Modern Kitchen Renewal

Recipe for makeover: modern homes that restore joy, functionality, and style to the mid-century kitchen

The kitchen is the heart of the home, nourishing both the body and the soul.

On a functional level, it's the place where meals are prepared and often consumed. On the emotional level, it's the room where families gather to share stories, make game plans for their day, solve dilemmas, and create memories. The space must also appeal to a family's aesthetic so they feel good about the time they spend there.

When done correctly, a kitchen renewal project can unite practicality and beauty into a feeling of joy and renewed functionality.

There's usually a point when homeowners realize their old mid-century modern kitchen isn't working. It might be the jumble of glassware that can't find a home, the moment they find themselves chopping vegetables on the kitchen table because the countertop is too low, or—better yet—when that decades-old original range finally gives out right before company comes.

Greg and Anna-Karin Kight, owners of a Cliff May Rancho in Long Beach, knew they had to remodel their kitchen the first time they entered the home. "The design was dated and did not complement the overall 1950s post-and-beam concept of the modern ranch," Greg Kight says. In addition, the couple uses the kitchen as the home's main activity hub and needed to make it more functional for Anna-Karin's decadent cooking.

For Ava Hahn and her husband Perry Clark, owners of an Eichler home in Palo Alto, they needed to be able to multitask while caring for their baby or entertaining family and friends. Remodeling was their answer. "Our original particleboard cabinets were so old, they were literally disintegrating," Hahn says.

The kitchen in Scot and Carmen Nicholls' San Jose Eichler was also in desperate need of a makeover. "This kitchen was tired and had run its course," says Scot Nicholls, who is also a general contractor. "The original kitchen had been destroyed by years of renting out to biker gangs."

He and his wife were haunted by an original oven that didn't meet their culinary expectations, a poor cook top replacement, and a floor in the sink base cabinet that was falling through.

There's a lot of work that goes into determining how to fix kitchens that are not working. And the options for renewal run the gamut from quick surface updates to restoration to complete remodel.

First, the space needs to be functional. The 'work triangle,' consisting of sink, stove, and refrigerator, has long been a basic of good kitchen design. Many of today's homeowners want more open floor plans and additional appliances—second dishwashers, banks of ovens, trash compactors, and wine coolers—that can make the traditional traffic flow more complicated. They must also consider storage solutions and lighting changes that will make work tasks easier.

However, mid-century modern homes usually have specific structural limitations that can dictate the extent of the kitchen remodel. A lack of subfloor can make electrical and plumbing changes a challenge. Radiant coil heating in the floor and a lack of walls for ventilation encourage some homeowners to stick with the simple galley floor plan of the originals.

"You can move plumbing and gas lines—even bearing walls—but that can be expensive," says Jonathan Cooke, an Eichler-focused general contractor with Renaissance Man Construction in San Mateo.

General contractor Ron Key, owner of Keycon, Inc. on the San Francisco peninsula, recalls one homeowner whose budget jumped from $45,000 to $600,000 when preliminary tests uncovered a failed radiant heat system and damaged sewage, electrical, and plumbing lines under the concrete floor. As a result, the entire floor was torn up and replaced. "Of course, this homeowner decided to fix everything first-class, including a full-house renovation, so he wound up spending a lot more to fix the problem," Key says.

In addition, Key and Cooke note that the electrical systems in these homes often need to be upgraded to accommodate the increased electrical load needed for most kitchens today.

Structural issues aside, deciding what type of kitchen to create can pose another challenge. Finding a trusted contractor or kitchen designer is the first step to ensuring your finished product will be what you imagined. If you plan on doing much of the work yourself, one of the simplest ways to organize your wish list, according to design experts, is to keep a design journal.

As you browse through magazines and books, clip or photocopy images of kitchens and the specific attributes that you like. Inspiration can come from a feeling of organization, the newest Wolfe or SubZero appliance, or a floor plan that inspires you to get things done. Put all of your notes and clippings in a folder and take them with you on visits to designers and stores as you shop for the elements of your home.

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