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

Follow my personal profile here on Google+ for LOTS of fresh content! Google+




Subscribe by Email


houzz interior design ideas

Follow on Bloglovin

Interior Design Blogs
Kitchen Design


Our webshop of handmade Scandinavian rugs and ceramics


Scandinavian inspired, warmly modern kitchens


Custom kitchen design by Susan Serra, CKD, CAPS

« Seen at KBIS - kitschy kitcheny kolors from SMEG | Main | ICFF - more great kitchen finds! »

Architect + Kitchen Designer - A Match Made in....

I'm posting this and then running to a client meeting. I'll surely be back soon to respond to this series of issues as presented by Mark LePage, AIA, author of Living Well in Westchester. Let me first thank Mark for tackling these issues with a frank and open point of view. I encourage those who read this to respond in an equally frank way, as this is what is necessary for understanding...real communication. Here, then, is Mark's point of view about kitchen design and kitchen designers. Thanks, Mark!

The images are from Mark's website. What a wonderful repertoire. Here's Mark:

Susan asked me to post my thoughts on kitchen design and kitchen designers from an architect's point of view. My first thought was to decline in fear that I would get myself into trouble. My experience with kitchen designers in the past has rarely been positive. But then I thought, this might be a great opportunity to start a dialogue about the reasons for such negative experiences. So, let's talk...

Let me start off by introducing myself and writing a bit about my firm.

Indian_Lake.JPG My name is Mark R. LePage, AIA and I am the Partner in Charge of Operations for Fivecat Studio, a design firm dedicated to the creation of fine residential architecture for clients throughout Westchester County (NY), Fairfield County (CT) and the lower Hudson River Valley. Providing full architectural services for additions, alterations and new custom homes, we're proud members of the American Institute of Architects (AIA ) and we're certified by the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB ).

We started the firm in 1999. My partner's experience before Fivecat was designing very large, very custom, second and third summer homes for an elite clientele. With each project, she had the rare opportunity to custom design everything from the cabinet knobs to the cupola.





My experience was in residential construction (before architecture school) and as a project manager for a mid-sized architecture firm specializing in K-12 educational facilities (after school). With Annmarie's (my partner, who happens to also be my wife) design skills, and my construction and project management skills, we make a great team. We are also blessed with the best employees ever.

Being located in the heart of Westchester County, most of our works are additions and alterations. There's just not much land left to develop for new homes in these parts. Most of our additions and alterations include new kitchens. The contract agreement we execute allows our clients the option to work with an independent kitchen designer, and some do.

We have been designing custom kitchens for a long time, so the benefits of a client working with us on their kitchen are many. Besides our experience and design skills, the advantages provided by the continuity of a client working with the same designer throughout the project results in a consistent, integrated language throughout the house. The kitchen always works well with the rest of the project. Details, colors and style are consistent, as if it were a work of art with oils applied by the same hand.

Mountain_01.JPGNow I know that many of you just rolled your eyes. "There goes another architect ranting about being an artist," but that's not the point. What is important about that statement is that the project be consistent. A skilled independent designer can certainly create an equally successful "work of art", if they take the care to understand the context in which the kitchen is built.

Just like a modern house built in a neighborhood of historically accurate Victorians may disrespect its context and forever damage the fabric of that neighborhood, a kitchen designed with no relation to the intent and context of the house in which it is built will forever (or at least until the next renovation) damage the integrity of that house.

So, how can an independent kitchen designer successfully work with a residential architect? Here are three ingredients to a successful collaborative project (whether it be a custom kitchen or a Manhattan skyscraper).

Respect: Mutual respect for the skills, talents and experience of all parties (including the owner) involved in the project will allow the creation of the very best design. Respect always requires good communication...

Communication: My job as a residential architect working with an independent designer is to clearly communicate our intent for the overall project. Verbal and written communications should always be prepared and organized in a way so that they may be easily referenced throughout the project.

