sink as work surface, designed by a cook

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When Margot Wellington designed the kitchen of her house in East Hampton in 1984, she defied the usual notions of kitchen design. Instead, she set out to incorporate the elements she found essential from many years of serious cooking and entertaining. One of her most remarkable innovations was the design of an eleven-foot-long stainless steel counter with a large shallow sink built seamlessly into the center of it. The sink itself becomes a work surface, allowing her to use the whole eleven-foot span to do many jobs at once, from prepping vegetables on the left to preparing a turkey for roasting on the right. She designed the sink herself and then found someone to make it for her.

Here she describes the logic behind her design, and how she made her idea a reality:

“I designed the kitchen and had this unit fabricated in 1984. I, and many others, have been cooking in it since the house was completed for Thanksgiving, 1986.  It may look shabby because nothing has been changed since it was built, but it is a real “machine for cooking” and gives us pleasure every day.

I was very much influenced by a wonderful kitchen in Guadalajara where we all gathered and cooked together and gossiped and sang songs. Also, so many wonderful kitchens in Europe. One thing they all had in common was that they were furnished, and not with “built-ins” — which is sadly no longer the case.  Now the European kitchens are mostly very sleek and clinical.

The sink is 40 inches wide and 7 inches deep. The width was determined by letting my hands fall on a counter as far apart as I would ever be working as I cook. The depth is deliberately shallow. That is because I often use the sink surface as a counter surface such as for preparing turkeys, chickens, and roasts, imprisoning six lobsters and also for peeling vegetables. The faucet is a Delta that has only one handle for temperature and volume control, making it perfect for one-hand operation.  It is not arched, but the faucet is high enough to allow a lobster pot to be filled, even though the sink is shallow.  The front to back dimension was determined by the 24-inch depth of the counter. It was important to me that the joining of the sink to the counter and backsplash be absolutely seamless, which eliminates all of those places where greasy dirt inevitably accumulates.

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I took my drawing to a commercial kitchen fabrication shop in the Bronx (no longer in business) and worked with the engineer there to select a heavy-gauge steel and design the fabrication details. The remaining 7.5 feet of the unit is divided so that I have counter space on the left and the right of the sink. Two dishwashers are under the counter side-by-side on the right (they make frequent entertaining and houseguests possible). There are brackets that support the long counter, plus stainless pipe legs at the left wall.

I’m a big user of electrical appliances, so my old Kitchen-Aid mixer, my blender, my Cuisinart food processer and ice cream maker are all at-the-ready on the counter above the dishwashers. These take up a lot of room so I crowd them front to back. The rest of the underneath space is open and I use it for cleaning supplies, trash and recycling containers. Of course, I never cut directly on any counter surface (steel, granite or wood) but instead use cutting boards which I keep in a handy pile nearby my main workspace.

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Williams-Sonoma, years later, came out with a very useful mesh rack that sits perfectly front-to-back across the sink. I leave it mostly on the left-hand side, which still leaves me a large sink area to work in.  It is useful as a colander, as well as a dish drainer for things that don’t go into the dishwasher.  I also have a plastic sheet drainer on the left side of the sink counter. Sometimes I set the mesh rack on that so I can use the whole sink.  I have a lot of flexibility in how I use the sink.

The fabricator proposed the commercial drain/stopper which is operated by a lever below the sink. To clean the sink, all I do is raise the stopper handle, run hot water with some dish liquid and sponge around the bottom and sides, then depress the stopper handle; it comes completely clean in less time than it takes to describe it…

…I’m fortunate to have a bar sink, deep and narrow across the kitchen so even when my large one is being used for a big job, there is always running water.”

I’ve cooked in Margot’s kitchen many times. It is truly designed for gatherings: family and friends making collaborative, improvised meals together. The long sink/work surface allows two or three people to work at that “station” at once, while others are at the granite island nearby, chopping or prepping, and someone else is at the stove.

What I love most about Margot’s sink is that it is the solution of a fearless non-expert who made her idea real; it is quirky, original, pragmatic, and works. Margot’s sink-as-work surface is an idea worth stealing.

4 Responses to sink as work surface, designed by a cook

  1. John Wellington 10.22.2009 at 5:14pm #

    I’m not neutral as I have cooked and washed dishes at this sink for many years but I love the description and the thoughts and process surrounding the final product. And Sally … Wonderful site!!! Love John

  2. judith 01.17.2013 at 11:29am #

    THIS is the kind of shit that matters!!! thank you for the share. i find most kitchens are dreadfully designed. hell for someone who cooks all the time(i tend to cook for others in their own homes). no one appears to care if their sinks are too high,too close to a treacherous corner or just plain difficult to navigate. this sink design sounds perfect!

  3. Joseph 07.04.2013 at 2:47pm #

    It’s nearly impossible to find educated people on this subject, however,
    you sound like you know what you’re talking about! Thanksstreetdirectory
    (Joseph)

  4. ChrisJ 07.28.2013 at 1:38pm #

    Very nice idea. I’ve never been a big fan of ‘pretty’ when it comes to interior design, much as I may appreciate it, but when it comes to a kitchen, practical is more important to me than pretty. I note a large garbage container (?) under the sink fully exposed (doesn’t bother me and plainly not even the user, Margot).

    I am beginning to think about my own retirement home kitchen plans which will incorporate composting and its collection for the garden. Perhaps an under sink catch all to separate excess water and compost materials could be worked out.

    Compost for thought.

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