Our homes are a significant investment, one that requires continual improvements and updates. When it comes to furnishings, flooring, remodeling and gardening, these local experts know where to begin.
Our homes are not only our sanctuaries but also one of the largest investments we make. That’s why it’s important to seek out the best when it comes to upkeep and improvements. That’s why we recommend buying from locally owned stores.
From flooring, furniture and decor to appliances, roofing, lawn care and more, local dealers and designers offer years of experience, superior products and customer service, and they’ll stand behind what they sell.
When you hire a locally based designer, contractor or technician and buy from a local sales force, you’re also getting their expertise, and you’re supporting those who’ve spent a lifetime building their knowledge through experience in your community.
Here, local experts share their knowledge and expertise on home design, repair, furnishings and upkeep.
The Family Room/Living Room
Comfort and durability are top concerns in favorite gathering spaces like living rooms and family rooms. “The casual living area is where you have the plush seating arrangements,” says Larry Watts, furniture supervisor at Benson Stone Co., 1100 11th St., Rockford. “That’s where you sink down or squish into pure comfort to unwind.”
Formal living rooms are waning in American homes, but many families still enjoy keeping a stylish room that’s always ready for drop-in visitors and is conducive to conversation. “Comfort is not top-of-mind here, as in the family room,” Watts says. “In contrast, formal areas typically have furniture with firmer cushions and straighter backs. This makes sense, because these are rooms where conversation, not watching TV, is the main activity.”
Within many a family or living room, the fireplace is a focal point. “Like everything else, a fireplace reflects the era in which it was built,” says Andy Benson, president of Benson Stone Co. “Some are still perfectly functional but very dated-looking. Many homeowners don’t realize that it’s pretty easy these days to update the look of a fireplace, thanks to some innovative materials.”
Some fireplaces can use a functional update, too. Newer fireplace units are completely self-contained, so they won’t pull heated air from other rooms of your home and send it out the chimney.
“With energy-efficient models, the majority of the fireplace heat is being captured and blown back out into the room,” Benson explains. “You just flip a switch and enjoy a really beautiful fire that contributes to heating your home, like a mini-furnace, rather than making your furnace work harder.”
It’s no secret that an older fireplace isn’t the most efficient home heating method. Worse, it can serve as an unwanted air conditioner during winter.
“An open fireplace can actually have a negative efficiency, because of the amount of air it sucks out of the home,” says Brad Vander Heyden, owner of Advanced Chimney Systems, 3486 Lonergan Dr., Rockford. “Some fireplaces consume 300 to 400 cubic feet of air per minute out of the house. That’s one thing when it’s 40 or 50 degrees outside, but it’s another thing when it’s below zero. You just suck so much air out that your furnace is working overtime.”
Some of the old, noncertified wood stoves do better – a 50- or 60-percent efficiency range – but newer, cleaner-burning stoves are up to 80 percent efficient. “If you have an old, inefficient, noncertified stove, you’ll easily save a third of your wood with a new one,” Vander Heyden says.
When updating a room, first consider your major focal points, says Coleen Carlson, furniture designer at Benson Stone Co. Then, draw a layout of the room and consider your personal tastes.
“Find an inspiration piece, like a picture in a magazine,” says Carlson. “Do some homework before you arrive, so the designers have an idea of what turns you on, style- and color-wise. There are so many styles to consider – are you modern or transitional? Do you have children, meaning you need cleanable fabric? Do you have pets?”
Today’s furniture style is eclectic. Long gone are the days of matching sets – pieces are unique, yet coordinated. Popular now are medium-dark and black-rubbed woods, as is the reclaimed wood look, made popular by Restoration Hardware.
“The palette is still soft neutral – the tans, grays and creams,” says Carlson. “And then the pop of color comes through accessories like artwork, lamps, vases and area rugs.”
A neutral backdrop is always in style, but the colors punctuating it are looking livelier these days.
