Design is Universal

After doing battle in kitchens for many years, our author embarks on another epic struggle to realize a space accessible to all.

In January my wife, Alison, decided that we needed a new kitchen at our property in Massachusetts. She also concluded that we both needed to go on the Atkins diet. These projects, in her view, were of the greatest urgency. In the case of the kitchen, the existing space was a rotting, decrepit, poorly designed servant’s kitchen that had been updated perhaps twice in 100 years. The fix would involve heavy structural work on a house for which the 12-by-12-foot oak foundation beams were laid in 1890.

Heavy structural work also seemed about the only way to get my waistline down well below 42 inches. But redoing a kitchen while on a low-carb diet—which has as its principal side effect the near total loss of one’s will to live—is a twisted bit of psychological torture all by itself. There were other twists as well: our two sets of twins’ need for timely cereal, pizza, and hot dogs meant there could be no interruption of meal service throughout construction. There was also the immovable deadline of my parents’ 50th anniversary on August 7 and a family reunion with an expected guest count of 25 beginning August 1. Our little residential job had the D-day pressure of a full-fledged military operation financed and overseen by a B-list TV news celebrity client whose carb-starved mood often gave him a resemblance to Caligula.

One more thing: I (the client) use a wheelchair full-time, so the kitchen had to be completely accessible—a state-of-the-art showcase for universal design. So aside from being able to work with Caligula, the designer would have to be someone with the vision to meld accessibility specifications with the functional demands of a modern kitchen while maintaining the feel of a traditional Victorian-style country home. Despite my own familiarity with the design-and-architecture community—or perhaps because of a certain personal suspicion of a profession that has seemed to be repulsed by rather than embracing of government-mandated accessibility for the disabled—I had no idea who could meet such a requirement. More to the point, I had no real idea what the requirement even was.

This is doubtless because architecture has always been a personal battleground in a nearly 30-year war of my body versus space. The kitchens I have known were always the scene of harrowing claustrophobic engagements among canyonlike countertops. Preparing meals involved avoiding unruly cabinets, the way forward blocked by my wheelchair. I was left to cook sauces with only a wooden spoon to guide me around a pot I couldn’t hope to see into. My most important ingredients were out of reach when I needed them. There was daily hand-to-hand combat with refrigerators and dishwashers; hot ovens were scenes of flaming grease-spattering ambushes; stoves were locales of firefights, as I attempted to move boiling stockpots from burner to sink without poaching my lap. I carry numerous physical scars from these battles. The most prominent, on my left thigh, is from an ovenproof dish that fell from a hot burner to my numb paralyzed lap one Thanksgiving, sending me to the emergency room. My late grandfather was so horrified by my kitchen close calls that years ago he made me a wooden lap cutting-board. It is among my proudest possessions as well as my only armor in a culinary fight I faced naked or at least always sitting down.

Over time these battles warped me into believing they were part of the art of cooking itself—that fights with domestic architecture were a chronicle worthy of the Peloponnesian Wars. For me, imagining a newly designed kitchen denuded of obstacles, without dangerous cul-de-sacs or precariously mounted spice racks, was as foreign as the idea of Sir Edmund Hillary staring up at Everest from base camp and imagining bulldozers and tactical nukes rounding off the peak to soften his historic climb to the summit. What’s the sport in that? It would take my wife, with sufficient detachment from these battles, to see the virtue of a wheelchair-friendly kitchen. She was also keen to prove that the gigantic messes she cleaned up from my ambitious dinners were not part of my disability. “You’re just a slob,” she told me. “An accessible kitchen will prove this once and for all.”

Alison had clipped a name from the New York Times, knowing that her time would come. Designer Jane Langmuir, a former faculty member at the Rhode Island School of Design, had been part of an exhibition on universal design years ago at the Cooper-Hewitt, in New York City. Her contribution: an accessible kitchen. We never made it to the exhibit, but Alison had found and saved Jane’s number. We called Jane, who visited our house and was excited by the project.

Our home has an interesting history. It’s a semi-Victorian farmhouse on top of a hill near Egremont. A smaller house on the property, the first settlement in our little village, dates from the 1760s. A 1960s renovation on the hilltop house had installed an elevator for a medically frail family patriarch and extended the rear walls on the living and dining rooms. This elevator shaft took out a large space in the middle of the kitchen area. There had been some electrical and plumbing modernization, but the door into the kitchen from the dining room was like a checkpoint marking the border between the gentleman farmers and the help. But the elevator placed this house in an extremely rare category: a two-story, fully wheelchair-accessible structure. Our renovation would address accessibility on the level of a household’s tiny details: the chopping, serving, rinsing, and cleaning tasks of a kitchen. It would make the space welcoming and strategic in a way I could barely imagine, even though I have been a wheelchair user for nearly 30 years.

