The Insider: Kitchen Wisdom

The kitchen reno conundrum: It’s hard to decide where to splurge and the choices you commit to are lasting. Here, some industry pros talk honestly about what's worth it and why. 

Written by Sophie Donelson

7 Minute Read


The way we think about our kitchens has changed immensely in the last few years. More than any other rooms, this one was deeply impacted by the pandemic. We became intimate with our kitchens in a way that only chefs and overworked parents typically are. Sticky drawers, dated appliances, the tile backsplash picked out by a previous owner that you’d tolerated until recently but now simply cannot live with. The pressure-cooker years around 2020 gave us one thing for sure: A point of view about our kitchen and the will to make a change — or to appreciate the things that worked well for us.

At the same time, the kitchen firmed up its reputation as the room where life unfolds. There’s chats with family and homework, messy projects like potting plants baking, and every once in a while—if you were lucky (or feeling cabin-crazy)—an impromptu dance party. It all happens in the kitchen. When visitors started to return to our homes, the kitchen regained its place as the social hub, too. These are welcoming spaces by nature, a neutral place where new friends and neighbors can feel comfortable leaning against a counter or pitching in to help.

With that, our POV on how we address kitchen design shifted, too. Not content with our cookspace being simply functional, a lot of us looked to incorporate personal or personality-full touches to this beloved room with the confidence that investment here is exponentially rewarded. Such was the starting point for my new book, Uncommon Kitchens: A Revolutionary Approach to the Most Popular Room in the House. (Go figure, years of working with Ann Sacks informed the creative and luxe aesthetic of the book as you’ll see!)

Whether you’re going it alone, with a new or trusted contractor, or signing on a seasoned designer, the road to kitchen renovation success is long and daunting. Getting it right involves investing in key features, avoiding financial pitfalls, and living through the process. Like most challenging  journeys, this one ends in a handsome payday: Enjoying yourself in the heart of the home with all the ease, beauty, and satisfaction you’d envisioned.

Here’s what a few design pros and homeowners say about that — and the guiding light that unites their own unique visions. Hint: It’s about love.

Save On This - Save Yourself!

Let’s get this out of the way: Here’s what we can just avoid. Planning a kitchen is overwhelming and crossing a few things off the list can be liberating. Start here!

Too Specialty, Too Frivolous

“We try to avoid letting homeowners go for extremely specialized appliances, especially built in,” says Los Angeles designer, cookbook author, and TV personality Nathan Turner. “It’s the crazy fancy coffee makers with proprietary parts and functions that bother me because these technologies change so quickly and so the units date fast. You really don’t want that built into your home.”

A second sink is a coveted feature—seems like a logical addition to a renovation. Don’t fret if it’s not in the plans: More than one homeowner (myself included) cite a second sink as underutilized, if not nearly useless. A bar sink or a prep sink is often smaller and that aspect alone limits the uses. “An itty-bitty soapstone sink by the range seemed like a good idea,” says designer Katie Rosenfeld about her own Boston kitchen, featured in Uncommon Kitchens. “And it looks great! But it gets no use — we don’t even fill pots there. Once, my husband tried to wash chicken or something in there and I screamed at him,” she says laughing. “I thought: Why are you washing chicken in my decorative sink?!” 

For Matthew Quinn, it’s a pot filler that’s ok to skip. A designer and kitchen specialist based in Atlanta, Quinn’s kitchens are distinguished by an unseen facet: their ability to save families minutes a days, hours a month, days a year, through efficient and thoughtful floor plans and efficiencies. But pot fillers aren’t one of them. “Not unless they’re going to use it literally every single day,” says Quinn smiling. The cost for that, of course, isn’t just in the hardware or the tile or stone fabrication that surrounds, but also the labor of plumbing a line to the range wall, typically not a wet wall.

Save Up For This Instead

In terms of performance and everyday quality of life, Quinn says save your money for appliances. “And Lighting, lighting, lighting! If the lighting is awful then it’s all just a waste of money. You want many sources of light, overhead, decorative, undercounter, and so on.The ability to adjust it flexibly, for different modes and needs, is essential, too,” he explains. “This is one place that homeowners under-think and it’s probably one of the most critical elements of the room.