“We’re seeing trends such as brighter colors now,” says Sheila Anderson, a designer at Gustafson’s Furniture & Mattress, 808 W. Riverside Blvd., Rockford. “Some styles have become a little more casual, a little more relaxed. We’re starting to do away with the more formal living room. Comfort is the way to go in your family room. The tried and true general wisdom is to purchase a good sofa set or sectional with a neutral-toned body and then dress up the room with more-trendy things that can be changed out in a few years – pillows, lamps, even a fun ottoman or accent chair.”
Anderson recommends incorporating various shades of gray, from taupe to charcoal, while adding a few pops of color such as cobalt blue or navy. “You can usually figure out which colors you’re drawn to by looking at your closet,” she says. “If you have a lot of neutrals, for example, that’s a good place to start when you’re decorating a room.”
Popular patterns include geometric, Moroccan, ikat and tribal, sometimes in watercolor, oversized or very sophisticated interpretations. Paisleys are also a favorite in our region.
“I really recommend mixing textures, colors and patterns within a room to express your personal style,” says Anderson.
Tossing and turning all night is no fun, and neither is waking up with aches and pains caused by your mattress.
“Consumer Reports says that the average lifespan of a mattress today is about seven to 10 years,” says Mitchell Johnson, store manager at Gustafson’s Furniture & Mattress. “So, if your mattress is 10 years old, it’s probably a good time to start looking for a new one. Or, if you’re waking up with a lower backache and it goes away in a few hours, it’s probably a good indication that your mattress is no longer supporting you properly.”
The good news is that mattress technology has improved dramatically over the past 20 years, with features that enhance comfort.
Gel-infused memory foam is one of the latest. This mattress utilizes foam that’s infused with little pieces of solid gel, a material that wicks away heat and conforms quickly as you shift. Johnson describes it as a step up from the Tempur-Pedic. Modern mattresses are slimming down, from the 24-inch pillowtops of a few years ago to about 9 to 13 inches. Customers have no problem using standard sheets on these.
No flooring has improved more in quality over past decades than carpet, says Lonnie Presson, owner of Lonnie’s Carpet Max, 6551 E. Riverside Blvd., Rockford, and none is easier to maintain.
“It amazes me how inexpensive carpet still is, compared to everything else, given all the science that has gone into making better fibers,” he says. About 90 percent of that fiber is still made in the U.S., mostly using synthetic materials derived from petroleum, most commonly nylon, olefin, polyester and triexta. “All carpet looks nice when it’s new, but the fiber type, density and twist will play a role in how it wears over time.”
Presson says nylon fiber is still considered the best, and “nylon 6,6” is the most durable. PET polyester, though slightly less durable than nylon, offers excellent stain resistance and is partially made with recycled materials. Olefin is more affordable than nylon or polyester, resists stains well and is super colorfast, but may crush faster in heavy traffic areas.
In carpet, density refers to the “face weight” of the yarn itself and the “stitch rate” – how close the yarn tufts are to one another. You can check stitch rate density by pressing your fingers into the carpet to touch the backing, or by bending a carpet sample into a “U” shape to see how much backing shows.
Finally, the “twist” of a carpet refers to how tightly each bundle of yarn is twisted. Bundles that easily untwist may result in carpets that start to look fuzzy with wear. “In recent years, they’ve developed super-soft carpet fibers that have a really nice, silky soft feel to them,” says Presson. The newer super-soft carpets are just as durable as their predecessors, because the same basic materials go into the fibers.
According to Kevin Rose, president of Carpetland USA, 326 N. Alpine Road, Rockford, a good salesperson will first ask about your lifestyle as related to flooring. What’s the setting in which you’ll be using this carpet? How many children do you have? What types of pets? Do you entertain?
“Everyone has specific needs,” he says. “It’s nice to try to tailor the correct product for a customer’s needs – not pick something a salesperson thinks is going to fit into everyone’s needs.”
Fiber type, density and twist are the true measures of carpet quality. Backings, also, can help to indicate a carpet’s quality, and especially its moisture resistance. If you have pets, Rose says, consider carpet with moisture-proof backing.
Also, realize the importance of good padding. Some carpet pads are even topped with a moisture-proof membrane. This is of special interest to pet owners.
“Padding is the best dollar spent in carpet,” Rose says. “It’s another vital element to the durability of the carpet. It takes the shock absorption, so it helps in resiliency of the fiber. If you’re going to save a buck or two, don’t do it in your pad.”
