Interior Design

What Makes a Perfect Kitchen? Ask Barbara Sallick

Barbara Sallick
Waterworks cofounder Barbara Sallick says her new book, The Perfect Kitchen (Rizzoli), is meant not as a how-to but as ” ‘informed inspiration’ — you intensify the experiences you want to create through design.” Photo by Lorin Klaris. Top: Sallick writes of this Joseph Polar kitchen, “Open shelves and ample counter space permit the display of three collections in this generously scaled mudroom: earthenware pitchers, brass watering cans, and wicker baskets.” Photo by William Abranowicz

In her new book, The Perfect Kitchen (Rizzoli), Barbara Sallick — the senior vice president of design and cofounder, with her husband, Robert, of the luxury bath and kitchen company Waterworks — begins with a story about an architect who designed a large, lavish house for a client on Long Island. When asked which room the client liked best, the architect said, “Mostly the guy hangs out in the kitchen, like the rest of us.” 

In some ways, according to Sallick, we’ve come full circle from the Stone Age, when people gathered around a fire to cook their food. “Despite many millennia of progress,” she writes, “like latter-day Flintstones, we’ve gravitated back to that essential space — and to the idea of kitchen as home.” Long before the pandemic had us all deployed in our kitchens three meals a day seven days a week, this process had been gathering strength as our interest in food and cooking skyrocketed and our approach to dining became more informal, with guests gathered around the now-ubiquitous kitchen island as the host or hostess prepared dinner. She also points to the fact that technology has erased the functional distinctions between the rooms of a house. “If whatever you want to do can follow you wherever you want to go,” she notes, “the last obstacle standing between you and the kitchen has been removed for good.”

green tile kitchen
“This kitchen’s design evinces a North African influence, evident in the lanterns, backsplash tiles, and perforated cabinet fronts, reminiscent of moucharaby windows,” Sallick writes of this space by Martyn Lawrence Bullard, “but it’s also an illustration of the value of repetition, in both pattern and color.” Photo by Victoria Pearson

The book, written with Marc Kristal, was conceived immediately upon the completion of Sallick’s earlier volume, The Perfect Bath, in 2016. “I had barely put down my pen,” she recalls, when Peter Sallick, her son and Waterworks’ CEO, “came into my office and said, ‘OK, now how about a book on the perfect kitchen?’ ” The resulting pages offer tantalizing photographs of kitchens both vast and compact, ornate and spare. The text, meanwhile, conveys the importance of hiring design professionals and discusses the various tangible elements that go into a kitchen, like faucets, hardware, cabinets and countertop materials, as well as lighting, from pendants to sconces to chandeliers, and accessories like pot racks. Sallick even cites the occasional piece of furniture, like an antique table deployed for clothes folding in a laundry room designed by Thomas O’Brien, of Aero Studios. The book also covers ancillary spaces, like pantries, flower rooms and laundry areas, and includes brief texts by noted figures in the food and design worlds, among them the cookbook writer Julia Turshen, the New York Times food writer Melissa Clark, the renowned chef Alfred Portale and the designers Brian J. McCarthy and Ellie Cullman

white kitchen
“While this kitchen might appear to be a random cornucopia at a glance, certain elements suggest a distinct narrative character: the Emeco stools, the laboratory pendant light, the schoolroom clock, and, not least, the chunky vintage TV,” Sallick writes of this kitchen by Thomas O’Brien/Aero Studios. “I see a cafeteria in a scientific research facility, circa 1980. Not everyone would, but that invitation to interpret gives this kitchen character.” Photo by Laura Resen

This, however, is “not a how-to book,” Sallick insists. “It’s about much more than the cabinets. I call this book ‘informed inspiration’ — you intensify the experiences you want to create through design. There are lots of different ideas, and you can draw from them and create your own statement.”  She is speaking with me from her home in Connecticut, where she is currently sheltering in place with Robert, now retired. In spite of being at home all day, she maintains a routine: After exercising first thing in the morning, she says, “I get dressed, and I put on lipstick,” before heading to the kitchen to make a cup of tea.

“The phrase ‘everything but the kitchen sink’ comes to mind for this delightfully decorated tiny zone, with its pink tile, checkerboard floor, chandelier, diamond-patterned glass cabinet doors, and twin bunny-rabbit dish towels,” Sallick writes of this kitchen by Heidi James-Fisher of Studio LXIV, Ltd. “And there’s a kitchen sink.” Photo by Kyle Knodell

In her text, Sallick emphasizes the importance of balancing the functional aspects of the kitchen with the emotional ones, like feeling at home there and enjoying certain materials and colors on a daily basis. One of her favorite kitchens in the book is a small one, designed by Heidi James-Fisher, of the New York-based Studio LXIV, Ltd. Its white cabinets are offset by a checkerboard floor, a pink mosaic-tile backsplash, a pale blue oven, a crystal chandelier and dish towels printed with big-eared rabbits. “It’s about layering materials,” Sallick notes. But she also loves a sleek, white modern kitchen accented with glossy red cabinets that was designed, surprisingly, by Bunny Williams. “I absolutely love color in the kitchen,” Sallick says. “It gives personality and energy to a space.”  

