Editor’s note: This Milwaukee couple has taken on their second home renovation project, dubbed the “Midwest Malibu Cottage,” and has invited us along for the ride! Stay tuned for all those ups, downs and delicious before + afters! Check out the first installment here.
Illustration by Tallulah Fontaine.
It’s taken us some time but we are reporting back from the Midwest Malibu Cottage with the biggest project we’ve tackled together yet: our kitchen renovation! Of all the projects we’ve conquered in the past year, this is the most extensive (read: expensive) endeavor we’ve undertaken. We’ll be honest: it took quite a bit of due diligence and a whole lot of bravery to pull this one off. When we first walked this house, the lackluster kitchen was one of the hardest things for us to swallow, as we had just finished renovating the kitchen at House One, and we weren’t sure we had another one in us. We were cognizant of the fact that this would be a tiring process and financially impactful, but we also saw the opportunity to start from scratch and challenge ourselves architecturally to do something entirely us.
It’s so easy to throw together in your mind what an ideal kitchen should look like – cabinet volumes and appliances arranged together in always-typical arrangements – it’s just a kitchen, right? But we decided to put more intent into this room, to understand what we were actually creating from a functional perspective, ensuring we put meaning and purpose into this (admittedly small) space. If we were going to spend this much money and put in this much labor, we had to make the right decisions across the board, to serve us well for years to come. We overcame a lot of challenges with this one, so let’s dive in!
It’s easy to forget what we started with. This kitchen, less than 8 feet wide, was a standard-issue Midwest ’50s galley that got a facelift some time in the ’90s, at which time all of the original wallpaper was removed and a bunch of recessed lighting was added. There were only built-in cabinets on the exterior wall, which had been refaced and painted to black, and topped with a dull orange laminate countertop. The original soffit on that wall did not help the already-narrow room feel any less pinched, and the uppers in black didn’t do the room any favors, either. On the opposite side of the room, the wall planes undulated – we assume as part of the ’90s remodel attempt to maximize space within the room – and housed the stand-alone refrigerator and gas range. Two free-standing cabinets that had been painted black sat on either side of the range and did a good job of trying, though not succeeding, to match the real cabinets in the room. And all of this sat upon a pond of 12-inch faux marble ceramic tile. Don’t get too attached to any of these, and don’t even think we’d keep those black cabinets – thank you, next!
So what is a kitchen to us? Its primary functions surrounds creation, using specific tools that stay in this space all and they all need a place to go. After four years carpentering down in the workshops of both of the homes we’ve remodeled, it occurred to us that the kitchen is, at its core, a very clean/hygienic workshop. We come to a kitchen to prepare things for consumption, bringing out the elements for recipes and the contraptions required to assemble them together for serving, then we clean all of those implements and put them back in containers until they’re ready for use again – it’s the same thing we do in the workshop! It’s really just a refined chemistry lab. Since the kitchen is such a hub of the home in modern culture, we spend a LOT of time in here, so it had to really speak to who we are and how we live.
Because this is a tight room, let’s discuss our new spatial layout. The original vision we had for this space was two long block volumes extending down the length of the narrow, long room, terminating in a block at the end of the room that rose vertically. We felt we had to acknowledge the linearity of the space and carefully embrace horizontal lines, so you’ll see a lot of horizontal lines dashes all over this space. The narrow constraints of the room (8’ x 17’) allowed us only to maintain the galley arrangement, but trust that before we made an offer on the house, we measured to make sure we could get cabinets on the other wall too, or else this kitchen wouldn’t work and there was no reason to even buy this house. It only made sense to sacrifice some inches by straightening out the cabinet-less wall by 9” into a single plane to allow for a continuous flow of cabinets down the entire length of the room, as there was hardly any storage in the existing cabinet arrangement. And at the end of the room, the big, blank wall provided no focal point when entering the room, so we knew we had to add something of interest down there while also optimizing storage volume.
There’s so much goodness we want to show off, so we won’t really bore you with the construction process itself. Needless to say, it was huge, it was messy, but in retrospect, it was maybe just a lot of details but not a whole lot of trauma – maybe a sign that we’re becoming pros at this? In total, we took about twelve weeks to execute this project on nights and weekends, including one week we took off from work at the beginning to do our cabinet build and install. Maybe the most trying part was just the demolition phase, tearing apart a well-built home with care to leave as many good assets in-tact to serve as substrate. We’ve gotten good at putting our heads down and working until it’s done, and this was the messiest one, so now that it’s out of the way, everything from here is easy!