Solid hardwood floors are both beautiful and durable, and can be sanded and refinished several times to maintain their looks.
“Rockford is a solid oak hardwood town, and the fact that so many old homes still have beautiful, original oak floors tells you how it stands up,” says Presson.
Other wood flooring species include maple, birch, walnut, pecan, pine, cherry, teak and bamboo. Presson is a fan of bamboo, which offers a clean, distinctive look. “I like how it looks and wears, and you can find it for $7 or $8 per foot because the plant re-grows within 10 or 11 years,” he says.
A couple of drawbacks: Generally three-quarters of an inch thick, solid hardwood must be installed on or above grade and must be nailed down, and moisture can cause it to warp or buckle.
An excellent alternative to hardwood is engineered wood, made from thin layers of compressed wood, the grain of each layer running in a different direction. If the wood gets moist, expansion is minimal and uniform in all directions. Unlike solid wood, engineered wood can be glued down or floated. It’s sold in three-eighths or five-sixteenth inch sizes, so it fits better under door jambs. And because the surface is real wood, it’s impossible to distinguish from solid wood when looking down at it.
Ceramic, Stone, Tile
Other hard-surface floors remain popular, too. Ceramic and stone tile flooring have been used throughout the world for thousands of years because of their durability and beauty. Most ceramic tile is less expensive than stone and the variety is endless; styles mimic the richness of marble or granite, the metallic sheen of copper or stainless steel and the sparkle of glass.
Still another option is manufactured stone, made from natural stone chips suspended in a non-porous binder such as cement, epoxy, resin or polyester.
From a style standpoint, ceramic, porcelain, fabricated stone and natural stone tile look equally at home in Old World and contemporary decors. “Ceramic and porcelain tiles are easier to care for than natural stone,” says Presson. “That’s because stone is a natural product, which means it’s more porous.”
Laminate & Luxury Vinyl Flooring
Digital imaging revolutionized laminate flooring – a core board and backing with a printed image on top. “I used to talk customers out of buying it – I hated how it looked back then,” says Presson.
Unlike solid wood, which should be nailed into place and won’t wear well in moisture-prone rooms or basements, durable laminate floats over a pad. With a factory-applied UV dried surface coating, laminate resists spills and is easy to clean.
New luxury vinyl tiles and planks are popular choices among today’s homeowners. The precision of digital imaging makes it hard to distinguish a luxury vinyl “wood” plank from real wood, or a vinyl “stone” tile from the real thing. Yet vinyl is warmer to the touch, easier on the back and easy to install and maintain.
“The new luxury vinyls are softer and not so heavy,” says Presson. “They have unique colorations with detail that make them incredibly beautiful.”
Insights on Kitchens & Baths
Look online and on trendy TV shows and you’ll see a rainbow of designer colors for appliances. The sales floor is another story, says Darwyn Guler, owner of Guler Appliance, 227 Seventh St., Rockford.
“That never really did take off,” he says. Go to most stores and you’ll still see a lot of white, black and stainless steel – tones that go with just about any decor.
Stainless steel remains a strong seller, but increasing numbers of people have wanted something that showed fewer fingerprints and was more resistant to scratching from things like magnets. General Electric in 2012 introduced Slate as an alternative to stainless steel, Guler says, adding that it’s received an almost 75 percent approval rating for cleanability and appearance. It’s a warm, low-gloss gray that goes well with most colors of cabinets or granite countertops.
“GE can hardly keep up with the demand for Slate,” he says. “If 10 people walked in, one might buy a specific color, but five of them are buying Slate.”
For Smaller Kitchens
When selecting cabinets for smaller kitchens, designer Erin Meyer of Benson Stone Co. suggests installing units that climb to the ceiling.
“When you have a small kitchen, you want it to look as big as possible,” she says. “Kitchens look bigger when cabinet lines reach toward the ceiling. If you increase the upper cabinets, you can get larger items in.”
Remove soffits, she adds. They tend to bring the eye downward, and they look dated.