Organization: Create an easily understood, easily maintained system of documentation and communication. At Fivecat Studio we've created a Project Organizer System. Two binders, one for our client and one for us, are divided into sections labeled for each phase of the project. Every drawing, every letter, every document is easily filed and retrieved at anytime (even when the client is ready to hire us again, ten years from now, to perform the process all over again).

I could go on for pages more, but I don't want to use up all of Susan's bandwidth. I hope this is enough to get the conversation started. I look forward to reading your comments (don't hold back).

And Susan, thanks again for the opportunity to rant a bit...

PrintView Printer Friendly Version

EmailEmail Article to Friend

Reader Comments (15)

Mark, thank you for contributing. I think it is important for allied professionals to stop for a moment and consider how best to work with one another.

Of course, this statement jumped out at me: "My experience with kitchen designers in the past has rarely been positive." Why do you think that is? And, with a bit of introspection, could there be a part of you that feels that you know "best," regardless of other good ideas which may come forth from allied professionals? You know, that territorial thing. Do I feel a twinge when my ideas are not wanted, or are tossed aside and not appreciated for their infinite contribution to the truth, beauty, and magnificance of the kitchen? I sometimes do! (I'm still shaking my head about the client who didn't want the tv to rise from the rear of the kitchen island. Maybe it's because I used the words "rise like a phoenix...?") Nah.

And, it doesn't have to be a negative, unless it gets in the way. Being territorial seems to come with feeling a passion for one's work. A high interest and commitment to the client to the point where deep thought and concentration, and thus, confidence, has produced strong, good, sound, design solutions. Which then can morph into that territorial thing. Put multiple strong, confident, creative people together and that can be a recipe for great collaboration if all parties can play nice, or for power struggles.

Part of your point is the design of the kitchen in context to the entire design of the home. Of course, this approach is proper. I don't think I know of any kitchen designer, truly, at least in my circles, who would pay no attention to the language of the house. It's an interesting issue.

A couple of years back, I did a large kitchen in a beach house. The home had many pastels, lots of large tropical plants, many long windows open to decking (not a direct water view) and was a second home to a very traditional city apartment. From the start, the client wanted a rich, dark cherry kitchen, floor to ceiling, with black/brown wood flooring and black countertops. It did not have a relationship to the home. Oh, and the home was modern with angled soaring ceilings in surrounding areas, with furnishings that were casual, pottery barn like. It really hurt to do this, and yes, I fought against it, but in the end, this was her very strong wish, one that she was very excited about, having seen a similar kitchen that I did.

My point is, perhaps some of the work that you are thinking of in your bad experiences with kitchen designers were directed by the clients, to the disappointment of the designers. That could be.

The other point I'd like to make is this. A kitchen designer designs kitchens every day. We know the nuances of function, fit, style, and material resources. I do feel having a kitchen designer on the team is like having a cardiologist take over from the internist. The cardiologist still has knowledge of the human body, but can give focused advice to make the heart function in an optimum way. The challenge is always to find the RIGHT cardiologist, or in our case, the right professional kitchen designer. With the qualifications that the patient, or client, deems important. Then, good things will happen. But, doing kitchens all day, every day, for months with the client, I respectfully submit, is different than doing a kitchen occasionally. So, there's that.

But, I'm just guessing, so please tell me, what ARE the issues that you've had difficulty with?

Please continue your thoughts!

May 31, 2007 | Registered CommenterSusan Serra, CKD

“That’s funny because my experience with ARCHITECTS in the past has rarely been positive.” This post hit a nerve with me, I'll own it. I have a love/hate relationship with architects in general, and I try to work with architects who have life experience (over the age of 45).

I went to school with architects, hired architects, fired architects and partnered with architects. I am one of those allied people- a licensed interior designer and residential contractor …space and place come naturally to me. I am proud to say I can take interior space apart and put it back together tastefully.

I too want the outside and inside of a building to blend… language it the same, keep the integrity of the structure. From this post it sounds like your experiences have not been good with allied professionals. And I certainly know what you are talking about.

