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How to Design a Dream Kitchen

Over the weekend, the story of how I created my dream kitchen was featured on Apartment Therapy. And it occurred to me that I hadn’t shared the full decade-long saga of how my kitchen came to be on our blog. So here it is, along with six tips for creating your own best kitchen.

I never planned to end up living in my in-laws’ house.  My husband, two boys, and I were very happy just around the corner from them in a home we adored. The actual house wasn’t much, a 1950s post-war Colonial. But with the huge yard just off the water, it was our “dream home.” I just didn’t know it at the time. 

Our yard was breathtaking, and my garden was so extensive that friends would request tours.  The first couple of summers we didn’t even take a vacation – why leave? I spent warm weekends happily pulling weeds and playing with the kids. The 1950s kitchen, although dark and gloomy, had a picture window overlooking the waterfront, and the house had tremendous potential for a future renovation. We had a family, a dock, a boat – it was everything we wanted for the moment. 

But 2008 hit both our professions (real estate development and private equity) hard, and we scrambled for a fallback plan.  My Plan B was denial, but fortunately, my husband found a better solution. His parents retired to Florida a few years early so we could quickly sell our home on the water and move into theirs, a Craftsman that had been in the family since 1940.  

We were crushed, but grateful to have a place to land that already felt like home. I launched my kitchen design business and started planning how I’d renovate the kitchen. It kept me busy and distracted from the many things in my life I couldn’t change.

before kitchen with blond cabinetry
Photo credit: Studio Dearborn

My in-laws had redone the kitchen in the 1980s, and it was ideal for the two of them. But by the time we moved in in 2010, it looked dated, and it was cramped for our family of four.

Even after a few upgrades, there wasn’t enough seating around the island, there wasn’t enough refrigerator space, there wasn’t enough food shelving, the oven was too small…the list went on. We added food storage and a refrigerator to a nearby broom closet, but that was only a temporary solution.  All the fixes we made to the kitchen were minimal, while my new “forever” kitchen felt just out of reach. 

We had never redone the kitchen in our former home, or the home before that…so I’d spent decades of dreaming – and never doing. But my growing kitchen design business called for frequent meetings in my own home, I was in desperate need of a model to show prospective clients.  It didn’t help that new clients would roar with laughter when they saw my kitchen! It was finally enough to push my fiscally responsible husband to the tipping point. We set a date for the renovation and settled into half our house for five months of renovating. 

Studio dearborn kitchen open shelves and patio
Photo credit left to right: Adam Kane Macchia and Tim Lenz

Having the renovation done felt surreal. The new space is unimaginably bright and inviting thanks to the huge windows we added and a southern exposure, which was formerly wasted on a windowless bathroom wall.

I never imagined that my ideal kitchen would appeal to so many other people, and win awards. The accolades – Houzz Kitchen of the Week, Westchester Home’s 2018 Best Traditional Kitchen, and then the real stunner: the 2019 top kitchen design award from the National Kitchen  & Bath Association, which represents the $31 billion kitchen and bath industry. It was the first time I ever entered the contest. I guess that’s the equivalent of winning an Academy Award for your very first film! 

But with all the hoopla, the coolest thing is that it’s a normal kitchen. It’s not massive (about 250 square feet)  and we didn’t have an unlimited budget – just ask my husband. And since I have two teenage boys, it had to be practical and durable. I had to make the most of every inch since I wanted so many windows and I needed lots of storage. 

Anyone can create a beautiful, functional, and timeless kitchen they’ll love with some planning and these lessons I learned while creating my dream kitchen. 

 1. Take Your Time

While you might be able to redo a powder room in a couple of weeks, kitchen design is a long game. That’s because the kitchen is a complex place, where everything from cooking to storage and homework to entertaining happens. You want your kitchen to fit your needs for years to come, so take your time. I started planning what I wanted to do with the kitchen back in 2010 when we moved into this 1920s Craftsman that was once owned by my husband’s parents. 

2. Figure Out All the Ways You Use the Space 

Picking out paint, backsplashes, and appliances is way more fun, but space planning is the No. 1 most important part of designing your new kitchen.

Make a list of all the activities that happen in your kitchen, from cooking to repotting plants to homework, and feeding the pets. Plus, you need to allow room for all of your kitchen stuff: Appliances, glassware, platters, pots, and pans.

Do you have lots of spices or a big tea collection? All of those will need a home in your new kitchen. In mine, I knew we needed more storage for our formal glassware and barware. Years before the renovation, I got a 27-inch SubZero refrigerator because I realized I could build a cabinet with the refrigerator and an identical cabinet sink next to it and make the whole thing look built-in. I used the program Chief Architect to plan the room out; DIYers should check out Home Designer Pro, the budget-friendly version of this program. 

drawer organizer inserts
Photo credit: Adam Kane Macchia

3. Keep an Inspiration List

You’ll see great colors, wood finishes, and seating when you least expect it, so figure out a way to keep a kitchen inspiration list.

I found the bar material, a character walnut, while I was working on a project for a client. I found the paint and cabinet color, Light Pewter  (1464) from Benjamin Moore, the same way. And I had seen shiplap detail on a cabinet five or six years ago and I loved it so it went on my mental list of things I wanted.

Houzz idea books are a great way to do this, and you can share them with your interior designer and builder/architect. 

4. Think About the Big Picture

There’s an old interior design trick that says you should pick a favorite patterned piece of fabric, and pull all the colors from your home from there. I don’t think you need to be this rigid, but it is a good idea to think holistically about how your new kitchen will fit with the rest of your house.

In the best-designed homes, one room just flows into the next with a harmonious palette of colors and materials. You want your kitchen to reflect the same design style (farmhouse, modern, industrial) as the rest of your home. So for example, I had a Carrera marble Saarinen table in the living room and Carerra floors in the two baths upstairs. It felt natural to repeat this in the kitchen backsplash. It’s not a big house, and I liked having those repeating themes.

view of kitchen from living rom
Photo credit: Tim Lenz

5. Be Flexible

Even in the best-laid kitchen plans, something won’t come together exactly the way you expected. A pipe might be in the wrong place or a load-bearing wall may need to stay where it is – and that’s OK.

You can be flexible without compromising your original vision. And you might come up with something better than your first idea. In my original plan, I had the refrigerator and range reversed because of the window placement. I flipped them around when I realized I could put the range in front of the window. So now I get to enjoy looking out the window while I cook.

6. Add Your Personality

I like the color red and all things vintage. On my open shelves, I  keep a collection of red and white vintage soda bottles that my son and I collected while flea market hopping around the Northeast.  My most curious (and kitschy) item is a WWF action figure of Nikolai Volkoff, a Soviet superstar wrestler from the 1980s. Several clients have seen him and commented that they collected these figures when they were kids! His red uniform fits my color scheme, and his fist-pumping attitude makes him a perfect imaginary coach to cheer me on while I’m cooking!