Crowning Achievement

Use architectural elements to enhance—not overpower—a modern kitchen
By David Stimmel
June 23, 2010

From flowers to leaves to equestrian accents, architectural woodcarvings and decorative elements come in almost any conceivable size and shape. No longer confined to the elaborate, sometimes stuffy designs popular in Victorian times, today’s moldings and other carved architectural elements are streamlined and sleek enough to complement even the most contemporary kitchen or bath. In fact, adding these details can add warmth to a design that would otherwise be too stark or sterile. For example, a wild or exotic burl veneer or patterned custom veneer in place of a traditional matching end panel can create interest as well as accentuate the graining on the remaining wood in a room, be it the floor or the cabinetry.


Molding is the first thing that comes to mind when most designers seek to add architectural details, and there are thousands of profiles available, from stock to custom cut, but columns, finials, drawer fronts, keys, rosettes, panels, columns, arches and plinths shouldn’t be overlooked.

Modern molding options from Klise.

Don’t be afraid to use corbels and onlays in a transitional or contemporary kitchen. Art for Everyday’s Modern Classic mix-and-match collection of moldings, columns and more is particularly well suited to a wide variety of decors. You can also ask your cabinet supplier to make simple brackets or other details that fit well in a contemporary kitchen or bath.

Art for Everyday's Modern Classic collection offers mix-and-match decorative elements for the contemporary kitchen.

However, knowing when to use architectural elements, and when not to, can be tricky. Adding too many can seem heavy-handed at best and tacky at worst, but a room with no ornamentation at all often feels flat and uninspired. Use cabinet-door thickness as a starting point (for example, if you have a 3/4-in. door, the thinnest molding you should use on a base or wall cabinet should be the same size) and then grow from there, taking into consideration the size of the room and whether it opens into another space. If the latter is the case, a crown detail, even a small one, can give cabinetry definition.

A client’s taste also guides what types and how many wood elements are chosen. Some homeowners embrace intricate patterns, while others prefer a more minimalist look. Manufacturers recognize the need for their products to blend with a variety of decors and offer collections that range from Arts and Crafts to Art Nouveau. For example, Enkeboll’s Tribeca series is inspired by the clean lines of classic modern architecture, much of which is found in New York City’s Tribeca neighborhood. Counter-edge moldings look great on Shaker-style or flat-panel cabinets. Every project should be unique.

Enkeboll’s Tribeca collection oozes modern appeal and can add warmth and interest to contemporary kitchens.

Nature themes (including grapes, vines, lions and pineapples) are common in architectural details, but other forms include fleur-de-lis, cherubs, egg and dart and more abstract shapes. In a kitchen (shown below) I entered in this year’s K+BB Design Awards, which incidentally received a merit award, I used wood scraps to produce a woven feel on decorative wood panels as well as on concealed door fronts—something I thought of while perusing different weaves and knits my wife uses as a fiber artist. Inspiration is all around us. You only need to look and not be afraid of trying something new or different.

Wood choice is also an important factor when choosing architectural elements. Bamboo and zebra long dominated modern designs, but Lyptus (an environmentally friendly alternative) and mahogany are gaining in popularity. Exotic wood veneers, especially burls such as olive or ash, are excellent choices to give a room an extra punch, even when they are used in limited quantities. For visual variety, try contrasting wood grains, a birch with cherry or a burl with mahogany for example. Most wood elements are shipped unfinished, so it is up to the designer to create the most appropriate look and color.

But don’t limit yourself to wood. Metal accents (which include copper, stainless steel and even mirror) also enhance a design. For example, stainless steel can be spec’d on a toekick to match a kitchen’s appliances or copper can be incorporated to match a sink or as an accent in the center panel of a recessed paneled cabinet door. The maintenance and durability of metal when used in accents is similar to that of faucets and sinks in the same material. Fabric, tile and mirror accents can also add a creative touch to any project.

There are some precautions to be heeded before specifyng wood veneers or carvings or any other type of architectural detail. First, pay close attention to size limitations. Large wood panels (most manufacturers will go up to 8 ft. x 4 ft.) are more likely to split or warp, and custom sizing can generate long lead times that can slow down a project unnecessarily. Secondly, some species of wood are better than others. Pine is too soft for high-traffic applications, and oak has an open grain that is prone to collecting dust. In the bath, hardwoods work best. In fact, mahogany and teak are best in high-moisture environments. Finally, double check appliance specifications for flammable or combustible materials to ensure wood accents are placed a proper distance away.

Once you know how to correctly use them, architectural accents can add depth and polish to almost any room. With a little imagination and a willingness to break convention, a designer can incorporate details that will transform a mediocre kitchen or bath into a showstopper.

—David Stimmel is principal of Stimmel Consulting Group, Inc., in Ambler, PA.
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