Organization: Any good practicing professional has binders for Clients, documents everything. That is a good thing. I feel the right qualified professional person- be it engineer, interior designer, kitchen designer adds to the client’s project.

There is good and bad everywhere- in your profession and mine. It’s the clients that need educating because the building process is scary and complicated. That's what this blog is about! What I read in the post is your firm can handle everything. Great. FiveCats work looks beautiful.

Marketing: Mark,what I am concerned about is this- if you get a call from a client because of this post on Susan’s blog, will you include her in the project as the Kitchen Designer? Part of the team? You see I had one too many architects claim my interior work as their own, I am a bit jaded. Maybe it’s the South Florida factor, everyone is trying to make their way.

I like Susan’s approach, feel like I would sit and have tea with her sharing stories. I can tell from her writings she knows what she’s doing. She real and in the trenches. When I read this post, I got a bit concerned, protective, of her space because I have been burned in the past ‘remember my experience in the past has rarely been positive” **smile**

This curious mind wants to know…do you work with Susan, what do you like about her work? Is she the type of Kitchen Designer you want to team with on a project? Why? What sets her apart? Why did you feel the need to write and share here?

June 1, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMichele Lessirard


We at Fivecat Studio are, what we like to call, "low ego". So, to answer your question, "is there a part of me that feels I know best?" The answer is "no".

We put a very high value on the skills and talents of our consultants, and consistently work very well with interior designers, kitchen designers, landscape architects, engineers, audio/video consultants, etc. We enjoy working with talented people, get out of their way and let them do what they do best.

As a result of this respect and understanding, our projects are the best they can be, given the parameters (schedule, budget, etc.) set by our clients. So, my past experiences are not based on a deep-seated territorial lust for control (as is, I admit, the case with many other architects).

The experiences to which I refer are with designers who are not qualified to do the job they are hired to do. "Certified" does not necessarily mean "qualified". As is equally the case with registered architects, not all CKD professionals have the skills and talents to successfully weave their way through the maze of a complicated residential alteration project. Many do. Some don't. I have unfortunately experienced many who don't.

My "rarely been positive" statement does not mean, however, "never been positive". With the right team of people - and personalities - (owner, architect, contractor and designers), truly great things can happen. I have experienced that too!

Then again, I'm only 37. Maybe I just don't have enough "life experience"...

June 2, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMark R. LePage, AIA

I'm not a kitchen designer, but I do kitchens.
I am an interior designer.

I have worked with a lot of good architects and good kitchen designers. I am currently doing a project with a really great architect along with his project manager. I did another project a few years ago where an architect brought me in. He did his thing, I did mine. That worked nicely. We kept our eyes on our own papers.

I cannot imagine anyone designing out of context with the rest of the home. That seems really odd to me, but so does "lining up the counter top to the depth of the counter" which one of my client's former architect installed. (We later replaced the counter to include overhang.)

So why is there this issue? I really don't know exactly.

Is it about control and ego? As a designer, I don't put up buildings, I just make them look good on the inside. Is this considered a lessor skill set by architects?

Does it come out of a difference in training levels? In MA, for example, anyone can call themselves an interior designer. We have no licensing for the time being.

Are there male/female issues at play? More men seem to be architects/more women as designers. Not sure if that's accurate, but seems to be.

Is it in part financial/territorial: Smaller firms typically stick to what they are good at. But larger arch.firms seem to have in house design staff. Why would they give away that piece of the pie?

It's best when people can pull their skills together, create beautiful homes for clients, and be nice to each other.It's just not always that easy.


June 2, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterAbbeyK


I agree. Being "nice" is a key factor to the success of every project. It's something I remind my employees constantly.

June 2, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMark R. LePage, AIA

I don't work with too many architects any more (in my dotage), since I no longer sell product.
Most projects I do are residential remodeling projects that I design myself, with the help of an engineer for structural.

I can see here that the old tensions I experienced when I did often work with architects are still quite apparent.

