Designers' Secrets to Creating the Ultimate Kitchen for Your Lifestyle

If the kitchen is the heart of the home, these five top kitchen designers know exactly what makes it tick. Editorial Director Joanna Saltz gets all the beats.

2019 © Nickolas Sargent
Nickolas Sargent
HBX
Joanna Saltz @josaltz
Allie Holloway

Joanna Saltz: What, in your mind, makes an interior designer different from a kitchen designer, or vice versa? What makes your job strategically different than an interior designer's?

Matthew Quinn: Well, I’m actually a trained interior designer, but I specialize in kitchens, baths, and dressing rooms.

JS: What does the specialization mean to someone who doesn’t know the difference?

MQ: I mean, certainly there’s function, durability, and, you know, technology involved in interior design, but I don’t think it’s as intense as it is in the rooms that we work in. The kitchen is the most expensive room in the house, the most amount of time is spent in that space besides maybe lying in your bed, so it’s just high function. It has so many different types of tasks that it has to achieve that I have found very few interior designers who can also do kitchen design well. I will talk to interior designers and architects, they’ll have a sense of kitchen design, but when you really drill down to it, they really don’t care where the Saran Wrap is, and the cutlery. The science of that is not what they know. They’re thinking more finishes, the work triangle, that type of thing, and it’s so much more than that. I think that’s really what kind of separates us from the interior designers.

JS: I’m going to let you all answer, but I’m going to come back to some of the points Matthew made in the next question.

Karen Williams: One of the things that separates us from interior designers is that we are really specialized in what we do. I often tell my clients, think of us like a lightning designer or the AV person that comes in. With all the technology that’s happening in the kitchen, and all of the changes in appliances and materials, it’s really a specialty that will enhance what the interior designer is doing. I think we add a great value to the kitchen. We’re not trying to take away from them, we’re really trying to enhance. The technology is so complex and so expensive that you really need someone with this knowledge to help you through it, to guide you through what this kitchen design is about. There are beautiful fabrics that lovely interior designers pick out, but ours is a little bit more complex than that, and more expensive. Change the drapery…but change those counters? It’s not as easy.

JS: From what I understand you guys have had to fix quite a few messes, which I think our audience will be fascinated to hear.

Matthew Ferrarini: I’ve been asked this question before, and I like it to compare it to the medical world. As an interior designer as a kitchen designer, we’re surgeons, right? But you have your general surgeon that can work on enough, know enough about every category, but then you have your neurosurgeons and your cardiac surgeons. I consider kitchen designers more the neurosurgeons: There’s so much to learn, it’s always growing, it’s always evolving, and we can just stay with that one brain activity and still kind of never know enough about it. Generalists are fantastic, they’re great, a lot of them know enough about what we do, but I would say it’s just that specialization that Karen mentioned.

KW: My rates just went up!

MF: Surgeons without the pay…forgot to mention that.

JS: I want to jump on what you’re saying. I think that the common misconception about kitchen design—and certainly in the Pinterest world that we live in, where people can see lots and lots of inspiration—is that the kitchen is about cabinet colors, period, end of story. But there’s so much depth to the things you have to think about. To compare it to neuroscience is so fascinating to me, because I don’t even think that our readership understands all the new things you guys are constantly learning about.

Sarah Blank: I think what you can also say about this group is that we have a vast amount of experience. I mean, I started in 1981, I’ve known Karen for years, and Christopher, I think you’re back there with 1981 too, or maybe a little later than that.

Christopher Peacock: 1979.

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For a beach house, Karen Williams chose glimmering tiles to complement the nearby water view.
Courtesy of Karen Williams

SB: I was talking to a wonderful project manager down in Palm Beach the other day, and he said, "You know, my 60 years of mistakes have enabled me to come to this job and really stream through it and get from the beginning to the end." And I think that’s what we can all say. Yes, we’ve all made mistakes, but that is what teaches you. You just don’t become a kitchen designer. We’re all trained, I have my B.A. in interior design, but I think you just land in kitchens and you love it. It’s technical, there are so many facets of it, and once an architect or a designer understands the importance of having us on a job it is a great collaboration. Because collaboration is really bringing all the people together and having us all make it the very best it can be—you really see a difference when you have all the professionals on the job.

JS: That’s interesting to me, because all of you are like Oz behind the curtain. You’ve had collaborations with interior designers around the country, and for those people to acknowledge their limitations and have the wherewithal to bring you in on those projects says a lot.

SB: I worked with Bunny Williams in 1999, and I’ve been on her projects ever since, and it’s wonderful that we can collaborate and work together and just make a project the very best it can be. But I understand the technical, all of these people at this roundtable know the technical—we can just take some of their ideas and some of what they want to do, and we know how to fit it. We know how to take those appliances and fit them in just right, and where they need to be from an aesthetic point of view and from a functional point of view.

JS: What percent of your job is technical in that way, about function, and what percentage is beauty?

CP: I don’t really think about it technically, to be honest. I’ve just done it for so long that I don’t really analyze it. The process—I just look at a room, and I think now, after years and years of doing this, that I just kind of see it. I can look at it, and I can pretty much figure out pretty quickly what I think is going to work. I think that you have to, coming back to this point about interior designers and kitchen designers, I think it’s project specific. There are projects where we are everything, where the client wants us to basically do it all. We’re picking out countertops, we’re picking flooring, we’re picking wall colors, we’re doing fabrics, we’re doing whatever. And then there are projects where we’re basically the cabinet company, because they come with a team. I think having the ability to do all of it is really important, and we all do all of it at some point, and knowing your place on a team is really important as well. So I think there’s a crossover between us as "cabinet designers" and interior designers. I’m not picking out someone’s sofa, typically, and I don’t know how to get drapes made properly, so I think that's the cutoff between an interior designer and an expert in the kitchen and cabinet world. It's dependent on the project and on the individual situation. Also, a lot of the high-end decorators, they don’t want to know. They just want to hand it all over to you. It’s easy for them to do that, right? "Make me look good" is kind of what they want us to do. And coming back to the process, it’s all going all at once in my head. I’m thinking about how it’s going to look, I’m thinking about materials, I’m thinking about which is the right appliance to suggest, whether it's going to fit in the room. I don’t really break it down and think about it percentage-wise, it’s every thought going around my head all at once. Somehow, that all delivers itself to a sketch on a piece of paper, and that’s where it starts. And then I actually rely on other people who actually make sure that it’s gonna be right technically.