Colors and accents play an important role in any size kitchen. People are often wary of darker colors that might make kitchens feel smaller, but when interesting accents are involved, they draw the eye and enhance the color scheme.
“Any time you can keep things from being in a straight line, that definitely adds interest,” says Lisa Simpson, a designer at River Valley Kitchens & Baths, 5261 Swanson Road, Roscoe, Ill.
This also applies to flooring. “A lot of people think small tiles in a small space make a kitchen look bigger, but steer away from it,” Simpson says. “When using tiles, skew them to a diagonal pattern. It makes your eyes perceive the space as being larger.”
Another visual trick is to lay flooring in a pattern that flows seamlessly into neighboring rooms. Creating a flow from room to room makes a space feel larger.
For Larger Kitchens
When renovating a larger kitchen, think in terms of specific work zones.
“When it comes to larger kitchens, don’t disregard the lighting,” says Scott Herrmann of Marling Homeworks, 1138 Humes Road, Janesville. “People forget that they have to have enough light. Pendants and fixtures can help with this.”
Multiple islands, ovens or sinks can make good sense in a larger kitchen, depending on how the homeowners use their space.
“Peninsulas are a great way to divide larger kitchens and keep guests out of the cooking space,” says Diane Feuillerat, owner of Kitchens by Diane, 6346 Riverside Blvd., Loves Park, Ill. “A comfortable seating area can be added to allow conversation with the chef during food preparation, without guests getting in the way.”
Kitchen Design Trends
Where homeowners once wanted kitchen space for a bulky desktop computer and books, today’s untethered devices – laptops, smartphones and tablets – are as mobile as their users. Once a must-have in kitchen remodels, dedicated desk areas are quickly going the way of harvest-gold appliances. Instead, homeowners are opting for multipurpose islands and counters, plus all the storage space they can get.
“Just about every kitchen we quote now will have provision for a large pantry,” says John Kruschke, president of Premier Woodwork Inc., 1522 Seventh St., Rockford. “We’re also doing a lot of large drawers. People like storing their dishes in drawers rather than upper cabinets.”
Kruschke notes that painted cabinets with glaze are popular now. Gray is particularly big, with an assortment of warm tones available, often pairing well with stainless steel appliances.
Stained cabinets, on the other hand, are going dark. “Darker wood grains are coming back – an espresso finish, especially,” he says. “And then wood floors that match it. It’s just a new trend. In the ’70s it was all the rage. The golden oak and maple that were popular more recently are not so big now.”
Perhaps no room in the house has more potential for improvement than the kitchen, says Feuillerat, of Kitchens by Diane.
“Something as simple as burning a few nice candles, adding a small lamp to your countertop, displaying some pretty bowls or replacing your kitchen towels can really give you a lift,” she says. “Or what about upgrading your faucets? People are enjoying the new taller styles and pull-out nozzles that make it so much easier to do everyday tasks, like filling a pot or rinsing the sink.”
If your cabinets are sturdy but look a little tired, consider changing only the hardware. “It can make a big difference in the feel of the space,” says Feuillerat.
Another project that costs a little more but makes a big statement is having your backsplash tiled. Decorative options have never been greater, from classic glossy subway tiles to matte finishes and narrow horizontal glass styles.
“We’re seeing a lot of homeowners who choose more subdued styles mixed with glass accent tiles,” says Feuillerat.
Although the bathroom is often the smallest room in the house, its potential for upgrades is enormous.
“Fresh paint, a new countertop, faucet and fixtures can do wonders,” says Sue Bryant, co-owner, with husband Al, of River Valley Kitchens & Baths. “We’re also seeing people install heated tiled floors and heated towel racks, as well as base-height vanities, customized tiled mirrors and updated lighting.”
Some homeowners are making their showers larger and their bathtubs smaller. “Rather than having a small shower that’s used twice a day, and a giant tub that’s used twice a year, many people are replacing the tub with a walk-in, custom tiled shower unit with body sprays, hand shower and a rain shower head,” says Sue. “Some add a smaller, more comfortable and water-sensible Kohler Bubble Massage bathtub.”
Scott Herrmann, of Marling Homeworks, was responsible for the design of 15 units in Garrison Lofts & Townhomes, a renovated 1880s school in Rockford.
