Spaces featuring Skara Brae always steal the show but perhaps not always quite so literally as this kitchen. Designed for the 42nd annual Charleston Symphony Orchestra League Designer Showhouse, this jewel-box kitchen is the focal point of an inviting conversation area in a turn-of-the-century Victorian home, known as a Charleston single, in the city’s South of Broad neighborhood. We spoke to the designer, T. Phillips of Latitude Design Group, to get the details behind his stunning design, including inspiration, material selections, and challenges along the way to this kitchen’s debut.
Design process and challenges
The house selected for the show house was an on-the-market home, so Phillips worked directly with the homeowners during the design process. Since the kitchen renovation was an out-of-pocket expense to the homeowners and one of the only rooms that would retain the design elements after the show, Phillips had to make sure they were on board with his vision. “Everything in other areas of the house had to be taken out after we closed to the public,” Phillips explains. “The kitchen stays with the house vs. a gorgeous sofa or bed that will leave.”
The site of the home’s existing kitchen had originally been a porch, as Charleston singles are known for having long porches, or piazzas, that go along the side of the house. Phillips also was unable to move the kitchen because the owners did not want the additional expense, and he needed to design a timeless space that would appeal to new buyers. “These homeowners were very involved with the CSOL show house options and choices,” notes Phillips. “They were willing to listen to my ideas; however, I was definitely pushed creatively as I had to stay within the existing blueprint of the 28-year-old kitchen and think outside the box to make this kitchen easy to work and entertain guests within.”
Show houses are always an accelerated process, but an upper-floor flood caused major renovation woes in the midst of the project. “There was a second-floor master-bath flood that lingered over two days. My entire area had the plaster ceilings and walls come down due to water damage and the entire floor needed to be ripped out, remediated, and replaced,” says Phillips. “Timing was so tight that the island arrived along with the counters one day before the opening party. We then had to clean and stage the entire room!”
Fortunately, the gorgeous end result of the kitchen gives no indication of any hiccups along the way. While the before-and-after images speak for themselves, Phillips puts it plainly: “You can see how dreadful it was and how I refaced the entire thing and it just came to life.”
Inspiration for the jewel-box kitchen
The home’s history and the existing floor plan inspired Phillips’ jewel-box kitchen design. “I wanted to make this kitchen stay in the vein of the turn-of-the-century style but with a modern twist to work for the new homeowners and guests attending the show house,” says Phillips. “I wanted it to be a gathering spot but I wanted to be sure I stayed true to the form of the house. So, I decided I was going to do just a gorgeous, crisp white kitchen with a modern turn-of-the-century spin.”
Improving the functionality of the space was important as well. “I wanted to stretch the kitchen and give it quite a good prep space—the barrel-leg custom island with the Skara Brae—and then a space for having coffee and cocktails. It’s really functional for that small space of a kitchen.”
Selecting Cambria Skara Brae countertops and backsplash
Cambria Skara Brae offers a maintenance-free surface with a marble look for both the countertops and backsplash. Skara Brae features bold translucent olive green and taupe veins set against a bone-white marbled backdrop with occasional delicate black and white cross veining.
“Skara Brae has beautiful veining which is very much like a Carrera to me, but volumized, almost zoomed in,” Phillips describes. “It is almost like a topography map, if you will, [as if you’re] looking from space at water and different rhythms.”
“Having the Skara Brae in the slab detail [for the backsplash] and being able to keep that rhythm all the way around—almost like a river run in the veining—was quite an interesting detail,” adds Phillips. “It looks amazing versus doing your classic tile backsplash.”
Design selection using the Cambria AR app
Phillips had a tool in his back pocket that he used to get the homeowners on board with his vision: the Cambria AR app. Using the app convinced the homeowners to go for a bolder design out of their comfort zone after they could see Skara Brae virtually in their space. “The homeowners were skeptical because it was beyond their [initial] conservative mindset about the veining.” The app allowed them to get a sense of how beautiful the kitchen would look. “The app was super easy,” says Phillips. “I showed it to the homeowners and they were like, ‘Sold. It’s gonna be stunning.’”
Kitchen island details
The island features a custom barrel-leg base and Skara Brae countertops in a 2-inch mitered edge, thicker than the perimeter for more visual heft in the space. A timeless palette of white with chrome, brushed nickel, and stainless accents allowed the bold countertop design to be the focal point, highlighted by the backsplash.
A duo of cone-shaped milk-glass pendants above the island stay true to the clean white palette while the kitchen stools complement Skara Brae’s veining with darker tones. “They’re gunmetal with a wood seat, which I thought was just more of a relaxed feel,” says Phillips. The island also includes convenient storage features including a built-in microwave drawer and larger receptacle for trash and recycling.
Phillips envisions the island’s Cambria countertops as a prime spot for baking. “It is superb for pastry and dough because it stays cool and cold to the touch, and you have to keep your butter and everything cold,” says Phillips. “Every single time you touched it, no matter how warm the house was or what was going on during the day, it was very cool to the touch—which in Charleston you need.”
