It all started when Betsy Rowbottom’s stove broke. She had lived in her Shorewood duplex for 14 years, and her eclectic aesthetic touched every room in the house … except her kitchen, which was dated and showing signs of wear.
She replaced the vintage stove with a shiny new Viking model, but that improvement brought the sad state of the rest of the room into high relief.
“It was like parking a Ferrari in the driveway of a dilapidated house,” Rowbottom jokes.
Of course, she’d thought about renovating the kitchen before. She knew that with some adjustments, she could increase her counter space and improve the room’s flow and function. Interior design had always been a bit of an obsession for her, but a remodel this extensive (and expensive) wasn’t necessary – until the new appliance presented an opportunity. “So I designed the kitchen around the stove,” she says.
Step one was finding the right person for the job, then enticing them to do it. “You have to be an attractive customer,” advises Rowbottom. “It’s not about vetting them. It’s about them vetting you.”
Rowbottom found what she was looking for in Dustin Christian, a specialty builder and carpenter with a one-man operation called Focal Point Carpentry. To bring him aboard, she made it clear that she was decisive, interested in his input and, most of all, flexible. She waited a full year for him to take the job, and her patience paid off. “It was such a gift to work with someone who was a jack of all trades and was really up for a unique kitchen.”
Christian was taken in by Rowbottom’s plan. “She had a great vision,” he says. It helped that he has a soft spot for turn-of-the-century Milwaukee homes and enjoys working on projects that show respect for their architectural history. The short commute from his house was a bonus, too.
Rowbottom loves the look of English kitchens, so she pored over the British House & Garden magazine for inspiration. She wanted the kitchen to be dramatic (cue the moody color scheme), cozy (bring on the rugged floors) and functional (everything else).
Work started with cutting through the five layers of linoleum flooring that had accumulated in the home’s 100-year life, and both Rowbottom and Christian were shocked at what they found below: pine. Rowbottom says it was an easy decision to refinish the wood. Less surprising – considering the home’s age and location – was the unearthing of Cream City brick under the drywall as they reworked the walkway. She left it exposed to add interest, saying “all we had to really do was wash it because it had years and years of being in a wall.”
Christian’s custom cabinets showcase English influences, with legs resembling furniture pieces and precisely cut-out drawers and doors that give a framed look, instead of resting on the outside of the base. Rowbottom offered to buy pre-made cabinets, but Christian liked the challenge of making them himself. In hindsight, Christian loves how the build turned out, but admits he underestimated how big of a job he was tackling. “This may be one of the only full kitchen projects that I ever do,” he says.
When it comes to things like cabinet hardware, it helps to start with a clear idea of what you’re looking for. “Then it’s just a battle of finding the one that you want,” Rowbottom says. She landed on chrome finishes, even though bronze is trending, because it matched the kitchens on her vision board. The six-month remodel gave her plenty of time to exercise her skills as a secondhand shopper. Even the massive light fixture in the center of her kitchen was upcycled – from a Mitchell International Airport hangar!
Rowbottom’s dog, Derby, has the run of the place, so the floor refinisher wanted to make sure she understood that pine is a softer, less durable wood. But Rowbottom doesn’t mind. Same goes for the countertops. Concrete shows wear over the years, but Rowbottom relishes the handmade, utilitarian look. “There’s already such a beautiful patina where there’s just layers of life.”
Even these imperfections, it seems, were part of Rowbottom’s master plan. “I really wanted my kitchen to feel like someone lives here. It was never going to be perfect. Nothing in my house is perfect.”
Betsy’s Best Bets
Lazy Susans are lazy, and trash doesn’t have to be trashy (aka think outside the box). Instead of adding the obligatory rotating shelving to her corner cabinet, where “stuff goes to die,” Rowbottom had a hole cut in the opposite wall to create space for her dog paraphernalia in the stairwell. As for the trash? Holes in the countertops allow her to forgo opening the cabinet to dump scraps. “I can always tell where the garbage is [in other people’s kitchens] because it’s all grubby because you touch it so much.”
You don’t have to be a cook to have a nice kitchen. “Even when I’m making a bowl of cereal, I get a lot of joy from being in the room,” Rowbottom says. One of her splurges was her Rohl Italian-made faucet, which she found on eBay. It’s one of the most-used items in any kitchen, and six months into her new kitchen she suspects she’s already down to $1 per use.
Take your time. Rowbottom admits that waiting 14 years might be a bit extreme but says her knowledge of the kitchen made it easier to find a vision. She had long accepted the room’s small footprint, so she modeled the plan after a ship’s galley, “well-appointed with thoughtful touches,” and giving every beautiful thing its place.