One of Susan Simmert’s favorite rooms in her 1,100 square-foot townhome is the bathroom. It has a 13-foot ceiling and a pair of transom windows on each side, which allows light to flow from one room to the next.
“I love the high ceilings and glass windows,” she says. “The added light gives the room a different feel.”
Herrmann agrees: “It shortens the walls. We wanted to put some perspective on it. With those glass windows, you don’t feel like you’re walking into a tunnel.”
A comfort-height vanity with taller backsplash and higher tile around the tub give the room a different dimension.
“The taller you make things, the shorter the room feels,” Herrmann says. “When you walk into the room, it just makes sense.”
Insights for the Great Outdoors
Early season lawn maintenance can include two rejuvenating processes: dethatching and aerating. Thatch is that layer of dead grass, leaves and roots atop the soil. A little is OK, but spring is a great time to remove most of it and start over.
“That just kind of brings the yard back to life,” says Tim Kinney of Lincoln Rent-All & Lawn Equipment Sales, Inc., 3110 Auburn St., Rockford. “It gets all the wet, heavy stuff off of it and lets it breathe a little better. Basically, you know it’s time to dethatch if you walk on your lawn and it feels like a sponge.”
It’s no harder than raking. First, use a dethatching rake, which has curved, sharp tines, to cut through and loosen the debris and bring it to the surface. Then, gather the thatch with a leaf rake and dispose of it.
Another method for breaking up thatch is aerating a lawn, which is especially useful for harder clay soils, or where the ground is compacted by foot or vehicle traffic. An aerator looks something like a rototiller, either as a self-contained machine or as an implement that pulls behind a lawn tractor. It’s rolled over the soil and extracts “plugs,” leaving small holes that allow water and nutrients to reach deep into the soil.
There’s no need to rake up the dirt plugs, Kinney adds. After a rain or two, they break down and are reabsorbed into the lawn.
Deciduous trees – those which drop their leaves each fall – don’t mind going into cold ground. They’re asleep, anyway, so they ride out the winter in a dormant state, and then wake up during the spring thaw, ready to grow.
“The roots of plants, shrubs and trees are very active in autumn, right about the time their tops start to look dormant,” says Jon Carlson, owner of J. Carlson Growers, 8938 Newburg Road, Rockford.
A common mistake is planting a tree too close to a house or in another space it will outgrow.
“It’s hard for people to conceptualize what a plant will look like after many years of growth,” he says. “But it’s much, much better to choose the right plant for the space, in the first place, than to try to prune it into submission later. Trees grow. That’s what they’re supposed to do. Part of the beauty you enjoy in a tree is seeing its natural shape. Especially in winter, when leaves have dropped, a tree can be like a beautiful sculpture, a piece of artwork. But not if it’s been all hacked up.”
Most spring-blooming perennials also do better when planted in fall.
“There’s a general rule of thumb that if a perennial blooms in the spring, it’s best to plant it in the fall, and visa versa,” says Dee Speaker, greenhouse perennial manager at K&W Greenery, 1328 Hwy. 14 East, Janesville, Wis. “But plenty of people are successful at dividing fall-blooming plants in fall, too. You just have to be more careful.”
One summer perennial that growers have had a lot of fun with recently is the coneflower. In its simple lavender form, this plant symbolizes the Midwestern prairie. But today’s hybrids come in outrageously bright colors, like the magenta, pink, yellow and orange-red colors in the PW Big Sky series. Popular are Firebird, Flame Thrower and Secret Joy.
A reddish-orange beauty, Firebird has large blooms with unique petals that tilt downward. Flame Thrower has two-toned orange and gold flowers.
“It can reach 40 inches tall, and has a well-branched, free flowering clump,” says Chris Williams, head grower at K & W Greenery. “Secret Joy blooms all summer long, with pale yellow, fragrant flowers.”
One of the most popular of annuals is the beloved geranium.