Fabrication and working with Cambria
Phillips worked with Palmetto Surfacing to fabricate and install Cambria in the show house. “Their team is excellent. For them to put in all the effort they did is just amazing. That’s the reason I’m continuing to work with them on my personal projects.” Phillips was especially impressed with the team’s work creating a cohesive look with the veining in the backsplash, using a program called Slabsmith. “What makes [Cambria] so interesting is that the veins are not all the same,” says Phillips. “Doing the Skara Brae in the slab detail across the back, with the backsplash strategically placed by the team at Palmetto Surfacing, took a little bit of work but it looks stunning,” says Phillips.
The versatility of Cambria and the fabrication possibilities gave Phillips many options to explore for the kitchen. “I just love the Cambria material,” says Phillips. “It’s remarkable the way that it’s just easy to use: it’s bendable, it’s pliable, it can be backlit, it can be matte, and it can be mastered from a 1-inch-thick to a 10-inch-thick façade. To me, that’s why I’m so excited to use it—I’m getting ready to use it again in my own project.”
Reflective look with mirror-front cabinets and tin ceiling tiles
Mirror-front cabinets and tin ceiling tiles optimize the small space of the jewel-box kitchen. “Some people are afraid to use mirrors,” notes Phillips. “But what’s interesting is that space was dead and had no reflection, and now you don’t really know where to look because there are so many beautiful parts. It reflects that whole entire side of the room, so it made it [appear] triple the size with the illusion of [those] mirrored and metallic details.”
“We took all the existing cabinet fronts to my carpenter who is a master yachting carpenter who works mostly on boats,” explains Phillips. “All the cabinet fronts were taken out and cut out at his shop. Then, the mirror application and the transom detail were put back on, painted, and then brought back to site. All of the cabinet fronts had that detail, which I thought was a classical detail that is also on trend.”
The kitchen’s tin ceiling tiles come in squares. “The ceiling tiles are also turn of the century and relative to many of the buildings in Charleston. A lot of merchants actually have that ceiling—it’s a detail that was used here quite a bit,” says Phillips. “My contractor had to build a flat form and used hand-forged antique nails that pin each of the squares to the ceiling. It’s almost like painting a mural on the ceiling.”
Conversation area details
The conversation area complements the tones of Skara Brae with earthy neutrals, grays, and pops of mustard, rust/terracotta, and green. A vibrant ikat pattern adds a worldly flair through the drapery and accent pillows. “The ikat pattern with those electric colors sort of produces conversation without having to say anything,” says Phillips.
Abstract art above the fireplace creates a striking conversation piece, while a collection of National Geographic magazines lends a pop of yellow and international travel vibes. “Mustard is a color that’s coming forward as a trend,” says Phillips. “I happened to pick up the abstract painting because of the colors. It’s by an artist who normally does everything in pinks and blues, but had just had a huge argument with his partner, so that’s the only piece he ever did like that—in that medium or those colors.”
Similarly, Phillips broke out of his comfort zone of softer neutral hues for this space’s palette and furnishings. “Because it’s a show house, I had to push myself as well in terms of colors and more interesting features like the gunmetal-silver tree-stump cocktail tables, the mix of metals, and even the lighting. I called the chandelier in the conversation area (from Circa Lighting) ‘Dior Girls’ because it looks like Dior hats.”
The seating is arranged and structured to inspire conversation as well. “I thought the tufted barrel chairs were perfect because they just kind of hug the body and already were in a circular sort of motion. So, they lent themselves to being interactive.” Phillips prefers chairs to sofas in conversation areas to better accommodate guests. “I think having chairs lends itself to having someone who is more reserved or more extroverted to have their own space and have their own energy,” he explains. “Sofas may be uncomfortable if you have guests who don’t know each other. I have a tendency to use chairs in certain areas of the house just in general, depending on the scale.”
Reaction to the kitchen with Skara Brae at the show house
During the show house event, Phillips noticed an interesting phenomenon. Everybody seemed to want to touch the island’s Skara Brae countertops. “I have never worked on a project where everyone wants to immediately touch the work. Almost like everyone felt like they had to—all 4,000-plus visitors,” says Phillips. “They would come into the kitchen and go ‘Wow,’ and then put their hands immediately on the island, which I thought was so funny. It was a textural thing—I think they were really drawn to the scale of the stone itself and the meatiness of the island.”
“It was just such an outstanding piece. I think that people love a good island and especially one that actually works,” adds Phillips. “And I think that this one in the most classical sense did just that. It planted this small little naysay kitchen and made it truly what most people said was the best feature of the house.”
Are you swooning over Skara Brae? Order a sample to get a taste of the movement and tones in person. Due to the large-scale veining of this design, we recommend ordering the 12×12 sample size. For a broader view, try out the design for yourself as Phillips did with the Cambria AR app.
To bring your Skara Brae project to life, contact a dealer near you. You can also inquire if they feature Skara Brae in their showroom for an opportunity to view it in person.
Our thanks to T. Phillips of Latitude Design Group for sharing the details of his kitchen design for the Charleston Symphony Orchestra League Designer Showhouse.