September-October 2012 | Bethesda HOME

Dark Secret

Three homeowners see kitchen cabinetry in a different light

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Dark cabinetry is one of the hottest trends in kitchen design.

Homeowners looking for the usual fixes—more storage, better flow—also want open floor plans and cabinets that look like stand-alone furniture.

Thing is: Everyone still wants a space that feels bright and airy, so striking a happy medium is key.

Here are three kitchens that get it right.

Asian Meets Mission

“I had the world’s ugliest kitchen,” Donna Thiel says with a laugh. “It had very light beige Formica [laminate] cabinets and was an odd shape.”

She figures the kitchen was original to the 1985 Silver Spring home, which she bought in 1989.

“I lived with that very ugly kitchen for a long time,” says Thiel, a partner specializing in health care at the Washington, D.C., law firm of King & Spalding.

Because of that, she knew what she wanted: to maintain the brightness of the space; to install an island, even though the floor plan appeared too narrow for one; and most importantly, to have access to the outdoors.

“I have a lovely garden in my backyard, and the kitchen was the thoroughfare—so I had to be able to walk through without dodging tables and chairs,” she says. “I wanted it to flow.”

Finally, in 2010, Thiel called upon Chevy Chase-based Jennifer Gilmer Kitchen & Bath.

Thiel knew what features she wanted in the kitchen, but she was unsure “how I wanted it to look, and what shape I wanted it to take. I had talked to a couple of different designers, and then I went to Jennifer—and within a few minutes she said, ‘Oh, no! You have to do it like this,’ and I fell in love with [her ideas].”

“The kitchen was all wrong for the space,” Gilmer says. The ceilings were too high, the sink location didn’t maximize the views, and the run of cabinets was inefficient.

Gilmer relocated the sink and set cabinets on the opposite walls of the galley. She estimates the ceiling was “close to 17 feet or something ridiculous.”

Donna Thiel in her kitchen. Photo by Darren Higgins Because it was out of proportion with the space, she brought the height down and angled it (from 6 feet 4 inches in one area to 12 feet 3 inches in another) and installed modern cable lighting.

“It adds to the sculptural element and is something interesting to look at,” Gilmer says.

The designer also widened the opening leading into the kitchen from 36 inches to 83, which helps the flow and makes the space feel more integrated to the surrounding rooms.

Because Thiel describes her style as “Asian meets Mission,” Gilmer installed dark-stained walnut cabinets using a combination of flat and paneled doors, with some laminated glass for contrast that give the upper cabinets the look of a shoji screen.

She converted the existing window into a box-shaped bay. The previous floor plan wasn’t quite wide enough for an island, but the bay enabled the designer to push the cabinetry into that area to make room for one.

The kitchen features light-colored finishes—beige granite, frosted glass for the backsplash and natural oak flooring with a honey stain. “If the things that are at eye level are lighter, it creates a dramatic contrast that does not feel too dark,” the designer says.

Appliances are largely hidden behind cabinet panels. Gilmer and Thiel selected a glass cooktop, a 27-inch-wide all-refrigerator and under-counter freezer drawers. The room did not have space for a walk-in pantry, so Gilmer installed a large cabinet for that purpose above the freezer drawers, matching the refrigerator in appearance, she says.

For Thiel, who lives with two dogs, the well-organized new kitchen—with its dual sinks and faucets—inspired a new lifestyle.

“I entertain a lot and I cook more than I ever used to,” she says. “I just love playing with the toys.”