In Search of Counter Space

A few weeks ago we went to California for a long weekend to visit our younger son and his sweet friend. We tagged along on a surfing morning, then hiked in the Santa Monica hills up a steep canyon trail past burned out houses – dreams gone awry – nothing left but flagstones and chimneys of stone and brick.

Another day we toured the Gamble House, a well-preserved Greene and Greene house, dark inside with shut-out sunshine, but rich with wood, and generous in shapely rooms and sleeping porches. The old-fashioned but really appealing kitchen has a big wooden table in the middle that provides great workspace for the cook and helpers.

The authors of “A Pattern Language,” whose pronouncements are backed by research in how people live in houses, say “Cooking is uncomfortable if the kitchen counter is too short and also if it is too long.” A Goldilocks declaration. Do you know anyone who has the “too long” problem? The book advises that a kitchen striking a balance would have a total counter length, excluding sink, stove, and refrigerator, of at least 12 feet (but the 12 feet can be made up of shorter bits – and tables and islands).

Our son’s house is a little California bungalow – the layout of the rooms the same as when it was built in 1919 (with a small guest room and bath added on beyond the kitchen.) Perhaps the kitchen was once bigger, a wall separates a space for washer and dryer now, but wouldn’t have in 1919.

Our son’s sweet friend is a terrific cook – also an effective juggler and balancer because the kitchen is seriously short of workspace. Dish drainer and appliances occupy much of the limited countertop landscape, and a warped plastic cutting board testifies to the understandable use of stove top as extra acreage.

The kitchen cried out for an island along an available blank wall – a long narrow one, with shelves underneath. After the hike, even though tired, hot, and a little reluctant, we tackled the legendary blue and yellow box store, trudging through the furnishings maze to find the right “work station.”

What I always forget is that you have to put those purchases together. And that’s where the good-natured husband comes in. Even though the wordless instructions test good nature, he spreads everything out in an orderly way, and patiently deciphers puzzling diagrams, interprets silent motions of stick figures, counts and successfully identifies parts, hardware, and fasteners.

By evening, (with just a little help from his friends), the island was assembled, placed in the kitchen, and soaking up mineral oil into its butcher-block top.

Three and a half feet of counter space gained! A good California visit.

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