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Part V: Making a Kitchen From Scratch With Period Details and a Dash of Minimalism

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The thought of creating a warm, functional kitchen was a driving force behind the renovation

BEFORE: The rear parlor, which would eventually become the kitchen and dining room. Note the smaller windows from a previous remodel. Photo by Aaron Bawol.
BEFORE: The rear parlor, which would eventually become the kitchen and dining room. Note the smaller windows from a previous remodel. Photo by Aaron Bawol.

After a decade working for New York City firm Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects, Brent Allen Buck was ready for a change of pace. In 2015, Buck struck out on his own to launch Buck Projects, headquartered in the Brooklyn brownstone he renovated on nights and weekends over the course of two years. That home, whose renovation process Buck will outline in the first ever Renovation Diary series for Curbed, serves as his home base and design laboratory, as well as a backdrop to a complete set of teak pepper mills by Danish modernist Jens Quistgaard. Follow along this summer as Buck details the highs, lows, joys, and travails of home renovation.

I knew my wife and I were on the same page when a smile slowly spread across her face as we entered the rear parlor the first time we toured the house. With southern light streaming through the windows, we imagined that back room as the renovated kitchen and dining space. We had always wanted a large dining table to spend time with friends and family over meals and board games.

Envisioning this room's potential was one of the main things that convinced us to embark on this renovation project. The goal was to create a simple kitchen, both warm and functional, that retains its traditional Italianate detailing and connects to the garden. For us, the kitchen itself had to feel modern.

Views of the brownstone's parlor-level kitchen in process. Photos courtesy Buck Projects.

We thought about how best to install a contemporary kitchen—cabinets, appliances, fixtures—into the surrounding period details. To do so we introduced a shadow line—a thin, shallow definition between cabinetry and the wall itself—to literally separate old and new. We specified minimalist lighting fixtures and appliances that wouldn't detract from the space as a whole.

At some point (and it's unclear as to what previous remodelers were thinking!) the 10-foot-tall rear parlor windows were made smaller, so our thought was to restore the glazing to its original size. Some day, we plan to replace them with French doors to allow access to a raised steel deck and a back garden.

I spent late nights figuring out the layout of parlor floor kitchen and dining room, considering and reconsidering locations for appliances, dimensions for the island, and the best placement for the dining table. I obsessed over mere inches to make sure that the width of the house would accommodate the layout we wanted.

The original massing in the room influenced the design of the new kitchen: A closet became a pantry and another became a refrigerator that would be tucked into streamlined cabinetry. The cooktop and open shelving are tucked in between the new pantry and refrigerator. Instead of the typical vent hood, we installed a downdraft that retracts right into the counter, allowing a custom white oak backsplash made by our friend, millworker Shengning Szang of Studio SNNG. When we're cooking, the raised downdraft protects the backsplash; we also installed Corian under the open shelving and over the cooktop so as to protect the wood and allow for easy cleaning.

We situated the sink on the island, facing into the room toward the dining table and centered on a white marble fireplace mantel on the opposite wall. The oven and dishwasher are tucked into the island, out of view from the dining area.

I took a similar approach with the kitchen in the garden apartment. We considered the most efficient layout for the space, and added details like a shadow line separating old from new. The kitchen—meant for rental tenants—is clean, minimal, and built to take a beating. The backsplash and countertop are Corian: durable and easy to clean.

Read more:
Part I: The Hunt is on for a Renovation Project in Brownstone Brooklyn
Part II: Designing a Modern Home Inside a Traditional Brooklyn Brownstone
Part III: Bringing a Brownstone Back From the Brink
Part IV: Rewiring from Top to Bottom

Throughout the process, we called on friends to collaborate on the project. The opportunity to work with talented sub-contractors was one of the most rewarding parts of our project, because their collective expertise pushed the renovation to a better place overall. Millwork was a huge piece of the puzzle, and we needed someone very skilled to turn my design drawings turned into detailed shop drawings.

Shop drawing, elevation view, for the parlor level kitchen. Photo courtesy of Buck Projects.

Millworker Simrel Achenbach of Descience Lab was responsible for the kitchen cabinetry, bathroom vanities, and solid wood doors throughout the house. Sim was generous with his time and as one may expect from a millworker, extraordinarily detail oriented. His team built the kitchen cabinets, lacquered MDF cabinet doors, and shelves in their shop and installed them onsite.

Millworker Simrel Achenbach built the kitchen cabinets with MDF doors in his shop at Descience Lab and later installed them on-site at the brownstone. Photo courtesy of Buck Projects.

For the master bathroom, we decided a wall-mounted vanity would, like our kitchen design, not detract from the overall feel of the room. We picked white oak, a wood that would not have been out of place in the house when it was built in the late 19th century. Integrated pulls on most millwork items adds to the simplicity of their design. Bathroom mirrors, crafted by Shengning Szang, were inspired by picture frames that I'd once made to house painted portraits of my grandfathers. He built them to accommodate subtle LED strip lights under the top and bottom edges of the mirrors.

White oak vanity in the master bathroom (left), detail of the vanity in the third-floor bathroom (right). Photo courtesy of Buck Projects.

Sim and I played with the existing proportions of the rails, stiles, and trim so that my slightly modified design for the new doors didn't feel busy or static. In the end, we simplified the original six-panel doors to four-panel versions in poplar.

Lengths of plaster crown molding ready for installation. Photo courtesy of Buck Projects.
Detail sketches for hidden door to parlor floor powder room. Photo courtesy of Buck Projects.

Crown molding and trim required a similar laser focus. The house originally had seven different crown molding profiles, five baseboard types, and four different casing profiles, all of which I catalogued and documented. I simplified the original details, but retained their scale. In the front parlor, we were able to save some of the original plaster crown molding but had to duplicate and reinstall matching molding on the back half of the ceiling.

We started by creating new crown molding in solid plaster, then created templates that reflected the profile of the original molding [Ed. note: What you see above as lengths of plaster crown.] This process was expensive and time consuming, so for the balance of the molding throughout the house, we created lengths of "crown molding" made from foam. These were covered in plaster and once dry, we installed them at ceiling level and again coated them in a quarter-inch of plaster—a revised method that saved both schedule and money.

As we installed the new trim throughout the house, we began to strip layers of paint from the existing details we had protected months before: mahogany handrails, marble fireplace fronts, wood shutters (which had been fixed in place by layers of paint), and cast-iron fireplace grilles.

Stripped cast-iron fireplace screen. Photo courtesy of Buck Projects.
Stripped marble fireplace front (left) and stripped wooden shutters (right). Photos courtesy of Buck Projects.

In hindsight, we spent comparable amounts of time mulling over both the modern and traditional details of the renovation. We knew in order to tie them together successfully, they needed equal consideration. Finally, after nine months of renovation work, our two kitchens, millwork, and all the doors were installed. Over the next few months, we would really begin to see the fruits of our efforts, daily progress as the house would begin to feel like a home. —Brent Allen Buck

Stay tuned for Part VI of Renovation Diary, as the finishes come together and the house begins to look whole. And follow Brent Allen Buck on Instagram for more behind-the-scenes photos!