A kitchen straight out of Larry Richardson’s wildest dreams
By Cynthia Adams
Photographs by Bert VanderVeen and Stacey Van Berkel
He saved up for 20 years before creating the kitchen of his dreams. Then, in a historic Mediterranean home in Sunset Hills, Larry Richardson fashioned something that anchored a fantasy to reality.
The end result is more than the sum of its parts — more than fine cabinetry, finishes, surfaces, lighting and appliances. The kitchen and breakfast area are the culmination of the homeowner’s travels, art and ingenuity.
And yes, I’m speaking of a kitchen.
Artisan Nathan Wainscott was among the artists and craftspeople who were involved in the renovation, which was completed late last summer. He has a portfolio bulging with beautiful kitchen projects, but doesn’t equivocate. “This kitchen was the most multilayered project that we had ever worked on. To me, it becomes one of the gems of my whole career at this stage.”
Floral designer Richardson, his designing partner, Clark Goodin, and the cast of artisans involved “are all purveyors of beauty” Wainscott adds.
The 1920s-era kitchen had little to recommend it. It was at the back of a beautiful home, one of the last things slated for change, lacking in flow or function and certainly not charming. Even restorationists and purists who love vintage kitchens would have grabbed a sledgehammer to help demolition along.
Richardson was more than ready for change.
As Wainscott pointed out when Richardson mused about having a kitchen unlike any other, beauty follows. Goodin was the chief cook in their partnership. They agreed they wanted a workable space that was also a worthy showplace for favorite collections.
“The kitchen is the beating heart of the home,” Richardson adds, standing where a strictly utilitarian mudroom once was. “This is where we eat. We start our day here and end our day here.”
Once unremarkable, the new kitchen with a vaulted ceiling suggests Richardson’s passion project: a real-life Tuscan villa.
“I never saw anything like this in a book,” Richardson admits. During pre-pandemic trips to Russia and Europe, he and Goodin spent time snapping shots of interior details they admired. A future kitchen innovation was always uppermost in their thoughts.
It was a very long time in coming to fruition, but Richardson held a vision that Wainscott says was exceptional.
In his early planning Richardson discovered that a friend, studio photographer Diana Parrish, photographs kitchens for large cabinet companies. Occasionally, cabinetry became available after studio shoots. He asked Parrish to keep him in mind “should something more traditional and wonderful” become available. Then, he waited.
Four years later, Parrish phoned her friend to say she had just the thing, describing it as “very Ralph Lauren.”
Richardson grew excited. The cabinets in question were Master Brand’s premium Omega line. The navy and white cabinet colors seemed fresh and fortuitous — the homeowners owned a massive blue-and-white porcelain collection.
After Master Brand’s promotional photos, the cabinets were subsequently reworked for a kitchen shoot for celebrity chef Rachel Ray, then sold to Richardson last winter.
It was a lot of cabinetry, he recalls, wincing at the memory of Master Brand boxes completely filling the garage. The beginning of an elaborate puzzle, which had to be solved.
The challenge was to reverse-engineer and retrofit, making a cabinetry bonanza actually viable.
Even in a new house, this would pose challenges. But nearing a century old, the kitchen presented a real conundrum. Richardson, who had flipped a house with a dreary kitchen on Greensboro’s Arden Place, knew what to expect, sketching and analyzing the space.
Plumbing and electrical changes were going to be needed.
The solution demanded gutting plaster walls to the studs, thus unearthing, as most renovations do, opportunities and serious challenges. “And nothing was plumb,” Richardson groans.
Then the homeowners encountered water damage, requiring the entire ceilings be torn out. Once opened to the rafters, the kitchen ceiling was over 10 feet high. The pantry and porch ceilings, however, soared to 12 feet. The heights differed by 18 inches — too much to ignore.
The differing roof configurations owed to what Richardson believes were additions, as he unearthed brick walls and arches, which were architectural clues to the house’s history. But he also felt inspired, never considering simply dropping the ceiling height with drywall.
“Once I saw the ceiling, with all its angles, I said, ‘You have to accentuate that,’” recalls Richardson. “That took me a while to figure out.”
He solved the height and angle discrepancies where the later additions met the original kitchen by cladding the entire ceiling with tongue-and-groove planks, a feature he had liked in his grandmother’s home. Then, he came upon some handsome Tuscan beams near Albemarle. The beams served to unify the newly exposed angles of the ceilings, making the differences a defining, dramatic feature rather than a liability.
After deliberation, Richardson ultimately chose to stain the ceiling rather than paint, “in order to ground the space.”
Meanwhile, there was the matter of the cabinets. Richardson hired Triad master carpenter and cabinet installer Scott Porter. Thus, Porter began solving a cabinetry puzzle worthy of a grand master, one who could facilitate the leap from a jumble of boxes in a garage to the viable new kitchen as Richardson envisioned.
There were also cosmetic problems with the cabinets themselves. Many of the cabinets had been altered during the two different photo shoots. Porter in turn recommended a master cabinet finisher and artist: enter Wainscott.
To make the kitchen reno work required a squad of talents, whose respective abilities were hugely important.
“I went over my drawing,” says Richardson. “And Scott had the idea of turning some of the cabinets upside down.”
Lower cabinets designed with open shelving at the floor level were flipped over and hung above the counter, creating dramatically high display shelves near the ceiling.
