With bespoke kitchen design, there are so many approaches to deciding the focal point of a kitchen. It will depend on the house, its period, the requirements of the household – their habits and their desired aesthetic.
Historically, the obvious focal point in a kitchen is the solid fuel range to cook on. An Aga stuck in a fireplace is a quintessential focal point in a traditional English country house. The Aga or stove was critical not only for cooking but as a source of heating the kitchen. Its focus was accentuated further by a chimney cowl to ventilate it. The range remains an obvious and appropriate choice as the focal point of a kitchen, so much so that we create other features around the range to increase the focus.
Life with no heating
In other rooms in period homes, the fireplace was also the natural focal point – life without central heating was cold and therefore furniture was arranged in a way to take maximum advantage of the heat source. In new houses and with 21st century technology like underfloor heating, this is no longer the case. This brings possibilities for alternative focal points like views or art in both the kitchen and the rest of the house.
Family life has evolved so that kitchens and the way we use them has changed. Even in grand houses, they are not just the preserve of servants but tend to be central to family life. Kitchens are not simply practical spaces stuffed with cupboards. Kitchens have become more like living rooms.
The heart of the home
Traditionally kitchens were small, located in the back of the house for logistical reasons. The purpose of a kitchen was entirely functional. In our market, kitchens are much larger, often centrally located in the heart of the house. They enjoy the best light and the best views. Read more about how we move a kitchen in a listed building here. The generous space allows more room to absorb the many functions associated with storing, preparing, and cooking food. Kitchens such as these can afford to be more like living rooms. Therefore, a focal point may well be a beautiful painting or a view – features that are not related to functional cooking equipment or storage. Instead, the bespoke kitchen design deliberately emphasises a piece of art or decorative element like a fireplace.
Ancillary rooms today
In large houses, ancillary rooms like pantries and sculleries can be useful in freeing up the kitchen, making it a more pleasant place to hang out and entertain. Kitchen storage, washing up, cooking and preparation can therefore be kept slightly separate. It is very much a speciality of Artichoke to design such rooms.
Recently we have been treating the scullery as a secondary focal point in our bespoke kitchen design. Washing up is an important element of kitchen tasks and is often neglected. We believe, with a bit of flair and imagination, a scullery can be just as exciting a focal point.
Alternative focal point
An approach we sometimes take with our bespoke kitchen design is to consider each area with the same focus as might historically have been given to the kitchen range. This sink is expertly crafted out of a block of soapstone creating an unusual focal point at the window.
Material choice is an important part in bespoke kitchen design and can create natural focal points. Making certain elements out of a very special timber or stone or highlighting particular pieces of furniture via a pop of colour can be very effective in creating a focal point. In this London kitchen, we have used marble with a striking figure to elevate the cooking area to be the focal point.
If you’d like to discuss our approach to bespoke kitchen design and discover first hand our passion for brilliantly designed furniture and how it can improve your experience of living in a period house, please email email@example.com or call +44 (0)1934 745270.
Fota House is a magnificent Regency mansion with over 70 rooms (including a stunning cooks kitchen). It is sited on Fota Island near Cork, Eire and was owned by the Smith Barry family. Following some years of neglect it has been lovingly restored by its current guardians, Irish Heritage Trust. A direct family connection with its last private owners, Dorothy Bell of the Smith Barry family, recently drew me back, partly out of curiosity, and partly because I had possession of numerous items which were more useful to Fota than us.
As with many grand houses of the period, Fota was designed specifically to support the most important element of Regency life; entertaining. The interior architecture was configured to allow an army to work discreetly in order to support the flambouyant lifestyle of the then owner, John “The Magnificent” Smith Barry. The architects, William and Richard Morrison designed the house so cleverly that there was little evidence of the dozens of domestic staff employed.
The Cook’s Kitchen
One of the busiest zones on the house was the kitchen; it would have been an animated hub of activity and filled with noise, clattering, calling and would have been filled with steam and heat. In a well planned house such as Fota, the kitchen was placed as far away as possible from the main house to minimise the risk of accidental fire spreading through the grand rooms. Extra turns were added to the corridors to reduce the spread of cooking smells, often at the expense of the John “The Magnificent’s” hot food which had to travel a fair distance to the dining room.
This large table was at the heart of Fota’s kitchen and was used solely for food preparation rather than dining. The crucial ingredient for many of the soups and stews was stock, which were kept in stock pots and kept on the stove in the corner of the room to keep warm.
