Making Space

Denver -based Rifugio Modern relies on client customization to deliver clean, contemporary design. For a challenging kitchen project in San Francisco, strict attention to precision and craft led to a personalized space that elevates the home around it.

The spectrum of sound kitchen design philosophies is deep and wide, but after 16 years in the business, Brian Pignanelli had a vision of his own. He wanted to forge a more comprehensive approach to luxury custom interior delivery. Something along the lines of Italian elegance with modern sensibility, developed for each individual user. This approach led to the creation of his Rifugio Modern showroom, recently opened in RiNo. The name is a nod to classic Alpen mountain shelters. 

"Whatever the stressors—work, traffic, life in general—we look at the home as the ultimate refuge from the modern world," said Pignanelli.

Due in part to his reputation as a problem solver, Pignanelli got a call from Tai Ikegami, Partner at Feldman Architecture. Ikegami was dealing with a formidable challenge of his own: San Francisco-based clients needed a fully-functional kitchen for their narrow Telegraph Hill building. The project began with a holistic approach to both the architectural realities and the fundamental appreciation of user experience. "It goes beyond just selecting a wood sample," said Pignanelli. "With any kitchen design project, there are problems to be solved." 

With a long and narrow layout common to San Fransisco homes, natural light is often limited to only two ends of the house. The solution? The airy warmth of bleached white oak, and translucent glass used to bring light from the well-fenestrated top floor down to the lower levels along with the stairwell.

The main floor space had to accommodate clients who more-or-less live in their kitchen. To these homeowners, the kitchen is more than a simple room. It is a venue for honoring lineage and preparing large family meals. Facilitating that lifestyle required an in-depth understanding of each individual, including what cooking meant to them and what specific dishes they prepared. For instance, one of the homeowners is Chinese American and regularly cooks traditional Chinese dishes. Said Pignanelli, "It’s beautiful food with fresh and wild ingredients, but it involves a lot of oil and open frying. Clean-ability was essential." 

This meant paying careful attention to the backsplash. Tile and stainless steel were good options, but the choice instead was anodized aluminum, which balances sleek modern aesthetics with an easy-to-clean surface. It’s also a lightweight material that was better suited to the hardware for the door panels that fully raise to reveal a hidden storage component. Along with the blum-outfitted cabinets and drawers, every inch accounts for the precise specifications of how the clients use their kitchen. Storage is defining and transitional, as it travels with natural light throughout the home in cabinetry that wraps around walls. "We really used the entire depth of the space to transform each bit into a functional component," said Pignanelli. "After all, in San Francisco, space is at a premium." 

The backsplash consists of two anodized aluminum door panels that lift up via specialized hardware. It also contains a built-in spice cabinet and recessed steam oven, and provides access to an array of cooking utensils, cookware, and oils. A custom anodized aluminum ladder rail also offers access to the upper storage. 

Creating that system in such an environment brought about new logistical challenges. Installing wall panels and building custom soffits is already a labor intensive process. But the engineering prowess required to support all of the upper cabinets in a way that would allow for the flip-up backsplashes was extensive. The back-and-forth collaboration between the project architect, hardware manufacturer, general contractor, engineer, and Rifugio Modern eventually produced an elegant solution. In the end, they even added a nested rail and ladder system to access a second tier of storage for the family’s culinary antiquities. 

An overhead lighting fixture by ALW hangs above the island's gray/white stained engineered oak, which contrasts with the cabinet's darker gray engineered oak.

Given the level of precision required, it’s no wonder the installation lasted more than seven weeks. But this is precisely why Pigananelli shifted the focus away from individual brands and toward the work of holistically integrating the best components to support the clients’ lifestyle. "Ultimately the process is about plugging in and truly understanding the goals," he said. "Sometimes that means coming into the showroom, having a glass of wine, and talking through the best way to work together on a project."


Last Updated


Get the Dwell Newsletter

Be the first to see our latest home tours, design news, and more.