An ode to the perfect kitchen built 53 years ago
By Charles G. Waugh
April 24, 2020 | 3:37 pm CDT
It doesn’t have all the whistles and bells of its 21st century counterpart, but there’s a lot to be said for the design and construction of this 50-year-old kitchen.

We moved into ‘Lusted House’ (so named from the road it’s on) in December of 2000. It’ll be 20 years this winter. Amazing. Boggling, really.

The house was built in 1967. More than 50 years ago! Back in the era of actual General Contractors (note the caps) - those men who built to plans, yet designed and fabricated this and that to suit their skills, their available tools, and budgets. Of course, they wouldn’t use the term “designed.” That would have been too uppity. They’d just say they built ‘em as needed.

After two decades here, many things about this house are near and dear to me. Like the kitchen.

The kitchen was crafted by one man, I can tell, since I’ve built cabinetry for the finest of homes and this one just smells of one brand of cigar. Or was it whiskey?

This kitchen outshines any kitchen I’ve ever seen at any price. Certainly not for sheer magazine-cover slick esthetics, but in usability, livability, and in honest, direct use of simple materials that have stood the tests of time and the vagaries of living with humans.

The cabinets are some of the best designed cabinets I’ve ever seen. These are no melamine-faced, MDF-core, CNC-machined boxes sporting multi-roller-bearing, self-closing, powder-coated 32mm system European drawer slide and spring-loaded 135-degree fully adjustable hinges. They are just plywood. Plywood from the good old days of solid 5-ply ¾-inch northwest softwood plywood with birch faces for the visual surfaces.

The hinges are ancient-style knife hinges, with no fancy pulls on the faces, just undercut rectangular recesses for handles machined directly in the faces of the drawers and doors, so they are flush-face cabinets.

The drawers are dovetail construction, albeit template-cut using a router, but, still, that was extravagant back then. They are still smooth and solid after these 50-plus years. Just a beautiful fit and a bit of wax on the bottom edges to give miles of gentle sliding.

The visual faces are simply birch, finished with a lacquer of some sort that’s yellowed and mellowed with age. It’s also rather worn (well, so am I!). Honestly, it’s actually scratched, rubbed, kicked and beaten a bit. Even water-stained and splintering in places from years of living with people. People who blithely use it daily without conscious appreciation (myself included).

The layout is the best I’ve ever lived with or even seen in a kitchen. It is livable, workable, efficient, and enjoyable. The three main work areas of stove, sink and fridge are perfectly positioned for ease of use and handling of all the food, appliances, tools, and surfaces. And the whole kitchen is only 12 by 10 feet, including a 3-0 exterior door and two windows.

When we toured the house with the agent 20 years ago, the owner was terribly excited over a particular feature in the kitchen and showed it off to us with great glee. At the time, I thought it was handy, but I was uninitiated, untaught, unlearned, and didn’t grasp the import until we had lived here a while. Now I can’t imagine a kitchen without them.

What was that incredible feature?

Slide-out cutting boards. There are three of them! One by the fridge, one between the sink and stove, and one over by the dishwasher. Two of them get daily use many, many times a day. One gets periodic use. I’ve replaced two of them due to plain old wear - they got so dished they were hard to use. The originals were quartersawn northwest old growth fir, the new ones I made are cross-laminated rock maple for even greater longevity.

Now that I’ve lived with these slide-out cutting boards, I am a fanboy of irritating exuberance about them. It is incredibly handy to be able to create another horizontal area right next to the open fridge door in an instant. Open the fridge, slide out the board, unload a few things, find what you need (you know how things get buried in the fridge!), load the fridge back up and away you go!

And, since they slide in and out, they get cleaned and slid back in, so the “Instant Area” is there ready to go when needed next (which is usually just a few minutes later).

One can toss some broccoli on the board between the stove and sink, wash it, chop it up, throw it in a pot, wipe the board and close it and go on with your other preps. No fumbling with boards on the counter (or hidden in a cabinet), no sliding around of cutting boards, no having to clean everything off the counter to chop a few mushrooms. Just slide it out, use it, wipe it down, and you’re done.

With our magnetic knife rack right by the sink, directly over that slide-out board, veggies seem to just magically appear chopped and in a pot of boiling water!

The countertop is ancient eggshell textured, ivory-colored Formica, with a post-formed rolled front edge and back splash. Truly nothing fancy, especially after I forgot a skillet on a burner on high one day that burnt, crackled and trashed an area by the stove. It’s still there these 10 years later. I think it’s a sign of love. Well, really, I keep thinking about copper counters...

Over to the right of the sink, on the return portion of the counter, there is an area that is dead-smooth - polished actually. That’s where my wife kneads bread, rolls out pie crust, and scrapes it all clean with a stainless steel spatula after every crust, every loaf, every batch of biscuits. It’s been lovingly polished by her dutiful service over two decades.

The floor is just brutalized linoleum, gouges, scratches, and all. That linoleum made the fridge a sort of accidental built-in. You see, when we moved in, the fridge was a tight fit under the cabinet above it, so I took the rollers off of the base of the fridge and we rather jammed it in under that cabinet. The soft linoleum gave way as it went in, but I fear it won’t give on the way back out (someday). Oh well.

The lighting is perfect. One big bank of fluorescents on the ceiling, with under cabinet lights on all the counter areas, another light in the hood over the stove, and one more over the sink. It’s easy to see in, without being too much overall, or in the eyes at all.

All in all, our kitchen is perfect. I’ve been in (and made cabinets for) houses of many millions of dollars of street value but I’ve never found a kitchen that is so easy to work in, made with such humble materials, and with those incredible pull-out cutting boards.

Having loved wood since he was a teen, Charles G. Waugh has built fine furniture in Aspen, been a design engineer in the loudspeaker industry, and now runs his eponymous portrait studio in Portland, Oregon. Having never met a book he didn't want to at least skim, much less devour, his range of interests is horrifyingly broad, despite living in Boring, Oregon. (Yes, it really is called Boring!)



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