The Main Event: The Emotional Connection

No single savvy purchase is going to lift your spirits if you don’t feel delighted when you encounter it. That’s why we all obsess over cabinet colors, tile and stone varieties, and hardware finishes—these are the rewarding, serotonin-pinging payoffs we feel in a pretty kitchen—and that’s OK.

Quinn, Turner, and everyone featured in Uncommon Kitchens made a point of bringing beauty into their lives, often at the expense of logic or convention. But that’s the point. Kitchens are personal.

Says Turner: “The kitchen is far more personal than other rooms because every person is so different—the way they move and live in and around their kitchen, some people cook, some don’t, some people don’t want to see their kitchen, some people want to live in their kitchen….” he says. “You’ve got to really lean into how you live and how your family lives.”

There are kitchen expenditures that cannot be measured in metrics — and that’s the emotional connection to a space. There are any number of triggers for this and anything that elicits a gasp of, Ah so beautiful! which can be as simple as dappled light falling on a countertop. (Or as complex if you’re citing a home or kitchen expansion from scratch.)

Angie Hranowsky returned to a beloved tile, MADE Modern Split, for her own Charleston kitchen. “It has a really beautiful quality that I just gravitate toward,” she says. “It’s a really beautiful glazed, handmade tile, and it's not too traditional and not too modern and I love the color palette it comes in. It's still one of my favorite tiles.” There’s a reason she and many other designers are increasingly picking dimensional tile for the backsplash, it adds movement and texture in an area of key visual attention. And even more (Hranowsky included) are nixing upper cabinets in favor of more beautiful tile. When you really love something, a little is never enough.

For Shavonda Gardner, a designer and content creator, the emotional connection is a family one, too. With many happy memories of prepping, cooking, and eating with her family in the American South, she chose to do a dining table versus an island in her Sacramento kitchen. That’s what was in her grandmother’s kitchen. “A table in the middle of the kitchen is an immediate trigger to gather,” she explains in the book, citing it the center of it all: Where you sit and talk, snap beans, shell peas, shuck corn, clean up, and return to — to finally eat.  A table is the single most inviting nonverbal cue. It signals: Let’s talk, eat, drink, be together in the space.” For her, that wasn’t happening at an island.

Outside Boston, Katie Rosenfeld made two right decisions based on an inner feeling. One was to splurge on the right terra cotta flooring since the material was integral to the Tudor home’s bones and the second was nixing upper cabinets which she says saved the spirit of the room. “I wanted to look at my collection of Toby jugs rather than upper cabinets that store a bunch of platters,” she says. “You have to make choices in life!”

“If you have a love of something, even if it’s expensive, consider doing it because it’s going to make you really happy. It’s money well spent,” says Nathan Turner. Counters walls, and waterfall island faces clad in stone are transformational for a space since they blanket a significant amount of square feet — this is impact.

Natural stone, cites Turner, is a reliable pick no matter what the variety. Ancient materials have been called on for centuries to beautify our homes and public spaces — it won’t be within this millennia that they feel out. This is an easy argument for stone that’s both timeless and opinionated, such as Breccia Capraia, which displays an array of color from green to burgundy to violet thanks to natural mineral deposits. 

Color connects us to our spaces and as a design element, it’s easy to access: nearly everyone has an emotional response or reaction to a given hue. Making the color connection can be a creative pursuit; Quinn isn’t looking at marble palettes or tile colors in a vacuum, he’s teasing those elements among others in the room. “What I like to see is an amazing colorful tile or a patterned backsplash that related to a fabric or rug nearby,” that sort of pairing elevates everything nearby too. He’s also a wizard at applying color throughout and sneakily at that: “It can be in a le Creuset, a painted inside of a cabinet; the back of open shelves; or the interior interiors of a pantry.” Sometimes an uplifting chance isn’t an overhaul after all.

June 11, 2023

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