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Visionary Kitchen

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.

Oka Doner prepares meals along the island's inner rim: undercounter fridges contain dairy products and fruit, drawers hold utensils, and sliding cabinet doors above the counter conceal an espresso maker and a toaster oven. Everything is within arm's reach, completely ergonomic. The counter, made of crystallized glass from Japan, is whiter than stone, and since it's manufactured for use on building facades, it can withstand temperature extremes; even hot pans aren't a problem. The dishwasher and sink are next to the stove on the inner rim, so they're hidden from guests. In the corner where a full-size refrigerator once loomed, Georgis installed a pantry with doors that rise 18 feet to the ceiling. (They had to be lifted in through the windows; the crane, he says modestly, "only stopped one lane of traffic.") Oka Doner keeps all the equipment she needs for dinner parties along the island's public face. Small fridges hold beverages and ice; cabinets house such pieces as the fish service that belonged to Frederick's great-aunt.

Beyond functionality, this kitchen has a sensuousness that pays tribute to several generations of passionate cooks in Oka Doner's family. "They taught me a sense of engagement, a love of process," she explains. Her grandmother made her own stock: boiling bones, cooling the brew, scooping off the fat and adding vinegar to extract the marrow. "Talk about alchemy!" Oka Doner says. She developed her own repertoire of dishes during her early married life in Michigan. She regarded raising children, cooking and creating art as mutually sympathetic pursuits: "There were no obstacles between studio, family and kitchen." Her sons, Jeremy and Jordan, still speak lovingly of her beer-battered shrimp and chocolate mousse pie with meringue crust. ("I'm a wizard with egg whites; I love the transformation from the solid to the ephemeral," Oka Doner reports.)

The family moved into the loft in 1983, before it was quite finished. Oka Doner hurriedly installed a kitchen with a standard rectangular island. She didn't replace the suburban-size refrigerator already there; the family needed lots of cool storage because so little fresh produce was available in this former industrial zone. "You had to go to Little Italy for a loaf of bread," Oka Doner says. "But today I can go around the corner and get everything from Portuguese semolina to bread with pistachios and hazelnuts." Instead of fried shrimp, she makes dishes like pasta with broccoli rabe and garlic, ingredients bought that day.

"This tastes like dirt," Georgis said when she served the pasta at a dinner party a few years ago, and he intended it as the highest compliment, meaning that the flavor was elemental. Oka Doner had just hired him to help realize her kitchen vision. He describes their goal as "a sculptural object that could still be a backdrop, an altar of sorts for her work, and that could also dovetail with the way she lives."

This style of living owes as much to the past as the present. In fact, a surprising number of sentimental heirlooms lurk throughout the task-targeted kitchen. Oka Doner displays her mother's etched wine goblets; a platter inscribed with the signatures of the people who worked for Frederick's grandfather, a gift upon his retirement from the Superior Die Casting Company; and silver baby cups, Jordan's and hers. "The taproots of what I do," she says, "are righ there."

Eve M. Kahn is a freelance writer based in New York City.

Published March 2000
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