JS: So then let me ask a different version of that question, because you say when you look at a space you just know. What percentage of a project is space, is the space constraints and the space functionality, and what percentage is the family and how they work and how they use that space? Would you say it’s 50/50? Do you lean toward one or the other?

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Christopher Peacock @christopherpeacock
Allie Holloway

CP: Every client starts with a wish list—we pull this information out of them. Typically, they have two things in there: One is they think they’re not going to live how they currently live, they think they’re going to change everything and work completely differently and it’s all going to be a miracle, which isn’t true necessarily. And the second thing is that the room has limitations to it, so you can’t always get everything you want. It's amazing how even the biggest rooms still have limitations, because the doorway is in the wrong place or there’s too many windows or there’s something that creates parameters that you have to work within. You start off with this message from the client where they’ve downloaded all of this information to you to start the process, and then you look at the technical reality of what will fit and how it functions. The functionality is very important. It’s probably 30% customer input, and the rest of it is us trying to get realistic about practicality, technicality, and getting it done, so you get the best out of the space that you’ve been given.

JS: I’ll open that up to the floor.

MQ: That wish list! I mean, they don’t know all of the options and possibilities out there, so sometimes it's a list that we can certainly expand on and show them things they didn’t even dream about.

JS: I know you have some involvement with a family before you embark on a design, and you really try to sit with them. I imagine you all have similar sort of attack plans, but can you talk a little bit about that process, working with the family? I think a lot of families don’t even realize, to your point, how they actually function. I’m going through a kitchen renovation now, and I’m sort of in that space, too, of like, “And then we’ll all gather around!” I think that people don’t even think—and I don’t mean to occupy this question, but I want to fully explain my thought process here—I think that it’s because people don’t realize that they can live with anything better than what they have, so they don’t think about all the things they’re doing to make up for having a better space. So I’m curious how your process starts there, and if you can tell the audience a little bit about it.

So function is definitely where I start. I try and actually push off the beauty of it.

MQ: I have a degree in chemistry, so I have a very scientific brain. I do always observe either breakfast time or dinner time, if it's a family. If it’s a couple I don’t really need to. But for a family, I like to observe their habits, what they’re doing in the space and where it’s not working for them. We also inventory everything that’s in their kitchen. Everything is coded, so that when they move back into the space they know where everything goes. There’s a science to it, too, you know the location of the cutlery drawer and where the glasses are stored in relation to the dishwasher, the trash can to the sink, all of those things require steps, time. You can save them time, give them more time with their family. It’s pretty remarkable when you start calculating all of those steps and you really dig down into the science of it—you can save somebody like 40 to 50 hours a year. I love that, my young staff loves that. They’re all about, "What good are we doing?" And you start explaining that we just saved this family 40 hours a year, and it makes them feel good about what they’re doing. So function is definitely where I start. I try and actually push off the beauty of it, I really kind of tamp down on the function of the space first. I think you even asked me last time we saw each other, you were trying to figure out a refrigerator, and I said to start paying attention to every time you hear the refrigerator. You know, these French-door refrigerators: Pay attention every time you go to the refrigerator now with something in your hand, because you can’t open both doors at the same time if there’s something in your hand, and it’s even harder to close them when you pull something out—you have to set it down and then shut the doors. When you start, when you’re about to make a decision, I encourage you to start paying attention to how often you go to the trash can from the sink, or when you come in with the groceries. Start paying attention to all those type of things, and it will really shape your decision later.

JS: Our conversation was game-changing! I’m curious to know all of your processes, too, so I’m going to come around. It was fascinating to me because—not even just the refrigerator, but then I started thinking about how my husband makes lunches for the kids, but oftentimes there's frozen breakfasts, and just the trip from the freezer to the microwave and what it would mean if they got super separated, what that would mean for his morning process. My children are divas, they get hot lunches, my husband makes them hot lunches every day. But that trip to the microwave from the freezer, if you multiply that by whatever, at 7 in the morning—if that gets exponentially larger, then that really changes the way we function.

MQ: Back to that, observing function, I find that if I can win over a husband—if he does not have to move one step and he can take his vitamins, make his coffee and his oatmeal, and not step at all, it’s "this cabinet is all for me and it’s everything I need in the morning to get out the door fast"—then I win them from that point on.

JS: It’s like forcing people to think about not just the positives of what they want out of a space, but think about the negatives that they’re living with, too. Like, how many times am I stepping on my husband when I’m trying to bake and he’s doing the dishes, how many times have we bumped into each other?

Design Galleria
The mother of all walk-in pantries, care of Matthew Quinn.
Emily J Followill

KW: Getting to know the family is really first and foremost, how they’re going to work in that kitchen, how they live. I like to call it "the gossip" because they’ll say, Oh my husband makes a hot lunch, and when Aunt Mary comes we want to do this. You get all that kind of little information, and the more you get to know them, the more information you get. So you try and solve some of those problems by getting to know how they live.But when you’re doing clients that have several homes, which you know, we all have done, the way they live in one home is not how they live in their second home. And I don’t think they ever realize that. When I do their main suburban house in West Chester or wherever, and the children are of school age, well, they’re getting up in the morning, breakfast is not the most important because they’re getting out quickly, they’re getting on the school bus, and the husband or the wife comes home and they’re making a nice dinner. But now you have your house in Palm Beach, well, guess what? Breakfast is the most important meal, because no one’s running out to work, everyone’s staying there, and dinner is not as important. So, clients will come and say, You did my house, so you know it, and it’s not quite true because you’re living differently here, you’re having a lot more guests. How are we making people more comfortable in this kitchen? So even though you have the same clients, the same family, depending on the house they live it’s a very different design, because their lifestyle is changing. I find they’re always fascinated because they didn’t think about that. "Breakfast is the meal here!" And they have appreciation for that. Your lifestyle changes if it’s a holiday house, a vacation house, a winter house, blah blah blah. So I think it’s really important. And then always touching on, as I say, the gossip. There’s a lot of those lifestyle features that are important to the client, so the process—I think we’re all agreeing—is the process of getting to know the client and getting to know the home and the lifestyle that they’re going to live in that particular space. It’s not one size fits all. I kind of enjoy hearing all about those things. "My husband cooks on the weekend, he’s not really a good cook, don’t tell him!" "Make sure the counters are here, my wife hates to cook." It’s a fun process.

