Win Clients With Attention to the Details

All sectors of North America are reporting that clients are clamoring for new kitchens and bathrooms. That’s the good news. The challenging news is that our new clients continue to be cautious shoppers. They are prospective buyers searching for the “best deal.”

Designers should not be distracted or disappointed by consumers’ comparative shopping between design firms, or their “laser beam” fixation on the total cost of the project. I firmly believe that, while consumers may appear to be focused on getting the cheapest price, what they’re really trying to do is not pay any more than necessary to get the room they think meets their style and functional needs. This focus on cost does not mean they will settle for less than what they perceive as the best solution.

In this new economy, while the client’s approach to the design process has changed, the importance they place on finding the best solution has not. Therefore, one of the secrets to our success in the new year is to reorient our approach to the planning process. We must not limit our creativity to meet the budget. Rather, we designers must become better at expertly juggling both the cost discussion and the creative solutions we offer.

Kitchen and bathroom design solutions for 2014 and beyond will be most successful if grounded in the design discipline of paying equal attention to the creative idea we think is perfect for the project under development, and our enthusiastic presentation of the fit and finish details of the plan that will differentiate our proposal from others being reviewed.

To demonstrate the power of combining creative solutions with properly engineered details, I have gathered some great projects from colleagues across North America, with a focus on cabinetry.



Dramatically combine wood species within the cabinetry door styling or sections of the room. In the Pacific Northwest kitchen pictured above, a light colored wood is used predominantly throughout the casework. Specific cabinets are detailed with a cherry wood specie vertical stripe, finished off with a decorative inset. Note the designer’s attention to design continuity – the backsplash features striped mosaic-type tile in a vertical direction similar to the cabinetry detailing.


The Delightful Design Details

  • Hidden in the pocket created above a dropped baking area countertop is a pull-out bread board.
  • The baking area base cabinet is accessed at the end and provides storage for the cook’s mixer. Therefore, the complete counter remains accessible.
  • While wall cabinets at the perimeter of this plan extend to the ceiling, the corner cabinets drop down. This offers a nice relief in a room not enhanced by a high ceiling.



Pull the base cabinets so that a below countertop level window sill does not eliminate the ideal second sink location. This is an excellent solution that allows the entire wall elevation to be available for cabinetry. The extended base cabinets provide room for special storage extending from the underside of the wall cabinet to the countertop – a great way to hide utensils needed for everyday cooking. The designer beautifully increased the impact of the wall cabinet glass doors by featuring glass end panels.

The Delightful Design Details

  • The photo (far right) is an excellent example of why accurate dimensioned elevations are critical in kitchen (and bathroom) solutions. The wall cabinet sizing is carefully laid out to leave “breathing space” between the existing window casing and the cabinet end panels. Attempting to perfectly size cabinets flush to existing casing is, oftentimes, impossible to execute attractively.
  • Specifying a flat window casing allows the cabinet crown to return and finish against the wall trim – an important detail not to overlook.
  • Sizing the countertop surface return to the wall (so that reaching and cleaning space is provided around the window well) makes this space easy to maintain over the years.
  • In another view of this kitchen, we see that the designer also wisely left air space between the top of the crown and the ceiling along the refrigerator/oven elevation. Leaving a 1/2" to 1-1/2" of space between the top of the crown and the ceiling eliminates the need for scribing the molding to the ceiling in a renovation project. Such scribing can eliminate or modify the crown profile so it looks like a mistake. Old houses are not plumb and square. Planning details that accommodate this reality of older homes make sense.



Use moldings and cabinet component parts in unique and unusual applications.


The Delightful Design Details

  • In this 2014 NKBA award-winning kitchen (above), a decorative base finishes off the refrigerator enclosure. As you see in the second photo (at left), it is repeated in the oven and pantry cabinet section along the same wall. Nicely done!
  • Another good use of decorative woodworking is demonstrated in the use of beaded board end panels to finish the sides of the tall cabinet elevations. This detail is repeated at the end of the island support (above). Beaded board or random plank board is an attractive alternative to door style end panels when the end section is intersected by other cabinet components.
  • Most kitchens have corners: Most designers are quite capable of including a diagonal or pie-cut cabinet. However, even in a modest kitchen, the designer winning the client’s approval might be the one who adds an elegant storage area that can provide a decorative display space. In the close-up pictured at right, a diagonal corner wall cabinet is an open unit. Let’s study the details.

First, note the use of beaded board in a contrasting finish along the back of the wall unit.

Enjoy the glass shelves that were substituted for thicker wood shelves.

Appreciate that this is a beaded inset cabinet without doors: therefore, the stile-and-rail dimensions coordinate with the adjacent cabinetry. An elegant solution!

  • In both modest and elaborate projects, clients will appreciate a designer’s creativity when something other than clear glass is specified in cabinet doors.

In this first example, a Chicago showroom display (opposite page, top right) uses frosted white glass in place of more traditional glass in the wall cabinet units. This display has a higher than normal backsplash, so the designer added a detail shelf along the backsplash. This adds not only a storage spot, but an ideal display area.

In this second example of a very traditional bathroom (above, left), antique mirrored glass was used behind a wood decorative frame in the furniture-like vanity piece.



Successful designers do not limit cabinet size as defined by a specific use: wall cabinets, base cabinets, tall cabinets. For example, bringing wall cabinets down to the countertop can enhance the plan.


