Soffits: Midcentury kitchens need them

1950s-kitchen-yellow-soffits

I AM AN ADVOCATE OF KITCHEN SOFFITS, or as some readers call them, bulkheads. The postwar era was all about the introduction and spread of “fitted” kitchens. Long runs of base and wall cabinets and countertops, with an integrated stove and sink and fridge. This “scientific” design was an outgrowth of the efficiency movement earlier in the century, married to the postwar industrial economy that needed to find consumer outlets for the built-up wartime production. To me, while they are an additional hassle and expense if you are renovating, soffits are a no-brainer for a 1940s, 1950s or 1960s kitchen.

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Soffits aren’t only authentic retro, they: (1) keep the tops of your wall cabinets from getting filthy, (2) are the perfect spot for vintage wallpaper, and (3) can hold and hide wiring. One of the other great benefits of soffits is that you can use them to deal with a variety of design challenges.

soffits-give-the-built-in-look

In my kitchen, I made the refrigerator look “fitted” by bringing the soffit out 24” to meet its profile (whereas the adjacent wall cabinets are only 12-13” deep. I can also mention here that I specifically chose my wicked expensive Sub-Zero refrigerator because it is 24” deep (fitted) and 84” tall – the exact height of the wall cabinets. Yes, it cost a bundle. To pay for it, I chose to wait four years to get the new car that I needed, and ran my beloved Taurus right into the ground, yes indeedy. This is a great refrigerator for a retro renovation kitchen.

1950s-kitchen-ge-1952Back to soffits, you also want to continue running your soffit over windows and especially that one over the sink. That one: You can either keep the horizontal line or notch the soffit up. Like an arch, but keep it squared off. Put one-to-three can lights underneath.

Note, though, that I do NOT like those soffits that come out 24” over the sink or base cabinets. I had those in my last kitchen, I really thought they made the place feel smaller. I do understand how tucking can lights into the extended space can be beneficial. Even so, I am not a fan. (See below about ‘building in’ features like fridges with extended soffits, that’s okay.)

1961-hotpoint-pink-and-dark-coral-kitchenIf you have soffits in your kitchen, you also can then use the same idea to fix other design issues.  In this image, a 1961 Hotpoint kitchen, the wall framing the refrigerator is like a soffit and gives it that “built in feel” so important to this design.

built-in-pantry-cabinets

Another example: To get my three pantry cabinets to fit just right, I had about 3 inches of vertical wall space remaining (far left of photo). So, we made a vertical “soffit,” which I also wallpapered. Interestingly, a lot of people say these three pantry cabinets and the way that they are built in are what really “make” the kitchen. Another a-symmetry thing, too: Three, much better than four.

Hope all this is clear. The point: Frame things in finished drywall – whether above in a soffit or to the side like a wall – and they look “fitted.”

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Comments

  1. LuAnn says

    It’s so refreshing to see this article! I have soffits in my 1957 kitchen and I already need to climb to the top of my stepstool to reach the top shelf. This gives me “permission” to be happy with them. 🙂

  2. Rebecca says

    My 1947 kitchen has soffits to contain upstairs plumbing, so they’re not going anywhere in spite of having a love/hate relationship with them. They’re quite high as the house was built abt 1885 and attached to the cabinets themselves.

    My question is what to do if the ceiling is wallpapered already. I think bringing it down to the soffits would be busier than I would prefer. As it is, the entire kitchen is pink: cabinets, wall, trim, scalloping. What I am brainstorming is to paint the soffit a beige ivory and accent with green and was considering hanging something like decorative plates, because the soffit looks ends up looking quite expansive with nothing there (save the clock). However, I haven’t seen many decorations on the soffit outside of wallpaper in any illustrations from the era.
    Thoughts?

    • Kit says

      Our last home was like that, with venting ducts for the upstairs running all round it, but the house was built in 1978, so much newer. We didn’t know what to do and called in and a designer when we moved in. (1991)she had the ceiling and soffits papered just like yours, and it actually looked great, if you can believe that! Everyone thought it was super cool! The ceiling and soffits were papered in the same print, brought down. Then double row of boarder, that met, abutting, all around the kitchen, actually highlighting the ceiling and soffits. It went right over the paper. Before that was done we had pot lights (?) put in also, which really helped my lighting situation. I hope that makes sense I would think that you could do that sort of thing with any era of paper and have it look it look great.

  3. Cara says

    Our house is from 1947 & I thank the renovation gods there are no soffits. I’m thrilled the original cabinets go all the way to the ceiling. That just makes so much more sense to me!

    • pam kueber says

      Yes, I think that before the war and stretching for a bit after, the cabinets-to-the-ceiling was a more common look. Postwar, though, was about long, low, fitted kitchens. I also think the ergonomics (human factors study) experts wanted wall cabinets where everything was in reach.

  4. Kit says

    I love our soffits! Not only do they keep me from stuffing them with unusable gee-gaws, something that modest mid century families really didn’t have the finances for,(at least my parents and grandparents did not) it offers a wonderful chance to showcase some great paper that reflects the era in my kitchen since it doesn’t have a lot of wall space otherwise.

