Cooking Up a Dream Kitchen

The most-used room in the house, the kitchen gets even better with wear

We have already made the move to open-concept living with kitchens as hubs of multi-purpose living areas where we eat, work and play. It is unlikely that we will again see a change as transformative as tearing down the walls between kitchens and family or dining rooms. Indeed, most of the movement in today’s kitchen designs comes from subtle shifts, refinements, and not sweeping changes from the designs of five or so years ago.

New construction and remodeling projects can obviously incorporate recent innovations, but existing open-concept kitchens can also benefit from some fine-tuning. No matter what kitchens look like now, homeowners have a lot of options to achieve greater efficiency or functionality, to add personal distinction, to accommodate changes in technology or to make a great space even better. In some cases the changes might be small nips and tucks, but the little details can make a big difference. And in most cases, investing in quality and durability seem to pay off in the long run.

Doug Widish says kitchens get a lot of attention for good reason. “I think people know that the kitchen is the gathering place, whether kids are doing homework at the table or if you’re entertaining,” says the manager of Gerhardt’s Showroom, a large kitchen and bath remodeling resource for consumers and contractors. “Most people understand now that that is not going away. You can have the nicest great room and the nicest entertainment room, but what happens is that most people end up in the kitchen.”

High Efficiency and Function

Most homeowners considering a kitchen renovation want more than just updated aesthetics. They want spaces that work for them, that accommodate the way they not only cook but also live.

Bella Domicile senior designer Allen Curran compares it to a tailored suit versus something bought off the rack: the tailored suit, hands down, is going to fit better. The same is true for a custom kitchen. “What I truly enjoy about designing kitchens is the ability to
transform a space from a generic cookie cutter approach into the perfect solution to the homeowner’s needs.”

Often one of those needs is greater efficiency. Most people who remodel their kitchens want the updated rooms to do more and to do it better, but homeowners often don’t have extra space to dedicate or funds to add onto existing footprints. So instead of gaining more function by adding square footage, homeowners have to gain function by upping the efficiency.

“One of the trends right now is to make a smaller kitchen,” says Dream Kitchens owner Keven Schmidt. “Everybody is either staying the same or downsizing. Very few people are growing their kitchens unless they are taking out a wall, and they don’t want to give up on quality or functionality.”

Fortunately, cabinetry design has gotten smarter, which allows homeowners to pack more function into a smaller space while streamlining the look. “We have special rollouts now for pizza ovens and toasters, and we actually plug them into the back of the cabinet,” Schmidt says. “You don’t have to have dedicated space on the countertop, and you don’t have to take anything out and plug it in.”

Jen Kurtz, a designer with Hensen Fine Cabinetry, agrees that adequate and personalized storage is key to high-functioning kitchens. “In my opinion, a good kitchen design gets everything off the countertop,” she says. “There is a place for everything and a home for all of the appliances.”

That means no microwaves, coffee makers or toasters are in sight. That also frees up counter space for preparing food, finishing homework or playing on the iPad.

Schmidt says designers work closely with homeowners to make sure the cabinetry accommodates all they have and how they operate in their kitchens. “Through the CAD drawings, we take you into your new kitchen layout …We know that you have ten or fifteen cookie sheets and flat trays. We organize silverware and spices. Mixmasters, crock pots, food storage—with the CAD drawings we insert it all into the cabinets so that you know you’ve got it covered.”

Sometimes a kitchen project also warrants a closer look at what you are putting in those cabinets. “Even the ‘right’ accessories may make a huge difference in your storage needs,” says Jacob Harlow, manager of The Century House, a retailer that carries modern and Scandinavian furnishings, accessories and gifts. “The perfect set of nesting bowls can use a fraction of that valuable cupboard space.”

Jeff Grundahl points out another benefit of highly efficient kitchen storage: The opportunity to add more windows. Natural light, says the owner of the Madison-area building and remodeling company JG Development, makes a kitchen seem larger and more welcoming. Yet it can be a hard sell when clients are looking to pack as much into their spaces as possible.

Even with smart cabinet inserts extra windows might require some sacrifices in storage space, Grundahl acknowledges, but adds that the trade-off is usually worth it. “The general atmosphere of the place changes drastically,” he says, “and besides, we could all use a little encouragement to let go of the old platters and dusty fondue pots.”

