A Meeting of Minds: Sonia Solicari and Plain English’s Katie Fontana on the changing role of the kitchen at their collaborative new project in The Museum of the Home
The co-founder of bespoke cupboard makers Plain English sits down with the director of the newly-renovated Museum of the Home for a tête-à-tête on everyone’s favourite room: the kitchen
When the Museum of the Home opened in 1914, its collection of furniture and woodwork was intended as a resource for the east London furniture trade. In the century since, the museum – housed in Grade I-listed 18th-century almshouses in Hoxton – has become an archive of how we live, tracing changes in domestic life through a series of period rooms that date from 1630 to 1997. Now, after an £18 million redevelopment led by architects Wright & Wright, the museum is reopening with a greater focus on our experience of the home, doubling its exhibition space and asking important questions about how we will lead our lives in the future.
For the museum’s unloved kitchen event space, they partnered with bespoke cupboard makers Plain English. Founded in 1992 after Guild member Katie Fontana and Tony Niblock were unable to find a simple wooden kitchen for the house they were building in Suffolk, Plain English has built its name on refined, timeless design and high-quality craftsmanship. Their success – they have become the go-to for sensitive restorations of historic homes and recently opened a showroom in New York – reflects how the kitchen has changed from a small and functional space to the beating heart of a house.
As the museum opens to the public after two and a half years, Katie and Sonia sit down to discuss the project, which was a gift from Plain English to the museum; as well as Katie’s approach to its design, and how kitchens have changed through the centuries.
Sonia: “Thank you so much for your beautiful work here, we’ve been enjoying it so much in recent weeks. I wanted to start by asking you if could you tell us a bit more about your relationship with the Museum of the Home?”
Katie: “I first discovered the Museum of the Home about 30 years ago. I thought it was so wonderful how there was a whole spectrum of objects collected here, rather than just those of the highest quality. I really find inspiration for Plain English in the plainer things that often get overlooked. If you ask people what they love about Georgian architecture, they’ll probably say the Corinthian columns or the cornicing, not the understairs cupboard. But I think these are the things that offer a wonderful little slice of time that should not be forgotten.”
Sonia: “Speaking of forgotten corners, what was your impression of the space that has now become the Plain English kitchen?”
Katie: “That it really had been forgotten. It looked like a municipal canteen and was completely incongruous here. You walked from a Georgian courtyard garden into a Georgian building and there was this 1960s Formica kitchen.
“Even from the first meeting here, I knew what I wanted to do. It needed to have a different focus from what we would normally do for a kitchen; it had to be a space that lots of people could mill around in and enjoy, and where children could do craft activities at the table and swing on the chairs. I had a lot more free rein, which was nice.”
Sonia: “How did you find balancing being sensitive to the past while representing something contemporary and usable?”
Katie: “I hope that we’ve achieved both. As far as being truthful to the building, all we had to do was strip back to what was there originally and capitalise on this, rather than try and obliterate it with some other 1960s interior. For instance, the floor is linoleum, which is a relatively modern thing. They wouldn’t have had it in Georgian times, but it’s in the spirit of a Georgian building and I hope that we’re showing people the beauty of the surrounding Georgian architecture. It was very hard to see exactly what you were looking at before. I hope it’s clearer now.”
Sonia: “It feels like it’s always been there – which is the test of a great design – and yet the colour is really striking, especially because the walls and units are the same.”
Katie: “The colour was chosen by Joa Studholme, the Colour Curator at Farrow & Ball; I had it firmly in my mind that I wanted to do the cupboards and the walls all the same. The room is about the activities that will take place here, so I wanted the design to drop into the background.
“I also knew that it would be more of an empty space – it’s not like someone’s home where there are pictures on the wall and personal belongings everywhere. Painting it all the same colour is an easy way to harmonise it. It suddenly feels complete.”
Sonia: “It’s interesting what you said about the idea of the kitchen design receding, as the museum is going to be very much focused on the experience the visitors have and the memories they form here.”
Katie: “How will the kitchen fit into the wider relaunch of the museum?”