We waited a whole year before we grabbed the sledgehammer and started tearing apart the room. While, yes, we did do this from a budget management perspective, we also wanted to take time to function in the house and ensure we knew how we wanted to live in this kitchen before we invested in building it new. We turned to 3D modeling to build the space and refined it as we got new ideas and settled on our final decisions, then we sat on the final build for a few months. When we pulled it back out, we didn’t want to change anything so we knew we were on the right track. We locked in the design long before we started and there was even a point in the buildout when we both stood in here and said “Wow, it’s truly the rendering come to life.” It’s safe to say that our perspective today has evolved quite a bit since we began, influenced by how we’ve changed individually and the unexpected wins that we’ve found in some of our rooms, so what we’ve ended up with here beautifully aligns with, expresses and complements the way we live.
Proven Advice: Taking time to live in a space before making final decisions for large-scale remodel projects allows time to refine your overall personal vibe within smaller projects, while experiencing how you function within the subject room, to ensure you cover all your bases.
Our atmospheric concept for this room centers around soft/modern/elements. For a room where fresh things are gathered for assembly, we wanted to create a canvas onto which we can layer all things natural and organic, which we believe to be the ultimate perspective for the Midwest Malibu Cottage. White + wood + black is the typical formula we apply to all of our rooms, but here we’re continuing to evolve the formula we applied to our recent bathroom project, bringing in some wood tones (instead of just white-painted wood texture) and stone components. All of these are in minimized, straight-forward, contemporary forms that are softened with traditional accents. We enjoy resolving the tension that arises when marrying together our Pacific tendencies in aesthetic and approaches with our Third Coast existing conditions.
Let’s talk about cabinets. Right out the gate we expected cabinets to be our major project cost, as when we originally drafted an initial design for the room and had real wood cabinets quoted to us we got a $20k bid, which was what really made us step back and decide to ensure we remodeled the rest of the house first. That way we wouldn’t blow all our budget on one room, and could allow the kitchen budget to be set by whatever we had remaining. In the end, we elected to purchase modular, assemble-yourself cabinets that offered us the flexibility to choose so many different components in both form and function. So we still feel like we got a custom cabinetry solution, one that can also be further customized in the future should our needs change. And at the end of the day, by deciding not to go custom solid-wood, we executed this entire kitchen remodel for less than the original bid for the cabinets alone. We set up an assembly line in the basement and built all 16 cabinet bodies in one day and then installed them the next day, leaving us feeling like absolute pros. 💪 We’d make the same decision again!
For the faces of the cabinets, we originally thought we wanted to ride the shaker-style wave, painted white or black. But during our year-long pause to reflect on the kitchen concept, our vision changed to a more clean look, so we ended up selecting flat-panel faces in an ash-look laminate finish. We absolutely love the warmth of the wood tone, totally rocking our own #allwhiteeverything world, and we think going with this tone absolutely helps with the organic character we wanted to feel in this room. Note that we were careful to not reveal any of the ends of the cabinet bodies, which gives the cabinets a modern, monolithic feel, with the wood always encased in a white component of some kind.
To really round out the cabinetry, we knew the flat planes of wood grain would really showcase anything we put onto them, so we had to make a careful selection. The cabinets already had the white and the wood portions of our trusted formula, so the obvious choice was black(ish) hardware. We chose these Bowman drawer pull pieces and installed in a horizontal orientation at each drawer and door (even though we argued about the doors’ ergonomic need for vertically-oriented install), and the final effect of the dashed line look repeating throughout the room feels so right, particularly on the pantry cabinet at the end of the room. (Wow, we have a legitimate pantry now!) Since we saved so much in our cabinet procurement, we felt it was okay to invest in high-quality hardware pieces. These are of incredible quality. They are heavy, solid pieces, made of solid brass, and the oil-rubbed bronze finish feels almost integral and has a soft, powdery, matte texture. We love that the hardware adds some graphic texture and an almost fun energy in its staccato across the faces.