JS: It’s an overwhelming process though, too. It’s not like re-covering a sofa, it’s like, basically fixing your life. And catering a space around your life is overwhelming when you have an empty shell and you’re like, "We’re going to build this to fit you exactly the way it needs to." I’ll tell you from my perspective that it’s overwhelming, to be like, "Well, it’s easier if you just put new cabinet doors on the front of this, and I’ll figure it out." But suddenly feeling like you have a vested interest and an opportunity to shape it the way it needs to fit you is overwhelming. Matthew, can you tell me about your process, or what you think the most important part of the process is?

MF: A few things I’m noticing among the kitchen designers here: Matthew has that chemistry background, Christopher mentioned data and information, and I have a legal background, a pre-law bachelor’s degree. So designers, I often feel, are synthesizers. It’s our job to collect the information, extract the information, the data, and then apply the reasoning to synthesize that down to a solution. Everybody here seems a little bit more linear, a little bit more structured, I would say. That’s something I notice between interior designers and kitchen designers sometimes, that we’re a little bit more—we’re creative, but we’re structured creative.

JS: Solution oriented.

MF: Yeah, exactly. So my favorite part of the process is to learn about the client, interestingly enough. I’m absolutely fascinated with it, to the point where it can be awkward sometimes, you know. If I'm doing a bath design, and I'm sitting at the dining room table with a couple, and I’m there with my suit jacket and they’re serving me tea and cookies and I ask them "How often do you shower?" and they look at me, "Uh, once a day twice a day?" And I say, "Well, do you shower together or separately?" And they look at each other, and they get really uncomfortable, and by the third question they’re ready to kick me out because I ask them "Well, what do you do in the shower?" I don’t phrase it exactly like that, but you know. This tells us the size of the shower we'll need, and the shower head, whether we should put a niche to be able to shave in the shower, or whether we put a bench, so it’s all important data. The water flow, the pressure—if we’re gonna have four shower heads running at once, do we have enough pressure coming into the house? It can get awkward, but I feel like if you’re not asking the awkward questions, you’re probably doing a disservice to your client.

JS: There’s something about kitchen design in that way, in acknowledging people’s roles. I like to think that I do everything in my house, but at the end of the day, my husband does the dishes, because I’m the worst at loading a dishwasher and we’ve argued about it and I’m like, "What are you talking about?" And he’s like, "You never do it, because you do it terribly." But it’s those kind of conversations where, as a kitchen designer, you now know that this person does this thing and that person does that thing and where the two shall meet and whatever. There is a psychology behind the creation of your part of the process, but also, there’s a lot of acknowledgement of the "fake" life that you were speaking to before Christopher, of the real life in relation to the fake life we like to think we live.

HBX
Matthew Ferrarini @matthew_ferrarini
Allie Holloway

MF: So my process is flow, function, feelings. Those are my three. I start with the flow, and that’s really addressing the egress—how you enter into the kitchen, how you leave out of the kitchen, how you move around the kitchen. And then the function is all based on how they live, their cooking needs, entertaining, storage, etc. And then lastly I do the feeling, as Matthew was saying—the feeling is like the colors, the textures, how everything is going to come together. And that’s my guide for how I do it. It works pretty well.

CP: I think we’re all very similar in many ways. This process of discovery is extremely important. I do the same thing, I learn as much as I can about the client and their family. I think you have to be able to relate to it in certain ways. I remember when I first had kids, I started to understand—I was a better kitchen designer when I had kids, because I understood suddenly that there’s this whole other dynamic going on in some clients' lives that I hadn’t understood before. Now I can relate to them, so that really helped me. We’re psychologists: You mentioned the world psychology, I actually love your approach, I love the scientific process. It’s not something that I’d given much thought to, but I think it’s genius, actually, to think about things that way. We are psychologists, we have to really get inside their heads and understand what they want, and what turns them on and what turns them off. So that’s really important, because then we’re designing specifically for them. There’s the mechanics of the kitchens, and we all understand what they are, and there are logical progressions and processes of food preparation and cleanup, and friends hanging out drinking wine, and whatever. There’s all these different things that happen in these "living rooms." To me, the kitchen is a living room that you cook in, because we live in this room. You have to break down all of these processes, and that discovery is how you get to that. What I find really interesting, the bit I love the most, is actually collaborating on the creative process with the client. Typically what happens is we’ll do our discovery and then create some ideas, sketches, concepts, and we’ve probably got a good idea in our heads of what we think is right. I love to get the client involved in that journey, and for them to see how I arrived there, you know. For walking them through the process, there’s nothing better than a Sharpie pen and a piece of tracing paper. That’s how I do everything, it’s when I’m most comfortable. Drawing lines and scribbling and putting this out in front of them is a very, very interesting thing to do in front of a client, because suddenly it comes to life. If you just show them a set of plans and say "this is how I got here" then they’re still trying to download the information and you’ve lost them. But if you walk them through the journey, and you get your tracing paper out and show them this and this and that idea, and we can do this, but I like that and here’s why I like that, they open up. All of a sudden you’re in a real conversation with them, and they’re talking about this sort of inner sanctum of life that they have that we’re trying to get to.

