Project Runaway

Originally published in 

Driven by the death of several appliances, a San Francisco family finds that a spanking new kitchen delivers a good dose of domestic harmony along with the excuse to execute a complete home makeover.

Bishop / Lieberman Residence

After my family and I moved back into our San Francisco home following a renovation exile, I couldn’t bear to do much more than boil water in the virginal kitchen, for I knew I would never see its like again. When the first hot sprays of oil hit the creamy backsplash and Rorschachs of tomato sauce pooled on the counter, I stood clutching dishcloths and keening like a mourner in a Greek tragedy.

Our new kitchen was spurred by the simultaneous death of three key appliances: the range, the fridge, and the dishwasher. That the 14-year-old stove—a so-called premium brand that cost the equivalent of a decent motorcycle—was beyond repair seemed improbable, but an electric heating mechanism had expired and the company no longer made the part. As the sagging stainless-steel-topped maple cabinets were not up to endeavors such as sequestering compost—and harbored dinosaurs such as a trash compactor—we embraced change. The primary cook in our household, my husband Michael Lieberman, embarked on a hero’s quest for a new stove, the central hearth of the modern home.

“I wanted something simple that cooked really well, without a bunch of gadgets. I could never get the heat on our old cooktop high enough, and I had to jerry-rig crazy systems to get it down to a simmer,” Michael says, explaining what led him to BlueStar—his gas convection oven, grill, and griddle-equipped holy grail.

The company that produces BlueStar has been around since 1880; more recently it set out to create a commercial-style stove for the home—something at once stripped down and pumped up. Slightly less pricey than other premium models, BlueStar’s burning rings of fire emit an impressive 22,000 Btus in inferno mode and also offer “an exquisitely low flame,” as Michael puts it. (Not to mention there are 190 colors to choose from, which is sort of thrilling, even if, like us, you opt for black.)

During the demise of the previous range, Michael took to cooking the protein course on the back deck, which connects to the kitchen via a flight of outdoor stairs. Here, amid pots of self-sustaining succulents, sits a Big Green Egg and a bag of hardwood charcoal. Based on an ancient Japanese clay cooker called a kamado, the Egg is wrought from a space-agey ceramic that reaches 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit. Fish, chicken, rabbits, and even entire suckling pigs go into its maw, emerging a while later intensely juicy and utterly delicious.

With heat sources in place, I turned for design assistance to Charles de Lisle, who has collaborated with us as first cohabitation, and then children, redefined our needs. The exposed kitchen is the hub of our open-plan house, and I wanted cabinetry crafted along the lines of fine furniture but equipped with the kind of uberfunctionality built into Euro-pean systems. And, since Michael had declared this to be the “remodel to end all remodels,” it had to be easy on the eyes for years to come—“until we die,” he intoned.

The primary casework is by Seattle-based Henrybuilt, a company that joins beautifully crafted, customized cabinetry (using woods certified by the Forest Stewardship Council) with refined systems for corralling compost, utensils, pot lids, and the like. Solid bookmarked walnut panels contain the armada of appliances that once lined the counter, and soft-closing drawers inspire a kind of ecstasy.

I spotted the Moroccan backsplash tile in the World of Interiors and was drawn to its irregularity and soft sparkle (the installer, somewhat perturbed, cautioned, “You know, it’s not all going to lie flat”). Artifacts such as the Shaws Original handmade fireclay sink, large enough to bathe a farm animal or stash a party’s worth of unwashed dishes, are far too heavy to ever move again. And despite my trepidation, Michael and I wanted an old-school counter material, one that would reflect years of gatherings rather than remaining resolutely pristine. The warm brown veining in the Calcutta marble is more compatible with the wood than cooler Carrara, and freckles of mineral deposits set the stage for the mottling to come.

How the rest of the house got roped into makeover madness is a matter of water, dry rot, procreation—and change orders. We’d been dealing with a mysterious leak that would erupt over the sofa, sprouting tributaries and eventually liberating a generous chunk of ceiling. My 3 a.m. Pavlovian response to rain was to race downstairs, move the couch, and haul out the stockpot. Eventually, the source was traced to the front deck, which played home to an ever-sodden lawn and overhanging planter. (Reader, how I wish I could refrain from mentioning that these landscape flourishes were the brainstorm of my husband’s previous girlfriend.)

Now covered in ipe, the deck overlooks South Park, an oval greensward south of Market Street a few blocks from Jack London’s birthplace. Designed during the gold rush to resemble a classic London terrace, some of the gracious villas were reborn as rooming houses after the economic bust of the 1850s. By the 1980s, cab drivers refused to come here; by the ’90s it was ground zero for the dot-com boom and bust. Today, the area is an urban mosaic of fancy new infill construction, older residences, architecture offices, businesses such as Twitter, cafes, and single-resident-occupancy hotels. Our house was one such hotel, converted by Michael from a 27-room, burned-out Victorian rooming house into a single-family, two-bedroom home. Back then, a youngish buck with a yen for open space, he clearly had no conception that our seven-year-old twins, Wes and Sasha, would one day be clamoring for their own rooms. Loudly.

Since the only way to gain a room was to carve it out of an existing space, we claimed the back of my ground-floor office for Wes’s bedroom (adieu, Pilates machine). But we wanted him to feel connected to the interior of the house. So our friends at Surfacedesign, Inc., Roderick Wyllie and James Lord, devised a way to cut through the wall, joining his room with Sasha’s via seven stairs and a Lilliputian doorway leading into their former closet. Shelf- and cubby-endowed maple panels define his room and a small adjacent library. And pieces like the George Nelson–designed Swag Leg desk of Michael’s boyhood have passed to the next generation.

Finally, since we had to move out anyway, I grabbed the opportunity to spread a little pixie dust on our bedroom. As we never have enough places for books, de Lisle surrounded our bed with shelves, based on those designed for our living room by Philip Agee. “The random floating boxes balance the symmetry of the bed and tables and animate the room, making it feel more like a natural space than a white box,” he says. He also guided my mania for layering fabrics
and colors, softening the architecture without getting stuck in a Peter Max acid trip.

Now that the whining of handsaws and pounding of hammers is a ghostly memory, I’ve softened on trying to stem the inevitable destruction. The refinished floors bear traces of colored markers. A clutter of toys moves around the new kitchen island like tumbleweeds. The “no shoes” policy lasted less than a day. And I feel inspired to toss a glass of Barolo onto the honed marble counters, just to keep things moving in their inexorable direction.

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