Work got under way just after New Year’s Day. I vividly remember the last meal cooked in the old space: frozen pizza for the kids, and seared tuna with the last bag of frozen ratatouille from last year’s garden for Alison and myself. As I cooked, I was curiously sad, realizing that the barely functioning appliances around me were going to get thrown in a Dumpster as reward for years of faithful, if imperfect, service. This anthropomorphizing of Hotpoint and GE products is a curious American phenomenon; Ikea even designed an ad campaign around people so attached to their junk that they resist making obvious improvements. I think this sentimentality comes straight from seeing space as a battlefield, and relationships with appliances and furniture as akin to the bonding of hunter and prey.

It took the contractors a mere two days to demolish the old kitchen, erasing that flawed yet sentimental space forever. The demolition transformed a third of the house into open holes for winter wind to blow through and floors of century-old planks, complete with cast-iron square nails. The dusty echo-filled bones of the house were visible where once bad design and family warmth had coexisted. We set up a small refrigerator, an electric teapot, and a microwave on the floor of the dining room, strewn with paint dust and plastic tarps covering boxes of possessions we would soon forget we owned. The house would remain like this for months. There was considerable structural work to do to frame in new windows and doors, so evidence of progress was hard to see for quite a while. All we had were the architectural drawings and our imaginations.

Jane’s proposed design would leave nothing of the former space except the elevator door. A screened-in porch, which had been isolated from the kitchen by a load-bearing wall and a double sink and cabinets, would become an integral part of the space with the addition of a wall of French doors. The dark laundry room, a half-kitchen, and some splintery old pantry spaces would be eliminated to make way for a corner banquette for kids. New doors on the back wall would make an easy traffic pattern onto the patio for grilling and gardening.

The floor plan had the potential to end our house’s architectural class struggle, a spatial battle of gentry versus servants that had bifurcated the living area into distinct incongruous zones. The heart of the project would be a pair of islands: the first, a simple one open to the ceiling; the other, a floor-to-ceiling affair with cabinets and kitchen appliances on one side and laundry appliances on the other. The latter would conceal an immovable brick chimney carrying exhaust from the basement furnace and heating ducts leading to the upstairs bedrooms. Both work islands were conceived around a picture in Jane’s mind of Alison and me working. She had observed our division of labor. We’re a team in cooking and cleaning yet I was more obsessed with cooking while Alison valued efficiency. In our old kitchen my wheelchair nullified our attempts at efficiency; it took over the entire space.

Jane reorganized the work space into four distinct zones. The one for cooking and mess creation quickly became known as “John’s area”; “Alison’s area” was by default devoted to cleaning, a command center for kitchen disaster relief. Facing the corner banquette was a wall of smaller kitchen appliances, a little sink, a college dorm refrigerator, and a full bank of cabinets. This was the “Snack Area,” a self-contained kitchen for the quick preparation of sandwiches and juice, hot dogs and spaghetti for instant delivery to four kids waiting at the banquette table. The final zone was the alley behind the main cooking area with a washer/dryer, a small desk, and more cabinets.

The deadline six months away loomed almost from the beginning. A first January meeting between the architect, cabinetmaker, and contractor had all the chemistry of a luncheon for Tony Blair and the military wing of the IRA. Jim Lovejoy, the cabinetmaker, was extremely skeptical of the design and had all sorts of questions about the drawings. Our contractor, Mark Holmes, shook his head dubiously and scribbled and calculated dates and schedules on a clipboard as he listened to the skeptical Lovejoy, who was sounding more like Mies than Ikea.

Jane’s impatience with the cabinetmaker reminded me of a lot of famous architects’ legendary inclination to delegate all the details. She insisted her drawings contained all the information needed to begin. Jim thought the drawings were fantasy, without enough detail to translate into wooden boxes. Caligula the client didn’t want to interrupt this chilly discussion, but in the end he did. I gave a rather spirited speech while Alison cringed, hoping I wouldn’t chase everyone out into the January snow. I told the trio I was not interested in some effete Architectural Digest–style discourse on eighteenth-century wainscoting and a work schedule modeled after the Sistine Chapel or the Rhiems Cathedral.

I explained that the August 1 deadline was not some ballpark calendar date with a Frank Gehry–like six-month margin of error. I was determined that the job run more like an Amish barn-raising than the crafting of a Stradivarius. Decisions on details were not going to take long. I was committed to the design, but the working relationship of the principals would be my gauge as to how things were going. I considered reminding them how Ivan the Terrible had got his St. Basil’s Cathedral done on time, and then blinded his architect to keep him from duplicating the design anywhere else. In the end I decided to keep it to myself—I got the distinct impression that everyone got the message.

Alison made sure from that point on that I had as little contact with Mark, Jim, and Jane as possible. It was a good-cop/bad-cop strategy that, while sometimes painful and occasionally fraught with tension, actually produced results. By the time we ordered the cabinets, I was fitting loosely into all of my pants. Food had no meaning for me, but morale was high.