  5. Myra Horn says

    We have a small, all-white kitchen which unfortunately is not vintage but at least no stainless steel or granite, both of which we abhor, and backsplash is black and white tiles in harlequin pattern, which we adore. Going to get some vintage chalkware fruit/veggie plaques from Etsy to hang on soffits all around space. Love soffits!

  6. Danita says

    We built our house 2000 and put soffits in our kitchen and laundry room. We firmly believe a kitchen does not look finished unless you have soffits. I love them – why? Because you don’t have to deal with dust and cobwebs on top of your cabinets. Soffits also look nice and streamlined, instead of the type of cabinet configuration builders are doing today. And best of all – you can place your clock right dead center over the kitchen sink! Aaahhh – now that reminds me of when I grew up in the 1950s. 🙂

  7. Scott says

    The kitchen soffits were one of the first things I noticed when I walked into the kitchen of this house for the first time. While trying to retain a poker face on the outside the inside of me was screaming “YES!” I love soffits as they greatly streamline the cleaning process by eliminating an area that otherwise collects grime, can all too easily turn into a clutter collector, and is a maddeningly difficult area to decorate/accessorize.

  8. jivesnake says

    I have a small kitchen but I love my soffits! My mom is after me to tear them out with the whole “extra storage” line but I refuse. I think they look great with the wood scrollwork cabinet details, etc. The lighting over my sink is a large, round cake type. Reminds me of m grandparent’s house. I just wish I had room on either side of the kitchen window for those little shelves. Sigh!

    The weird thing I’ve seen lately with remodels and new builds are cabinets that go up almost to the ceiling. Not enough room to put anything on display but enough room to collect dust and spiders. What the heck is that all about?

  9. Cheryl says

    Had a soffit with an arched window topper on the outside wall – when we added more vintage steel cabinets (two walls of cabinets, wow!) we extended the soffit around to the extra wall. Used it to hang jelly jar lights (base sprayed red to coordinate). The whole effect is warm and oh-so-retro!

  10. Joe Felice says

    I prefer soffits, also. Back in the day, people who didn’t have them would put plants up there (usually philodendrons), or store their counter-top appliances there when not in use. (And, of course, the ubiquitous avocado seed sprouting in a glass of water on the window sill. Never could figure that one out, as I never saw anyone actually plant the seed or grow an avocado plant.) It seemed like everyone had a West Bend griddle, and it was kept up top. A lot of folks enclosed that area with sliding doors made out of paneling on plastic tracks, so that they could conceal stuff up there. This didn’t require framing with 2x4s or drywall, and could be done by the homeowner, as lots of projects were back then. And folks were fond of sitting their children on the counter while they worked, which almost-always resulted in a fall, and a trip to the ER to stitch up the chin or upper lip. So-many baby boomers have the scars to evidence this, including my sister and I.

    • MJ says

      Wow, Joe, I can’t imagine someone not having seen an avocado tree from a seed! My tree grew almost to the ceiling and it was such a jungle i had to toss it out. Too cold here to live outdoors. The plants are way tough. The first time i was going to get rid of that tree, which was taking up too much space by the picture window, I cut off the top and left the pot with short stem in the basement til spring, when i planned to put it on the mulch pile. But after being dry all winter, it tried to sprout in the spring and i figured a plant that wanted to live that badly was worth keeping. But only til it outgrew the space again. My current avocado from seed is in a cooler room with less light and as stayed smaller, so far. Lately, any seeds I try to start won’t root, so it’s either a change in our water or the seeds are hybridized or GMO’d and won’t sprout. Another mid-century tradition to hit the dust.
      I LOATHE my kitchen soffits. Every time i broiled a steak or left a pan on high heat too long, the smoke would hang around the kitchen because the soffits over every door kept it from blowing outside when i turned on the ceiling pan in the adjoining breakfast room, also soffited. AAArrgghhh. Is it any wonder i gave up broiling and use the outdoor grill now in all weather???? Those who like them, good for you, but not me………

      • Joe Felice says

        Cool! And here, as a kid back then, I just thought an avocado seed on the window sill was de rigeur and part of the ’50s decor. LOL I do remember that some of them actually had a leaf or two. . .

  11. linoleummy says

    Hmm…soffits…wallpapered…ideas forming for my kitchen’s dropped ceiling. With the whole ceiling lower cooking smoke can escape and hang over the dining & living rooms instead! But not continuing a soffit over the doorways and maybe just having an open shelf to continue the line across would allow airflow and look nice.

  12. Alex M says

    I’m having a hard time wrapping my *head* around these *bulkheads*, as our cabs go all the way to the ceiling.

    So, in the old days, the cabinets were shorter? Like, we have three shelves. We’d have to lose an entire shelf to have the soffit/bulkhead. I get that shorter cabs are easier to reach, but on the whole having the soffit seems the *more* inefficient use of space.

    • pam kueber says

      I tend to believe that once kitchens became modularized, wall cabinets standardized to 30″ in height (as I recall). Hence: soffits / bulkheads.

  13. J. Bailey says

    Non-soffit = utilize the space for my baskets, oversized dough bowls and art pottery … Wonderful way to bring my less-than-artsy kitchen from its utilitarian ambience into a kinder, gentler space :O)

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