“Geraniums have long been a staple in the Midwest garden and probably always will be,” says Scott Gensler, Gensler Gardens, 102 Orth Road, Loves Park, and 8631 11th St., Rockford. But all are not created equal. “Zonal geraniums were developed about 30 years ago, and that’s what you want. The seed geraniums will never grow as large or yield as much bloom, no matter what you do to them. The genetics are night and day, and consumers should watch for trickery on the part of some people who sell geraniums.”
When it comes to plants with a trailing habit, for planters, baskets and containers, Gensler is partial to torenia.
“There are probably 150 different kinds of great trailing plants, both blooming and nonblooming,” he says. “Torenia is one I like a lot because it blooms, even in shade, with flowers shaped like little horns. It comes in a lot of colors, from reds, blues and whites to purple. There’s a new one that’s white with a purple center, called Grape-o-licious.”
There are many ways to heat a grill, including gas, charcoal, ceramic and pellet. Gas grills use natural or propane gas, and the tank must be refilled at regular intervals. However, it’s possible to permanently mount a natural gas grill into your patio and connect it to your home gas line. That way, the chore of continuously filling up the tank disappears.
“You can build an outdoor island or kitchen with these permanent gas grills,” says Kevin Obee, sales manager, Benson Stone Co. “Add a fireplace, and it’s like an outdoor room.”
The Big Green Egg grill looks exactly like its name implies – a big green egg. As a ceramic cooker that runs on natural charcoal, it also serves as a pizza oven, baking oven and smoker.
“It’s an all-around grill,” says Heather Kraus, sales manager at Advanced Chimney Systems. “It uses one of the highest-quality ceramics, so it’s able to heat up quickly and hold consistent heat.”
Since the ceramic captures the desired temperature, the food cooks evenly, and the charcoal can be used over and over.
A build-up of debris, leaves and water can damage the structure of your roof and home, forcing you to make costly repairs. Cleaning them yourself is not only messy, but you risk serious injury climbing ladders. You can always pay someone regularly to clean them, but there’s a more permanent solution.
Toby Lask, vice president of Lask Roofing & Siding, 1101 22nd St., Rockford, recommends installing Gutter Helmet to keep your gutters clean.
“The Gutter Helmet protects your gutter from leaves and debris, and still allows water to flow freely,” Lask says. “It moves a lot of rain and can take about 10 times the heaviest rainfall ever recorded.”
Gutter Helmet is installed with heavy-gauge reinforced support brackets. Panels are individually prepared and custom-fitted over your full-sized gutters by trained installers who clean, seal, check and adjust the alignment of your existing gutter system as needed. The panels are then securely installed under or over shingles as needed. In most cases, installation can be completed in just one day.
Lora Lask Matthews, president of Lask Roofing, still shudders when she tells the story of one Gutter Helmet customer, an elderly woman who owned a two-story home.
“She told the salesman that the way she had been cleaning the gutters was to shimmy out of her upstairs window, onto her roof, and then shimmy down the roof, clean the gutters, and shimmy back up, into the window. In her mid-80s! That one was a shocker.”
The woman needed just one section of Gutter Helmet to keep leaves out of her gutters and herself out of geriatric gymnastics.
Human needs don’t get much more basic than a roof over one’s head. That’s not lost on the people at Lask Roofing & Siding. They celebrated the company’s 35th anniversary in 2013, and what guided the company from the beginning continues today: Pride and satisfaction in providing a service that people need – sometimes urgently. A damaged roof places everything underneath it at risk.
“When someone calls us for work, we’re fixing their problem,” says Adam Lask, the company’s secretary-treasurer. “They come to us with a problem, we offer a solution … To be able to offer that product, that service, to people, is pretty nice.”
There’s a sense of comfort and security in hiring a family-run company that’s not going away anytime soon. Some of Lask’s customers had the same roof done by Lask 25 or 30 years ago.
“That makes you feel so good,” Toby says. “Words can’t even express it. I’ll never forget riding around with my dad when we were younger. He’d just point – ‘Hey, I did that roof, I did that roof, I was up on that steeple.’ It’s nice to be able to go around town, knowing you helped that family or you helped fix that structure.”
“We plan on being here forever,” Adam adds. “We don’t ever plan on leaving. We’re the second generation. We’re expecting a third, fourth, fifth generation. Who knows?”