Kitchen Dealer Showcases New Southern Style

Kitchen Dealer Showcases New Southern Style

by Clay Patrick
BIRMINGHAM, AL - It might come as a surprise to some, but 134 years after the end of the Civil War, there is something of a reconstruction taking place in the Old South - at least as far as kitchen design and cabinetry are concerned.

If one were to peer inside the rows of stately early-American homes covering the rolling green hills in the deep Southern city of Birmingham, one would typically find kitchen after kitchen done in the somewhat cluttered "wooden floor & paneled appliances" style popular in the region. It is very specific, this look, indigenous and traditional - and, too often, identical in design and color from one home to the next.

"That's always the trend here," says Cyndy Cantley, CKD, owner of kitchen dealership Cantley & Co., Inc., referring primarily to the prodigious use of stark whites in Southern kitchens. "Fortunately, people get very excited when they see something different."

Fortunate indeed, for it is into this milieu that Cantley, the company's primary designer, and her cabinetmaker husband, Keith, have carved a successful, if unusual, niche for themselves with their six-year-old cabinetry and design firm.

Creating 48-50 kitchens a year, and working only in custom, all-wood cabinetry crafted from maple, cherry and cypress, Cantley says, "We are not afraid to try something that's just 'not done' in American magazines, or in your neighbor's kitchen."

After years of working for other kitchen firms, the Cantleys started their own firm in 1993, after Cyndy and Keith were married, with familial support from Keith's brother, Charlie, and nephew, Judd. The Cantley men handle the woodwork, while Cyndy (a CKD who's working on her CBD), along with secondary designer Shea Macon (who's also studying for her CKD), create the company's unique, unfitted designs. This, too, makes both Cantley and Macon unusual - they are successful in a part of the country where their field is typically male-dominated.

Subtle elegance
Cantley's design style has evolved from the clean lines of Shaker Cabinetry to a sophisticated, unfitted English look - an influence Cantley brings to her work after studying European design and art history at the University of Nice in France. The company's philosophy for cabinet making is to keep things understated and elegant. "We keep the lines simple and let the wood speak for itself," Cantley says, "while Shea brings a wonderful Scandinavian influence to the overall look.

"Our work is unusual for the South," Cantley admits. "We do use whites, but we generally select a warmer white than normal for the cabinetry, and we take a minimalist approach. We try to stay away from the trendiness of today and create a timeless space in which to cook and live. Clean lines, large center work islands and furniture pieces help us to reach these goals."

So fond of the center island is Cantley that it is not unusual to find two such work stations in one of her kitchens. "We love to build islands," she says, "because today's kitchens are the social gathering space of the home. With an island, the cook has a prep area facing something other than a wall, which allows him or her to be part of the socializing. The dual island is wonderful to use in large kitchen when there are two cooks." For increased functionality - something she feels is the most important aspect of her work - Cantley often includes a sink for the second island, as well.

The company's ability to manufacture custom cabinetry for all of its designs makes Cantley & Co. stand out in a sea of other kitchen and bath firms, as well as other high-end cabinet companies. Cantley & Co. is able to combine the best of both worlds, says Cantley. It also gives Cantley the freedom to specify unique cabinet configurations for her designs.

According to Cantley, there are two things that make the cabinet-making portion of the business unique. The first is the incorporation of old doors, antique woods and special furniture pieces into the firm's designs. In a region renowned for its antiques and restorations, an old table might serve as the anchor for an island, or semi-restored wooden planks might be used to create a bookshelf. This is Cantley's way of tying in the new with the old, grand traditions of the South.

Secondly, Cantley always suggests her clients include a wall designated specifically for art in their kitchens. The use of islands - which the company can custom-design - frees up wall space no longer needed for storage, allowing this stylish touch.

In addition to its "Fine Bespoke Custom Cabinetry," the firm offers a whole host of products, including Corian, limestone, stainless steel and marble countertops; plumbing fixtures; tile; and domestic and imported appliances.

Though the company specializes in kitchens, Cantley adds that Keith and his crew also design and build cabinets for the bath, as well create entertainment centers, bookcase units and what is known down South as a "mud room," a small coat-and-hat area at the back door.

While her employees have been educated in the latest CAD software systems, the company does all of its drafting by hand. "Our clients prefer this. It's an art to them, and it reflects more time spent on each job," says Cantley. Such work is done at the Cantley & Co. offices, a loft-style showroom tucked inside something of a local landmark, an old Dr. Pepper bottling plant. In addition to two drafting rooms, the 1,200-sq.-ft. showroom contains three complete kitchens in various configurations. The construction of the old building does not allow for working models.

Perhaps surprisingly, even with the design firm's unique approach, Cantley does not encounter much resistance to the company's ideas, or difficulty in conveying them to prospective clients.

"The people who hire a kitchen designer are generally people who need help and know it," she says. "And if they've come to us, they often know what kind of design and look we offer. Once we've shown them our portfolio, and discussed their desires with them, they're pretty receptive. Trust plays a enormous role in our job. They need us to guide them and that's what we do. But once we've built the kitchen the way they've visualized it, they then guide us in making any adjustments to fit their lifestyles. While we're a small family business, we encounter few limitations as to what can be created."

The Cantleys also practice a "good neighbor policy" by involving their company in several charitable activities, ranging from the Birmingham Symphony Showhouse to local medical auxiliary kitchen tours. They often work with Habitat for Humanities, helping to build housing for the poor. "We feel a need to give back to the community because we've been given so much." In fact, Cantley notes, "the only advertising we do is in local junior, service and charity league newspapers. We have no advertising budget outside of our causes. Everything else is word of mouth, so it's very important to us that our work and designs, professional and charitable, speak for themselves."

At a Glance