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Retro Kitchens

Some people just aren’t happy unless they’re digging through antique stores and furnishing their homes with old stuff. Whether their homes are old or new is beside the point: They want their houses to look old, and the one room in the house to best capture a particular bygone time is the kitchen.



Northstar's 1950 model refrigerator from Elmira Stove Works measures 19 cubic feet with a freezer on the bottom. Photo credit: Elmira Stove Works
Northstar’s 1950 model refrigerator from Elmira Stove Works measures 19 cubic feet with a freezer on the bottom. Photo credit: Elmira Stove Works

“A kitchen that is designed with the era of the home in mind has a sense of integrity and belonging that can’t be beat,” says Bo Sullivan, senior designer and historian for Rejuvenation in Portland, Ore., a manufacturer of classic lighting and house parts. “It won’t go out of style or stick out like a sore thumb.”

There’s also the nostalgia factor—for some, it’s the strongest pull to installing a retro kitchen. “People like older stoves because they remind them of their grandmothers and other relatives,” says Marsha Stonecipher of Savon Appliance in Burbank, Calif., a company that repairs and sells vintage stoves, refrigerators and other appliances.

There are numerous ways to make a kitchen look old while still providing ultra-modern conveniences, from appliances to cabinetry. Essentially, here’s how to create a retro kitchen. Either buy appliances, cabinets and fixtures that look old but are brand-new or buy appliances, cabinets and fixtures that are old but have been refurbished. There are pros and cons to each, of course. For some, the choice to buy brand-new or refurbished comes down to personal preference while others look at functionality and practicality first. To some extent, the age of a house as well as the layout and size of the kitchen will be factors. For example, in the 1970s, 36-inch stoves were the most popular size while their counterparts from earlier eras were a lot bigger, so a major design overhaul of the kitchen may be necessary since the stove is often the springboard for the rest of the renovation.

“Old” Retro
On the other hand, some feel that a new kitchen that just looks old lacks soul. When Kezia Jauron of Sherman Oaks, Calif., decided to remodel her 1941 house, she planned to put the kitchen in a new addition but she still wanted it


Kezia Jauron's refrigerator old-school commercial fridge is from the 1940s; its previous home was in a pharmacy. Though it's been thoroughly reconditioned, it's still just a fridge—she had to buy a separate freezer and hide it behind cabinetry. Photo credit: Kezia Jauron
Kezia Jauron’s refrigerator old-school commercial fridge is from the 1940s; its previous home was in a pharmacy. Though it’s been thoroughly reconditioned, it’s still just a fridge—she had to buy a separate freezer and hide it behind cabinetry. Photo credit: Kezia Jauron

to fit with the age of the house. Plus, she preferred old appliances. “You cannot beat the detail and styling on the old stoves,” she says, “they’re like classic cars.” Plus, I liked the idea of restoring and reusing something versus being stuck on the consumer treadmill of buying new.” She looked at new retro appliances but found the design was either from the 50s or the early 20th century and wouldn’t work with her house.

She fell in love with the Art Nouveau design of a six-burner O’Keefe and Merritt stove from the 1930s she found on Craigslist.com and hired Savon Appliance to do the restoration. They replaced the insulation, restored the interior and re-chromed or re-enameled the rest.

In the middle of the job, the restorer told Jauron that a 1940s double-door commercial refrigerator with similar styling to her stove had just arrived in the shop. One look told her it was a perfect match and she bought it, though the restoration wasn’t as trouble-free as the stove. “The fridge was a bit more challenging to restore and keep it affordable to run in terms of energy use,” she admits. “The motor had to be replaced and it needed a lot of tweaking, but knock wood, it’s running great.”

“New” Retro
Doug Durbin, founder and director of design for nuHaus Kitchen and Bath Design in Chicago, Ill., favors new appliances that look old. “I recommend that clients

purchase new appliances that are Energy Star-qualified and look at reproduction appliances instead than restored appliances,” he says. “The new appliances may be slightly more expensive, but homeowners save on energy and they are much better for the environment in the long run.” He adds that purchasing a quality, high-end appliance and applying custom panels to the front is another option.