I have been designing kitchens, baths and other rooms for 25 years now. In that time I have run across four architects whom I considered great residential remodeling architects.
All four were also pretty good kitchen and bath designers too, and they got better working with me for a while and then we drifted away from each other on our own growth tracks.We do still keep in touch and are fond of each other.

The hallmark of a great residential remodeling architect, for me, is when their drawings actually translate accurately to the as-built condition of the house.

Most architects throw a tape across the room and call it good enough, 6", more or less, plus or minus. They draft elevations that show windows centered on a hood when they are in reality off by a foot or more. Their drawings look great but pulling them off becomes a real problem for those who have to execute the design in studs and sheetrock, and in cabinets and appliances.

Kitchen designers, especially Certified Kitchen Designers, are trained to measure to the 1/8", because they are usually providing products that must FIT the design. Our hallmark is accuracy.

So, when faced with a project designed by an architect of the 6", more or less, ilk, we are forced to redesign the cabinetry to fit the actual conditions we find when we go to measure the job...quite often we then start correcting deficiencies in the design too...and even take the design in an entirely different direction than the architect intended...but that's another matter;>)

Most of us learn early on that we need to go measure and compare an architect's plans with reality BEFORE we invest a great deal of time and effort into a design and cabinet quotation that may be just so much scrap paper after measurement. This is often quite difficult as the client is sent to look for cabinets with, what they think is, a finished plan by their architect...and they want a quote that is rock solid.

I think, if architects actually drew plans that reflected reality, the way kitchen designers do, there would be far less conflict between the two disciplines; and architects would far more often see their designs come to true fruition.

I assume, because Susan trusts you enough to develop this dialog on her blog, that you, Mark, are an architect whom I could add to my list of four, to make five. Thus I have no criticism of you or your methods. I only criticize those architects, who are legion, and who don't make the effort to draw and measure accurately; and yet who get all huffy when anyone, kitchen designer or not, questions their competency by correcting their work to make it fit.

And back to my comment above about that "other matter": designers redesigning architects' work. Sometimes it's a matter of ego, thinking we can do better; sometimes it's a matter of training, because the subject DOES come up a lot in training; sometimes it's just that we really can do better and the original design was unworkable.

Thanks for a great post. I LOVE controversy.

I was once involved in starting a NARI Chapter in San Francisco for this very reason: It was to provide a meeting ground for all facets of the industry. It worked very well for about ten years and then fell apart when the contractors grabbed control.
Collaboration was great between all the member firms and we had great discussions like this at every meeting and got a real feel for walking in the other guy's shoes with presentations by architects, designers and contractors...even subs.

So we're not inventing the wheel here. But it certainly never hurts to examine a long-standing problem.


Thanks for your comments.

I do hope that we would meet the standard of your fabulous 4. We take pride and differentiate ourselves from other residential firms precisely by taking the time and making the effort to provide a complete service.

Before we design any project, we prepare an Existing Conditions Survey (ECS). We do this by spending the day at the house and preparing our CAD drawings on site. With the exception of a house not being square, plumb and level, our drawings are as accurate as we can possibly make them. This saves us (and our consultants) a tremendous amount of time and aggravation going forward.

I agree that many (I might dare to say "most") residential architects do not prepare the initial documentation to which you refer. Although it does add to the conflict we are discussing, I see it as a hugh opportunity for the firms that do it right.

It is always great to have an open, honest discussion about the trials and tribulations of our industry. A monthly meeting of allied professionals is a great idea. If nothing else, when dealing people you "know", one is less likely to make assumptions and maybe pick up the telephone and have a conversation.

Thanks for the food for thought.

(Get it? "food"...kitchens...I know, not funny.)

June 4, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMark R. LePage, AIA

I just KNEW you were a precious new addition to the Fab Four Mark. Susan is way too good a designer, and person, and businessperson, to risk her reputation on anything less. And Susan, like I do, enjoys stirring the pot.

Maybe we should form a new association called Residential Design Professionals, and include architects, and building designers, and engineers, and kitchen & bath designers, and interior designers. Then we could have a ball, slugging it out, every month at our meetings.

