How to Plan for Your Dream Kitchen

A little foresight, some patience and the right designer are a good start, but there’s plenty that happens behind the scenes of a big remodel. Here are a few places you might be missing.

Beautiful, functional kitchens don’t happen by accident, and they don’t happen quickly. You need to invest time and money to make your dream kitchen a reality.

The first step is figuring out what you want, what you need, and how much you can realistically afford to spend. Then, it’s time to consult a professional.

“Some clients come in knowing exactly what they want,” says Tod Chapman, owner of C&H Design Center, in Belvidere. “They know they want white Shaker cabinets. ‘This is the style, this is the layout.’ Then, the next customer isn’t sure what they want. One client told me, ‘I’m not going to cook, so make it look pretty.’”

Knowing how – or if – the kitchen will be used is vital to designing something that suits the homeowner.

“We start a conversation to get the scope of what they want to do,” says Kayla Hauch, kitchen and bath designer at Benson Stone, in Rockford. “I always suggest people start looking on Pinterest or Houzz to get some inspiration ideas, because we just need a starting point, whether that’d be, ‘I love this door style with the color,’ or ‘I love this countertop,’ and build around it.”

Sarah Feuillerat, a designer at Kitchens by Diane, in Loves Park, Ill., says it’s helpful when homeowners arrive with an idea of the style, colors and materials they like.

“We ask our customers to arrive with some initial style ideas and, if possible, provide the dimensions of the room,” she says. “Having photos of their existing space always helps to start drawing ideas and get the conversation going. It’s even helpful to know what they don’t like to guide us in the right direction.”

Designer Diane Feuillerat, owner of Kitchens by Diane, has nearly 40 years of experience in the industry, and she trusts her eyes more than a computer when envisioning a space.

“We take the photos and dimensions provided by the customer, then everything is designed on paper – by hand, in pencil – before it goes into a computer program,” she says. “This may be a little different than some vendors, but it’s much easier to work with during our first meeting with the customer.”

Measurements help, too. Nearly everyone wants an island, but when you’re working within the confines of an existing kitchen, space might be limited.

“There’s typically nothing we can’t do,” says Dave Winters, sales consultant and estimator at Macktown Construction, in Machesney Park, Ill. “There’s usually a solution for every issue; it just depends on how much time and money you have to put toward it. We’re rarely going to tell someone no, unless it’s something that building codes won’t allow.”

Be Patient

Going from the drawing board to cooking in your new kitchen can be a long process, especially given material shortages and shipping delays caused by the ongoing pandemic.

“We can usually have a plan and pricing done in about a week, but the process, in part, depends on decisions made by the customer,” Diane says. “I’d say it’s an average of six to 10 weeks from the day they walk in to the day their cabinets are ordered. That includes our time and the contractor’s time with them in finalizing the project plan.”

Once designs are complete, the wait for the materials begins.

“That could take three or four months, maybe more,” says Sue Bryant, who owns River Valley Kitchens & Baths, in Roscoe, Ill., with her husband, Alan. “If you walked in and ordered today, you still wouldn’t be able to start work right away because there are people ahead of you.”

Winters doesn’t expect lead times to improve anytime soon, so he suggests queuing up. “Get in line now so you can get worked into the schedule,” he says. “We’re one hurricane away from another supply shortage.”

Another advantage of signing a contract now? Avoiding future price increases.

“Typically, I’d run into a yearly price increase in January or February of about 2%, and, with one supplier, I’ve had three price increases in the last year, the latest one being 15%,” Winters says. “Once we sign a contract and we order materials you’re locked in and don’t have to worry about another price increase.”

Once the materials arrive, additional delays can occur if your contractor is already taking on other projects, which adds to the waiting game.

Ins and Outs of Kitchen Trends

For better or worse, gray is one trend that doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon. These days, in fact, the trend has shifted toward warmer tones.

“We’re seeing a lot of ‘greige,’ where it’s a little bit gray, a little bit brown, and some of the lighter, muted, gray stained tones are still popular,” Bryant says.

“One trend that will always carry over would be a white cabinet,” Hauch says. “White is always a timeless, neutral, classic color, whether it be a bright white, a soft white, or even with a touch of taupe.”

Lighter, natural woods tones have been gaining in popularity lately.

“Quarter-sawn oak is really making a comeback, but not that kind of orange golden oak of the past, Hauch says.

“They’re not coming back to golden oak, by any means,” she adds. “You’re seeing warmer stain colors on your alders, and your maples are still popular. There’s not a big push for the distressed look anymore. The clean, functional Shaker-style drawers and doors are still very popular because that style doesn’t have all of the recesses to clean and dust around.”

Perhaps the biggest trend in kitchen design is making the most of unused space. The most obvious solution is to run upper cabinets right to the ceiling.

“It’s wasted space up there,” Winters says.

He adds that kitchens of the ’80s and early ’90s filled the dead space with soffits or left an open space that was hard to reach. In the late ’90s or early 2000s, staggered-height cabinets became popular.

“Everybody put decorative pieces up there, and it was a dust trap,” Winters says. “Those things have gone the way of the dinosaur, thankfully.”

A beautiful, decorative hood above a cook space is always a good idea. The placement of a microwave in that space is an out-going trend.

“Let’s be honest. Microwaves aren’t real pretty as a focal point,” says Diane Feuillerat, who recommends placing a microwave drawer unit in place of the traditional microwave. “They’re hidden down in a base cabinet where you don’t even notice it. If there’s room for one, it’s a good addition to any kitchen and opens space above the range for a nice hood.”

Chapman says microwave drawers are worth the investment.