SB: And they feel like they’re adding value, like their opinion is important. It’s their life, it’s their family!

CP: Exactly. We’re the conduit for their process and their ideas. I think that’s our role as professionals, to open them up and be the conduit to get their ideas, and guide them with our ideas, to get the best possible use out of the space. It’s part psychology, I agree with everything we’ve all said about the discovery process. But I love to get them involved designing with me. I know we’ve got an agenda, and we want to get them where we need to get them because we believe in it, but it’s not unusual for me to take an unexpected left turn on something because of a piece of information that just suddenly came out. And I think the more you get them talking, that’s how you do it.

HBX
Sarah Blank @sarahblankdesign
Allie Holloway

SB: We all have similar approaches, engaging them so you’re always in tune with what they’re saying. You have to be. And like you say, you’ll take a left turn if you hear something, like "Oh my God I do have to incorporate that." But what you’re also doing is making sure that they understand what the end result is going to be. A client really needs to know what they’re getting, what it’s going to look like, and how it’s going to function. Because the last thing you want as a professional is for a client to say, "Oh, I didn’t know it was going to be that way." So, I really take an unbelievable amount of time to make sure, "Do you understand this, do you understand how this works? And I want you to walk yourself through, I want you to stand at the sink and speak to me about how you do things. I want to hear about how you do things." Hearing them walk through is just an enormous help. And the other thing that I have found to be critical is, I pray that I’m brought in on a job when they’re in their kitchen and not moved out into a temporary home. Because you learned so much from their kitchen that they’re in. I will always say, "Please don’t clean up." Do not clean this kitchen for me, because if you do, you’re not helping me. You’re not helping me help you! I want to see what’s piled on the counter on one side of the room, I want to see what the range looks like after breakfast, I want to see the dishes, because that is also a form of communication to me, as to what I need to do. They're usually like, "I have to clean up the kitchen before you come." Please don’t. We also spend hours taking inventory, which is just so important because that’s also helping. You’re understanding what they have, what they need. But that constant communication, even if you have a collaborative team or if we’re on the job and we’re doing everything, you have to have that constant communication. You can’t have the client talking to the architect and the architect talking to us. We have to have a direct line of communication to make sure that we’re providing the family everything they need.

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A lightly weathered paint finish gives cabinets an antique look in a kitchen designed by Sarah.
Sara Blank for Bunny Williams

JS: I always like to ask the same question of all the panels, but I would say even more so in this room: I always ask how television has changed the design world. Oftentimes I hear that people have lost any sense of what things cost and how long things actually take. Thinking about all of those grand reveals of kitchens where they don’t see their house until the kitchen is done, could you imagine walking into a kitchen that you didn’t have any hand in designing and being like, "Where are my baking sheets?" What Sarah is saying is making so much sense because it’s true, you do need to emotionally prepare people for what’s to come, and also really get them to acknowledge their demons. That changes the game.

KW: I can’t see how you do that in real life, I just can’t. You need to really be with your client on a constant verbal basis to get it where it needs to be.

JS: To Matthew’s point too, for it to be wrong, it’s almost handicapping to your life. Those 12 extra steps to get from the vitamins to the coffee in the morning is somewhat debilitating, you know. The idea that that might come out wrong is crazy.

CP: To all of our points here, we can only be as good as the information that they impart. You know, if they don’t tell us certain things, even if we ask—we are only as good as the information we are given. Getting them to open up is really really important.

JS: That’s Sarah’s point, too, of "don’t put the mess away…show me how the dishes end up stacked up."

CP: I’m sure all of us are working with teams of people, we’re working with decorators and the architect, the project, the client rep and whoever else, and sometimes we’re designing in a vacuum, we’re not actually designing for the client, because the client is not involved. And that makes it very, very difficult for us to be good at our jobs. So, there’s nothing better than pushing those people aside, not because we don’t want or value their input but because we can’t be good at what we do unless we get right to the point and ask the question. Maybe the answer is, "I don’t care, I never walk in the kitchen." We have that too. But I still feel responsible for making it function if they ever do go in there, because someone is using it.

SB: On that note though, not all the information, no matter how close you get to your client, is good information and the right information. Sometimes they’ve been doing something wrong and they’ve just been doing it wrong for so many years they don’t know that there’s a better way to do it. So that’s the other side of it. Take the information and absorb it, yes, and then evaluate it and say, "Do you realize you’ve been doing this?" The analogy with the doors, people don’t realize that they open it when they go to a showroom but it’s a big problem. So I think after taking it and absorbing the whole thing, sometimes it’s encouraging to point out something that they might want to look at in a different way and say, "I know you’ve been doing it." I love what you said before, they think they’re going to change, or they just think, "That mess you see? It’s never gonna happen!" It is going to happen. But we’re all creatures of habit, and people aren’t changing their kitchens every couple of years. They’ve lived with it for so long, so we should consider this a gentle education. "We can always go back to that, but we should consider this with new appliances, with new technology, with the children being older, whatever." It's a delicate path to go down and try and convince them that there’s a better way.

JS: To be fair, I would say most of the country is living with a kitchen that someone else has built. But I’m sure a lot of clients are building from scratch and can do whatever they want. Unless people are adapting to a space that was built for somebody else…you do learn to live with someone else’s version of perfect, even if it’s not necessarily yours. But I also think what you’re saying is so interesting, it’s probably a challenge that you guys have to face, too—because people can’t renovate their kitchens every few years, so you’re not just thinking about how you function now but also starting to think too about how you will function as your kids get older, as they get bigger and suddenly they’re eating more, and maybe the mother might come and live with you. Trying to plan for the future, too.

SB: Once you start solving problems you build this confidence with the client. Because that’s what we’re doing, we’re solving problems—that’s why they’re changing their kitchen. Listen to them of course, but how can we solve the problem, how can we make it easier and better and still achieve what they want and they might not even know that they’re missing.

