The Kitchen Designer

Thanks for stopping by! I'm Susan Serra, certified kitchen designer, and my mission is to take kitchen design style, function and analysis to a higher level. Here's why the kitchen has the most honored place in the home - all five senses reside in the kitchen.  Best...Susan  Contact: susan@susanserraassociates.com

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Your Kitchen Design - Big Box Expectations vs. Reality

Just jumping off from yesterday's minor rant, I now want to talk a little about where some people, even, surprisingly, those who will end up making a significant investment in their kitchen, sometimes begin their search, at a big box store such as Lowes or Home Depot , large lumber yard, or other such "kitchens for the masses" place.

These places are downright dangerous (for the mid to high end, to go to as a starting point.) This, really, is the bottom line. The short design time, and low cost may end up being very expensive in regard to lost design/lifestyle opportunities, that you must now endure, or forever be unaware of.

These types of places begin the process of convincing homeowners who are virgins to kitchen remodeling, in many cases, that a kitchen can be designed, specifically for your needs and desires, in 30-60 minutes. They take the dimensions, plug in the appliances, put in equally sized cabinetry surrounding the appliances, if that, and you're done. Your 12 year old can do that.  They also typically do one plan, which, then, becomes obviously, the plan that they feel is the best for the space, knowing virtually nothing about who you and your family are. People are hired and are put directly on the floor to design and sell kitchens with no experience. This is prevalent, in most cases, if the policy of the company is to completely maximize productivity/sales as a business model.

For mid to high end budgets, which is the audience, once again, I am speaking to here, you must be aware that this first experience will help mold the idea, and possibly firmly position the idea, that kitchen design is just a bunch of cabinets placed around appliances, having one solution. And, that this process, taking such little time, can be done easily, late into the remodeling process. 

There are so many lifestyle issues that need to be discussed, that this meeting alone, for me, often takes 2 hours, just to understand who the people are in front of me. And, just to open up my clients' minds to seeing things a different way and taking time to probe their existing habits, which may just be habits, vs. what they may really want, once they took time to think about it, if asked. Layers of years of habits must be peeled away, visions toward the future must be suggested by the designer and considered by the homeowner, and that takes time.

I actually cannot even begin to go into all the many questions that need to be considered when one designs a kitchen, there are just too many. It has to do with some of these factors:

  • how one works now in the kitchen
  • how one wants to work
  • appliances - what is REALLY needed/wanted?
  • doors, openings, and windows...traffic issues as well as quality of life
  • dining area - again, quality of life issues relating to lifestyle, ergonomics, design issues
  • storage - how much and why?
  • the personal layer of oneself, display areas, collections, aesthetic considerations, where and why?
  • specific, specialized wants and needs across the board - discovery issues
  • cook/family/entertainment design work flow
  • the architectural elements of the home in general, and surrounding rooms, specifically
  • and design ideas and choices, for all of the above

These are just some of the issues which are critical to explore in a meaningful way. This is the beginning of what you can get from a good, professional kitchen designer, in the mid to high end budget range. As I do not do kitchens in the low budget range, I cannot speak to the services available in this budget category, but my guess is, if you take time to do your legwork and interview designers, you will find these expanded services in the lower budget range, beyond the big box "outfitters", who design kitchens in 30-60 minutes. Will it be easy to find? Maybe not. But, allow ample time to shop and interview, and you will find a designer who you can work with. The effort and time to do the search up front rests with you and is incredibly worthwhile. After that, you can relax.


It's like a healthy, gourmet meal...even if you are doing a relatively simply prepared meal, the totality of the meal will have components of time for research, time to select quality ingredients, from different specialty purveyors, quality preparation time, and the proper cooking time. Or, you can do fast food take out. Designing a kitchen you will have for 20 years in 30-60 minutes is the equivalent of fast food take out! It will tame your hunger, and also will do bad things to your entire body. Unlike your healthy meal, which will do many things that are beneficial for you.

Or, it's the B&B vs. The Holiday Inn Express. You can fall asleep at both, but which will give you the better experience, or memory? Fortunately, this experience is a short one, vs. a multi decade one for a kitchen.

Am I saying that these companies have no place in the world of kitchen design? Well, mostly, yes. For project/volume work, of course, there is usually one type/style of kitchen. That is what it is. However, as long as there are local, small, firms available to offer expanded design services, this is the route that I strongly recommend going with. Is it impossible to find expanded services in the big box firms noted above? Usually, yes. Lumber yards? Actually, maybe not impossible there.

But, first, before you walk in, you need to be aware that a kitchen truly can be, should be, and in fact, is, much more than cabinets and appliances being fit together in a short period of time. It's the most used room of the home, and yes, the heart of the home! It's where life happens, and is nurtured in many different ways.

Again, the real bottom line here is that your and your family's quality of life will be enhanced every single day, for many years to come, if you do the legwork on the front end to find the firm who will give you service, choices, patience, and ideas.  I'm not saying you'll walk down a rosy path to nirvana, without any problems at all, during your remodeling. I am saying, it's a critical first step to take and concept to understand. It's all about time.

A kitchen should be as individual as you are, and why not? You're not just a number, you are an individual, and there are many firms out there who understand that. Find one!

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Reader Comments (8)

Yeesh your posts are helpful! Although I knew better then to go to a big box store for redesigning our kitchen, I had a "kitchen/bath only" remodeling/refacing place on the list. After reading this I scratched them right off. She designed a kitchen in 60mins at no charge..hm. She didn't ask me any questions of substance, just kept throwing out terms like work triangle, staggered cabnitry and the size of the refrigerator. Um, not really helpful. I do have a question though, what is considered mid and high range? can you give dollar brackets? I want to keep right around 60k what range does that put me in?

