Improving the kitchen in small or big ways


By Melissa Rayworth

Another holiday season has passed, and with it the marathon cooking and baking sessions. The hours spent using every kitchen appliance and inch of counter space had a potential benefit more lasting than a good meal: When we really use our kitchens, we discover what does and doesn’t work in this very important room.

Remodeling a kitchen can be expensive and challenging, but you can make substantial cosmetic changes with just the help of a painter and electrician, said interior designer Betsy Burnham of Burnham Design in Los Angeles. And if you’re ready for even bigger changes, it’s still possible to stay on budget and create a gorgeous kitchen with a minimum of stress.

Step one is deciding what really needs to be done. Can you work with the appliances and cabinets you’ve got, or is it time for a full-scale remodel?

Step two is the budget, coming up with a realistic estimate for each expense, said designer Brian Patrick Flynn of Flynnside Out Productions.

Then, the fun can begin. There are areas where a little improvement can go a long way.

A smoothly functioning kitchen has space for everything to be stored away, within reasonable reach. Can you achieve that with your current cabinets? If so, Flynn suggests keeping them and just replacing or refinishing the doors. “Cabinetry installation adds a lot to a budget,” he said, “so saving by simply reusing what you’ve got can be a massive help.”

If your cabinet doors are stained wood, consider painting them. Then, change the hardware. Drawer pulls and cabinet door handles “can make or break the look of the space,” said Lee Kleinhelter of the Atlanta-based design firm Pieces. Take time choosing new ones.

Flynn agrees: “I always use high-end hardware regardless of how high or low my budget is,” he said. “Adding an interesting metal and finish to your doors just really adds character and uniqueness. You can never go wrong with dull black pulls and knobs, and I’m also a huge fan of antique brass. When it comes to silver tones, I try to stay classic and go with polished nickel.”

If you do need to add or replace cabinets, Burnham suggests having them custom-made. It can be expensive (Flynn estimates that ready-made cabinets cost about one-third as much as lower-end custom designs). But they are worth the investment, Burnham said. “You’ll get well-made pieces, built to your needs, that will last through time, kids and tons of use.”

Rather than adding cabinets with doors, she suggests installing drawers. “Deep drawers provide excellent storage for pots and pans, and even oversize plates,” Burnham said, “and banks of drawers just look cool.”

Painting kitchen walls can be “a quick, inexpensive solution to a kitchen remodel on a low budget,” Kleinhelter said, and “any color can work.” But she advises clients that kitchen decor “should work with the rest of the house.” Bring in colors that appear in nearby rooms, or stick to a neutral palette.

If you’re trying to update your kitchen’s look, Burnham said “there’s been a shift from the once-ubiquitous all-white kitchen toward gray-painted cabinets, and we’ve found ourselves experimenting with color.” Her office is currently designing one kitchen “that’s predominantly a sophisticated cream color, and another that will have dark, olive-green cabinets and a textured, black-stone countertop.”

Homeowners are also getting more creative and saving money with materials like concrete. Concrete tile is “an inexpensive material that comes in an incredible array of colors and patterns,” Burnham said, and “it works for backsplashes or kitchen flooring, and really makes a statement.”

Try mixing affordable elements with higher-end ones: “Basic butcher block is my favorite countertop because of its classic appeal, and it’s insanely affordable. By juxtaposing it with a unique backsplash, like a mosaic marble or rustic stone, it looks more high-end,” Flynn said. “My biggest splurge on kitchens is usually my lighting and backsplashes.”

And choose colors and materials you’ll be happy with long-term, rather than something trendy. “Classic and simple is where it’s at,” said Burnham.

A new table and chairs can update a kitchen’s look and make it more comfortable. But it’s tempting to sacrifice function for style. Don’t.

“We all live in our kitchens,” said Kleinhelter, “so it is important to have comfortable and durable seating.”

Stools are popular, and Burnham said designers in her office love the simple, clean look of a row of stools arranged along a bar or kitchen island. But, she said, comfort is key: “We find most clients like seats with backs and arms.”

Also, choose seating that’s easy to clean and durable. “I love to use vinyls or faux leathers,” said Kleinhelter, “because it is so easy to clean, but still looks polished.”

Burnham’s favorite for seating: the natural texture and style of rattan.

Whether you’re simply buying a new table and chairs or beginning to plan a full kitchen remodel, Flynn offers one last piece of advice: Take time to choose the things you really want, and be patient if the project takes longer than you’d hoped. What matters is the final result, not how many weeks or months it took to get there. — AP