KW: The other thing, too, is that the problems we’re solving are not isolated to the kitchen. I always say I need to see it all. I need to see where you’re bringing the car in, I need to see where you’re bringing the groceries in, where the kids are dumping the backpacks—I refer to it as "back of house." We are working with them so that the entire back of house works. Because it’s not just isolated to the kitchen, it’s almost like an orchestra. If you don’t have a few instruments you can really see the difference, or hear the difference. We have to really understand all the facets of all the areas that make up the larder, the pantry, everything. That whole back of house area kind of falls under my umbrella, so I want to know—I want to hear from them from the time they bring the groceries and everything that goes on from morning into night with the kids and with the family and with the chef and beyond, to the point where if you have a dining room and you’re entertaining and you have business entertaining, sometimes those big open spaces don’t work because they need that privacy and delineation between the kitchen and the help and the dining area. There are so many things that we have to think about and help them get through, beyond just the kitchen. It impacts the whole house.

We have to really understand all the facets of all the areas that make up the larder, the pantry, everything.

JS: To that point, I would love to ask you guys: What do you think is the biggest mistake people make when they are venturing into redesigning their kitchen? At any point in the process.

SB: The biggest mistake that I sometimes have to overcome is the client that thinks they know exactly what they want, where they want it, and how they want it. And that is actually a lot of fun, because I’m there to break down that wall and, at the end of the day, have them understand that I am their advocate, and that I am there to make sure that they don’t make large mistakes. "I just want this, or I just want this, and oh, you know, I’ve done two kitchens prior to this and..." You know. Every job is different, every home is different. One of the things I really love is that challenge of turning it around and having them say, "Wow, I didn’t think of that." And then, that’s it, you’ve won them over, you’ve won their trust, so now you can continue to help them.

JS: To the point I was making before, people are just bombarded with inspiration now between Instagram and Pinterest and magazines, people see things and they think they can make their own decisions.

SB: Well, they do, and they have their own thought. If you take the many pictures that they give you, you’ll begin to see a common thread through it all. The one thing that I’ll always say is, "Alright, what don’t you like? Why don’t you bring me the pictures of what you really don’t like?" It really helps us to understand what they detest, because then, OK, I’m going to stay away from that. It really does help me when I ask them to bring what they don’t like. But there’s always a common thread. And also, you can communicate from those images. I love when I get the images and they all have 10-foot-high ceilings ,and you’re working in a seven-foot-six house. You say, OK, I want to get one thing clear here…and you take the tape measure out and say, OK, let’s go outside to do this because we’ve got to get the tape measure higher than the house. They may bring in a picture of a job that was done in L.A. and we’re in a Connecticut home. So it can really be fun what people bring you. It really is fun.

JS: The reality check.

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The powder blue of a Lacanche range and matching hood adds subtle punch to this white kitchen by Matthew Ferrarini.
Courtesy of Matthew Ferranini

CP: I’m actually stretching my brain to think of what the answer is for that. I can’t come up with one, I don’t think there’s any big mistake. I think clients come with ideas and thoughts and concepts in their head, and they’ve been thinking about this for some time typically.

JS: Do you think there are misconceptions that people have, or are there things that you think people don’t approach in the right way?

CP: No. I think for all of us, we’re lucky in that we’ve worked hard to get to where we are in our careers, so when somebody comes to us they’re coming to us because they want us. It’s the same for all of us at this table. A lot of those misconceptions are kind of gone by the time they get to us—they pretty much know what they’re coming in for.

JS: Do you think they’ve made mistakes before they’ve gotten to you that they’ve learned from?

CP: Certainly we hear that, but you know, everybody goes on their journey. We’re all dealing with high-end clients, so we’re lucky. But money doesn’t equal taste, right? I think people learn along the way. I mean, if I look back and think about the first house I bought, and how we decorated, it and the things that I did, it’s like, my God what was I thinking. But at the time I thought I was fantastic. So we make mistakes along the way, and our clients make mistakes along the way, but at the time they’re not necessarily feeling like it’s a mistake. They just learn from experience that they could’ve done it differently or better, or their needs change. Once we get them, we’re able to avoid mistakes by guiding them. So I don’t think clients necessarily make mistakes, I think they come in with ideas and conceptions that don’t always apply and it’s, again, our job to pull that out of them and kind of redirect them, basically, as to what’s appropriate for the home. There’s one thing that comes to mind, though: I’ve had clients come to us with a very, very traditional home, and they want to put something very, very traditional in it. But there’s definitely sort of a design use-by date on some of this stuff. They’re designing the kitchen in a vacuum, and it’s a permanent thing right? You put a kitchen in and hopefully it’s going to last you a long time. They're going to spend a lot of money on it. Whereas other rooms around the house—they may well redo their dining room or the butler’s pantry or living room, you know, it’s soft furnishings and wallpaper and drapes and it’s a new look. So sometimes we’ve had to sort of advise them that they don’t want to be stuck in time, you know, and that they maybe should sort of freshen things up with the look and the thinking. And that’s not always something that they have considered. You see rooms that are desperately in need of remodeling and a freshen up, it might be good stuff but it’s so out of date, and we have conversations about resale and how long are you staying in the house, because all of that affects what we do. If they are selling this house in five years' time or 10 years' time, they have to think about what the next person is going to inherit. If there’s a mistake, it’s about what they think is appropriate for their house, but they’re not necessarily thinking holistically about the process, and I think that’s something all of us do. We force them to think on a grander scale—and it’s not just about the kitchen, it’s about the entire house, actually. Everything affects everything, because you start with one room and suddenly you’re doing seven rooms. They all relate. Our conversations have to be about all of those spaces and how they all interact with each other. So I didn’t think about Love It or List It or whatever, but the Food Network changed everything for me. That’s when I noticed a huge change with customers. It’s like everyone suddenly wants to cook again, right? I mean it’s been going for a while now, but that was a big, big change for us. Weekend-warrior cooks, you know, all of a sudden people think that they can cook or think they want to cook, and they were coming in with a very different set of parameters based upon Gordon Ramsay or Tyler Florence or whoever it was at the time.

