October 14, 2011 10:01 pm

A cut above the rustic

The enduring appeal of farmhouse kitchens

The reinvention of hearty, home cooking has been led in the UK by celebrity chefs such as Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. Though their dishes have often been heralded as reigniting the UK’s love for home cooking, it seems that their influence might not stop with the menu.

Paul O’Leary, managing director of bespoke kitchen designers Devol, links the rise in rustic, homespun cooking with the popularity of the farmhouse kitchen design. “With everybody getting into more traditional, wholesome cooking, it kind of sets the tone for the kitchen design,” he says.

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For O’Leary, who cut his teeth as a buyer and restorer of antique furniture, the roots of the simple country kitchen are clear to see. “If you go to any Georgian or Victorian stately home and go to the working kitchen or the scullery, you’ll find Belfast sinks, a huge great working table in the middle of the room, and there’ll be open shelves with all the pots and pans easy to get at. Ultimately, the farmhouse kitchen is just that, a working kitchen. And that style of country kitchen has been around for a very long time.”

Ed Blackett, director of kitchen designers Kit Stone, says: “The absolutely key element for farmhouse kitchens is the image that it has evolved over time and has not just been fitted.”

Blackett adds: “All original country-style kitchens were built around the sink, the range and the butcher’s block, and these are all essential elements of the style.

“Other things that I’d say characterise the look are the exposed plate racks and the central, ceiling-mounted pot racks. As for materials, painted solid oak is best and free-standing kitchen dressers that show off cookware and utensils are a must.”

As one might expect, there are subtle variations between the farmhouse kitchens in England and those in mainland Europe. O’Leary highlights the English use of colour. He says: “Bleached-out wood, maybe painted but worn through with a bit of grain showing, that’s a very popular look in the UK.” He says that “bright worktops can reflect light back into the room and wood furniture – painted cream or in pale, muted pastel colours – can really brighten up a dingy kitchen.”

Another essential ingredient of the rural kitchen is the use of a range cooker, typically an Aga in England. Though initially a Swedish company, Aga has been a brand closely associated with English farmhouses since the 1930s.

A four-oven Aga, from £8,369

A four-oven Aga, from £8,369

Aga cookers sell well in France too but Lacanche is the range synonymous with French cooking. “It has a very French identity,” says Rupert Cotterell, Lacanche’s managing director, “and that is because it complements French cuisine so perfectly.” Established at a foundry in the Burgundy countryside, Lacanche has been producing range cookers for more than 200 years and is championed by, among others, French chef Jean-Christophe Novelli.

Cast iron casserole and kettle by Le Creuset

Le Creuset 20cm cast iron casserole, £99, and kettle, £65

Other accessories that are linked with the French style are the exquisite copper and stainless steel cookware designs by Mauviel 1830, and the elegant enamel kettles by Le Creuset. Other interesting additions include the popular use of reclaimed egg and fruit crates as unusual drawers and storage boxes, available from Boutique Provencale.

In North America, the rustic farmhouse style is indebted to the Shaker styles that flourished there in the 18th century. Jeff Titus, owner of Country Kitchens in Connecticut, says the New England style differs from the farmhouse kitchens of France and England. “Typically the houses we work on are all timber, colonial-style properties. The materials are slightly different, we use a lot of maple and birch woods in our cabinets, sometimes even pine,” he says.

It’s a look that is becoming increasingly popular in inner-city areas too. Kathy Murphy, 58, from New York, was an early convert to the style, and fitted a farmhouse kitchen into her family brownstone nearly 15 years ago. Now she is watching the style come back into fashion. “It’s such a comfortable space for families,” she says. “And if you’re a good cook, a farmhouse-style kitchen with a huge porcelain farmhouse sink is ideal.”

Seven-piece copper and stainless steel set by Mauviel

Seven-piece copper and stainless steel set by Mauviel, $1,220

Murphy’s kitchen has a wide central island, eat-in bar and restaurant-style range. She says: “I love American pottery and antiques, so the glass-fronted cabinets are perfect to put them on display.

“I think the thing that attracts people to the farmhouse style in the US is that it’s a great compromise. It’s the best of both worlds: a lot of younger people that might find contemporary styles too cold are attracted to the simple, clean look of the farmhouse style and the Shaker furniture.”

Looking beyond the North American and European markets, Aga is attempting to appeal to admirers of the farmhouse style in Asia. Currently, there is just one Aga in China, located in a new-build castle made in the Scottish baronial style.

However, with the release of the new Total Control cooker – which allows the user to turn off the Aga when not in use, and whose controls can be programmed remotely via an iPhone – Aga is hoping to make its product more of a mainstream purchase in the region.

Glazed dresser with a Carrera marble worktop from the Devol bespoke range,

Glazed dresser with a Carrera marble worktop from the Devol bespoke range, £4,840

Devol is also looking east, hoping to tap into the appetite for English farmhouse furniture in Japan. Recently, furniture importer Masaya Fujita set up two of Devol’s farmhouse-style show kitchens in Kanagawa, and Devol has translated its brochures into Japanese.

Though high-end bespoke kitchens can cost up to £250,000, both Devol and Kit Stone pitch themselves in the middle market, with Devol’s bespoke range – timber and stone surfaces and a range of furniture including pot cupboards, sink cabinet and an island – priced at £20,000-£40,000. Its stripped-down Shaker styles are cheaper, at around £10,000 for a 10ftx14ft room.

Despite the recent expansion into overseas markets, O’Leary says that, in Britain, the English farmhouse style has never really gone out of fashion – primarily, he says, because there’s nothing that can look dated or go wrong with them. And therein lies their appeal. “The way we make furniture is the same as it has been made for 200 years,” says O’Leary, “and I’m happy because I know in 100 years, our furniture will still work in exactly the same way as it does now.”

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