Remodeling the Heart of a Home

Dreaming about improving your dreamhouse? Here are a bundle of books to make those dreams practical.


By Bo Niles

Hearst Books, 143 pp., $29.95


Edited by Margaret Kennedy

Text by Carol Sama Sheehan

Hearst Books 155 pp., $22


By Bob Vila


24 pp., $29.95

Kitchen Makeovers

Not so long ago, the American kitchen was an architecturally uninspired place confined to a small room, walled off from the rest of the home - a place to prepare food, and that's all. Not so any more.

As it was in Colonial times, today's kitchen is again the heart of the home, a place where the meal is cooked and also eaten, where the family gathers and friends are informally entertained. In many ways it has taken over the social functions of both the living room and the dining room. As likely as not, today's kitchen will also house a TV and, increasingly, the home computer as well.

Where space is at a premium, a necessarily tiny kitchen will be open to the rest of the home so the effect is much the same. Architects who once gave short shrift to the kitchen now make it a principal feature of their designs, and realtors claim that a kitchen with character will often clinch the sale of a home.

So where does that leave those of us with a 1950s home and a kitchen typical of that era? Well, there are books with a slew of good ideas. Two publications from Hearst Books are outstanding for the number of examples of how older, uninspired rooms, were renovated to meet the needs and gather-in-the-kitchen lifestyles of today: House Beautiful: Kitchens and The Country Living Book of Country Kitchens.

Both provide a range of design ideas and building information for renovation or new construction. Lavishly illustrated, they are also good examples of the printer's art.

"House Beautiful" begins with a look into three styles of kitchen: sleek contemporary; the never-out-of-fashion country kitchen; and tailor-made designs to meet specific needs or limitations imposed by the existing building.

Part 2 deals with the elements of design - the all-important layout, appliances, storage options, color, and the availability of surface finishes. Decorative touches make up the final chapter.

Not every example cited involves a total remake of the kitchen as in the case of the 1885 California farmhouse cited in the chapter, "Something Borrowed, Something New."

"It's tempting when remodeling an old kitchen sadly in need of an update," says author Carol Sama Sheehan, "to simply gut the interior and start from scratch." But she cautions that a more moderate approach often makes sense "especially if a room has vintage architectural elements worth preserving."

In a similar vein, the author shows elsewhere that decorative details can remake a kitchen without a single structural change. So there is much in the book to interest everyone. Fourteen makeovers of old kitchens are dealt with in detail, and there are references to many more. All told, 124 color plates and several floor plans help bring the details to light.

When settlers originally set foot on North American soil, the kitchen, or "forearm" as it was then called, was the first and often the only room built in a new house or cabin.

As the individual prospered new rooms were added, but the kitchen remained the heart and center of the home. The classic American country kitchen, easy-going, casual, and illustrated so effectively in "Country Kitchens," emerged from these humble beginnings.

But the "country" style we know today draws not only from the Pilgrims and other settlers, but also from other nations: Scandinavia, Spain, Middle European countries, the Orient, and Africa all contributed. As author Bo Niles points out, "elements from every culture and every country enrich the American country look and give it personality."

The book celebrates the imagination and ingenuity that went into the evolution of the country look that, in modern America, is as popular as ever. And while it still predominates in the suburbs, increasingly the style is turning up in the city as converted lofts and other industrial buildings are turned into condominiums.

The modern country kitchen will also be the home of antiques: porcelain, ironware, or wood. In many ways these kitchens are the repository of history. While examples of classic kitchens predominate, the book goes further in that it serves as a guide to planning your own country look, advising on layout, cabinets, counter tops, lighting, and working with a professional designer. A detailed questionnaire is also provided to help you get started.

In Bob Vila's Workshop: The Ultimate Illustrated Handbook for the Home Workshop, the former television host of the PBS series "This Old House" and now of "Home Again with Bob Vila," takes the hobbyist and craftsman through all the steps needed to set up a workshop, whether that shop be in a closet, a backyard shed, or the cellar. Then he helps with the selection of tools needed in the workshop.

"Making the right choices can seem daunting in a marketplace where equivalent tools are sold for prices that, in some cases, may differ by 500 percent or more," he says. The book aims to lead the reader through this maze.

While the highest-priced tool is not necessarily the best, the lowest invariably is not a bargain. In certain circumstances, some tools are best rented as the need arises; and while hand tools require more effort, they are infinitely quieter than their power counterparts.

Helping the reader make the wiser choice is the whole point of this book, and Vila has tackled the work with a thoroughness characteristic of all his other work.

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