SB: And the sophistication of the equipment has totally changed, along with all these chefs, you’re absolutely right.

JS: I don’t think it impacts design, but I’m curious whether it impacts time and expectations.

SB: People can get on the internet and look at things now. I just had an experience where I designed a kitchen, and the kitchen’s made, and she’s online, and at the 11th hour she’s like, "I really want to do a farmhouse sink!" That seems to be what can happen. But what’s going on on those shows—people understand that they’re not realistic, or I may say to somebody, "All of that equipment is donated. That’s all marketing, you know." But the Food Network, that had a huge impact.

HBX
Karen Williams @stcharlesnewyork
Allie Holloway

KW: I think what that did was made it cool to cook again. Guys can cook, couples can cook, friends can cook.

CP: Even architecturally, there was a whole period where it was the kitchen/living room, right? Every kitchen was wide-open-planned into these big great rooms. It was like, Let’s all live in one big space. I’m seeing the opposite now—now we’re seeing proper kitchens being designed again, where there’s not a TV and a sofa and an Xbox.

SB: It’s just cool to cook again. People are doing it, they’re enjoying it, they’re prepping, where it was not always cool.

MQ: I see it with children, too—children are watching these shows more than they’re watching some entertainment shows. Now there are shows specifically for children on the Food Network, and so that plays another part in participation and the function of the kitchen, because now you have children that want to be involved.

KW: And a lot of people have their own chef, even if it’s a part-time chef who comes in to help. One of the biggest challenges is when you’re doing a kitchen for a chef, but one of the homeowners wants to be in it too. You have the personal items and then you have the commercial items, and the delicate balance to get them both to work. To me that can be a challenge, because you’re almost designing two kitchens in one.

JS: The inverse in that though, with what you were saying about the Food Network—I started a brand here at Hearst about four years ago called Delish, and we do food videos and whatnot, but our challenge at the time was to break down the barrier and make the kitchen a space for people who don’t even fancy themselves chefs but make it, not even cool but just make it OK. Like, you don’t know how to cook, but now you can get into the kitchen and totally mess up this spinach-and-artichoke dip, and it’s going to be fine, we’re not going to judge you for it. But I do think to your point that it’s not so much about creating a chef-level space, which I know you guys are doing, but also creating a space that people want to be in, even just to mess up dinner tonight, to make it more of a celebration of food. I wanted to stay on the topic of mistakes because I think there are misconceptions, maybe mistakes is the wrong word, but I do think that there are things that people don’t consider or frankly approach in the wrong way. I’m curious what you think and see.

MF: I think what everyone mentioned is pretty spot on in general. I think what’s most relevant to 2019 is everything you’ve been mentioning about digital, social, Instagram, Pinterest, people are inundated with imagery right now. Inspiration, inspo. And I’m a proponent of social media—I have 25,000 followers, my wife has 60,000 followers, so I am part of that social thing, but I still see some of the issues that are causing people to blindly follow trends. I would say that’s one of the biggest mistakes right now: Because they’re seeing shiplap, or whatever they’re seeing on their top nine feed on the Explore page, they’re thinking "this is the direction I want to go in." And trends are fine, trends are good for our industry, it makes manufacturers create different products, it creates diversity. It’s good if that trend actually really resonated with them, and they’re not just following it because it’s popular right now. So you’re seeing a lot of spaces that are lacking gravitas or meaning, because they’re just doing white walls and these boho kind of California vibes—which is a style I like, it resonates with me personally, but there’s a lot of blind following of trends due to the amount of consumption on social. I would say the biggest mistake is people blindly following design trends as opposed to figuring out what their style is and who they really are. And that takes time. I still don’t completely know my style, fashion-wise. I think people need to spend more time figuring out what their real style is instead of blindly following Kim Kardashian.

KW: That’s a really good point. The one that knocked me over was the woman that said, "I really want black windows," and I said, Oh boy. That’s a big one. That one I remembered.

JS: Karen, I’ll let you answer this one too, but it’s easy to feel like everybody’s doing something, like on social media everybody’s in Italy right now. I don’t know, maybe four people in Italy, but it’s easy to feel like when you’re following everybody it’s like, "everybody’s doing this thing that I’m not doing, and I need to be doing it." It’s the FOMO generation that our children are growing up in. It’s easy for adults to feel like that too. Suddenly green kitchens, everybody wants green kitchens because there’s like two green kitchens on Pinterest that are getting repinned and reposted 27 times.

Green kitchens are getting likes, they’re getting engagement.

MF: And it affects the people who are producing and designing, because green kitchens are getting likes, they’re getting engagement, they’re getting traction, they’re getting features, so then it just has this compounding effect, and it’s just because of social. It’s always been like that with magazines and print, but now with social it’s like, times 12.

JS: And not that there’s anything wrong with green kitchens, green kitchens are great! But also, if you like a green kitchen I’m sure there’s a beautiful one in CQ.

KW: I’m going to make it more singular because I agree with everyone here, I think we all agreed these are the problems, inherently in the industry, at the level that we’re working. But the number one problem I see in kitchens if I’m not brought in in the very beginning is lighting. I think lighting mistakes are made in the kitchen more than any other room. People do not realize how many types of lighting are needed, you’ve got your task lighting your bright lighting for cleaning, then you’ve got your mood lighting and you’ve got this lighting. If they’re just buying a chandelier, if they’re just doing high hats—it doesn’t work that way. Kitchens produce so many different functions in there, so if I had to pick just one, aside from everything that we’re talking about, I would think that lighting is the number one mistake that everyone makes. They look at a plan and they’re not looking at it when they’re living with it, so the different varieties of light that need to be created to complete a kitchen I think is overlooked by, we’ll put some high hats. Pretty lights.