Fota’s cook had the option of numerous methods of cooking. At the main fire there is a turnspit for roasting (the preferred method of cooking in 19th century). Meat was secured on the skewers that roasted slowly in front of the fire. The juices were kept in a tray below in which Yorkshire puddings were made. The size of the fire could be adjusted to suite the size of the meat, and a spit boy was employed to turn the spit evenly. Later the spit was rigged up to a system that used the rising hot air in the chimney to turn the wheel that rotated the spit.
Copper pots and pans were cleaned every evening by the scullery maids before being replaced ready for another day’s use. The units under the windows acted as a type of indoor barbeque and used for frying, making sauces and cooking vegetables
The Regency Cook
In the same way a head Chef runs a restaurant kitchen, the Regency cook would have ruled the roost and would have been considered one of the upper servants. She had similar powers as the housekeeper and would have been called “Mrs”, regardless of whether she was married or not. Similar to modern day chefs, Regency cooks would have been considered pretty temperamental and secretive with their recipes; as a consequence, finding a good cook was hard. The last cook at Fota, Mrs Jones, was one such a lady. She was vivacious with dark curly hair and very assertive; servants would not dare enter the kitchen unless they’d been told to; she had complete control over who went into the kitchen. Indeed, it was extremely rare for members of the Smith Barry family to go there either.
The Regency cook was responsible for feeding the family and servants every day and also when they entertained guests during house parties, shoots and dinner parties. John The Magnificent’s favourite party trick was to ask the servants to bring as much wine to the dining room as possible, after which he would lock himself and his guests in and throw the keys out of the window. Lunch sometimes went on for days!.
Hospitality was an important part of life at Fota, as well as at any Regency house of this type, and the reputation of the family was on show. The entertaining started when the raw materials were left at the scullery door. In a Regency kitchen, each servant had their job and each room had its own purpose. Produce was sorted, cleaned, prepared and stored in large quantities, and consequently the cook worked closely with the head gardener so she could understand what fruits and vegetables were in season.
Many of the tasks carried out in kitchens today are the same, although carried out in a different way. In the Fota kitchen, everything was prepared using manual labour – much of the work of grinding, chopping, mixing, beating and mincing was carried out with the help of kitchen maids. The cook and her assistants used the large table at the centre of the room for preparation, with implements stored in drawers. Kitchen maids were also in charge of keeping the kitchen clean and a major every day task was to scour the tables, shelves, dressers and ovens with soap and hot water.
The Regency Cook’s kitchen was, in many ways, the precursor to the modern domestic kitchen and it’s certainly been the inspiration for a number of Artichoke design commissions, including the kitchen shown below.
If you find yourself in Cork, I would thoroughly recommend a visit to Fota House, not just for the house itself, but for the stunning arboretum and gardens.
With thanks to Eileen Cronin, the niece of Patty Butler who is the last surviving servant from Fota House and whose kind permission we have for re-producing these memoirs. Thanks also to Niall Foley and our friends at Irish Heritage Trust, Jennifer McCrea and Laura Murtagh, authors of Aspects of Fota, Stories from the Back Stairs.
To discuss Cook’s kitchen design with us, call (0)1934 745270. For more information on our bespoke kitchen design service please click here.
At Artichoke, we spend a great deal of time resolving and detailing the domestic layouts of our client’s homes. We never even consider what a country house kitchen will look like aesthetically until we understand completely how a space works practically.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, the domestic back-end of an English country house was largely managed by a team of servants who had set zones of work to operate from. For example, the scullery maid worked in the scullery, the cook reigned supreme in the kitchen and the butler had his pantry. The upper servants were butler, housekeeper, cook, valet, ladies maid and governess, and below them socially were footmen, housemaids, kitchen, scullery, laundry and dairy maids. Anyone who has watched Downton Abbey will have a understanding of the structure. All the domestic tasks and staff to run the house were hidden behind the green baize door, the single item of joinery that marked the divide between master and servant.
Such extravagance on staff is rare these days; we tend to cook for ourselves, use machines to wash our dishes and we generally tend to run our own lives. This can present issues when designing new bespoke kitchens for large country houses that were once run by numerous servants. For a start, typically the kitchen would have originally been at the back end of the house, away from the reception rooms of the house. This would minimise the risk of fire spreading to the front-end of the house, and also reduce cooking smells. These days our clients often want their kitchens to be at the heart of their homes. This results in us often having to design the kitchen into what would once have been a ballroom or a drawing room, presenting issues such as how to get services into the room, and how to get extraction out.
