Kitchen synch

In grand houses, it was firmly below stairs and inhabited by servants. In more modest ones, it was often a sultry little room where the woman of the house was expected to spend up to 12 hours a day bent over a Belfast sink.

The once humble kitchen has long since outgrown its subordinate role. Today's ideal homes are built around a hub of domestic industry, a functional space that combines the features of a well-equipped area for preparing food with a drawing/ dining room for entertaining and a family
room for chewing the fat and doing homework.

While modern architects can meet this demand relatively easily, it can be difficult for those adapting an older property. The boxy shape of a fitted kitchen looks ungainly when transplanted into a splendid high-ceilinged period room, more used to adornment with fine furniture and antique furniture is not usually suitable for a modern kitchen.

It’s a problem that Scotland’s handmade furniture makers find they are increasingly being asked to fix.

Polly Murray is the chief designer for bespoke furniture makers Murray and Murray in Fife. Three of the four designers at the firm are female, an unusual situation in cabinet making, and while the team do design for other rooms, somehow they have found themselves firmly in the kitchen most of the time. “Polly has a background in home economics, so she is really
interested in the functionality aspect, ” says Jo Wills, who works for the firm.

“She understands what will make a kitchen work. The pieces we make are freestanding pieces of fine furniture but they are also robust and useable.”

As well as working on kitchens designed to clients’ specifications, which can cost anything from [pounds]20,000 to upwards of [pounds]100,000, Murray and Murray have created a range for the National Trust of Scotland.

Ten per cent of the cost of these pieces goes to the NTS and they are styled to suit cottages, Georgian and Edwardian architecture. The Edwardian range, inspired by Pollok House in Glasgow, is the most expensive, in solid oak, while the others are in painted pine.

“For the Georgian look we went to look at some of the kitchens that survive from that period, which were below stairs and are very simple. What we have tried to do is to take in some of the features that belonged more upstairs without losing that sense of simplicity. We have tried not to overegg the pudding.”

Most clients with older properties want a more “unfitted” look, Wills said, with simple and beautiful furniture that is convenient at the same time.

Each NTS range comprises just four pieces: a cook’s table, food larder, Belfast sink and dresser. The units are deliberately freestanding and the sink has been designed so it can be removed and taken away when the owners move house. The most expensive costs about [pounds]6000 – a competitive price for a piece of handmade furniture. Everything the firm sells is completely made in the UK, down to hinges forged by a local blacksmith.

Timber is a unique material to design in, according to Polly. “Because it’s so unpredictable, every single piece is different. Some people can’t live with that lack of total perfection and even complain about the natural marks or f laws on it. To me that’s the beauty of wood, and it’s
the only material that really does improve with age, ‘” she said.

Charles Taylor, the designer who built the contemporary staircase in the Queen’s gallery at Holyrood, and employs a staff of 10 near Dalkeith, provides hand-built furniture to clients, including whole kitchens, kitchen cabinets, and kitchen tables.

His pieces are many times more expensive than anything available on the high street, but they are heirlooms he says which will last indefinitely.

“The doors go clunk and we use heavy brass hinges. They will last for 100 years, ” said Taylor.

He himself inhabits a new-built house he designed that blends almost perfectly with its older neighbours on the edges of Dalkeith. A second glance picks out some more contemporary quirks to its exterior, but inside it has a much more modern feel.

The kitchen is the largest room in the house, centred on a handsome solid oak oval table that is equally capable of handling homework, family tea or an elegant dinner for 10, while the cook is free to join in the chat.

The oval table is one of the trademark Taylor pieces manufactured by the skilled craftsmen he employs in a converted church next door. Other recent high-end pieces he has produced include a sideboard in solid oak that could pass at first glance for an antique, but features an integrated plate warmer. He has also built a huge double-doored cabinet for clients to house their large American style fridge and freezer – in solid European oak.
Customers at Cafe Gandolfi in Glasgow will appreciate the importance of fine furniture, as a large part of the famous hostelry’s atmosphere is drawn from the hewn shapes of the wooden furniture.

Tim Stead, the designer who made them, died five years ago, but he left an extensive legacy of designs, interesting timber and skilled craftsmen who continue to produce his work.
The workshop, at Blainslie in the Borders, is now run by Tim’s wife, Maggy, who takes commissions for individual pieces and Tim Stead style kitchen tables are available from them or from exhibitions and galleries.

Murray and Murray Ltd 2/3 Boston Road, Viewfield, Glenrothes, Fife, KY6
2RE Tel: 01592 774363 Website:
Charles Taylor Woodwork West Church, Old Edinburgh Road, Dalkeith,
Midlothian, EH22 1JD Tel: 0131 654 2221 Website:
The Workshop of Tim Stead Blainslie, Galashiels, Selkirkshire, TD1 2PR
Tel: 01896 860 266 Website:


The Scottish Herald
The Herald 3rd August 2005