Blending something old, something new


May 01, 1994|By Rita St. Clair | Rita St. Clair,Los Angeles Times Syndicate

Residents of older homes often wonder how much of the past can and should be preserved in the course of a needed renovation. Fortunately, we've largely overcome the once-common American attitude that the new is always preferable to the old. Many of us are now willing to take the extra step -- and to pay the extra dollar -- to protect or restore the work of builders and designers of an earlier era.

But even when the decision is made to preserve a fixture or a piece of furniture from another time, it can be difficult to plan a renovation that does not clash with the older item. I have no all-purpose principles to lay down, but I can offer general suggestions that may seem clearer when applied to a specific situation.

Let's suppose, for example, that a make-over is being contemplated for a kitchen containing a glass-fronted cabinet built about 75 years ago. How can new cabinets be integrated with such a venerable relic?

The first step is to learn something about the history of the older piece. Cabinets of this type were usually built on the premises and painted in a high-gloss that could easily be kept clean. In most kitchens of the 1920s, food was stored in the pantry, thus allowing cabinets to be used mainly for housing tableware and kitchen equipment. Glass-fronted compartments also functioned as showcases for the display of decorative serving pieces.

The photo shows a renovated kitchen with an old cabinet of that kind. The original function was preserved here, with interesting, vintage-style pieces being displayed behind the glass doors. The convenience of the original was kept intact as well. As part of the renovation, a serving area was located adjacent to the cabinet.

The designer of this space also took care to select new counter-height cabinets that complement the wall-hung fixture. The choice of hardware was particularly important in conveying the impression of continuity. No wood-door upper cabinets were installed in the kitchen, since they probably would not have jibed with the glass-fronted piece.

It won't always be possible to find newly manufactured furnishings that blend well with a large item from another time. A responsive local furniture dealer may be able to arrange for modifications to be made in a commercially manufactured piece. But if that's not an option -- and if you're still determined to work around the original item -- it might make sense to consult a custom furniture- or cabinet-maker.

Keep in mind, however, that the selection of major functional elements is only one part of a successful renovation. Attention also must be paid to the room's colors, wall-coverings and similar details that can be even more important in assembling a unified look.

The services of a professional interior designer could prove useful in such circumstances.

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