From separate to social: Rethinking kitchen design

Published on Thu, Mar 19, 2009 by Jack Kintner

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Have you ever had company for dinner, and had them all gather in the kitchen? To Bellingham architect Marshall Dobry that reflects one of the basic flaws in the ways that kitchens have been traditionally built.

Dobry specializes in kitchen design and has been doing so for over 30 years, first in the West Hollywood section of Los Angeles and now in Fairhaven. He’s careful to point out that he’s a working architect specializing in kitchens, not a decorator.

“They certainly have their role” he said, “but I do the basics, designing around the flow and solving problems. The color of the surfaces or the kind of wood in the cabinets are decorating decisions that come later.”

In terms of the kitchen that gets jammed with guests, Dobry asks you to “Just ask how the cook feels with all these people in the way.” The kitchen has always been the heart and soul of the home, he said, a place where people have traditionally gathered around the preparation and consumption of food, and where the people who live there spend most of their waking hours.

You get the feeling that if you were on a hike, Dobry should be the one to decide where the campfire should be. His ability to be innovative in designing spaces for entertaining and eating gives him the ability to impact lives in ways few others can, something he says makes his work very much worth doing.

Dobry’s got some strong opinions and a track record of repeat business with well-heeled and often famous clients that’s hard to match. The point seems to be not so much that he got into well-known digs often enough to out-brag old friends at the bar but that these people kept hiring him back and sending him to friends, beginning with a client that was buying a house from Shirley MacLaine. They could afford anything and anyone, and kept picking Dobry.

“Kitchens as separate rooms aren’t that old,” he said, “unless you were at the social level of, say, Louis the XVI.” The design flaw that draws everyone into a cramped little room with all these appliances is that separation, as if the cook were still some kind of servant.

One traditional remedy has been to make the kitchen bigger and incorporate things like tables or nooks, a la Marge and Homer Simpson, to make room for more people. But instead of just making it bigger, Dobry prefers to tear down the walls and make the kitchen part of a “great room” concept that includes other living spaces such as a dining room and a den.

“It has to do with having the kitchen reflect where the owner’s sense of community and sense of privacy meet,” he said, “and that’s where I come in. A kitchen is not an island and shouldn’t be isolated. The question is, what does the customer, the family, the couple, whomever, what do they want to hide and what do they want to share?”
Dobry said that some clients can’t stand the thought of dirty dishes being visible from the rest of the house, while others want to share the preparation, cooking and cleanup chores with family and friends in a more egalitarian kind of way, which means being in the same room with them and facing them while these things are being done, often by several people at once.

His clients have reflected a wide variety of kitchen expertise as well, “for world class chefs and for people who don’t even boil water.” What Dobry brings is an ability to find solutions to problems that involve more than just a new set of cabinets or a different color wall treatment. “I’m hired to consider alternatives,” he said, “so with cabinets, for example, they are used to solve problems, but first you need to ask what those problems are and possibly find some innovative solutions that might not have occurred to you.”

Generally, the clients known what they want to do with a space, even if only in a vague sense, and Dobry knows how. He tries to initiate a process with his clients of putting their sense of what they want and his knowledge of how to achieve that together, something that often includes house calls if it’s an existing structure that’s to be remodeled. As an example, he said one of the most unusual situations he encountered was a stone house built by a computer magnate that was essentially a copy of a 17th Century French Renaissance mansion. “It was a challenge, but fun to do,” Dobry said.

His studio at 1200 Old Fairhaven Parkway reflects his design philosophy with a look that’s somewhat post-modern, luxurious in an understated way and that has some surprisingly economical alternatives to other floor models that are impressively arcane and expensive.

Instead of walls separating various parts of his store he’s got just one large partition separating the space into two areas that flow into each other. Dominating it all is a large and friendly conference table.

“I love to talk to people and throw ideas around,” said the gregarious transplanted midwesterner, “because it all starts with finding out who people are, what their story is. That’s where it begins.”

Marshall Dobry’s Kitchen Design Studio can be reached by calling 671-0601, or visit their website at

Bellingham RE Store re-uses, re-sells building materials

Bellingham’s RE Store is like a cross between a flea market, an antique store and the kind of old hardware store you might find in a small town.

Aside from being a fun place to browse, the 20,000-square foot store in the Fountain District is filled with the kind of recycled but still quite serviceable materials that can help finish simple to elaborate projects.

You can also drop good used building materials and items from furniture to appliances and more, once the staff has had a chance to look at it (they evidently have enough mini-blinds for now), or if you have a lot of stuff they’ll pick up materials at sites where major re-models are under way.

The store grew out of an initiative begun by a few people in the early 1980s to begin a recycling program in Bellingham.

That resulted in Whatcom County becoming the first county in the state to offer curbside recycling. By then what had begun as kitchen table talk had grown into a non-profit environmental educational enterprise called RE Sources.

Former director and current Whatcom County Council member Carl Weimer and local contractor Bruce Odom started the first store to recycle building materials and associated material in 1993 with a grant from the county. It proved to be so popular that it quickly became self-sustaining and Weimer was able to return most of the grant money unspent.

A second store was opened in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood six years later. Bellingham’s store, after a couple of moves, is now located at 2309 Meridian Street and is open Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. until 6 p.m. and on Sundays from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m.

The seemingly endless array of everything you can think of that goes into a house is not junk.

Staff are quite careful to screen out broken or unusable materials, and especially in the Seattle store will not accept more of an item that is essentially overstocked, such as the mini blinds mentioned above.

To get an idea of the range of materials they have in stock, or to see if that perfectly good thing you just removed from your house that really shouldn’t be thrown away might find a home there, go to their website at