The last members standing could then be elevated to Grand Poobah status wherein they would get ALL the clients for the month. But they would have to defend their titles the next month:>D

By the way, the other members of the Fab Five are (in alphabetical order):

Bruce Bonacker, AIA, Bonacker Associates, San Francisco, CA
Chris Ridgeway, AIA, Half Moon Bay, CA
John Rohosky, AIA, Architect, San Francisco, CA
Paul Rotter, AIA, San Francisco, CA (I hear Paul is semi-retired now)

I humbly bow before you all.

And Mark, as you well know, unfortunately most clients don't choose their architects based upon the criteria I have delineated. They have NO IDEA how important accurate measurements and drawings are to the ultimate success, timeliness and affordability of their remodeling projects. It's our little secret.

So here's to the unsung heros of architecture (clink), who also win awards because they are truly great artists too. We SALUTE you! You are too few.

I am also adding an entry to my blog, Kitchen-Exchange, where I shall dissect it further. FUN! Great job Susan!

I like how that sounds...Mark R. LePage, AIA, RDP (Residential Design Professional).

I'm in! Ready for the slug-fest.

Thanks for the follow up, Peggy, and for sharing your Fab Four.

I look forward to reading more at your blog.

And, yes. I would like to thank Susan as well. It's been fun.

June 6, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMark R. LePage, AIA

Great Debate! I have a degree in Landscape Architecture though I haven't practiced, it usually works one of two ways:

1) an architect (or firm) finds a landscape architect (or firm) and they are totally on the same wavelength. the architect respects that the landscape architect is better educated for site planning and it's a beautiful collaboration. The two wind up teaming up every possible project (this happens a lot).

2) the architect wants complete control over everything and tries their inexperienced hand at landscape architecture or takes complete control over the landscape architect, or bitches and moans to the client about everything the L.A. wants to do. The architect thinks that even though the landscape architect attended the same grad school for the same amount of time and the same amount of rigor, that somehow he is superior to the landscape architect (even though said Master's program was number 1 in the country for Landscape and number 8 for Architecture, meaning the landscape architect from the same school is way smarter than said architect). Meanwhile, the client hired said L.A. because he/she did not want the architect touching the yard, planning where the pool goes, the grading and drainage, the gardens, etc.

WOW! That turned into a venting rant I didn't really see coming.

June 8, 2007 | Unregistered Commenterbecky

Deeeep Breath...in...out. Feels good, eh Becky?

This debate is focused on Kitchen Designers, but of course all allied professionals are in the same boat. It sounds to me like architects need to spend some time at "charm school".

Thanks for contributing.

June 8, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMark R. LePage, AIA

I've been watching this, but I've had a very busy week, and now in the early morning hours of a Saturday with my laptop and my cat next to me, who normally tries to sit on top of the laptop, I can stop and think and get myself into trouble!

Perhaps part of the angst of this type of relationship for both sides is definitely what Becky said. We're a society of classes, there is no getting away from that. It's inherent in our society, whether we want to admit it or not. Education, income, experience and one's body of work/creativity are all pieces ripe to bring out fears and insecurities, superiority complexes (really the same) for anyone in the project melting pot. Let's not forget male/female issues too for good measure.

Add to that the desire to be liked and wanted, the need to be relevant, and it gets even more complex.

I don't believe it's ever as simple as two or more professionals working together with a client. It can't be.

I have always believed that underlying issues play out in this type of long term relationship, with strangers nonetheless, sometimes with the clients being the parents and allied professionals being fighting siblings. So, I think there's that too.

In the end, it's also about the desire for respect and for relevance.

I make it a point to give compliments to ALL allied professionals where I can. Where appropriate, on occasion. It just is a good thing to find the good and note it, to work to form an alliance, a trust. It's these little things that make a difference (sometimes). I also make it a point to try to understand that dynamics could be at play on occasion when my ideas are summarily dismissed or if I get "dissed" in another way. Sometimes I sit back and understand, sometimes I don't. Depends on my issues being revealed and how I either feel compelled to respond or choose to.