The Delightful Design Details

  • In this traditional space (far right), one cabinet at the end of the run is finished in a different material, and has different proportions. The base cabinet is deeper and higher than the adjacent kitchen storage units. The wall cabinet extends to the countertop. The unit has a matching wood surface. Creating this type of hutch cabinet, that extends beyond the adjacent working cabinets or is not as deep as the cabinets, is an excellent way to alter a typical run of cabinetry. Although this example features a different finish, the same extra storage and dramatic visual presentation is possible when keeping the cabinets and the countertops the same.
  • A more contemporary version of such a design detail is seen in the kitchen at bottom, where standard-sized wall cabinets are stacked and extend down to a countertop surface. This design appears simple at first – but look closely. The designer combined various surface finishes: The back wall countertop color is repeated on the island back panel and the interior of the glass door wall cabinets referenced above.



Change base cabinets. Pedestal cabinets (base cabinets that are taller than 34-1/2") can serve as a room divider, buffet countertop storage, or make point-of-use appliances (warming drawers, coffeemakers, microwave ovens) much more accessible, as we see in the kitchen above. The designer beautifully framed this special base cabinet section with the same tile that we see on the backsplash. This is much more dramatic than simply continuing wood paneling to match the other cabinets. Another good example is changing the heights or depths of cabinets, as well as exploring new ways to combine counter backsplash and cabinet finishes.



Rather than a focus just on the cabinets, creating an overall dramatic roomscape might please the client. In this elegant bathroom (at right), there is a dramatically curved ceiling with a special window that makes the bathroom an adult oasis.


The Delightful Design Details

Look closely at the “fit and finish” of the project’s details.

  • One finishing material is used as a cap at the lavatory area backsplash and atop the wainscoting at the back wall. In this bathroom, the cap could be marble or wood, eliminating a possible “fit” distraction when mitering two different materials.
  • Note how the drawers in the small seating area, as well as the cabinet between the two sinks, have been elevated and placed on a pedestal of stone to match the countertop. This will protect the wood finish from stone cleaners throughout its use of service.
  • Similarly, holding the wall wainscoting off the floor with a 1-1/2" to 2" strip of floor, rather than a traditional 4" wood or tile base, is an attractive detail.
  • The partial-height wall at the end of the bathtub is capped with the stone material – a detail most of us would have planned. However, the designer also returned the stone in a strip down the face of this wall, again, insuring protection of drywall surfaces from water damage.


In another renovation project, an excellent example of “fit and finish” is seen in the bathroom on page 74. Note how the apron panel in front of the bathtub flushes out with the face of the deck as it extends into the shower, providing a bench.

Be cautious of flushing out two surfaces. This can be difficult to do, unless the design professional has complete control of the project – from design concept to finished project. Such a tight, flush fit can be accomplished if the project is staged so that various elements can be installed in layers, ensuring the best fit.

The contribution details made to the completed space are important for the clients to understand so that they appreciate the impact on the finished room’s overall appearance. An explanation of these details during the presentation to the clients will help them understand the value the design professional brings to the project.



Surprise the client with an unexpected opening! In this small bathroom (at right), the vanity is installed between a fixed wall and the end wall of a stall shower. Rather than a solid wall, the designer creatively provided a “window” – a glass pane between the vanity and the shower. Not only does this dramatically increase the visual size of the shower, but it serves several functional purposes as well. The glass partition provides a ledge for shower grooming items, for example.



Surprise the client with an unexpected use of color! Our last project is a wonderful example of the creative use of combining colors of cabinetry in a kitchen. All too often, we see the perimeter run of cabinetry in one finish, with the island highlighted in another.

This kitchen design (bottom) offers an alternative: The tall wall of cabinets on the left are finished in the same finish seen on the base cabinets, which continues on to the pedestal cabinet at the end of the run on the sink wall. But, note that the cabinetry surrounding the refrigerator midway along the back wall also features the decorative color finish, as does the island.

When we see the extensive use of wood in this room (at the floor, at the angled ceiling), it makes great design sense to highlight the colored finish on more than just the base cabinets or just the back wall.

The design concept of, “God is in the details,” (attributed to Mies van der Rohe, a famous architect from the Bauhaus School of Architecture, who is also known as saying, “Less is more.”) is important in our 2014 professional environment.

As we ponder how we can maximize our success – that is, getting more clients to say yes to our design at our prices – I suggest that we put more effort into juggling our love of the creative part of what we do with the need for great dimensional detailing. These details make the difference between a kitchen or bathroom that functions well and one that is a wonderful space to live in.

The clients we serve today and tomorrow will continue to be more focused on price than they were some years ago. But once they find a designer who: (1) listens to them; (2) applies their creative talents to their challenging project; and, (3) provides a level of detailing that makes their room a beautifully finished, coordinated project, they will reward the professional with a signed contract.

Author’s Note: Five of these great projects have been created by the talented team of designers at the Neil Kelly Co. in Portland, OR. I have known the leaders and the designers of this company for over 40 years, and am delighted to feature their work in this article.


Ellen Cheever, CMKBD, ASID, CAPS, is a well-known author, designer, speaker and marketing specialist. A member of the NKBA Hall of Fame, Cheever gained prominence in the industry early on as the author of two design education textbooks. She manages an award-winning design firm, Ellen Cheever & Associates, and has been part of the management team of several major cabinet companies.