When Artichoke designs it’s bespoke kitchens, we will often refer back to the ways the domestic back ends of English country houses worked, and we often separate our kitchens into the same zones originally used in great country houses; Storage, Food Preparation, Cooking, Butler’s Pantry and Scullery. We are not advocates of the kitchen triangle which presents far too much rigidity for bespoke kitchen design and does not represent how most of our clients live.
On large estates, the acquisition of food had to be a well planned affair, and having a level of self sufficiency was also an advantage (although it required an army of outdoor staff to grow fruit, vegetables, flowers and herbs). The meats were often the produce of sport, and caught or shot by the hands of the gentry and their friends.
It was the housekeepers job to manage the storage of these goods. Advantage was taken of the abundance of food in the Summer, with any overage being preserved in the Still Room, a mini kitchen with two ranges on which jams, preserves, pickles, cakes and confectionery were made for afternoon teas.
The game larder was usually positioned on a North-East facing position to minimise heat from the sun; in many houses the walls were often hexagonal in shape to maximise wall surface to the cold air outside. The roof often had special ventilation to minimise smells from the hanging meat, and screens on the windows keep the vermin away. Lead lined tanks around the room would be used for meat to be wet or dry salted, allowing the game to be stored for several months.
Of course, storage of food is significantly less laborious these days, with sophisticated appliances such as Sub Zero fridges with dual compressors taking the place of air cooled storage. At Artichoke, we will often dedicate a separate zone in the kitchen to dry larder storage, often referred to as the Pantry.
The early domestic kitchen would have been an animated and noisy hub of the domestic back end of the house. The modern kitchen is often similar, albeit with less staff and more gadgets (and often more children!). In large English country houses, the large kitchen table would have been the focal point and main preparation zone. Many of the functions carried out then were the same as today; grinding chopping, mixing, beating, mincing and rolling were all undertaken by staff. These days we use islands to prepare food on and often buy in ingredients ready minced and prepared. We also have gadgets to do the chopping and grinding for us and we also tend to entertain far less formally than we used to.
Despite the differences in equipment, the cooking process starts when raw materials are deposited at the scullery door (the Sub Zero fridge being today’s equivalent). Regardless whether there are servants or not, food is still cleaned, stored, prepared and presented to guests.
Depending on layout, the island is now the main preparation zone in most kitchens. The key difference is that preparation tables used to be standard table height (around 760mm), while modern islands are usually around 910mm
Large country houses had a plethora of cooking options available to them. In the 19th Century, roasting meats on an open fire was the preferred method of cooking. Meat was secured on skewers that rotated slowly in-front of the fire with the juices being collected in the tray below (in which they later made Yorkshire pudding).
There was also usually a large boiler where puddings were boiled, a warming oven to keep meals hot, a stove for stockpots and a smaller hotter oven for pastry cooking. There was also often a charcoal stove, used as a type of indoor barbeque, a task adequately replaced by the Grill (such as the one found on the Wolf Dual Fuel range below).
As a nod to the kitchens of the past, Artichoke has recently designed a large open fireplace with a spit into the kitchen of a large country estate house in Tuscany. Cooking meats on an open fire is a fantastic method of cooking if you have the available equipment.
The Butler’s Pantry came into fashion in the English country house in the mid to late 1800’s. They because a staple of great English houses and were typically situated between the dining room and the kitchen. They were used for storing china and crockery and for serving and plating up food.
The example below, designed by Artichoke for a country house, shows both sides of the room, a short passageway between the kitchen and the main dining room.
The scullery that supported large country estates was usually at the back of the house, often nearest the well or water source. They would usually have stone floors and heavy drainage, and often the scullery floor was 150mm lower than the rooms adjacent to it to minimise risk of flooding to other rooms in the house.
The scullery maid would usually stand on slatted mats to stop their feet getting too wet, and there were usually two sinks, one for hot water and one for cold.
Sculleries were not simply for washing. They were also used as early preparation zones, such as for cleaning mud off vegetables bought in off the estate or preparing game and fish. They were also used for laundry.
When designing the domestic ends of English country houses, the scullery and utility rooms will often be separate. Artichoke’s sculleries will usually be for washing up plates and kitchen pots and pans, while utility rooms will be for linen washing and storage.