“You spend a little extra on the microwave, but you open the drawer and it’s right there,” Chapman says. “It’s like opening the second drawer of a three-drawer base. It’s going to cost a little more for the appliance, but it’s definitely going to make your life easier.”

Something seldom seen in new kitchens anymore? Laminate countertops.

“Some people are still doing laminates, but not nearly as much as 10 or 12 years ago,” Chapman says. “Before granite got a little more cost-effective, I was probably selling 50% laminate – and that was around 2006 to 2009. Now, we’re doing about 80% to 90% quartz/granite.”

Quartz is a popular product made from natural stone. Cambria quartz, found at Kitchens by Diane, is manufactured in the U.S. and offers many choices.

“I would say quartz is the best product for countertops today,” Diane Feuillerat says. “It’s durable, beautiful, and low- maintenance.”

Because some customers prefer a time-worn look, Benson Stone still carries marble, which is softer and requires more maintenance than granite or quartz, but says customers can achieve a similar aesthetic – without added maintenance – by installing a honed or textured top. Honed stone has a matte finish.

“We can hone any of the granites here, even if they come polished,” says Hauch. “And there are a handful that come ‘leathered,’ so they have more of a texture. Some quartz can come in a leathered or honed look, too, but those have to be done at the factory.”

Trends come and go quickly, so consider how difficult or easy it’ll be to replace something at a later date. You might love big, bold tiles today, but if they’re passé in five or 10 years, they’ll be easier to replace in a powder room, mud room or backsplash than an entire kitchen floor.

That old trend of having kitchen desks has gone by the wayside. There’s little need for it when laptops and tablets allow homeowners to turn any spot of their home into an office.

“Twenty years ago, people thought, ‘This desk is going to turn my life around,’ but no one ever sat there,” Bryant says. These days, designers are tearing out kitchen desks and turning the wasted space into beverage centers, wet bars, pantry cabinet, or whatever their clients desire.

Benson Stone Co. photo

Short-Term Upgrades

If you can’t afford a complete remodel but want to freshen up your kitchen while you save up, the designers have a few tips.

Painting walls and replacing light fixtures are obvious changes, but details can make a big impact, too.

“Just changing the hardware is a huge update,” Hauch says. “When we pick hardware, I have people compare it with their appliances and faucets, because the shapes they choose can be carried over to the hardware. You can follow the shapes and metal finishes of light fixtures, too.”

Replacing a low-end stainless steel sink with a higher-quality sink – maybe even a popular apron sink – is a quick project for someone with decent DIY skills. “A tile backsplash will give you an updated look,” Chapman adds.

Painting old cabinets can give them a new look, but not all designers are fond of that option.

“If the cabinets are sound and the layout works, fine. Sometimes they’re just an ugly color,” Winters says. “Something as simple as painting the cabinets can totally change the look of a kitchen.”

If you’re contemplating replacing dated cabinet doors with new doors, think again. According to Diane Feuillerat, cabinet doors may account for between 60% to 70% of the cost of new cabinets, so putting new doors on old cabinets may not be the best cost-saving option.

Designers also advise against putting a new granite or quartz countertop on old cabinets.

“If your cabinets aren’t of the quality that they’ll last another five or 10 years, you don’t want to put high-end quartz on knowing you’ll have to pull those cabinets out at a later date,” Winters says, noting it would be difficult to save or re-use the countertops.

(Kitchens by Diane photo)

Bottom Line

The most important aspect of any kitchen renovation is being able to distinguish your wishes from your reality. Compromises may need to be made during the design process, and your design pro will guide you toward the best decisions for your needs and budget.

Some people put off kitchen remodels—or cut corners—because they’re afraid of putting more money into the project than they’ll get back if they sell their home.

“That’s a fair point,” Bryant says. “On the other hand, a lot of people like their home, like their location, and do it for themselves. If you plan to be there 10, 15, 20 years, do it. Buyers will see that you’ve taken good care of your house.”

Kitchen Designers’ Favorite Features

When it comes to kitchen cabinets, features that were cutting-edge just 10 or 15 years ago are now common in modern kitchens.

“You no longer have to go to a high-end custom cabinet line to get a spice pullout or cutting board accessory pullout,” says Kayla Hauch, kitchen and bath designer at Benson Stone. “Rollout trays are standard. All of the full-extension, soft-close features on the cabinets are standard now. They’re staples.”

“A spice rack on the back of a wall cabinet door is inexpensive, but very useful,” says Diane Feuillerat, owner of Kitchens by Diane. “Another would be built-in, pullout wastebaskets – we do those in most every kitchen as a standard feature.”

Sarah Feuillerat, designer at Kitchens by Diane, says customers should caution against adding fun, trendy features they’ve seen online.

“Let’s be honest. They look great and beautiful on Pinterest, but the functionality of putting them into a real, working kitchen isn’t always what the pictures crack up to be,” she says, citing toe space drawers as an example of a less-than-functional feature.

Instead, she suggests more functional accessories like cutlery or tray dividers and maximizing roll-out storage in pantry cabinets.

“If you’ve got a pantry cabinet, I can configure that multiple ways,” adds Dave Winters, sales consultant and estimator with Macktown Construction. “I can put in vertical storage, deep roll-out storage – there’s a lot I can do.”

While River Valley Kitchens & Baths co-owner Sue Bryant loves large storage drawers, she admits being partial to pullout canisters.

“They’re so handy,” she says. “Canisters are something that often sit on countertops, but they can be hidden so you don’t have to see them all the time, yet still have easy access.”

Tod Chapman, owner of C&H Design Center, reminds customers that while adding extra features might increase the final cost of your cabinets, it’s usually worth it.

“If you look at it as a percent of the whole kitchen budget, it’s very minimal,” he says.