Lessons Learned: Like building a great outfit, you can deploy a high-low strategy in the kitchen also! We built a base of big box store cabinetry, topped with mid-grade quartz, then accessorized with high-quality hardware, for a just-right look. The components don’t have to all come from the same place; it’s all about the blend.
While discussing storage, it’s important to acknowledge that we elected to forego any upper cabinets within this narrow cavity, in an effort to maximize the perception of width in the room. To maintain surface storage area and to establish a location to see some of our favorite goodies, we built four custom-sized shelves that cantilever off the wall and provide a lovely upper ledge to house some smaller art pieces, as well as some fresh florals that look great in Foundations Vases.
Down to the floor – oh this darn floor! We’ve gotten pretty good at tile installations, so we embarked on this project without fear… until we found five layers of material stealthily resting in here. Once we removed two layers of masonry material and found sheet goods (three layers of linoleum!), we decided that since the material was dimensionally stable and flush with the wood floor, and it abutted in the living room and dining room entry points, we would stop there and utilize the linoleum as a substrate. While we wanted the tile in here to be flush with the wood elsewhere, we determined it was too dangerous to even start trying to take out three layers of aged, thin, glued-down mess. Our original idea we had for this room was to attempt a poured concrete look – something really raw and elemental – but knew our skills could not make that happen. We didn’t want a room this important to be our learning lab, so we went in search of tile to help achieve this effect. What we ended up with in here is a 12”x24” porcelain tile with a freshly-poured concrete look, very low sheen, realistic texture, and low graphics repeat. We installed in a 1/3 stagger with the smallest manufacturer-recommended joints, in attempt to achieve as monolithic a look as possible, and we’re pretty satisfied with the look! There are both warm and cool tones undulating across the plane here, making for a perfectly neutral foundation upon which everything sits. For some softness, we laid down this Striped Dhurrie Flatweave Rug in the middle of the room, which we selected because of its warm, oatmeal tone, and its dark horizontal lines. We are very satisfied with the results here – a cool, almost industrial surface that easily hosts a warm, residential textile. 😍
When it came to countertops, we struggled to select a material. We are huge fans of marble, particularly the soft lines and cool tones of Carrara, but immediately after installing in the kitchen at House One we became chained to its maintenance, as even tap water will etch it. Let alone the persistent threat of stains; the look, we decided, was not worth the cost and risk proposition. The only option that made sense to us was quartz, and unfortunately, the simulated marble looks just don’t jive with our eye. So we went in search of a white blend with the largest aggregate we could find, trying to land as close to a terrazzo look as possible. The selection we made has a soft white matrix with larger-scale, widely-spaced, warm grey aggregates. We are comforted by the fact that it’s virtually maintenance-free and we love its ability to take a beating – trust us, we’ve already mindlessly put it to the test. 😏 The 2-cm ribbon of material wraps down in a waterfall edge at each exposed end of cabinetry, encasing the masses of wood faces like giant toolboxes, and it become a resilient material amongst all the movement through the room. We love that it feels like we’ve harnessed stone and laid it upon the cabinets like fondant on a cake!
Of course all of the walls would be white in here, but we added some materials for texture. Most prominently, check out the tile above the countertop areas; this is the same 3”x12” tile we introduced in a stacked bond installation at the little office niche in our living room — remember we hinted that we’d tie that decision into the kitchen! We’re still adoring the stacked install decision as it seems straightforward and a little mid-century, and the bright white glaze helps bounce around the light from its imperfect, handmade surface. On the longer wall at the end of the room that turns the L-shaped room over to the side porch entry, we added shiplap once again for a little bit of unifying texture to a wall with a lot of built-ins and door penetrations. (And this, friends, is the end of shiplap in this house. We promised from the beginning that we would use shiplap as an element of continuity and it has served us well.) There are two doors in this room that egress outside, which we have painted black, a decision we made in the living room and are carrying forward as a language. We did choose to add some color with a single Felt Wall Art piece hung in the stairway, which adds some quiet, watery tones and soft texture encased in wood.
