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NEW LONDON, NH—
There was a time when award-winning kitchen designer Patti Mullin was a stockbroker.
That was more than 20 years ago on Wall Street, a far cry from the bucolic town of New London, New Hampshire, in the Lake Sunapee area.
By her own admission, her heart wasn’t in the financial markets. “I stunk at it,” she says. “I lost everybody’s money.”
When the time came for a change, she decided on a radical one. After a vacation in New Hampshire, she made the decision to start over there.
During the two-decade-long journey she has carved a special niche for herself. In a kitchen design industry now largely dominated by computer programs, she earns her money the old fashioned way – with pencil and pad.
Mullin, the owner of Timeless Kitchens, firmly believes in hand drawing her designs based upon a collaborative effort with her clients. She’s convinced her method allows the most flexibility in designing not only the high-end custom kitchens that many consumers demand, but also the kitchens of clients on a limited budget. Finding creative solutions for both ends of the market is what Mullin strives to achieve.
“More and more companies in the kitchen and bath industry have gone to computer design and seem boxed in by the three-inch increments of the industry,” she believes. “But if you put a pencil and sketch book in my hand, I feel there are no limitations.”
It’s clear Mullin doesn’t like to be limited in anything she does.
When she moved to New Hampshire, she needed a job and took one in a lumber yard of a home supply store. Before long, she was selling stock cabinets to customers, the kind you “get in and get out,” she explains.
After a while, she felt boxed in, and wanted to learn more about custom cabinetry work. She studied the business, working with other local firms, and eventually earned her certification as a kitchen designer.
In March, 2004, she borrowed the money she needed to launch her own business and opened her showroom. Her business philosophy was to pay extreme attention to detail, making her kitchens not only functional, but pleasing to the eye.
“I try to create a kitchen that people want to stay in,” she says. “I don’t want our kitchens to look like everybody else’s kitchens.”
That’s where her drawing talents came in handy. When she works with a client, she attempts to draw a kitchen plan that is more detailed than the average computer-aided design program can offer. In fact, she and a colleague once held a race of sorts. Mullin designed a kitchen by hand; the colleague on a computer. “I beat him,” she reports.
The differences between the old- and new-fashioned design methods can be subtle, she points out, such as adding specialty moldings and custom colors and designs. And Mullin thinks many kitchen designers simply aren’t skilled enough at the available computer design programs to get that kind of detail into their plans.
To achieve that level of detail, Mullin works extensively with her clients before she ever puts pencil to paper. First, she assesses their budget for the project, then asks them to tear pages out of magazines containing images of the kitchens they admire. Her clients’ choices give her ideas that will work, and also those that won’t.
“I find most clients want someone to help them make decisions and point them in the right direction,” she comments. “But I believe I have to be willing to take the risk that the customer isn’t always right.
“It is my responsibility not only to point out potential problems, but to explain to my customers that some things just won’t work,” Mullin continues. In the long run, she says, it’s just good business to be honest and up front about things – even when it’s things clients don’t want to hear.
Mullin recalls a lesson she learned years ago while working for another firm: “The client wanted dark cabinets with a slate floor and pumpkin countertops,” she says. “I told her she had a north-facing window and it would be very dark inside.” The woman insisted on these choices, and after installation, she hated the kitchen. The experience stays with Mullin to this day.
“What the clients are doing is giving you a boatload of money and letting you into their homes, and what you are doing for them, they’ll have to live with for a long time,” Mullin says. For this reason, she believes that she has a responsibility to be the expert, and to help her clients understand both a project’s potential, and possible limitations.
To ensure the best outcome with the client, Mullin spends several sessions with the customer in his or her home and in the showroom before setting a plan to paper. A designer goes over the plans in detail, cabinet by cabinet, with clients, and reviews the costs of products and labor, including electrical and plumbing costs, and choices for flooring.
It is Mullin’s policy to require a retainer for her design at this point in the process.
She has one full-time employee, Jessica Bitler, who Mullin describes as a “gifted designer” with five years of kitchen design experience.
Mullin choreographs the entire production, a “turn-key operation” that subcontracts with a number of local firms to perform complete renovations, including sheet rocking, plumbing and remodeling. “Whatever the client needs, we are able to help them get it done,” she comments.
Mullin’s firm carries a full range of products, including cabinetry from Candlelight Cabinetry, The Hampshire Co. and Dover Woods, along with plumbing fixtures by Kohler and Blanco.
She notes that the scope of her work runs the gamut from small jobs to luxury custom work. Recently, she’s been involved in renovations with cabinetry costing about $7,200 on the low end to a $52,000 custom cabinetry package on the high end.
Visitors describe her showroom as “homey,” containing an assortment of display kitchens including a traditional, Shaker, basic country and country French, among others.
She’s won 15 design awards for her work, including several Gold Awards for Kitchen Design from the New Hampshire Home Builders Association.
She’s even won a Gold Award for Interior Design.
And there’s another clear sign her work is being recognized. She advertises in the local community newspaper as well as statewide business magazines, and has a small ad in the Yellow Pages, but Mullin says about 70 percent of her business is by word-of-mouth recommendations. That figure even amazes her.
“People walk in here and think I must be just in the high end,” Mullin says. “But you can do both, the high end and the lower end, as long as you are willing to work with people to find creative solutions.”