Real Estate

Breaking down barriers

Curving a wall, adding niches opens up spaces

It wasn't the big tiles with the fat, dark grout that convinced the Johnsons to update their kitchen. Or even the appliance garages -- so in vogue in 1987 -- that made the kitchen feel closed in.

Or that eating dinner with their family of five meant squeezing into a too-small space.

"Everything was dark. There was a dark feel to the whole house," Jim Johnson says.

Add it all up and, after living in the home since 2004, it was simply the right time.

But even though the Johnsons agreed on the necessity for the project, their aesthetic issues were nearly unsolvable, according to Marc Pearcy, a Burlingame-based architect.

Jim Johnson likes modern -- think clean lines, leather furniture, big paintings. Kathy's more fond of traditional.

And, although there were other things about the house they didn't like, they strongly preferred a phased, pay-as-you-go style of construction.

In summer 2008, Pearcy created a master plan, with the kitchen/family room areas completed by Christmas. Next came an update to the laundry area and bathrooms, followed by a new entry and stairway.

The new kitchen neatly blends the Johnsons' competing aesthetics, with painted white Shaker-style cabinets that are "traditional" yet stripped of detail. Counter tops are a white with gray Statuarieto Venato marble, and the backsplash is gray, glass subway tile. Kathy fought hard to include a deep farm sink.

Jim acquiesced but quickly pointed out that the sink required an unusual, squat garbage disposer and special faucets -- and the cabinets had to be built around it.

Space in the kitchen was opened up in a variety of ways, from using nearly opaque cabinet fronts to replacing those appliance garages with an electrical strip subtly run under the cabinets. A pass-through to the dining room breaks up one long wall.

Pearcy pierced two other boxy walls: Between the kitchen and family room, he opened the space by curving a wall and creating niches for the family's Teng Dynasty figurines. A new wall, also with niches, floats between the hallway and the dining room.

"We took a traditional wall and made it look more like furniture. It has structural quality but looks non-structural," Pearcy says.

That wall presented a design challenge, since drainpipes ran from the second floor through part of it.

But the heart of the new kitchen is a large marble-covered island with a Gaggenau indoor grill and pop-up exhaust fan. The adjoining deep fryer is still untouched.

"We asked for seating at the island, which I love and the kids love. They can sit and watch while I cook. It changed the way we used the kitchen," Kathy says.

Finishing touches in the kitchen include a Liebherr combination refrigerator, freezer and wine cooler. They already had a Viking stove.

"We bought the Viking on sale. It drove some of the design," Jim says.

"We started by thinking of replacing the appliances," Kathy adds with a smile.

Some small things made a big difference to the Johnsons: Kathy got glass shelves near the sink to house plants, as well as a special spot for flowers on one of the broken-up walls. Her only regret is not building in a wine cubby (so the dog couldn't make the horizontal bottles roll in the low cabinet).

Today one enters the home through a quasi-modern entry rather than the original stained-glass door. The new metal railing is much more fitting with the living room's Corbusier chairs than the earlier rustic oak ("It looked like it belonged in Tahoe," Jim says.).

With the master plan completed, the Johnsons are moving on the next steps: landscaping the outdoors and ultimately, building cabinets and changing windows around the family-room fireplace.

"That brick has to go," Jim says.


Architect: Marc Pearcy Architecture, Burlingame, 650-348-1509,

Building contractor: Robert Melnychuk, R & W Construction, San Jose; 408-691-3561

Marble fabricator: Bianco Marble & Stone, Livermore, 925-449-8686

Goal of project/design challenge:

Open up kitchen, family room, dining room, create seating for family

Unexpected problems/hidden costs:

Drainpipes ran down wall where they wanted to create niches

Year house built:


Size of home, lot:

3,810 sq ft (including garage) on 0.25 acre

Time to complete:

3 months for core project


About $140,000 for core project, $25,000 for additional projects

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