SB: I bring a lighting designer in, because I don’t know lights like the lighting designers. If the client will allow it, I think Karen’s right, the lighting is critical. And I’ll bring the lighting designer in because they know it best. And they know switching, and you don’t want seven switches along the wall, you know, and there’s easy systems to that, the technology. A lighting specialist is just as important as we are, so I never want to try and be that—I always want to bring the lighting designer in.

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Matthew Quinn @matthewquinndesign
Allie Holloway

MQ: To speak to that point, yesterday I spent the day looking at a kitchen plan I’m working up, the circuitry, because the client didn’t want the 30 switches that it was originally designed with 50 years ago. So I also own a smart-home company called Dwell Smart, certified home-automation specialists, and with technology we’re starting to eliminate the amount of switches you need because you can have a single keypad with six different switches on that singular keypad. It’s really become more about aesthetics now so we’re incorporating technology or centralized lighting to where all your switches are in a separate location, and all of your individual switches are removed so you don’t need to have so many switches, and of course voice commands and things like that. It’s really starting to change.

SB: I think that technology has tremendously helped in that we don’t have all these switches, but I still don’t think people know how many different types of lighting they need, whether it’s 10 switches or one that does everything. They don’t understand the difference between task lighting and mood lighting, from "people are entertaining in here" to "bright light because we’ve got to clean," you’ve got to get the floor, it’s not like the dining room with a pretty chandelier and maybe a couple of sconces. I think that certainly helps the technology of it, but there are so many different variations of lighting.

KW: And you need to think about all the colors of the lights: You have the lights under the hood, the lights above the island, the under-cabinet lights, the general lighting—every one of those has to color-relate, otherwise it’s not going to be right. There’s a lot of things that we are trying to get ahead of, that we know how to get ahead of, but one of them now is the color of light. It’s very important.

MF: It can make or break the design. It’s part of that function, for sure.

KW: You know, what’s the hood fabricator putting in and which under-cabinet light are we using and which overhead light are we using?

SB: It’s not easy to fix after the fact. If this is done and they don’t have enough proper lighting, it’s not easy after the fact for them to come into this finished kitchen and say, "I didn’t know it was going to be this dark in here."

KW: Another big thing is ventilation. I don’t know if all of you get involved in the technical aspects of it, but ventilation is so important, and you know, New York is a little bit tougher, Manhattan is a little bit tougher. I learned the hard way maybe 30 years ago, when I did a ventilation system and had not a clue what I was doing and nothing was working. You learn the hard way, but ventilation is critical and really understanding and working with the builder, and how it’s venting and where the blowers are going and if you can have a lint inline blower, it’s perfect. Those are the other parts that we get involved with, because it’s a part of a kitchen, it’s a part of making it all work and all function, and you know, clients don’t know that part of it—they just smell something. And they say, "I don’t want it to smell." I get that ,and it’s up to us to really work through it.

You learn the hard way, but ventilation is critical.

JS: To your point, that’s also a place where technology keeps changing. I was in a showroom in San Francisco, and to see what the companies can do with ventilation—it’s a thing you don’t even think about, that you’re like "Oh I didn’t know they were making advancements in this," and they are. It’s also the kind of thing, it’s the thing you inherit for the most part. I know I inherited a kitchen that has a microwave vent hood, that’s what I have. It counts on the microwave and I don’t cook fish because of it, I just don’t make latkes or fish in my house. And I’m excited for a new kitchen in which I can have a properly ventilated space.

KW: You make a mistake on that, and it’s an expensive mistake to change because you’re ripping out walls, you’re ripping out sheetrock. It’s critical.

JS: Matthew, what mistakes do you think people make?

MF: I think compromising on quality. I think there’s a conversation about how long you’re going to live in this house, and if it’s a very long time then how long do you want this kitchen to last, or this bathroom or this dressing room. And when you really start doing the math, and they’re trying to cut corners or get me to budget to more of a TV budget than a realistic one—you can see what they drive, you can see where they vacation, and you know how important this room is to them—you really have to kind of educate them where to cut the dollars and where not to. So I would say compromising on quality. The ventilation, the lighting have everything to do with what I call the fifth wall, the ceiling—that seems to be ignored a lot. So I pay attention to that ceiling. In my first book, and my second book that comes out next month, the photographers are always like, "Do you want us to photoshop out all the recess cans?" and no, I do not. I want it exactly as it is so people can see, because a lot of people will think "oh it’s so beautiful" and it’s like, no, there has to be cans in the ceiling to light this place up, so I leave all of that in the shots.

JS: To your quality answer, which I think is a great one as well, I say this—loaded, because CQ is really working towards this—that people are uneducated on why things cost what they cost, and what a real quality difference is.

MF: Definitely. I mean, it’s getting super expensive. It changes yearly what an appliance budget will be, and certainly cabinetry, it is mind blowing. I don’t do the food shopping, and every once in a while when I have to go to the grocery store I always freak out that a loaf of bread is five or six dollars, I cannot believe it. I think if it’s moving so quickly for us, how on earth are they keeping up with it? You can always just kind of tell, it’s kind of a gauge of where they’re at, when you just kind of ask them how much do you think the appliance package is going to cost and they start talking about everything they want. And if they’re thinking it’s $20,000, they’re just not your client. There’s just nothing out there. There’s a lot of that, so my point being if they think it’s $20,000, if they think they can redo an entire space for $150,000, you really have to spend a lot of time educating them that it’s just not possible. You have to think about how long are you going to be here, 15 years, you divide that by $150,000, you start kind of doing this to help them realize, OK, I need to invest more in this.

JS: I would say that also in the cabinetry world, you guys know what goes into a well made cabinet. I think that that’s something too that, you talk about the fifth wall, I think there’s things behind doors in that way, where people don’t understand what the difference is in a door that’s hollow and a solid door, and what that means for your kitchen. And cabinetry, I would say, is the most expensive but also the most highly crafted piece, right? A non-mechanically crafted thing, like handmade by a human—that is worth its value, I would say more so than anything else in the kitchen.

