbila was back at home designing the cabinets and drawers that would be installed under the stovetop. Sticking with their conviction that “if you finish something nicely, it looks expensive,” she selected paint-grade plywood and applied three layers of paint and a coat of beeswax. A trip to Bourget in Santa Monica (Virbila says she was “feeling lucky”) turned up the bluestone slate remnant (only $10 a square foot) that now surrounds the stovetop. Instead of a traditional backsplash, she picked glass tiles with a reflective quality that bring in light and are simple to clean. The finishing touch was the Farrow & Ball bone color paint used on the walls. It was “neutral, but had a sensuous quality to it,” and went well with the sink, the couple’s collection of antique copper pots, and the stainless-steel appliances. Perhaps most tellingly, Virbila notes that the color changes with the light and “feels appropriate for a place where you’d make a homemade stock.”

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