“It was like Clark said, if we hadn’t done that, we couldn’t have gotten into those cabinets they were so high.”
Porter suggested additional cabinets where needed, and created matching refrigerator panels, given the new kitchen’s footprint had expanded beyond the original.
Wainscott set about refinishing the cabinets once they were installed.
“Scott Porter did the major carpentry portion of the project,” Wainscott adds. “It was a challenge. Usually, the most beautiful spaces are.”
Before officially meeting his client, Wainscott believed it was fortuitous that he met Richardson by chance.
“He’d gotten my name. Then, the next day, I pulled up to Carriage House to deliver some furniture. He was there.”
Wainscott was delighted by the coincidence. “I said, ‘Wait a minute! We’re meeting about your kitchen!’”
They were, and did.
Wainscott says the kitchen renovation has creatively “married art and opportunity.”
He adds, too, that the preponderance of kitchens today are minimalistic — but the Tuscan inspired project was a departure.
“Initially, I could not see his vision but he couldsee it. Larry saw something different . . . just beautiful and unique in its own way.”
As an artist frequently working with intensive renovation projects, Wainscott spent two full weeks onsite, professionally refinishing the cabinets. White and blue, accented with a thread of gold gilding, are the kitchen’s primary colors.
(For the record, the blue cabinet color is by Sherwin-Williams, called “Anchors Aweigh”. The wall color is “Restrained Gold” by Sherwin-Williams.)
The cabinets originally had a tan color on a beaded inset, which Rachel Ray had in her kitchen. “We started looking at it in context with everything else,” says Wainscott. “It looked unfinished. Since they had chosen gold hardware, I thought we should pull it together with gold leafing. Larry liked the idea, so we made a sample, and the sample was a winner. We wound up putting it elsewhere.”
The subtle gold leaf inset detail delivered surprising impact. “It was the one thing that set it off,” admires Wainscott.
“We decided on a river of blue in the middle of the room, to give it a clean look but the depth he was looking for. There’s a lot of layering in there.”
Yet the cabinets weren’t the only marriage of art and opportunity.
With old linoleum torn out, the owners now agonized over the choice of flooring. They settled on wooden parquet — again a choice inspired by a 2019 Russian tour. It was unusual.
“This idea came from our travels,” says Richardson.
Goodin notes, “We were in those palaces — like St. Petersburg — and every room had a different style of floor.” The pair snapped over 50 pictures of floors and interiors, noting details. “I loved their herringbone floors.”
“I took notice of how important floors were to a room,” adds Richardson. Choosing a wooden floor in the kitchen intentionally underscored “such a strongly European flavor.”
Oversized white subway tile was extended to the ceiling, a detail inspired by visiting the venerable Vanderbilt cottage kitchens in Newport, Rhode Island, where it was also done in the servant and catering kitchens.
Once complete, the couple chose to display collections as they would in any other room.
“I created something like a gallery,” explains Richardson. “I said, ‘OK, I have a blank canvas.’”
A much-loved Botero painting returned to the breakfast area where the couple eats most meals.
The bar became one of Richardson’s favorite features, along with the Tuscan beams.
The kitchen showcases miniature chests and an 18th century French clock from the Chinqua Penn mansion in Reidsville.
Then there is the homeowners’ glass collection.
“We have Lalique, Tiffany, Steuben, Blenco, Waterford, Baccarat Moser and Hawkes glass. But everything in here is a bargain or I wouldn’t have it,” Richardson laughs. “Everything comes from estate sales.”
Lighting dramatizes their 18th century Delftware and Chinese export porcelain, augmented by an angel pendant light found in a Reynolds family estate sale.
In fact, Richardson still roams the state in pursuit of antiques he resells or keeps.
“When I make up my mind to go to Charlotte to an auction, I am there by 4:30 and the first one in line. There have to be seven things that I love. Out of those seven, I know I will at least get one item, but usually try for three.”
Both Richardson and Goodin are drawn to dramatic color.
“It’s the real world; the world’s a rainbow,” explains Richardson.
And yet the couple is proud of subtly colored pieces of botanical Flora Danica china, which is produced in Copenhagen, Denmark. Again, they discovered the china while traveling abroad.
“It’s what their Royal Family eat on,” Goodin says. He chops cilantro, tomatoes and onion for pico de gallo, contentedly making preparations for a Mexican dinner.
“On Fridays, we always went out to eat Mexican food. I started making it at home during the pandemic and we discovered it was better. And I love cooking.”
Goodin was back at the island weeks later, prepping for yet another dinner. “I am just so grateful,” he says, no longer trying to cook with a microwave. He contentedly stirs a roux on the stove for macaroni and cheese.
Did the end result of the renovation also meet Goodin’s expectations?
His wish for the kitchen was simple: a room with a view. In removing former walls, they gained an unobstructed garden view and natural light.
“I am so glad to be able to look out the kitchen door and watch what is going on outside as I cook, and how nature is more involved than ever before.”
Their friend Janine Wagers, Universal Furniture’s head designer, saw the kitchen renovation just as it was completed.
Richardson smiles and grabs his phone to find Wagers’ text: “Loved, loved, loved your kitchen!”
He grins and says, “Well, I mean, I liked it, too, but . . .” He halts. “I don’t like bragging.”
Cynthia Adams is a contributing editor of O.Henry magazine.