One of the most startling uses of color cited in the book is in a galley kitchen designed by Tom Scheerer with the architect John B. Murray. The cabinets are lacquered an intense green, and Sallick’s caption reads: “This kitchen might make you feel as if you’ve been wrapped in a grape leaf. But to me, the bold color statement in a small galley space gives the room a jolt of urbane glamour.” On a more neutral note, Sallick singles out a kitchen by the Seattle designer Katie Hackworth that has elegant hanging glass shelves above the sink and a combination of wood and gray-painted cabinets.

white kitchen
“In this simple, unpretentious country kitchen…glass-fronted cabinets, white tile and a lightly figured marble contribute to the calm and welcoming environment,” Sallick writes of this kitchen by architect Philip Logan, of Preservation Green, and interior designer Laureen Barber, of Blue Hill Farm. Swedish wooden bowls from Dienst+Dotter Antikviteter. Photo by William Abranowicz
Barbara Sallick's kitchen
“My husband, Robert, and I recently moved into a new home after nearly half a century in the previous one, and this afforded us the opportunity to create a kitchen that drew on cherished memories and formative experiences, embraced ideas we’d always wanted to try, corrected functional glitches that had plagued us in our old place, and brought our family’s aesthetic into the twenty-first century,” Sallick writes of this space that she designed with her husband. Photo by William Abranowicz

Aesthetics aside, Sallick is emphatic that careful planning is key to kitchen design. “Though most of us don’t think it as such, the kitchen is by far the most complex room in the home,” she writes. “Most people don’t understand space all that well. Unless you’re really skilled, if you don’t hire a professional, you won’t maximize your opportunities.” A new kitchen, she points out, “is a very expensive proposition, even if you buy your kitchen from Ikea. In the end, a professional can save you money.” And when budget is a consideration, she notes, color and good-quality hardware can go a long way toward transforming the space.

Barbara Sallick's kitchen dining area
“We replaced the single solid door between the kitchen and laundry room with double doors lightened by frosted-glass inserts,” Sallick says, describing their renovation. “The informal dining area adjoins the kitchen and shares its floor-to-ceiling tiles.” Photo by William Abranowicz

Sallick’s own kitchen is in the book; it’s a calm, welcoming space, with cabinets painted navy blue and pale gray, marble countertops, white tile walls, elegant brass hardware and walnut-lined drawers. It has a table and chairs, like so many of today’s kitchens, which are geared to more casual dining and entertaining. “That’s certainly where my husband and I are in our lives,” she says. “We love this informal way of living.”

Barbara Sallick’s Quick Picks

“I’d love to hang this in my kitchen. There’s just something so heartwarming and French and kitchen-like about the image, and it creates the sense that you can see forever. To me, a picture like that has a kind of magical quality. You can look at it every day and get the feeling that you’re headed somewhere, but you don’t know exactly where you’ll end up. Right now, that seems especially of the moment.”

“The graphic design of this clock makes it not only very useful but, in its own way, art. The Bauhaus was where everything got stripped back to a very elemental place without any ornamentation, which made for very honest, enduring designs. It would be especially useful now, as I’m working from home and watching the time go by.”

“I don’t know how you can go wrong with anything from Georg Jensen: The forms are always beautiful and useful and not intended to be precious. This bowl has a slightly modern flair and would look great in my glass-fronted kitchen cabinet. I could see combining it with other pieces I keep there, like the white dishes and mocha ware I use every day. But it’s also gorgeous enough to sit on a shelf by itself.”

“Wouldn’t it be lovely to put nuts or olives in this? The design is so well done, and the use of mixed materials just feels really beautiful. And I love that it’s by a woman.”

“The mix of materials in this piece would fit perfectly in my kitchen. I like to mix silver, brass, other metal elements, wood, ceramics . . .  I’m a big believer in the idea that authentic materials can flow and look great together. And I like how the design is really and truly stripped back: The base is simple, the top is austere, and even the thumb-holder thingy is really elegant.”

“So classic – this would look stunning on a shelf or in a cabinet, and I would absolutely use it. The ball handles are wonderful and so essential to the design. It’s a sugar bowl, but it could just as easily hold jam or condiments. There’s something so precious about small objects that have big personalities.”

“Not only the spoon but also the lid handle is tipped in bone, so you have three materials involved, and they’re all so lovely. Once again, this is a small object that would mix nicely with silver pieces. You could put some of them together in a cupboard, and it would look really smart.”

“I’d put this in the middle of our kitchen table and fill it with oranges and apples. I adore the design for its age, its burl and, above all, its texture — perfect for bringing genuine warmth to a room.”

“This is one beautiful decorative object I’d want to leave out. The concentric rings have an artistic, slightly industrial touch, and the pewter is a dark, dull gray that would look great with my marble countertops (Waterworks Keystone). I’d fill it to the brim with candy, if only I could find some. For lunch today, I ate Cheerios without milk. I guess that’s the moment we’re in!”

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