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Some people take the road less traveled. Others require multiple paths to arrive at their destination.
Kitchen designer Robin Denker took the latter route, and the journey has been all the richer for her.
Denker started her career being groomed for the family jewelry business back in Chicago. But she also loved to create great meals, and her hobby of cooking exposed her to all sorts of cuisine.
Those talents led her to teach cooking classes, which led her to become a food writer for several California and Florida newspapers.
All of those varied experiences led to her decision to design her own kitchen, a creative venture that would allow her to showcase her talents and, eventually, lead to her new business.
“I had no idea my career would go in this direction,” says Denker, owner of Kitchens by Design Gallerie, LLC, of Sherman Oaks, CA.
“Anybody can sell cabinets, but people don’t live in cabinets. They live in their kitchen, and it’s a place for all the relatives and all the holidays. It’s a special place.”
FINDING HER PATH
Denker grew up in a family business in Chicago where her father was a jewelry designer and manufacturer. As a teen, she would go to her Dad’s office to sort and size colored gemstones and there she began to take an interest in design and the art of jewelry making.
She attended college in Miami and studied business and Spanish, but decided her first love was design. So, she transferred to the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, where she took several classes in interior design and architecture – all disciplines that would serve her down the road.
She also has had a lifelong love of cooking, spawned in part by her family’s penchant for travel and the many foreign guests who visited her home. This led to a job teaching cooking classes at a Williams Sonoma store. From there, she landed a job as a food writer for the L.A. Times and Miami Herald, among others, which fueled her interest in the kitchen.
And then, she took on a new challenge. Denker decided to design her own kitchen in her home in Agoura Hills, CA. As a longtime chef, she understood the functional demands of the space, and her previous classes in, and passion for, design helped guide her aesthetic choices.
She was proud of her work. Neighbors up the block saw her creation and were equally impressed – so much so that they asked Denker to design their kitchen. They turned out to be her first paying clients.
“Then someone else saw it, and it just kept spiraling,” she said. “I create like a cook. Sometimes people like form over function, but it’s my job to get what they want to work.”
Taking all her talents and experience together, she decided to make the big leap of going out on her own. She immersed herself in research to “turn my avocations into a profession,” she says, and joined the NKBA to benefit from the experience of other industry pros.
The result is somewhat unique: “I am probably the only former food writer and cooking instructor in the U.S. who is now a kitchen and bath designer,” she says. “I tell my new clients that I gave up calories, but stayed in the kitchen. I truly know my way around the kitchen, both in cooking and in design.”
Denker opened her showroom just over a year ago, which is designed to be more like a comfortable home rather than a sales center.
Frequently, clients are greeted with the fresh scents of a bread machine baking cinnamon raisin bread. She brews hazelnut cappuccino most weekdays, and, in the fall, she’ll bake something special and put out a platter of pastries for showroom customers.
“Many past clients just pop in to say ‘hi’ to grab a latte and some cookies,” Denker says.
Denker’s clients come from homeowner referrals, as well as a handful of contractors who refer their clients to Denker and then work with her on the installation.
“Since we do not do any construction, I keep a very high standard of contractors and trades people that I refer out to,” she says. “They have to maintain the same ethics that I have. My network of team associates is terrific.”
Her location, in the suburbs of Los Angeles, has a favorable impact on her creativity, as well, Denker says. “I am fortunate that here the folks are open to all types of design. We do go in cycles, though. First it was all Mission, then everyone seemed to lean toward Old World. We then went full circle back to what I call New York Loft, with lots of clean lines and rich browns.”
Denker carries Crystal Cabinets and its subsidiaries of Quest and Keyline, along with Decorá and Diamond. Clients with special requests are referred to two local custom cabinet makers.
Denker likes to meld her life experiences into this new venture. “I also like to use the Oregon Copper Bowl company for its wonderful hammered sinks and switch plate covers,” she says. “These are unique products that enhance the cabinets I sell – they’re jewelry for the kitchen.”
Denker believes her honesty with clients is a major factor in her success. She states, “If something doesn’t work, I tell them. If I can’t do the job as they want it, I will not take it on just for the sake of profit; I would rather have a wonderful referral with compliments than to take on a job where the final outcome would be less than ideal.”
She thinks listening to a client’s needs and wish list is critical. Sometimes, she says, the wish list overlaps with the client’s needs, other times it doesn’t. “My favorite slogan is if my clients want purple and pink polka dots, I will give them that, but I’ll give them polka dots that work,” she says.
Her showroom faces the street and, like Denker, changes frequently. She likes to maximize the number of vignettes and feature samples from actual kitchen and bath projects that she’s recently completed. The store windows feature three vessel sink displays standing in rocks to get people’s attention. She changes the windows with the seasons.
She’s joined the local Chamber of Commerce to market her firm and herself and has begun to attend other networking groups.
And, not surprisingly, she plans to do cooking demonstrations. “If you fast-forward 30-something years from college, little did I know I would be doing something that I love for a living,” Denker says.