Harlow says artificial lighting can also make a big impact on a kitchen’s look, feel and function. “Lighting [is] an often neglected but essential element to making a kitchen work,” he says. Adequate lighting cuts down on eye strain and improves safety. It enhances efficiency because you can always see what you are doing or find what you are looking for. Nothing is declared lost simply because it has gotten pushed into a dark corner of a drawer or cabinet.

“Lighting is also a great way to add your personal tastes to the space,” Harlow notes.

Kelly Hofmeister, manager of west-side furniture retailer Woodworks, agrees that paying attention to lighting during design phases can lead to better spaces in the end. Whenever she can, she brings up lighting with customers who are preparing for or in the midst of a remodel.

“If they’re using overhead lighting such as a pendant lamp, the lamp needs to be placed in the center of the table and not the room,” she says. “Homeowners also need to be aware of the height of the lamp so that it doesn’t affect sight lines across the table. And good lighting is essential if the table is going to be used for homework or craft projects.”

Personal Distinction

As wood floors, stainless steel appliances and granite countertops become standard choices, some homeowners find it challenging to add enough unique elements to truly personalize their spaces.

However, Madison Block and Stone’s Brynn Usadel points out that granite comes in a wide range of colors, including numerous shades of black, green or other hues. Quartz is another solid surface option that is gaining on granite. Although generally no less expensive, the quartz-resin composites come in a wider variety of colors, some of which include recycled glass. Quartz also offers better stain resistance, as it requires no sealing.

Granite devotees can add greater personalization to their choices by incorporating custom finishes. Honed finishes are satiny smooth and matte. Sueded or leathered finishes add more texture and are growing increasingly popular.

Usadel reminds customers that every stone countertop is custom fabricated, so while the choice might be familiar, the end result is
distinct. “A natural stone countertop is unique to every project, every kitchen,” she says. “Granite always speaks to the client’s individual creativity.”

Linda Young, co-owner of Granite Transformations, points out other options for creativity and personalization. Young’s company offers a granite countertop-resurfacing product that is very similar to quartz. In addition, Granite Transformations also does custom tile and mosaic backsplashes, which can incorporate personal designs and color combinations.

Technological Advances

Everyone needs a spot to charge cell phones, iPods and iPads. Laptops bring the office home or make the home office portable throughout the house. As the traffic center and activity hub, the kitchen naturally becomes the landing spot for most personal technology.

“It’s the natural place to put electronics,” Widish says, noting that many designs incorporate communication centers with easy access to note pads, calendars, as well as electronic devices. “It’s all hidden in a cabinet, but it is very accessible and convenient for people,” he says.

Curran points out that there is another side to the vast penetration of personal technology. As many interpersonal interactions become electronic—texts, he points out, have replaced phone calls for many of us—the need for real human interaction and connection grows.

“The home is more important to day as a gathering space than ever before. As the computerized forms of communication advance, we will search for ways to stay tethered to our friends and family. The home allows for this to happen. That is why homes are designed with larger, more open spaces instead of rooms cut off from surrounding spaces,” he says.

That is a big reason the kitchen island is so popular. “If the space allows, it’s rare that a customer does not have an island in their designs,” Kurtz notes.

Room for Improvement

Not everyone is building new, and not all of us are cut out to endure a down-to-the-studs remodel. However, there are options to improve the form and function of a space without starting from scratch.

“Sometimes an under-mount sink is enough for people. Sometimes they just want energy-efficient appliances,” Grundahl says. “Whatever the project, it seems like investing in function is a pretty safe bet from both a use and resale perspective.”

Young says her granite composite countertops can be installed in a matter of hours and at a fraction of the cost of solid stone, and homeowners still get the durability of granite or quartz.

“The kitchen is the heart of the home. Everyone is there,” Young says. “But everyone isn’t as careful as you want them to be, so you want to make sure your countertop can handle heat and staining. You want to be able to enjoy your beautiful kitchen without worrying about maintenance.”

Hofmeister agrees. “I would say the key word is durability,” she says. Kitchens are high-traffic rooms, and Hofmeister advises homeowners shopping for dining sets—and really anything else—to look for quality materials with user-friendly finishes. That includes hard seats and not cushions for families with kids as well as lighter wood species and finishes, as darker options show more fingerprints and scratches.

Ultimately, Schmidt advises clients to pay close attention to quality and value, and not just cost. Cutting corners usually wastes, not saves, money and it rarely makes anyone happy. “Whatever you do, big or little,” he says, “do it right.”

– Jennifer Garrett

SPECIAL PROMOTIONAL SECTION

 

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