Michele Oka Doner regards her kitchen renovation as an act of alchemy. Which would sound far-fetched, except that she transforms the prosaic into the precious for a living. As a sculptor and designer, she adapts natural forms into useful and beautiful metal objects. In the course of a three-decade career, she's laid thousands of bronze sea creatures into the Miami International Airport floor, molded bark slabs and coral fans into silver trays, fashioned chair backs from palm fronds. So it's no surprise that when she updated her kitchen, something transcendent happened.
"It's about respect for everyday life, about honoring the moment," Oka Doner explains when I arrive at her loft in Manhattan's SoHo. She's dressed in her customary artist's garb, a loose monochrome robe, and her hair is ballerina tight. The kitchen is tucked into the back of the loft, yet it's visible from anywhere in the apartment, like a lectern in a church. Its centerpiece island is a stainless-steel boomerang, and despite its high-tech looks, it actually embodies a philosophy that's aeons old. "The Japanese and the ancient Egyptians never put art on a pedestal," she says. "For them, every cup, every spoon would be something to celebrate. Which is what I've tried for here: a seamless integration of what's called art and what's called kitchen."
Her architect, William T. Georgis, tailored each detail along the kitchen's curves to the way she cooks at this moment in her life: the languorous breakfasts and dinner parties she and her husband, Frederick, have time for now that their sons are grown, the produce they pick up at the farmers' markets proliferating in their neighborhood. As she gives me a burner-by-burner kitchen tour, it becomes clear that need has translated into unconventional design.