As soon as Suzanne Feld walked into the popular Universal Café in San Francisco’s Mission district in 1995, she knew she’d found the concept she wanted to follow in bringing her own kitchen into the 21st century. "The room had this elegant austerity," Suzanne recalls. "It was clean and light, with almost a laboratory feeling—but not at all stark." By contrast, the kitchen in the circa-1905 flat that Suzanne and Sergio Feld share with their son and daughter was "cramped, small, dark, decrepit—a disaster," she says. Sharing space with a brick chimney, a butler’s pantry, and a rickety utility porch left the Felds "no room to move, let alone cook."
Universal Café had been transformed from a turn-of-the-century garage into a kind of airy, semi-industrial jewel box filled with handcrafted elements by architectural designer Larissa Sand. Suzanne plucked Sand’s business card from a bowl on the sinuous maple-clad and marble-topped bar, and added her to a list that Suzanne put together with the help of her colleagues in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s department of architecture and design, where Suzanne is a curatorial associate for the department of photography (Sergio is an environmental policy adviser to the United Nations Development Program). "We saw a stack of portfolios, and while the work was all technically competent, there was no comparable emotional ‘click’ like we felt with Larissa," says Suzanne.
After years of mulling it over, the Felds were spurred to action by their daughter’s impending bat mitzvah. "The kitchen is the center of the home, everybody ends up here, and you could barely turn around!" says Suzanne. Sand, a deceptively delicate-looking woman with the long blond hair and ice-blue eyes of some Russian fairy-tale princess (albeit one who powers around on a silver Ducati), concurs: "It was like fine surgery to both open it up and fit everything in." Sand worked closely with herstaff on the design of the kitchen, especially projectmanager Liane Thomas. Some direction was provided by the rest of the flat, a surprisingly harmonious mélange of original fixtures, modern artwork, and Asian antiques. "We were happy to lose the period molding and ornamentation, which was crumbling away," says Suzanne. "At the same time, we didn’t want a schizo kitchen. We needed to work within this Victorian space, but not give in to it." Sand recalls that many of the images the Felds tagged were of Victorian-type kitchens—big, utilitarian spaces designed for a staff to work in (à la Gosford Park) rather than as static showpieces.
Like the Universal Café, the Felds’ new kitchen is clean, modern, and laced with industrial touches (laboratory faucets, lab glass pendant lamps designed by Sand, stainless steel appliances) while animated by materials and crafted elements that radiate warmth: fir floors unearthed from beneath two layers of linoleum; a fireclay farm sink made in England; Carrera marble counters that extend up the walls; walnut shelving; and industrial mechanisms that put the hardware on display, such as the suspended rolling blackboard that conceals the water heater. Instead of a solid, dark wall of cabinetry, a triptych of steel-framed cabinets with sliding textured-glass panels reveals objects on open walnut shelves while screening clutter. And there are practical conveniences, such as a spout above the stove for filling pots. The Felds’ antique English butcher block, long relegated to storage, found a space by the entrance where it provides a bridge to the house, as does Suzanne’s collection of baskets from around the world displayed on a ledge.
The space is not entirely hassle-free—surfaces such as soft floors and honed marble are vulnerable to gouges and staining—but there are no regrets. "I suppose Corian or granite would have required less maintenance,"
muses Suzanne, "but they could never impart this quality of character and life. It wouldn’t have been the kitchen I’ve been waiting for."
Contributing editor Deborah Bishop approached "Kitchen Design 101" with keen interest, as she is currently plotting her own kitchen renovation. "Having read and been told that this is the most important room in the house- and seeing such an array of aesthetic approaches- I am now effectively paralyzed," confesses Bishop, even though her culinary triumphs tend, at best, toward toast and French-press coffee.