WE DESIGN, MANUFACTURE, FIT & REFURBISH KITCHENS

Stephen Hamilton

Kitchen Carousel Chief Designer

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A brief history

I became a cabinet maker by accident. More or less. I was rather bright at school but failed woodwork! My dovetails didn’t fit!

 

Before University I travelled extensively and ended up spending some time in a Tibetan monastery. Near Vancouver in Canada.  There I met a Tibetan monk called Trungpa. He was the first Tibetan Monk to visit North America. That was back in the seventies. He advised me, that if I wanted to be a decent [ by which he meant useful ] philosopher then I should balance the activities of my busy brain with the calming disciplines of carpentry or pottery. I tried pottery but woodwork became my sustaining passion.

Then I had one of those lucky breaks in life. I was waiting to take up my place at York university to study theology, philosophy and Chinese. To pass the time I studied at Ampleforth Monastery where I ate far too well [ Monks do that!] and where I met a great furniture maker who introduced me to the Robert Thompson. The Mouse man of Kilburn. He is famous for carving a wee mouse on his furniture.

 

A few months later I was an unpaid apprentice working on some monastic furniture and it was then I fell in love with trees and woodworking. 

 

I think it was love of trees and the quiet brilliance of natural woodlands that came first and the woodworking followed soon after. I have always felt Nature has some clever evolutionary tricks up her sleeve and so I spent some time living and working in the forests. 

 

Trees are not just wood they are the lungs and the breath and the nerves of the earth. We would not function without them. When a trees’ life is coming to a graceful conclusion then the best ones are turned into furniture. 

 

Of course, as technology has moved forward not all furniture is made from wood…but here is something interesting for ecologically interested philosophers. Trees are wood and wood when buried for millions of years is coal and oil is little sea creatures that has been buried for millions of years and when you mix wood fibres and the resins from oil you get a material called medium density fibre board…or MDF for short. Oil from hydrocarbons makes the paint that goes on the MDF. Wood fibres are pulped up to make chipboard…the main constituent of melamine faced chipboard which is the material from which the interiors of kitchen cabinets are manufactured. In the trade we call these interiors carcasses…which is not as weird as it sounds because a carcass is the bones…the fundamental structural bits from which everything else hangs. Your body is a carcass from which your flesh and all the rest hangs in all its glorious individuality. A cabinet carcass gets a door a drawer and a drew front. Your body and mind [ I suspect] also has a soul…and thus as a philosopher I hope I put some real soul into the design and production and installation of your kitchen cabinets. There is no extra charge for the soul that we put into your kitchen project…that is just the price of life. 

 

I have often been criticised for taking business too personally but I make no apologies. People come first and stuff comes after. Money is an equation that provides the means for all of us to share our different talents and abilities. 

 

Most people don’t know this but during its life a tree breathes in Carbon dioxide  and breathes out oxygen but as it begins to decay  it breathes out carbon dioxide.  It was then I realised everything is a wonderful cycle and everything we do needs to be thought of as a part of nature not antagonistic to it.

 

These days the environment and our attitude to energy issues and ecology are paramount in our thinking. It’s a huge subject. I actually wrote a few  books on the subject …back in 2003…It was called the no 19. Bus and it was a set of books based around what west Sussex would look like in 2070. I believe there are still a few copies left on Amazon. [If you want to look it up you’ll need to put in my full nane which is Stephen Hamilton-Bergin.]

 

I am now going to summarise this most enormous subject in a few short sentences. 

 

“I believe the energy and climate crisis we are collectively facing is precisely the crisis we need. I believe this crisis has been designed by the basic evolutionary fabric of creation. I believe it is a crisis with a purpose. That purpose is to teach humanity, [presently rather overwhelmed with its own self -importance] that we are, or rather we need to be, servants and custodians of the natural world. Thus, I see this energy examination as a natural divine consequence of existence. “

 

How does this philosophy meld and merge with our kitchen production? That’s a very very good question I ask myself every single day. Unfortunately, I don’t yet have all the answers!

 

Briefly? As a kitchen maker I am beholden to the availability of the modern materials. The suitability of those materials for kitchen making and the sustainability of those products. I am also facing the dilemma every week of what to do with the old busted kitchens I am removing before I put on one of our rather beautiful new ones.

 

There is something however we can think about when it comes to sustainability and that is the concept of longevity.

30 years ago....

Here is a kitchen I made thirty years ago. I choose to show you because last year it was repainted for the third time. It now actually looks better than when I first installed it. All the drawers still work. Why because all the drawers were properly dovetailed from real wood. I hope that this kitchen will last perhaps several hundred years. Maybe I am being ambitious. If it does it will be ecologically intelligent. Why. Think of it like this.