May 17, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterAshley

Hi Ashley! Thank you! Just a dose of reality there, as people are so easily influenced as to what is presumably the way to design a kitchen!

Just keep looking. You may become a little frustrated, but keep the big picture in mind, how important it really is to find the right designer, and it will come when you least expect it. Geez, I feel like I'm talking about finding love!

In terms of your budget, it depends on the categories you are including.

Also, what region of the country you're in. Take a look at the "Kitchen Estimate" category for posts on estimates. I really should put more real life examples in there. Unless you want to do an extension, or move 10 walls or expect high end cabinetry and appliances, you are most likely in the middle end, which can get you a great kitchen. If your kitchen is very small and you have minimal construction, you may be near the high end for products! AND, you can certainly mix some high end, some middle end products too. So, it varies. If you want, tell me what all is included in your budget, and I'll see if I can help.

May 17, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterSusan

Susan thank you for taking the time to respond and give advice. I spend much of my time in the kitchen being a stay at home mom of 2. I have a food/life blog that showcases my cooking endeavors too. I have a small galley kitchen with a small eating area next to a sliding door.
Here is a list:
-I am located in the Seattle area in a 1976 house with all original cabinets.
-I need a much bigger refrigerator!
-Better prep station (see it here: http://thicketquicket.com/blog/?p=58 )
-I desperately need bookshelves (for my many cookbooks)
-more counterspace!
-would love a big pantry
-no walls would be knocked out
-lighting would stay
-new dishwasher, I run it once a day now, thinking the drawer type would be better?
-floor is good maple, no need to change that
-need space for trash, compost and recycling

So I really just need all new cabinets, baseboards, counters, sink & fixtures, and 2 major appliances. So does 60k sound reasonable? I need it to be just right though, I use my kitchen so much that fumbling for things is not an option.

May 17, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterAshley

Can you hear me shouting oh this woman is awesome! Thank you for a wonderful post.

Clients do wait until the last minute and then expect the Moon. Kitchen designers...interior designers need to be hired at the beginning, at the same time as the contractor and architect. It's a team process.

As an Interior Designer I worked with Home Depot on my own kitchen...and everything you share is very true. There is an ease to just walk in the Home Depot store and getting instant gratification, "I want this and this." I found out quickly that Home Depot was fragmented in coordinating any project other than a traditional 'L' Kitchen.

My walls are not straight in our 1970's home, and well who takes care of that detail? Kitchen build-outs are a complicated process, offering up great rewards if done right. So I celebrate your sharing these stories, your rants and raves. It's so much fun to read.

May 17, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMichele Lessirard

You hit the nail on the head with this one, Susan. As a career kitchen designer for one of those local, small firms you mention, I am frequently set with the task of not just fixing the fast-food layouts, but also trying to shift the client's mindset away from 'linear foot pricing' and any number of other misconceptions promoted by the big boxes. Kudos for speaking openly about something that has not been adequately conveyed until now. I'm passing this link on to my hardworking designer colleagues!

May 20, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterDarcy Mullally

Hi Ashley....your budget definitely sounds reasonable to me. But, of course, get a few estimates, make a checklist for all the items you need that are either material or labor to keep organized, so labor can be accurately estimated, and you'll be on your way. I like to recommend that people be as involved as they are able to be. The reason is, communication is everything with remodeling. So, write everything down that you want and then give it to contractors for estimates. Then, too, they will all be estimating on the same thing. But, they also may see different ways of doing things too. Check back with me again if you have questions once you get into the process.

Michele, your comments and compliments are very welcome, thank you very much! I try to be as pragmatic as I can be in this whole dizzying process. So many details and ways to go off track, actually.

Darcy, thanks to you too! Please speak up about your experiences as well, so that we can educate people in a positive way what to look out for. And, yes, pass the link along! Thanks for writing.

May 21, 2007 | Registered CommenterSusan Serra, CKD

I love the way you explain to the customer why they should avoid the big boxes.It is a good thing that they are there, though, to satisfy the large Big Mac mentality that is so common.I am so glad that there are those who appreciate a fine meal, an original work of art, exceptional schooling, and dedicated service. I want to work for them, and I will gladly send the less enlightened to a big box.

May 22, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMichael Barriga

I'm a bit late to this conversation but I have an interesting perspective: I work at the Big Orange Box! I spent the early part of my career in another design field which I was quite successful at, working for a national agency and then on my own as a freelancer. I left it all to stay home with my kids full time and then went back to school to get a certificate in design at an NKBA endorsed school. We were promised jobs galore with an exaggerated claim of average salaries and nary a mention of the emphasis on sales in this field. I even placed in the National NKBA student design competition. It took me a year to find a job at a known cabinet showroom. I quit that job after five months because of conflicts with the owners style of management. The emphasis, unlike yours Susan, was on selling quickly with as little design choice as possible. I am now working for Home depot and the design philosophy is pretty much the same as the cabinet showroom I worked for. I have come to the conclusion that there are two tiers in this field and they are practically unrelated. Home Depot does not value the design process - they do not want you to spend too much time on it because it eats into the profitability of their extremely economical cabinets. You can remodel a kitchen with appliances, flooring, countertops and cabs for $30,000 - that is less than half the price of the average kitchen we sold at the design showroom I worked for. The other thing to understand is that most of the customers that I have seen come into HD are not planning on living in their present home for more than five years and many just want the cheapest alternative to make their home saleable - Make it look good and who cares if it lasts. Many of them do not cook either so all those questions about lifestyle and where to put the spices are useless. It's unfortunate to be sure but it is a reflection of our culture and an industry that has a split personality - one part, the high end that values design by charging for it and the other part that values the sale and gives away design for free. It's a confused field in my opinion, for the consumer or a beginning designer trying to find and do good work.

August 1, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterVinca

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