Sonia: “With the Wright & Wright redevelopment, there’s more flexibility across the whole site. Visitors can move around the space easily and it’s enabled us to really think of the museum as a magazine, as something you can dip into. You can spend half an hour or half a day here; you can come just to look at the exhibitions or get involved in something more active. The kitchen really fits into that – it’s an integral part of the home and it adds a whole other layer to what we can offer as part of our programming.
“I think particularly this year, in which we have spent months at home, many people have been thinking about what home means for them: whether they’re happy or comfortable in their domestic environments. It feels like the perfect time to be in the museum asking those questions, especially about the future of the home and work.”
Katie: “You’ll have to do a new room with a home office!”
Sonia: “We’re definitely looking at ways to present the experience of the pandemic. A few weeks into the first lockdown we launched a collective project called ‘Stay Home’, where we asked people about their experiences. They completed a series of questions and took photographs, and that’s forming one of our first displays that visitors will encounter in the new museum.
“We’ve all gone through this extraordinary experience and now that we are starting to return to the workplace, a lot of people are thinking about their work-life balance.”
Katie: “So, I noticed that the last space in the Home Galleries is a kitchen…”
Sonia: “We were inspired by the idea of the kitchen as a centre for discussion to make this a place for feedback for visitors. The kitchen table has been quite a radical space through history, a place for people to challenge each other and think politically. We thought it would be interesting to encourage people to sit down and think about questions that we pose to them.
“How we present kitchens in the future is a big question for us. Historically, we’ve always focused on the main living space in the home; however, now we’re thinking about what other spaces – such as the kitchen – have to say about how we live, that’s different from the living room. I think you were saying that there is a merging of kitchen and main living spaces throughout history anyway?”
Katie: “Absolutely. In medieval times, the kitchen was where you did everything; it was the main room in your house because it was warm and the family congregated there. Then it started to get smaller and smaller, until the 1950s when you had kitchen hatches and the person cooking was pretty isolated.
“That changed in the 80s and 90s when people started knocking through, making open-plan spaces. Now people are, to a degree, going back to having a separate room, but it’s still a very versatile space. So many cottage industries started on a kitchen table.”
Sonia: “Could you tell us something about the people you’ve partnered with for this project?”
Katie: “Well, one of the early decisions was regarding the floor. I knew the people who started Sinclair Till, who I contacted about the linoleum. They’re London-based, as are Barber Wilsons & Co, who made the polished brass taps. Jamb, who we’ve worked with for a long time, came on board to produce a special, toned-down version of one of their lanterns, and Forbes & Lomax provided the light switches. The lighting was designed by John Cullen Lighting and really makes the most of the space.”
Sonia: “Many of those companies are British. Is British design and manufacturing important to your vision?”
Katie: “It is when we can get it. Many companies have fallen by the wayside in this country, even in the 30 years that Plain English has existed, but we always look for well-made British objects if we can. And otherwise, we prioritise well-designed and well-made objects. When it comes to our own work, all of the Plain English kitchens are handmade by craftsmen at Stowupland Hall, our HQ in Suffolk.”
“What do these kinds of partnership and collaborations mean for the museum?”
Sonia: “They’re very much at the heart of what we do. The remit we have as a ‘museum of the home’ means we’re covering a vast subject area that is not just about physical space, it’s emotional and psychological. It’s universally relevant but deeply personal: there’s a myriad of experiences and so many ways we can approach it.”
“So we really rely on a wide network of designers and makers, as well as community groups and other stakeholders, to help us put together programs and to shape the future of the museum. We try and create experiences that people can say are both the same and different to their own experience of home. It’s those moments that open up wider questions.”
Katie: “And it’s a museum of domestic architecture, which is slightly different from the home.”
Sonia: “At the moment, we’re moving more to think about the concept of home, so it is a case of blending that emotional response with the physical and architectural experience.”
Katie: “And, of course, the idea of design itself exists on many different levels. It’s tied up with ideas of style and taste and identity, especially when it comes to the home; it’s at home that everyone is thinking about design, even if you don’t realise it.”
Photography by Chris Horwood & Antony Crolla
Museum of the Home reopens on 12 June 2021, entry is free but timed tickets must be booked in advance
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