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Better still look at this picture...

Here is a table I made about forty years ago. Very much at the beginning of my furniture making career.

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I guarantee this table will still be around in five hundred years

Indeed, I think it might last a thousand years or more. It is solid Oak. It is pegged and dovetailed there is no glue or screws or any fixings other than natural wood. It can be repaired forever. If you divided the carbon cost of this table by 1000 years you get about 20 kilograms of carbon per annum.

 

Now take a table for …let us say… from something like the Worlds biggest Swedish furniture company [ can’t mention names ] Their tables last about twenty years on average. Divide the carbon emissions by 20 years and you get a figure around ten times as much as my oak table.

 

So, longevity is important in sustainability. A few weeks ago I heard that ‘one use’ plastic cups are to be banned. Good news because we can make multiple use plastic cups for almost the same energy content. My mantra has always been re-use not re cycle most importantly beautiful classical well made things last a long time!

 

If you are interested in this subject then you can read my book on general industrial  ecology which is being published next year.

So to kitchens!

If I can sensibly save your kitchen cabinets or part of the kitchen I will.

 

This year I did this kitchen for Mr and Mrs B in Hurstpierpoint. They were keen to keep what they could…out of a genuine interest in preservation. As I progressed the design it was clear that the cabinets had not been well designed. The cupboards were naff. The base cupboards were narrow and inaccessible. But the black granite worktops was pristine! So how to keep the granite top and change the rather non-working cupboards underneath for something sensible. Here is our answer. Multiple sensible fully extending drawers.

Accessibility!

 

The base cupboards in most kitchens are not well designed for their primary purposes. Which is? To store stuff and to get it in and out easily.

 

You can read much more about this in the section

 

“How I design kitchens”  

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Back to me!

The world changes and technology moves at a gallop. After university I started making furniture and very soon [ I was twenty three when  I was asked to make my first kitchen] It was inventive but technically a bit of a disaster. I am now in my sixties and I have been making kitchens for forty years.

 

For a couple of years I spent much of my time designing and working on the interiors of expensive wooden boats. I was based in Littlehampton. I wanted to learn how to make the curved wooden boats but I didn’t get that far. Instead I was asked to design the interiors. It was there that I learnt some really valuable lessons about interior design. Boat galleys and cupboards have very little room so you need to make use of every square centimetre [ In those days most of the craftsmen actually worked in inches] I also started to learn about how to make curved panels and cupboards because, unsurprisingly, boats are not square boxes but have curves everywhere.

 

Around 1980 I launched my first proper furniture business and started employing a bunch of people. Soon the majority of my commissions were for kitchens and some bedrooms. It was an era when most of the kitchen cabinet companies like were slowly going out of business and the German kitchen companies were in the ascendant. It was the beginning of my kitchen journey. By 1985 I had rather over extended myself and I realised that there was so much more to running a kitchen business than actually just making the cabinets. Fitting them was just as important! Indeed, I now think that fitting kitchens is much more important and in many ways much more multi skilled than making the actual cabinets. Technology has made construction so much easier. The kitchen fitters at Kitchen Carousel are really top notch and they are capable of making the cabinets and fitting them.

 

However I really must at this point show you something really rather wonderful. A blend of the old and the new.

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A few paragraphs previously I mentioned the fact that proper dovetailed drawers are, seriously, the only way to make drawers. I find it fascinating that the dovetailed drawer joint has been in existence in some form or another since the first drawers were made. Indeed, the first example of a dovetail goes back to the tomb of Egyptian mummies. That’s’ five thousand years ago! And in all that time and with all our extraordinary advantages and advancements in technology no one has yet improved on the dovetailed drawer joint. Of course there are new machines that make them more accurately…but this is what I really love. We have this machine at work. It is called:

‘The Dovetailer’
It is about seventy years old.

If you would like to take a peek at it in action just click below and you can see a forty second you tube video.

 

Everything on this machine is still original. Every nut and bolt and bearing and lever. It cuts fifteen dovetails at once. By hand. It is still accurate to within a fraction of a millimetre. Everyone in my workshop likes using it. Indeed…there is always a queue! Every now and again I think maybe I should change it for something automatic and brand new but everyone in our workshop insists it remains. I think I have to agree. One of the most interesting aspects of this machine is the fact that it takes a considerable amount of skill and months and months of training and practice to use it successfully. If you pull too hard on the lever the dovetail joint is too loose and if you don’t pull hard enough it is too tight. 

Over the years I am often asked.

Are hand made things better than machine made things?

