It all began with a little leak in the bathroom overtop the galley kitchen in the 1840 Havre de Grace home of Blue Arnold and his partner, Perry Christian.
“We undertook what we thought was going to be the minor renovation of the upstairs bathroom,” says Arnold. But things got a little out of hand: “Since we were ripping up the ceiling, we decided to do a basic remodel to the kitchen.” And that evolved into a complete reinvention of the space into an open-plan cooking, dining, and entertaining venue. Then again, they were well schooled for the job, since both work at Kitchens By Request, a Jarrettsville-based design firm.
As is often the case when best-laid plans meet the realities of owning an old house, one thing led to another. The demolition needed to repair the plumbing revealed a structural wood beam at the center of the house that was completely deteriorated. “The house was basically imploding,” says Arnold, who is a principal at Kitchens By Request.
The wood beam was replaced with one made of steel, and the new structural support allowed Christian and Arnold to look at the organization of the space with new creativity. The galley kitchen ran parallel to an old boiler room; with the addition of the new support beam, they decided to knock down walls and repurpose the boiler-room space into more kitchen area. In the dining room, a series of windows were removed to make way for 20 feet of French doors that open onto a patio. From the new kitchen, they are able to look over a peninsula into the dining room and out to the backyard.
“The old structure wasn’t big, but it feels bigger now,” says Arnold of the open-floor plan. “The space is very comfortable and contemporary.”
When he’s at work, Arnold often describes his design process as “organic,” and his own kitchen exemplifies that strategic approach. “I tell my clients all the time, ‘We’re going to have a base design, but we’re not going to pick the paint colors or some other important items until you see it coming together,’” he explains. “I think that makes a more successful design.”
While it has some contemporary elements, the new kitchen is still respectful of the age of the home. Another stroke of luck in the renovation was that it uncovered a beamed ceiling (this one still intact) that was hiding behind a ’70s-era drop ceiling. “It’s reclaimed wood, we believe from old ships that came up the Chesapeake,” says Christian, who is VP of product design and brand strategy at Kitchens By Request. One organic step in the design process was to use wire-brushed wood floors to give a look of modern rustication that works well with the hand-hewn ceiling.
The first major step in the kitchen’s evolution was the selection of cabinetry. The pair opted for cherry cabinets (stained and glazed) with thick applied molding for a rich look. Next came the choice of granite. Blue fell in love in the granite yard with a stone called “Chinese Red Dragon.”
“Once that was dictated, it was a matter of finding something that would work with this punch of red,” Christian recalls. Christian tried out perhaps 10 colors on the wall before he found the perfect slate blue. “It just happened to pick up the tones in the background of the granite.”
Being in the kitchen business themselves, the pair had certain must-haves for their own space. Granite was one.
“Twenty years from now, you can still have granite and natural stone and it’s maintenance-free,” says Arnold. “Materials that come from the Earth have longevity and are timeless. In a time when value matters, natural materials are a good value.”
Professional-grade appliances were another, and the pair fell back on tested, high-end brands, Wolf and Subzero. The kitchen has a large, four-foot refrigerator and a five-foot range. Christian is the cook in the house and, though he initially thought the large range was overkill, “There have been times at parties or the holidays when every burner is going as well as the two ovens,” he says. And he loves the built-in pot-filler spigot. “Believe it or not, I use it constantly, whether it’s for pasta or in making our own dog food for our three dogs. It really comes in handy.”
Arnold ended up compromising on a dramatic range hood as the structural beam made a large stone hood impossible. Instead, the design accommodates an insert clad with tile that mimics stone.
“We needed to cement the design,” says Arnold. “This hood harkens back to a hearth or fireplace, so this is our contemporary fireplace, and it feels right with the range.”
Not only is this a kitchen made for cooking, the overall space is perfect for entertaining, and the line between kitchen and social space is nicely blurred. The kitchen cabinetry and granite countertops run, unbroken, into the dining area where they morph into a bar with storage for liquor, a separate beverage refrigerator, and a wine chiller. A conversation space (adjacent to the main dining table) plays an important role in the open plan, and the granite peninsula doubles as a workspace and an eat-at bar.
Christian and Arnold understand that details matter. For example, the liquor storage in the bar area was custom-cut to fit tall vodka bottles and stout gin bottles. The cabinets in the kitchen are well-suited to their task with adjustable shelves on rails, extra-deep drawers for corralling Tupperware or stacking deep pots, a spice rack, and deep cabinets for stashing big bags of dog food. A section of counter space is dropped a scant 1 ∑ inches to create a baking center. The minor adjustment in height makes all the difference in comfort when rolling out dough.
There’s a warming drawer—handy for heating plates—and they chose an extra-deep sink for reasons both aesthetic and pragmatic. The depth helps hide those leftover dishes they’ve been too busy to get to, while the super size makes it easier to wash large platters.
Another challenge that received serious attention was lighting. All major cabinets feature interior lights that go on automatically when opened, so one can actually see into the pantry, for example, or into the liquor cabinet. (There’s no losing that odd bottle of bitters in this house.) Every light, even those under the cabinets, is controlled by a dimmer.
“The under-the-cabinet lighting is extremely handy,” says Christian. “When you’re entertaining or dining, it’s ambient light, but when you’re cooking, it’s task lighting.”
At Kitchens by Request, Arnold’s design work frequently layers textures and colors, and his own kitchen reflects this approach. The backsplash is a combination of stone, marble, ceramic, and glazed porcelain in a harlequin pattern. The drawer pulls and over-sized knobs are brushed steel with copper inlay. “They’re like jewelry,” says Arnold.
The design also mixes the refined with the industrial, as evidenced by the use of stainless-steel appliances and a shiny, chrome, heavy-duty faucet in combination with the gorgeous cabinetry and sophisticated granite.
“The stainless-steel appliances really give you a gourmet look,” Arnold explains. “We had the option of putting the refrigerator behind a wood panel, for example, but it would start blending too much. You don’t always need to use the same finish everywhere.”
The new kitchen is a showplace not only for friends and family, but also for clients.
And were it not for one rotting beam, Arnold and Christian may never have experienced what it was like to be their own client. It was a process that was more difficult than they ever imagined.
“When you’re in the design business, you like everything that the client envisions,” says Arnold. “We needed to ask: ‘What do we really like?’ In the end, you go with your gut, what works with the space, how we live our lives and what’s comfortable.” And their instincts were true: The new kitchen and dining space is the favorite and most-used area of the house.