For Piet's Sake

Three women create a kitchen inspired by Mondrian.

mondrian kitchen
Translating Piet Mondrian’s geometric color scheme onto kitchen cabinets required some out-of-the-box thinking. Designer Lisa Steers played with the proportions to make it work.

Renovating the kitchen in Judy Lane’s Aquinnah home came with a few more considerations than standard cabinetry and countertop choices. Judy wanted the room to reflect the modern art bent of the rest of the house and to coordinate with the Alexander Calder artwork in the adjoining living room. The solution: a color-block kitchen inspired by the work of artist Piet Mondrian.

Judy, of Oakham and Aquinnah, is the daughter of the late Alvin S. Lane, a Harvard Law School graduate and partner in a major real estate law firm in New York City. Alvin and his wife, Terese, were avid art lovers who collected a plethora of modern works by such luminaries as Pablo Picasso, Alexander Calder, David Smith, and Christo, which they displayed in their New York City home as well as their seasonal retreat in Aquinnah.

The Aquinnah house was built to Alvin’s strict specifications, and the family spent their first summer there in 1965. It was, for its time, a decidedly un-Islandish modern structure. The Vineyard Gazette even took note, describing its “bizarre arrangement of planes and broken roof lines” in a 1966 issue.

“It really was the first modern house [on the Island], but it wasn’t really a modern house,” Judy insists. “It appeared that way because of the weird roof and lots of glass.” The steeply pitched roof was intended to accommodate a six-foot-tall sculpture by Alexander Calder, the American artist who began gaining international renown for his mobiles and stabiles in the 1930s.

judy lane
Judy Lane, who runs a community development nonprofit in Tanzania, grew up in her parents’ New York City art circle and spent summers in their Aquinnah home.

Judy’s father died in 2007, and her mother followed in 2010. They left Judy the home with all the original furnishings and artwork – with the ironic exception of the tall Calder structure, which had been donated to the Chazen Museum at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. The furnishings, in remarkably good condition for their age, compliment the artwork, and boxy built-ins balance the swirls and squiggles of the modern art prints and paintings on the wall. Two original Calder pieces – one mobile and one stabile – remain. A few African pieces snug in nicely with the modern objets d’art (an apt amalgam because Judy runs a nonprofit in Tanzania). Cushy classic sofas keep the décor from drifting into gallery. Overall, the home is a comfortable summer retreat for Judy, her husband, Mark Mattson, who is a scientist for Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, and their two teenage sons.

Recently Judy decided to knock out the wall that separated the kitchen from the dining room. “It was like this cave,” she recalls. “It was long and narrow, and you couldn’t fit more than two people in there at a time. It just didn’t work.” Since she was having major surgery done on her kitchen, Judy opted for a complete update. She hired residential designer Carole Hunter of Hunter and Company in West Tisbury to redesign the kitchen. “[Judy] went home,” Carole recalls, “and went through her art books and said, ‘Oh, look! It’s really a Mondrian thing!’” The two proceeded to take a stab at replicating the modernist’s work in Judy’s kitchen.

A contemporary of Picasso and Georges Braque, Dutch artist Piet Mondrian is best known for the geometric, grid-based canvases he began producing in Paris circa 1920. Thanks to fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent, who replicated Mondrian’s patterns in his famous shift dresses, the artist enjoyed a spate of popularity in the 1960s and is often associated with that decade.

Today pictures of Mondrian-inspired kitchens flood the Internet, and with good reason. The theme fits in well with the resurgence of 1950s and ’60s décor, and inserting blocks and rectangles of color into a string of white cabinets and drawers brings life to an otherwise bland kitchen.

But getting the colors and proportions right can be a challenge. Many designs consist of cabinets painted in pastels or other hues that never graced Mondrian’s palette. Even those who use the trademark primary shades often neglect to include the bands of black that typically surround each color. Those who get the rest of it right believe they’re copying the master with uniform rectangles of color. Not so.

A recent home renovation opened the kitchen up to the rest of the house. Primary colors and bold lines integrate the space, cabinetry is outlined in black, and light fixtures in the kitchen and dining area compliment the Calder mobile.

When it came to integrating Mondrian into the Aquinnah kitchen, Judy and Carole hit an impasse. After many tries with the color-block theme, they just couldn’t get their design to gel. “Carole and I tried to play with the colors and it didn’t work,” Judy explains. “We couldn’t do it. I spent days working on it. I cut out little pieces of paper in different colors and moved them around on the layout.”

Carole found the missing link while shopping for cabinets at the Vineyard Design Center in Tisbury’s Vineyard Home Center. There she met designer Lisa Steers, who has an undergraduate degree in art history and a master’s in architecture. Carole recalls, “We went to her with the concept, and she spent quite a bit of time. She was really instrumental in the success.”

“Lisa hit it right on from the first try,” Judy concurs.

“After we chose the colors,” Lisa explains, “I didn’t really like the proportions of just filling in the doors with solid color, so I overlaid a secondary grid on it and had some of the doors pinned together so I could get the size and proportion of the color blocks I wanted.” This solution freed them from artificially separating color blocks to fit cabinet doors, thus enabling them to maintain the proportions favored by the artist and create a look that worked.

But Lisa’s true Mondrian kitchen design was leaning toward custom cabinets, and Judy and Carole were working with a semi-custom budget. “I think what I do best,” Lisa says, “is I seem to be able to wrangle a custom look with semi-custom lines.” She works with a small South Carolina company, Executive Cabinetry. They pride themselves on creating eco-friendly custom cabinets at semi-custom prices. “I really like working with them,” Lisa says. “The head engineer has been in custom cabinetry for fifteen years. Anything I can draw, they can build.”

“The order was very detailed,” she continues. “It was on six separate orders. Every color had to be on its own order. Then we had to track it through to make sure that the right yellow door was pinned to the right white door and that door was put on the right cabinet.”

mondrian living room
Above, the inspiration: A Calder mobile hovers in the airy living room, which overlooks Menemsha Pond. A Calder stabile and works by the artist surround the modern fireplace.

Now Judy enjoys a sleek, functioning kitchen with state-of-the-art appliances and more than a nod to modern art. Carole is very proud of the results and is adamant about giving Lisa her due. “She should have credit for that,” she insists. “We started it, went to her, and she helped us finish it.”

And Judy’s exacting father? What would he think about the changes? “I think he’d love it,” Judy says, “but he wouldn’t admit it because he didn’t design it.”

Almost as an afterthought, she adds, “I’m really happy with it.”

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