Navigating the Maze of Kitchen Design

Beside your home and car, the next priciest purchase a typical homeowner makes is a kitchen. Sorting out your options in buying a kitchen can be as difficult as buying a new car. You’d do well to educate yourself before setting out on this path.  This applies to everything from the materials available for countertops to the designer that you select to guide you through the process.

There are several sources for cabinetry. At “big-box” distributors, such as Home Depot, you’ll find a low level of customer service, but very economical pricing. Your local lumber yard, which may be tied-in with your builder, can offer only slightly more customer service. A private kitchen designer/dealer provides the most complete amenities as far as custom design, product availability, personal service, and hands-on attention. Finally, private cabinet  makers can produce a completely customized product, but come up short on advanced design.

There’s a broad variation in the actual construction of cabinetry.  Within the more economical product lines, you’ll find such things as thermofoil doors, melamine boxes, drawers that are simply stapled together, light-weight fiberboard boxes in stock sizes, and loosely-fitting side-mount glides.   As you step up in quality, you begin to see dovetailed drawers, plywood boxes, full-extension glides and wood face frames and doors, but you may still find stock sizes in a limited number of finishes and species. Once you reach a semicustom line, design capabilities expand. Finally, a total custom cabinetry line provides limitless design options, including compound finishes and specs.

The other thing to keep in mind is your time frame. Stock cabinetry sitting on a shelf somewhere just has to be picked and shipped. More customized options can expand the lead times from 5-12 weeks, depending on the manufacturer.

Take another look at the pictures that you’ve pulled out of magazines for the last year and try to identify what catches your eye in each of them. Is it the color?  Maybe you’re in love with the wooden hearth concept. Pay close attention to the detail of the cabinetry doors. There are basically three types: standard and full overlay, and inset – the most expensive; which both looks great and drives the price.

Because of this veritable minefield of information, the clever consumer proceeds with the right reinforcements at hand.  The best designers will be able to provide enough objective information to allow homeowners to make their own intelligent decisions.   A designer should also be open to including your ideas into the project.The task is to consider all ideas and sort through the pros and cons. Rather than being pushed toward a concept that the designer prefers, a competent designer will listen carefully to everything that you are saying and then apply sound design principles. When considering designers, trust your instincts. Immediately, you’ll sense whether someone is trying to bluff their way through your questions.   A good designer is not afraid to admit that some further research needs to be done in order to answer your questions accurately.  The relationship with your kitchen designer is a months’-long one which has to be based on mutual trust and comfort, because you will undoubtedly face some rough waters at times.

Today, there are software programs that can produce kitchen layouts. In many cases, the computer asks for the centerline of the window and pops in cabinetry along the run – you then have a kitchen. But does it work for your purposes?  Some suppliers will hand out these types of drawings at no charge, but a professional designer will not get involved in these kinds of projects.

At the other end of the spectrum is the designer who takes the extra time to draw your custom kitchen by hand.  In a project that includes beautiful laser-carved moldings and multiple piece crown buildups, only a human hand can render that detail for you to examine and be sure of what you are purchasing.

In conclusion, don’t be afraid of design fees. A truly accomplished kitchen designer injects that special ethereal quality that is hidden from your plain view, but provides the project with that “special something.”  This set of skills clearly justifies a fee for those professional services.  Keep in mind that as you approach a certain level of construction and quality details, most cabinetry manufacturers arrive at the same level. After that point, what you are actually buying is design. •