You Can’t Touch This

When a North Asheville couple wanted a major kitchen renovation, they couldn’t relinquish the beautiful tile they found 40 years ago. Photo by Nick King (Open Door Photography)

In an era known for tear downs and home renovations that erase any trace of a space’s previous incarnation, the Smith home is a vivid exception. Every kitchen has a story, and this one is particularly colorful. The Smiths built their house, located in a private spot with magnificent views, in 1980, and have relied on the formidable intuition of Ambiance Interiors owner Kathryn Long for nigh on 40 years.

“During the building phase,” says Mrs. Smith, “we were like other young couples, working within a tight budget.” A trip to Asheville’s only tile-supply store at the time proved serendipitous as she stepped in, noticed the manager was occupied, and strode to the back room to find torn cardboard boxes filled with the loveliest Italian tiles she’d ever seen. The squares featured a hand-painted pattern: a sun-kissed honey-yellow accented with sky blue. “I bought every one they had, on the spot,” she says. The tiles eventually became the centerpiece of their kitchen, paired with cherry cabinets and other earthy accents.

Smith wanted to do a kitchen update years later, but couldn’t bear to part with the tile. She just couldn’t figure out a re-do solution that worked with her desire to preserve it. Fast forward to 2017, and the need to update was now both utilitarian and aesthetic. She again called in Long, who got to work divining not only how the kitchen’s new iteration would practically serve the owners, but how it would continue to maximize the beauty of the much-loved tiles.

“They wanted a lighter look — some new, richer, no-shine surfaces, and more functionality,” explains Long. The other rub? The couple wanted the work done with as minimal fuss as possible, and during the month when they were scheduled to be in New Zealand. How did she do it? “Planning, planning, planning,” Long says.

French-inspired baskets are a stylish storage touch. The wood paneling in the alcove is painted to contrast with the homeowners’ pottery collection. Photo by Nick King (Open Door Photography)

The designer and Mrs. Smith determined that in order to keep the tiles in place, the existing cabinet footprint would stay, but the cupboards would be refaced and updated, and some new cabinetry would augment the old. “Chris Perryman, owner of Goldsplinter Woodworking Studio, was the hero,” says Long. “He brought in one door sample, and voilà — it was perfect. I call it ‘updated Shaker’ style. The cool square knobs take it to an even higher level.”

Perry was in the house for a full day, feverishly measuring before the couple’s departure. “It was a fun project because I only had to build the parts that are aesthetically rewarding — mostly,” he shares. “A complete resurface isn’t the right solution every time, but it was a great option here because the original custom-made cabinet boxes were still in good shape.”

Long’s game-changing idea for lightening the space was to paint the cabinets. Her choice of a Benjamin Moore shade called “Quincy Tan” harmonizes beautifully with the hues of the tiles and elegantly coexists with the muted salmon-tinged dining-room walls. “It reflects the light better than stained cabinets,” she says. The enlarged center island is a stained alder, and the countertops, by Mountain Marble, are a matte-black leathered granite. Lighting, from ceiling fixtures to under the cabinet, was updated, with LED bulbs adding more dramatic contrast to the space.

The logistics required tight collaboration. “I worked closely with the contractor, Jason Brownlee, who made plywood countertops for the interim, so the new ones could be installed in time for the Smiths’ return to the country,” Long reveals. She also pulled Perry in early on. Bella Hardware & Bath’s Dana Bergstedt chose the ideal stainless-steel sink and Dornbracht faucet.

Long and her clients upped functionality in tight spots, including reinterpreting a niche to store unrefrigerated perishables in French-inspired rustic baskets. She chose another Benjamin Moore shade, “Sienna Clay,” to coat the V-groove wood paneling that was added to the alcove, providing a striking backdrop for the clients’ pottery collection. She also swapped a little-used — and often cluttered — open desk area for two lateral file drawers and more display space.

After the challenge of making a unique tile scheme express a whole new personality, anything was possible. “Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” Long says.

Ambiance Interiors, 189 E. Chestnut St., Asheville, 828-253-9403, ambianceasheville.com.