Up Close and Personal

Gorgeous cabinetry, appliances and surfaces will make any kitchen look great, but top designers say that you have to go a lot further than that – at least if you want to attract the high-end market. You must personalize the space to the umpteenth degree, they say, to really set it apart and make it truly spectacular.

“Highly personal kitchens are what my very upscale, sophisticated clientele wants,” says Jere Bowden, CKD, of the Saint Simons Island, GA-based Bowden Design Group, LLC. “We give them that by creating twists on the looks they like, using and mixing different species of wood, colors and glazes, crackling, distressing and so forth. Additionally, we often do unusual ceilings, creating patterns with beams, or we may panel walls to create texture. And, of course, we make sure their special interests are reflected.

“By the way, I measure everybody in the family to make sure counters and islands are the right height,” she continues. “I even measure the pets, so their beds and food bowls fit into the plan, and I’ve been known to find a place for the cat’s litter box, which, of course, is vented to the outside.”

Personalization Debate

Barton Lidsky of The Hammer & Nail in Ridgewood, NJ is another designer who attracts a well-heeled, sophisticated clientele. He tells of a recent project for homeowners who admired colonial Spanish styles. He designed cabinetry with old-looking, distressed nail heads and hardware for them, following up the look with a refrigerator door created to look like a venerable hacienda gate.

“Just finding the sources for the iron work was extremely time-consuming,” he notes. “I put in this kind of effort all the time because I enjoy designing unique projects and because it brings me the kind of clients who can afford the ultimate kitchen.

“But many designers wouldn’t do all that work,” he continues. “That’s the trouble with personalization. Designers’ perception of it is all over the lot. Unfortunately, going with a floor tile the client likes or including a drawer for spice is many designers’ idea of personalization.”

However, Lidsky admits that there are factors that work against personal design. “Some clients may say they want a unique kitchen,” he says, “but in reality, they want just what their neighbors have. And then there’s the question of resale. Some homeowners feel that it isn’t smart to take chances with the most important room in the house.”

Barbara Jacobs, a San Jose, CA-based, interior designer, is another proponent of the highly personalized kitchen.

“Practically speaking, such a kitchen is for the high-end market,” she notes. “Let’s face it, going with a one-of-a-kind cabinet door rather than a ready-made one and having it crafted by a master cabinetmaker will add at least 20% to the cost.

“I happen to like to design the cabinet door myself and often design tile, too. One client of mine had a beautiful collection of Majolica dishes, so I designed a tile that incorporated a flower from the earthenware. The tile is used on the wall behind the range. This is the kind of personalization that a well-traveled, sophisticated clientele expects.”

However, Phil Guarino, owner of Arclinea, in Boston, MA, admits that even sophisticated, upscale clients can get nervous contemplating a unique design concept. “We’ve actually been asked if we thought the neighbors would approve,” he laughs.

Color It Personal

It’s hard to think of anything that adds more personality than color, but in the kitchen business, it turns out to be a controversial topic.

For example, Fort Lee, NJ interior designer Rona Spiegel, ASID, admits that she recommends that her clients stick with neutrals in the kitchen, while Arclinea often paints a prominent wall a bright color.

“I remind my clients that if they plan to eventually sell their house, they should choose colors that a majority of people would like,” explains Spiegel. “Recently, I worked with clients who wanted a kelly green kitchen. They were never going to sell their home, they said. This was it, their ultimate house. They were doing this for themselves.

“I advised them to choose a more neutral color for the cabinetry, like a soft camel, and use Kelly green as an accent. I prevailed. Two weeks after the kitchen was completed, they called to thank me. It turned out that a great piece of land had become available. They bought it and planned to build a new house. Their existing house sold in record time. The new buyers said it was the kitchen that sold them on the house.”

Guarino says a vibrant red or orange wall often is just the right touch in the spectacularly clean-lined kitchens that are his firm’s specialty. “Red is energizing, invigorating and especially welcome on a cold Boston day,” notes Guarino. “And if you ever get tired of it, the paint on a single wall is easily changed.”

Miami architect Alison Spear, AIA, admits that even her hip, upscale clients aren’t easily sold on bold color. “That’s why I had such fun when I did a House Beautiful showhouse last fall. I got my inspiration from the fruit department in my local supermarket. Lemons, limes, bananas. They looked so great together, so I thought, why not in the kitchen? It’s probably the most colorful kitchen ever created. I loved it, but I doubt that I’d ever talk a client into such a scheme.”

However, Bowden insists that you can even sell very traditional-minded clients on color if you know the effect of glazes.

“Use a black glaze on brick red, and the effect is that of a neutral color,” she says.

Bespoke Design

Leaving out wall cabinets is a good idea if the desire is to create a truly unique kitchen, according to many designers of high-end spaces.

“Our approach to kitchen design is very architectural, and we don’t like to fill a space with cabinets,” says Guarino. “In Europe, people often leave out the wall cabinets, and this provides a less top-heavy look. Well-planned islands can provide all the storage anybody will ever need.”