While we’re talking about the entry from the side porch, let’s talk about what we’ve built over here! For so long we have been double-tapping and pinning images of those sweet entryway cubby/storage/coat rack built-ins, and finally got our chance to build one, even if it’s a tiny little guy! This cabinet was designed to maximize the small amount of space by the door and hold jackets and shoes and other things to grab on the way out the door and it’s been a highly-productive addition to the way we use the room (and it helps hide yet another poorly-placed HVAC grille!). The Twist Weave Baskets are an easy solution to gather loose items like hats, gloves, and Crimson’s leash. The language we used in the millwork here appears elsewhere in the kitchen, you may notice, as it helps envelope the tall cabinets at the end of the room and above the fridge – we try to develop a language of details and deploy them uniformly. #NerdAlert. And at the floor, we got real sneaky here and took the opportunity to recess a walk-off mat of natural-colored coir into the tile floor. It was a great idea that allows us to keep the floor clean but not have to deal with a rug slipping all over the place, and every single person that has come to visit has called it out – a little detail that apparently has a lot of horsepower!
At the ceiling, we again turned to our v-groove wood cladding and beams to break up the length of the room and help it feel a little less “bowling alley,” while also keeping up continuity from other spaces in the house, layering in that quiet mid-century beach cottage vibe we love so much. We used the same detailing from our living room and dining room, and, like shiplap, we promise we’re retiring that approach here now! Within each of the four bays, over the main kitchen we installed industrial-styled 2-light fixtures in a matte black finish to add some contrast to bring the eye upward, and then above the sink we selected a terra cotta pendant light to bring in another natural element and color tone – the canvas cord cover is a nice soft touch also! And all of the lighting is connected to our home automation system, allowing them to be timed, dimmed and voice-commanded.
We were very careful with our appliance selections, choosing a suite of pieces that were quiet and clean (and affordable!). We decided to stay with the good ol’ stainless steel finish, motivated by a gas range we stumbled upon that has a flush-style top with all of its controls and display at its front rather than rising above at the rear and interrupting the backsplash. We were motivated by these pieces having smart home connectivity as well, because it’s important to get a notification on your phone in the middle of the night that your dishwasher cycle is complete, but maybe even more important to be able to buy yourself a sad frozen pizza and preheat the oven while you’re still in the checkout line! We rounded out the functional pieces here with a very clean stainless steel range hood and a commercial-style under-mount sink with zero-radius basins – both very minimal-looking components that don’t steal any attention from the overall vibe of the room. And before the question is asked: yes, we do have a microwave – we are not frequent users of the microwave, and didn’t want to give up any counter space or mount to a wall, so we made a dedicated nest for it in a cabinet next to the oven, making use of an existing electrical receptacle lower in the wall, where we also hide the coffee maker on a pull-out drawer – a customized solution we planned for with intent!
OK, now for the fun stuff: all our goodies! (Are you still with us? This has been an epically long story!) After building out this light, bright space, we got to move in our favorite pieces, most of which we sourced after we remodeled the kitchen in House One, but in this kitchen we now have so much more surface and display area, we get to keep much more of it out in view so we can truly appreciate the things we love! And we also decided to take this moment of newness in our lives to finally discard our dinnerware, which we’ve been toting around with us since our original post-collegiate days, and finally, buy ourselves some new pieces that are as functional as they are beautiful. We selected West Elm’s Kaloh Dinnerware collection and built a blend of pieces in both the white and grey glaze colors – the shapes and textures are warm and cozy, but still clean and modern, which we think fit our soft/modern/elements scheme perfectly, and look amazing on our new floating shelves! We’re still in love with our Utility Canisters and Textured Bowls, and have been getting a lot of use from our new Olive Wood Cutting Board as we’ve been making some great new summer recipes from some of our favorite cookbooks, which also have a place to live now on our open shelving. We love to cook, for both pleasure and wellness, and to entertain for friends, which is why we did all of this, so we are ready to enjoy another lifestyle ability added to our Midwest Malibu Cottage!
This kitchen has become our favorite room in this house; we’re so glad we took our time to patiently plan this one out and construct it with intent. We really feel that this space becomes the defining moment within the Midwest Malibu Cottage. And while we consider it an aesthetic win, it satisfies our functional upgrade needs as well: 25% more storage and 50% more surface space, with the addition of new functionality at the entryway. And with this one, we have reached the summit with this house, and it’s all a downhill slide from here! We have just three projects left inside the house, and they’re going to be some of the most fun we’ll have in this remodel endeavor. So we’ll be back in no time, and until then you can always drop in for more details and background stories on Instagram (@florals4spring / @kielaaron) – see you soon with our next reveal!