Cook Like a Scullery Maid on ‘Downton Abbey’


There’s a new trophy kitchen in town, and it looks like a very old one, with hand-painted cabinets in rich colors and dull brass hardware with an antique patina. Maybe it’s the “Downton Abbey” effect: the English scullery has been buffed up, ever so slightly, and shipped to America. Downstairs is now upstairs. The Aga range is optional.

Nearly 30 years ago, Tony Niblock and Katie Fontana, English designers who were then a couple, built a traditional Suffolk long house with reclaimed materials and an especially fitting kitchen.

Inspired by National Trust properties, they sketched out Georgian-style cabinetry, which is distinguished by clean lines and minimal detailing, had it made by a local joiner, and painted it themselves in their favorite Farrow & Ball color, Berrington Blue.

Instead of a laminate stage set, they wanted a kitchen, Ms. Fontana has said, “that wasn’t twiddly, that didn’t shout, ‘Look at me!’” and they guessed, rightly, that others might want the same thing.

This matched the artisanal, local and very expensive cookery of the sort practiced by Skye Gyngell, the chef at Spring, a farm-to-table restaurant in Somerset House. Ms. Gyngell is one of many culinary avatars to put a Plain English kitchen in her own home, underscoring its functionality to the aspirational amateur.

Taavo Somer, the architect-restaurateur who rusticated a generation of New York City restaurants, installed his Plain English kitchen with a friend, setting the cabinets onto the uneven floor of his 1930s Tudor in Dutchess County, N.Y., using a process called scribing. (The cabinets have no kick plate, so they sit directly on the floor, hence the scribing, which gives them a sturdy, Shaker-simple quality.)

It allowed him to see how precisely the pieces were put together and note details he called poetic, like dovetail joints on the drawers.

Page Starzinger, a poet who lives in a one-bedroom apartment in Greenwich Village, also saw the poetry in the 28-year-old British company’s designs, and ordered blue-black cabinets (shade name: Railings) for her narrow galley kitchen.

In an East Village condo, a new Plain English kitchen sports a baby Aga, as adorable as a young royal.

Right now, in homes on Martha’s Vineyard, Block Island, and in the Hamptons, in townhouses in New Orleans and Los Angeles, Plain English kitchens dressed in their signature colors — Mushy Peas, Dripping Tap, Boiled Dishcloth and Boiled Egg — conjure the interiors of certain English literati (Margaret Drabble by way of Mary-Kay Wilmers).

It is the sort of expensive good taste also expressed by the high-end nursery food served at Rochelle Canteen in the Shoreditch neighborhood of London.

Rita Konig, an English decorator and editor, oversaw the Plain English color line this year, adding 12 hues that include Nicotine (a deep yellow), Burnt Toast (brown) and Mouldy Plum (what it sounds like).

In the half-century since the modern American kitchen promised an egalitarian, if gendered, space that would free the middle-class housewife from the drudgery of her chores with space-age technologies and materials like Formica, that arena has become ever more complicated and aspirational.

Last year, Americans spent $85.5 billion on their kitchens; this year, that figure is projected to rise to $90 billion, according to the National Kitchen & Bath Association, the industry’s trade group, which also reports that “transitional” styles, meaning a little bit of everything, are the most popular.

And yet, Ms. Carlson added, importing whole kitchens handmade in Suffolk, while beautifully made and culturally on-point, “might start to feel problematic in this age of climate change. As we continue to focus on locally sourced goods and food, does it makes for a contradiction in the kitchen?”



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