Does being a professional mean that one does not have these issues? No, it means they are mostly hidden behind a professional "face." It's actually worse to be unaware of what's going on inside of oneself. The real power comes when one has wisdom/understanding of oneself and one's hot button issues, which we all have.

An architect was out of the country on a project I'm working on last week. In double checking his plans, I found a two foot discrepancy. In a meeting with the clients, I noted this discrepancy and said this finding of mine could be wrong (which I was sure it wasn't.) Together we found that a mistake was made on the architect's plans. They are scientists and like to deal with facts and often take measuring tape in hand and also measure the plans frequently. And, we were planning furniture in the room and an eating area and needed accuracy. The clients became annoyed. I was very casual and said something profound (lol) like "with all these measurements, it's not unusual at all to find a discrepancy, it's not a big deal" in a conscious effort to morph annoyance into something more positive. Since the plans were recently submitted to the town, it is a big deal as this was an existing exterior wall that was to be removed for a large extension. For this reason, I double check every dimension of an architect's plans, and I have for years. It was diffused and we could get back to work.The result of this is now a major redesign on my part.

I bring this up to illustrate that we are ALL imperfect regardless of our place in life and whether we are a leader on a project or not. Architects, taking a leadership role on their projects, sometimes heady with power, (not always, of course) need to understand that. And, also, that others, perhaps with less formal training, but with more experience, or any other combination of valuable assets, deserve to be listened to and respected. And respected.

Kitchen designers IMO need to ask BOTH the clients and the architect "what is your vision for this project?" This is the first and foremost question to ask before the kitchen design begins to get detailed. Kitchen Designers, being creative people, need to understand that the architect may be genuinely interested in the kitchen design and not be threatened by that. The architect's original vision is very important to know and understand. If it is not considered, they don't have a clue. And Mark, if you have more issues with kitchen designers that would be helpful to be aware of, please note them. Kitchen designers can get heady with power too.

We're all human, none of us is perfect, (therefore, mistakes WILL be made over the course of a project) we all come together to the workplace with our personal baggage. Those who are comfortable in their own skin for the most part, can facilitate the entire process and help create a positive flow more than those who are not, to be simplistic. It allows one to "take a hit" from time to time when they shouldn't, for the good of the project. Or to make other small sacrifices where necessary.

But, of course, group dynamics will always play a part, whether the parties believe they do or not. They just do. So, we have individual dynamics and group dynamics at play.

Mark, you are to be commended to getting into the fray and starting this dialogue. Really. And, I'm sure it's not over either in terms of comments. You have done what few architects do, and that is to look inward at the relationship. I think that's great, and I hope you continue to do that.

If I were to sum up what I think everyone should do, I would say this: play nice and look for the good stuff in those you are working with.


June 9, 2007 | Registered CommenterSusan Serra, CKD

Well said, Susan.

I always welcome the opportunity to have the conversation. The more we talk and understand one another, the better we'll all be; architect, kitchen designer AND owner. And just imagine the projects we can create when we all work together.

Thanks again for the invitation and the opportunity to start the conversation with you and your community. I look forward to many, many more.

June 9, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMark R. LePage, AIA

I know I'm a bit late in posting here but I just wanted to say that it's a great discussion and I have mentioned it on my own blog.

As a UK kitchen designer I have come across exactly the same problems with building plans not matching the dimensions of the finished building but ... on at least one occasion ... it has been the builder at fault, not the architect.The plans weren't followed properly.

That's not to say that relationships between architects and kitchen designers in the UK are any warmer than in the US ... I'd say they were mainly non existent!

July 1, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMajjie

Hello Majjie, and thanks for writing. Late? Never. I welcome comments on all discussions, regardless of their age. Comments are never closed.

I think it's best to try to be sensitive to the other's needs where it's possible, and I think it always IS possible in one way or another. That approach, I believe, will bring world peace in the designer/architect arena if only on occasion, but it's better than never, isn't it!

July 1, 2007 | Registered CommenterSusan Serra, CKD

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>