Discreet charm

A glossy, streamlined kitchen updates this Victorian row house for 21st-century family life.

By Liza Weisstuch
September 25, 2011

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When you walk into the kitchen of this grand residence in the Back Bay, your first instinct is to wonder: Where are the cabinets? The answer lies in what first appears to be a glossy white wall.

Without handles or knobs, these push-to-open, mirror-finished Parapan cabinets are just one example of how Jin Choi and Thomas Shine, the wife-and-husband team of Brookline-based Choi + Shine Architects, designed a kitchen that’s remarkable for what’s missing. Or seems to be. Colors and conventional details here would be superfluous; they’d create only visual clutter. For instance: Electrical outlets with Ceasarstone covers are virtually undetectable, inset flush against the Ceasarstone wall.

“Everything is concealed,” says Choi. “There’s storage everywhere, but it doesn’t look like storage. Everything is discreet. The pantry doors look like they’re part of the wall. The pocket door looks discreet opened or closed. It looks natural either way,” she says, pulling the door out from the wall. When closed, it separates the kitchen from the foyer and appears to be a sturdy wood wall panel.

For Choi and Shine, the renovation of their clients’ turn-of-the-last-century four-story row house was an exercise in fluidity. The 260-square-foot kitchen, which has sweeping bay windows and a stately view of the Charles River, was originally the dining room. The dining room, which has only one window but is partially open to the sunny kitchen, is now located where the kitchen was. “Families hang out in the kitchen most of the time, but there was this grand, sun-filled dining room,” says Choi. The homeowners had to decide whether they even needed a formal dining room, she explains, noting that when the house was built in the Victorian era, the fashion was to entertain in the dining room.

Choi and Shine brought the space into this century by creating a kitchen that not only occupies the grand room, but integrates elements that streamline and brighten it, so it appears even more spacious. And yet there’s a cozy aspect to it. A teak bench seat is built into the nook of the bay windows, creating an inviting alcove against the expansive view. The base is a pull-out drawer for storage. It also hides ductwork.

Instead of a traditional kitchen table, there’s an island of Ceasarstone with a reflective polished finish. A central island both increases the food prep space and breaks up the room, so the family’s two young children have a play area buffered from the stove and sink. The kids’ space also has a floor-to-ceiling magnetic blackboard just shy of 3 feet wide that’s strewn with colorful letters. That clutter vanishes, though, when the teak door to the dining room, which is the same width as the blackboard, swings open, neatly concealing the magnetic wall.

Creating visual interest against the starkness of the Ceasarstone, the thin layer of flat-cut teak veneer that covers the doors and bench is made from sequential cuts from the same log. The cuts are bookmatched, a technique of aligning the long panels of veneer so the wood-grain patterns of adjacent panels mirror one another. “It starts to feel like art, versus the actual pattern of the material,” says Choi.

A desk is built into the half wall that divides the kitchen and the dining room. Anyone sitting there looks into the dining room. That is, however, until a folding divider of painted wood atop the half wall is drawn, allowing the owners to close off the kitchen when using the dining room.

Though fiercely minimal, the kitchen doesn’t seem incompatible with the dark Victorian foyer. “The windows facing the river brighten the room,” says Choi. “You enter, and the light from the kitchen pulls you to the inner side of the house.” She adds, “It’s an interesting spatial sequence – it goes in, in, in, and out to the river.”

Liza Weisstuch is a writer in Boston. Send comments to

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