CP: The thing is it’s low-tech, I mean we’re making wooden boxes. But if you look at the man hours that go into it the cost of the materials, the workman’s comp—I own a factory where we make stuff, so I see all of these horrible added costs that go into what that cabinetry has to be sold for. It’s ridiculous. And to Matthew’s point, it blows my brains when I see how much we sell these products for, and it’s not because, I’m not out buying a Rolls Royce every 10 minutes, it’s just ridiculous how much things cost. And getting that across to a client—educating them, because they just can’t compute how that loaf of bread can cost that much money, or that drawer box, or that cutlery tray that we just made for them could be that amount of money—but if you add everything into it, that’s why it’s that amount of money. You’re educating them, but they have to look past the product.

SB: And they probably haven’t done a kitchen in 25 years, so they don’t have a benchmark.

CP: And they also have a million opinions, right? I mean, the minute somebody says "Hey, I’m going to redo my kitchen," they’ve got 15 best friends who are all telling them something different. So they’re really in a minefield before they get to talk to one of us. At the end of the day, you can still put a cereal box in an Ikea cabinet and it’ll sit there just fine. It doesn’t have to be anything that we do. Our products are beautiful, and hopefully everlasting, but at the end of the day, you really have to understand your client, because it’s a means to an end. You don’t have to spend $65,000 on a custom range. Your eggs will taste just fine on a GE range right out of Home Depot—if you’re selling them on the idea that their eggs are going to taste better, forget it. That’s not really how it is. So you really have to understand the psyche of why people want things, and not every client is right for us. We’re not going to sell to everybody. We can educate them all day long, but they’re not always going to be our client. You really have to kind of line up together at the same time, what they want and what you want kind of have to come in line for it to be a good marriage of client and product.

JS: One important thing that I always try to get out of these roundtables is communicating to my audience—many of whom can’t afford you guys, you know—communicating the knowledge you bring to the table. But also how people like you who are doing your jobs also cross, at different levels, what they bring to the table. I think what I’m also trying to educate people on is not just product but investing in designers. Then you can look at Pinterest all day long and see all the things and look at Instagram and like all the pictures and still not be able to.

CP: That to me is where the value is. You can’t replace the years of knowledge that’s sitting in this room, for example. You just can’t.

JS: I think even still to think about how you live, I’m just trying to educate my audience to make good decisions.

KW: I think, Christopher, when you say, when you go back it’s a box and the cereal will sit in an Ikea box just as well—when you’re talking about the clients we work with, there’s a few other things that I think go into your box. And you use the best quality materials, but you can have a box and it can be a pressboard that will last two years, and then people wonder why the hinges are getting loose. Or you can have one where people will say "Oh my God that kitchen is beautiful," and, yeah, because the walnut is 10 inches wide and it’s not all of these boards glued together. So there are technical things that sometimes we have to get by and look at. Because, all of us, every one of us here, produces a beautiful product with the best materials.

CP: I agree with that completely. I guess what I’m saying is, you have to align yourself with that moment in time, you have to understand what the client is looking for. They can be multi-gazillionaires and maybe they want to put something into a beach house that their kids are gonna trash, and they shouldn’t be coming to us for that, in my opinion. They shouldn’t do that. It’s just understanding your client at every level to make sure that, if we can look them in the eye and take their money, there’s a clear understanding of what the expectations are on both sides of it. At the end of it, when we’re all friends and they love it and they’re telling their friends, they don’t feel that they made a mistake. That’s really what it comes down to, and I think it’s all about communication early on in the process and really having those candid conversations, setting expectations, which we all do.

The kitchen is like an orchestra. If you don’t have a few instruments, you really notice the difference.

MF: They can pick their projects entirely. I’m starting to get to that point, I’m appreciative of that, but it was only a few years ago where you had to make certain budgets work. If a client shows me a lot of, you know, a fraction of the cost but the same look and it’s still quality—I would never put something that’s not quality, so there’s that balance. I think for the mass market, some of the readers at CQ and things like that, it’s good for them to know that the right designer can save them a lot of money. One of the things I always do when people tell me their budget is, I ask to see an inspiration image, and I see that, well, that range right now is $45,000, that ceiling detail is another $20, and then they start realizing. But yes, a good designer can save a client money, so it’s better to invest in that designer that X amount, and he’ll be able to engineer value throughout the project.

JS: I think it’s important too to note that we have readers who can afford you guys and are designing multiple houses, and we have readers on the other side who are looking at us for inspiration and future goals. For me, as an editor, the education piece is the critical part. Because to your point, Christopher, if all you can afford is Ikea cabinets, that's fine, there’s no judgement, but know what you’re getting. And I think the expectation that, and I have said this before, the expectation that everyone can afford the most expensive version of everything is not realistic. You should make an educated decision about the things that are important to you, that are going to impact your family and the way you live, and then make decisions based on where you should be spending your money and where you shouldn’t. And you can only do that if you know what goes into the products, and if you know how things are made.

KW: I think each and every one of us, though, can do a great kitchen on a budget. Because we have clients that are the kids of the parents, and they’re young, they just got married, they’re really on a budget, mommy and daddy may have given them some money, they bought a house, mommy and daddy are helping them, and you have to do that kitchen on a budget, and it’s a lot of fun because you really can create. I know we all can do it, we all have done it, and we all enjoy it, because we’re seeing the young kids starting a family, and I love that I’m almost asked to protect them. I’m asked to help them make good decisions, and after all these years of doing this, there’s no better joy than having a young couple come to me and say, "Can I do this?" Or "What do you think of that?" And you really work with them in almost a different light than you do the parents, and it’s a joy.

JS: A challenge is always fun. No one wants to walk into a showroom and say, I’ll take everything, it’s fun to mix it up and discover and find deals, I think that’s what our audience loves the most. We all have those things too, I’m sure you have it as well, "I’ve inherited this table and so you have to think about how to work that into the design." Anyway, I have loved this conversation and I have taken up so much of your time.

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