Kezia Jauron's stove dates from the 1930s, and she says it was originally custom-made. She bought it completely intact down to the shakers for salt, pepper, flour and sugar. Photo credit: Kezia Jauron
Kezia Jauron’s stove dates from the 1930s, and she says it was originally custom-made. She bought it completely intact down to the shakers for salt, pepper, flour and sugar. Photo credit: Kezia Jauron


To add even more to the available possibilities, you can buy an old-fashioned farmhouse cook stove that is brand-new and operates on either gas or electric, but you can also purchase a brand-new cook stove that looks like it’s from the 1920s but uses wood. Heartland Appliances offers two models of new wood cook stoves for those who really want to go retro.

Cabinetry Options
After the appliances, the next way to give a kitchen a retro look is through the cabinets. Durbin, who is also a cabinetmaker, again prefers starting with the new and making it look old or “distressed” through a variety of architectural millwork techniques that range from wire brushing, fractured and glazed top coats—even adding a few wormholes and dents.

When Shannon and Keith Filippelli of Belchertown, Mass., decided to build a new house in the 1920s Craftsman style, they wanted to include a built-in bench and table in the kitchen, common for the era. Early on, they discovered it wasn’t easy to find builders and suppliers nearby who understood their vision. “The McMansion mentality still seems to prevail, so it’s been somewhat difficult to get them to understand exactly what it is we’re looking for,” Shannon Filippelli explained. “This has been particularly true for the finish carpentry portion of the work.”

She was also unprepared for the additional costs that authenticity generates, not only because in some cases the carpenters were starting from scratch but also because the materials are harder to find and can take more time. “The older that new things look, the more expensive they generally are,” she said. Yet, she maintains that it’s worth it. “Getting the right combination together to suit the era you are trying to evoke can take a little homework, but getting them wrong can create an off-note in the period story you hope to tell.”


The sage and chocolate kitchen from St. Charles combines sleek retro styling with pure functionality.
The sage and chocolate kitchen from St. Charles combines sleek retro styling with pure functionality.


St. Charles Cabinetry, a division of Viking Stove Company, offers a line of kitchen cabinets with a retro look straight out of the 50s but with a thoroughly 21st century sensibility. The brushed stainless-steel finish cabinetry contains 70 percent recyclable content and is 98 percent recyclable.

Other Options
Though appliances and cabinets provide for the most radical changes when overhauling a kitchen towards the retro look, more meticulous homeowners want to make sure that everything in the room is true to the era, down to the dividers in the silverware drawers.

Thrift shops, flea markets and eBay are great resources for genuine vintage housewares like toasters, mixing bowls and furniture. For items like period curtains and flooring, there are numerous companies offering their products in retro designs. American Retro Furniture sells tables and chairs that are straight out of the 50s, and the company’s links page provides a wealth of information on companies to help outfit any retro kitchen from floor to ceiling.

The Maintenance Factor
Even once the renovation is complete, a retro kitchen may require more attention than a new one.

Here are some additional resources to help create your ideal retro kitchen.

New appliances that look old:
Aga Stoves
Elmira Stove Works Northstar Line
Heartland Appliances
Bertazzoni
La Cornue

Old appliances that have been refurbished:
Antique Appliances
Good Time Stove
Savon Appliance


“I’m supposed to dust the grille under the fridge to keep it energy-efficient, and the pilot light on the stove goes out occasionally, but it takes less than two seconds to relight it and the gas company doubts we’ll be poisoned from an unlit pilot,” reports Jauron.

But she and others who have opted for a particular retro look—whether new old or old old—have been satisfied with the results.

“Period kitchen makeovers tend to blend a mixture of history and fantasy,” says Sullivan. “The result is a wonderfully evocative and old-fashioned looking kitchen that often has only the barest true relationship to an original kitchen from when the house was built.”

And the best of both worlds.

Credit: Renovate Your World