What Guarino calls a European look, Jacobs terms an Asian influence. “I designed such a kitchen for my own house,” she explains. “I gave it a very clean look by leaving out a lot of wall cabinets. In addition, I adapted a graphic shoji theme for the cabinet and refrigerator doors.

“I also went Asian in a kitchen created for clients,” she continues. “We agreed on a look based on ancient Japanese Tansu designs. It was very simple and elegant, with beautiful wood and hand-forged hardware. Friends of my clients warned them not to choose such an unusual design theme because it could become problematic in a resale situation. My clients did sell their house recently, and I was told the new owners particularly liked the unique kitchen. And no, they weren’t Japanese.”

Rangehoods Reign

Rangehoods present a great opportunity to personalize a kitchen, says Lidsky.

“Custom-designed hoods that repeat the kitchen’s design theme have become our trademark,” Lidsky remarks. “One example was a hood that incorporated the triangular, rectangular and oval shapes of three islands in the kitchen. Some say it reminds them of Pac Man. I think it looks like a futuristic plane.

“In another kitchen, we designed the hood with a semi-circular cut-out to fit around a window that resembles a porthole. In still another kitchen, the hood is an arched brick wall around the range. The effect is that of a country hearth.

Mixing New and Old

A double-sided stone fireplace is the eye-catching feature of a kitchen designed by Gwen Nagorsky, ASID, Lebanon, NJ. “This fireplace couldn’t be more personal to the owners,” she states. “The stone came from the property, and on the kitchen side we mortared in heirloom pieces of china that used to belong to the owner’s mother.”

Interior designer Janis Evans went even more personal with her own kitchen in Bedminster, NJ. Old brick found on her property is finding new prominence as a backsplash, and a thick slate slab that’s part of an old sidewalk has become the countertop of a desk.

“These elements recreate the organic feeling, which seemed appropriate for the house and its environment,” she comments.

“And, of course, we were also trying to be as ‘green’ as possible in our reconstruction. Nonetheless, I threw in a contemporary painting for an unexpected breath of fresh air. I think contemporary artwork is fantastic in traditional settings.”

In a historic Beacon Hill home in Boston, Arclinea merged an existing antique stove into a kitchen otherwise converted into a streamlined, contemporary space. Further contrasts in the kitchen include teakwood finishes and brushed stainless steel countertops.

Another New Englander, architect Heather Wells of Boston, MA, is a strong believer in putting clients’ special possessions and collections to work in kitchens. “It’s important to give it the personal touches that makes it special to the owners,” she asserts.

For a couple of very special clients, namely her own parents, Wells designed a kitchen that illustrates her design philosophy.

The kitchen – located in a New Hampshire lakefront home – fills one end of a neutral-toned Great Room. Black painted woodwork and the cabinetry give the kitchen a strong presence against the very large Great Room, and a soapstone sink and her mother’s treasured collection of Pennsylvania blue stone pottery and wire baskets provide the room with a rustic theme.

“My mother was an antique dealer, and this collection was accumulated over many years,” says Wells. “The collection was so large that it would have given the kitchen a busy, cluttered look if we had displayed it here and there. Instead we gathered it all in the pantry where it makes an interesting, cohesive show.”

Arclinea created the ultimate in personalizatin by accessorizing a Boston kitchen with a grand piano.

And All the Extras

Gathering collections in one place the way Wells did it is precisely the advice given by many professional designers.

“We must respect clients’ collections, even if they don’t gel with our own tastes,” warns Spiegel, a past president of American Society of Interior Design’s New Jersey chapter. “I recommend selecting the best pieces of whatever collection we might be dealing with and then displaying them in one place. That way, the display adds charm and character rather than becoming a distraction.”

Definitely incorporate art into kitchen settings, kitchen designers advise, and don’t overlook simple, inexpensive solutions to make it special. Window treatments, upholstered seats and banquette cushions offer great opportunities for personalization.

And don’t forget that decorative lighting fixtures can add significantly to the theme.

“We have an emotional connection with our homes, and more so with the kitchen than any other room in the house,” is the way Nagorsky sums it up. “It’s an intangible tug of the heart and the most intimate of landmarks. That’s why we must remember there’s more to kitchen design than specifying a line-up of cabinets and appliances. Take the trouble to learn about the homeowners’ interests, lifestyle and tastes.” In the end, incorporating these personal elements can make or break the kitchen design.

While kitchen professionals use a variety of methods to pinpoint clients’ true preferences, two successful practitioners, Lidsky and Jacobs, believe in starting out with some homework. Both ask clients to go through magazines and design books and use Post-It notes to signify looks they like as well as elements they dislike.

“Some clients have trouble articulating their taste,” explains Jacobs. “Seeing pictures of kitchens and kitchen elements that they love or hate helps. You don’t want to wait until the ultra-sleek contemporary kitchen is all finished to learn that your client’s taste actually runs to Old World country styles.”