Until I bought my first and only house six years ago, it never occurred to me that I might take on a kitchen remodel. I was an apartment dweller, with apartment dweller logic. Kitchens came with a place. The way to transform a kitchen into my kitchen was to put my cast-iron pots on the stove and my scales on the counter and to hang up the French dish towel rack with labels above the hook for what each towel may touch: hands, glasses, plates, cutlery. Presto. Home.
In the course of 11 moves, only three kitchens defeated dish towel transformations. One didn't have a window. Another had aquamarine tiles with starfish. The kitchen in my current house had a mouse, make that a rat, make that a plague of rats. By the time I called the exterminators, the rats had eaten the wiring of the dishwasher, the washing machine and had started on the electrical system of the Thermador stove. Expecting my dish towels to rehabilitate that place would have been the equivalent of sending in fan dancers to clean up a Superfund site.
That's one version. The other is that I let the rat problem get out of hand because I hated the kitchen. Its layout of crooked counters with a dog path running through it defeated me. Storage systems were an accident in waiting. Bread pans were too high, cutlery too low, the color scheme too dark, fitting too shoddy. The cherrywood cabinets were pretty enough but were in all the wrong places and the "breakfast bar" was an affront. It ate up space that could accommodate a table.
Unease with that room was so palpable that I could see it in my dogs. In former homes, when I would come in from walking them, they would run to the kitchen ahead of me because they knew that's where I would go. But in the new place, they would creep upstairs, as if to say to one another: Forget it, guys, no nap by a warm oven tonight.
By the time the exterminators left and the rats were gone, I still wasn't going into my kitchen. It wasn't a question of whether it would stay but whether I would be the homeowner to rip it out.
An apartment dweller's way out of the wrong kitchen is to move. Yet the compulsion to take it on was inexplicably powerful, like the sudden conviction in dreams that I can play the piano. The danger was also clear. Whoever had done that kitchen thought they knew what they were doing, then woke up and sold it to me. If I undertook a refit, the odds were high that I would merely update the vandalism.
I stayed and remodeled. The result isn't just rat-proof, it's a beautiful and utilitarian frontier between stove and garden. I got it right because I didn't do it. I called in a designer and hired a contractor.
L.A. is full of good kitchen designers. I chose Karen Haas because she is a neighbor in West Adams, or as the house-proud locals insist on calling it, "historic West Adams." Her specialty: updating Craftsman homes without any violent incongruities. She commands such deep loyalty among preservationists that when I bought and began restoring my 1904 house down the street from her home and design studio, I must have been referred to her 100 times. "Ask Karen" this. "Ask Karen" that. I affected interest, but frankly I found it annoying. It never occurred to me that I needed to ask anyone for help until what felt like every tradesman in the 10th District had overcharged me for often shoddy work on other parts of the house. Ballpark guess: What should have been $60,000 worth of rewiring, re-plumbing, stripping woodwork, staining, rebuilding windows and painting ended up costing $100,000.
The sense of loss went deeper than money. You can always earn more money. It's far harder to regain the confidence to manage the refurbishment of an old house after finding yourself paying builders who have just left 2-inch gaps between drywall and skirting board just to make the shifty devils go away. I was interviewing real estate agents to sell the house when my brother and his wife redid their kitchen. They did ask Karen. The result was a flawless job. I saw it, I went home, picked up the phone and called Haas.
When she showed up to measure the kitchen, I might have admitted that I needed a designer, but it still felt like the equivalent of asking someone else to have good taste for me. Haas broke the ice with running commentary as she measured the room for a floor plan. "Ah, you've got enough space behind your refrigerator for a dead body." Polite laughter from me. "Ah, a cutlery drawer for toddlers." More polite laughter. "What happened to the laundry room doors?"