The most difficult part of the design was a stainless-steel piece that would constitute the bridge between my cooking area, with its lowered counter heights, and the higher sink and countertop on the opposite side of the island, where Alison envisioned dish draining and dishwasher loading. This part demanded a tricky piece of fabrication with rounded ends, and two drains carefully shaped to prevent any standing water from accumulating. Jane’s key innovation was the frame for the granite countertop—the element that would seamlessly unify the standard kitchen spaces and the intensively wheelchair-friendly ones without creating a handicapped ghetto. This strangely shaped piece of steel—the lynchpin of the design—needed to be in place before the granite countertop could even be measured for cutting, a process that would take most of a month and could not be hurried. Jane said she had a metalworking acquaintance who could fabricate it. I looked at the drawings and thought this was the least of our problems: the persistently arid rapport between Jane and Jim was what worried me the most.

As the days grew longer, the floor was laid and the new windows and doors were installed, closing the still empty space. The French doors leading out to the screened-in porch provided a magical light that was only a hint of what was to come. But stuck indoors all day during the New England muddy season, our kids saw only chaos or at best lots of odd breakfast outings.

By May things began to happen. The space was framed in; three new beams were installed and covered. The insulation was in place, and the walls were beginning to be closed up. I was fitting snugly but functionally into size 36 slacks. The electrician was wiring the space, and it was clear how much brighter it was going to be than the old kitchen. The spring sun now spilled light brilliantly from one side of the kitchen to the other as the day progressed. The sight lines that Jane had talked so much about were suddenly evident. Light from the rear of the kitchen could now be seen from the living room, two rooms away. Jane’s design had allowed the house to breathe for the first time in a century. The servant’s quarters were gone forever. This was the first real excitement, even though we were still chained to the microwave and surrounded by piles of dust.

By the beginning of June we learned from Mark that the cabinets, against all expectations and warnings from the cabinetmaker that he could not be rushed, would be delivered a week ahead of schedule. This was a gigantic coup. We picked out a granite countertop. Things were coming together.

In mid-June I got a call from Alison at my office at NBC. Jane had informed her that, alas, the steel sink unit was not going to be ready until sometime in July. Alison had done the calculations. If the steel was delayed, the granite would be delayed, and the cabinet installation would be delayed. August 10 was suddenly an optimistic completion date.

It was time to call Jane. We had words over several hours. When things looked their worst, I called Mark and asked him to explore a scenario that would complete the central island with cheap standard laminate to allow installation of the appliances at least for the family reunion. This would then be torn up, and the original materials would be fitted sometime in late August. Jane said the fabricator was overwhelmed by other work. I said that if she blew this deadline, somebody’s friendship was going to be on the line. She was not thrilled with my outrage, but her response was a very sympathetic “These things happen…”

I bluntly outlined my plan to dress up her brainchild in a cheap material to make the deadline, and then I crossed a line: I brutally compared Jane to the greatest architect of our time. I said, “You do not want to hear the noise I’m going to make if you pull a Frank Gehry on me, Jane.” There was silence on the line. When she finally spoke, Jane said, “You’re putting a real head trip on me, and that’s unfair.” I winced. I could hear the hurt in her voice.

“Just get that steel piece here before the end of June, and everything will be fine,” I said, and hung up the phone, convinced I’d blown it. I debated telling Alison that I’d just alienated the only person on planet Earth who could complete our kitchen on time. I said nothing.

The steel was delivered on July 1. The granite was measured, cut, and installed by July 11. The last painters left on the afternoon of July 31. Alison and Jane shared a bottle of champagne in a fully transformed space on a sunny July day when I was at work in New York wearing size 34 pants and a shirt with a 16 1/2” collar.

The story could easily end here: The battle won. The unruly spaces laid low, the deadlines met. We had a fantastically successful family reunion. My caterer mom and my brothers and sisters all prepared meals in a new kitchen they raved about. But the real victory came later, when I was dicing an onion and seasoning a pork roast. A pot of boiling cauliflower was on the burner for a puree. I was talking to my five-year-old Zoe. “What’s for dinner, daddy?” she asked as I calmly prepared it. I could talk easily while I worked. There was no stunt reaching, pan juggling, or refrigerator wrestling. The kitchen, for the first time in my life, was a room built for me. The wars were over. The truce was signified by the sense that I belonged. It was unfamiliar, sweet, a sensation I was utterly unprepared for. “Daddy, what’s for dinner?” Zoe asked again.

“Pork, honey,” I said softly as I rubbed ground peppercorns into the roast. She skipped out of the room, and I inadvertently salted the pork roast with my own tears.

The true genius of the design was that if anyone had seen me blubbering over a stupid piece of pork they would have wondered why. In the end there was nothing “special” or “handicapped” about it. This kitchen was merely made to work with the real people who lived there. Its universality came not from abstract specifications but from the lives of real people, creating spaces for their daily lives. No detailing or style or luxury could possibly be more precious than this simple quality. Universal design is perhaps just an overly clinical name for something we think we know but perhaps we don’t—good design.

One more thing: My diet? Screw that, folks. I’ve got a new kitchen.

Recent Programs