The words; “Hand made.” are redolent of an age of beautiful craftmanship. Things that last! Sadly, it is not true. The truth is everything is machine made to some extent. What is perhaps more important is hand finished…a subtle distinction perhaps but important.

 

So! materials are critically important. How these materials are transformed into components and how they are assembled is important. How they are finished ….sanded or lacquered or painted. All these things are important but perhaps most important of all…when it comes to kitchens …is how they are designed.

 

In 1989 I attended the Frankfurt furniture  and architecture show. They were showing off new computer aided kitchen design equipment [ You could hardly call them computers] There was a competition. To design the same kitchen space fifteen different ways. I won. Whilst everyone else was using rather cumbersome computer stuff I hand drew fifteen different kitchen designs in one hour. I have been doing the same thing ever since. They called me the European designer of the year!

 

As the chief designer of Kitchen Carousel I am responsible for ultimately what we will produce in our workshops. All our production is bespoke…by which I mean everything is designed and made to suit each individual client. 

 

Designing kitchens is always challenging and always interesting. From that very first exploratory visit to the completed project is always a journey whether the project is small medium or large. It is based on trust and integrity and a bit of give and take but the secret of a successful project always comes down to the dovetailing of the team and all the associated trades and craftspeople.

As I am the principal owner and, more importantly, team leader of kitchen carousel I have many responsibilities but I still do most of the initial design. As time is valuable [rather like yours] I tend to whizz round on my first design visit and whizz off dozens of different ideas and inspirations in around forty minutes or so.

 

I generally give people lots of stuff to think about and, I have often been told, I make people heads whirl round a bit with all the different possibilities. Forty minutes for the initial consultation is generally enough. At the end of forty minutes I can usually give people a verbal, rough ball park figure for the project.

 

Then I just leave people to mull it all over. 

 

In 1995 I wrote a book about kitchens and kitchen design. I am now in the middle of turning that into a kitchen video book. I hope it will help anyone who is interested in kitchens, both ordinary people, thinking about their kitchen design for themselves or professionals interested in making a career out of it. Over the next year or so [ I am writing this in September 2021] you will find dozens of our kitchen projects that we have completed over the last few years here in our website.

 

As my career progressed I naturally found myself engaged in more and more complex projects. I ended up travelling all round the world designing and making kitchens. I have put a photographic history of some of this work on this website. Some of it will seem a little old and dated especially to those looking for a fresher more modern approach to their kitchen aesthetics. However the Old gallery of my work is informative. If you want to look at these kitchens just go to the tab our kitchens on the top of our home page and click on “Past kitchens” 

In 2005 I decided to up sticks and try to start a furniture making college in the Algarve in Portugal. I built myself a wooden cabin on three meter stilts above the river in a granite canyon that roared in the winter and trickled pleasantly during the summer

 

The college project got off the ground but never prospered. Another story for another time. Sufficient to say that bureaucracy stymied the whole process. When I eventually did get all the buildings and the planning for the workshop and machines I applied for a permit to work at which point I was asked for my [ written] qualifications to teach furniture making. And you know what? I don’t have any! Mad isn’t it. I still have ten perfect working fingers, which for a cabinet maker over forty years is qualification enough for me. Most cabinet maker I know have a bit of a digit missing!

Then in 2010 I needed to return to the UK to look after my elderly ailing mother who naturally wanted to remain in her own house as long as possible.

 

In 2016 I decided to start up again. My intention was to remain very small and do funky idiosyncratic one offs like this

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Making amazing things like this is fun but as you might imagine we don’t get orders for Rajasthani palace four poster beds every day! 

 

Kitchens are our bread and butter and now I find them brilliant for teaching my team of young apprentices about all the different techniques in cabinet and furniture making.

Now we are a wonderful team…and I hope everyone at Kitchen Carousel thinks of me as the Team Leader and not as the [ occasionally grumpy ] boss.

 

You can find out about our team on the website. We are [mostly] a very happy bunch of individuals striving for perfection [ never quite getting there] but improving all the time.

 

Mostly Happy? Why grumpy? Well …sometimes our tidiness is …let’s leave it at that.

 

At the end of the working day I [mostly] feel satisfied if we have created a great deal of customer satisfaction and happiness and pleasure. We will never be a big business as we are all too intimately concerned and connected to each individual project. 

 

I am extremely fortunate that even as my years advance I am doing something I love.

 

So please! Keep ordering kitchens and keep us all busy.

 

I am now writing a blog [terrible word that don’t you think?] which is really just a diary of how we operate from day to day. You can find the blog on the top bar of the home page.

So bye for now!

 

Lots of love

 

Stephen Hamilton

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