The New Kitchen


Ever since the first caveman rearranged his circle of rocks to create a bigger cooking fire, people have been remodeling their kitchens.

The urge to make the kitchen bigger and better must be encoded in our DNA. After all, the kitchen is both the heart and the hearth of the home. And now, more than ever, the kitchen is viewed as the most important room in the house. It’s no longer just a place to cook—it’s a spot to gather with family, entertain friends, indulge in hobbies, watch TV, pay bills, do homework, keep an eye on the kids and make a statement about yourself: your interests, your tastes, your very essence.

“The kitchen has definitely become more important,” says certified kitchen designer Janice Stone Thomas, who has been designing kitchens in Sacramento for close to 30 years. “And spending money on it is no longer seen as a luxury.”

In fact, Americans are spending record sums of money on their kitchens. In 2004, according to the National Kitchen and Bath Association, Americans spent more than $47 billion on kitchen remodeling, up 11.1 percent from 2003.

Local experts point to a variety of factors to explain that increase.

Affluent baby boomers, used to getting what they want when they want it, are the leading consumers of remodeling services. A booming economy, low interest rates and growing home values have combined to give them an irresistible financial incentive to improve their homes. The proliferation of design magazines and home-related TV shows showcasing the latest and greatest fuels their desire for fancy kitchens.

And don’t underestimate men’s growing fascination with the kitchen. Cooking at home, once the almost-exclusive province of women, now is luring men into the kitchen in greater and greater numbers. And men spend money—big money—on their hobbies.

In fact, the kitchen is the most frequently remodeled room in the house. “It’s No. 1,” says Debbie Gualco, a local architect and interior designer. “All the remodels we’re doing are kitchen-related.” Often, the job spills over into other rooms: A homeowner may decide to open up the kitchen to the family room, add a bath, create a bigger laundry room or make the kitchen more accessible to the back yard.

But all that construction comes at a price. According to local designers, a bare-bones kitchen remodel will cost you more than $30,000—and that’s without granite countertops or spiffy appliances. In the Sacramento region, a more typical remodel will run you $60,000 to $80,000, and you’ll pay $125,000 or more for a top-of-the-line job with unique finishes, professional appliances and custom cabinetry.

Still, says Gualco, it makes sense to invest money in your kitchen. According to remodeling-industry estimates, you will recoup about 80 percent of your investment if you sell your house immediately, more if you live in it for a few years. “The kitchen holds its value,” she says.

So what do you need to know before you tackle a kitchen remodel? Read on . . .

The Personalized Kitchen

What does today’s homeowner want in a kitchen? First, says Stone Thomas, “it should be comfortable, functional and beautiful.”

The one-size-fits-all kitchen is out, and so is the kitchen as antiseptic laboratory. Today, consumers want a kitchen that expresses their individuality. “Clients are more willing to do fun things,” explains Molly Korb, a certified kitchen designer in Newcastle. “They like to combine different woods, materials, colors and moldings.” The modern consumer also wants a laundry list of goodies, including professional-style appliances, unique materials, specialized cabinetry and multifunctional lighting.

Manufacturers have responded with a wealth of new products. Just a few years ago, if you wanted a commercial-style range, you had only two brands from which to choose: Viking and Wolf. Today, there are at least 15 different brands on the market. And technological advances have created entire new categories of products such as ovens that combine convection with microwave technology, and faster-cooking thermal ovens.

Appliances aren’t the only product for which you’ll find a lot of choice. Countertop materials are proliferating like crazy. In addition to traditional tile and granite, you can choose from limestone, soapstone, marble, concrete, lavastone and the new engineered stone products—also known as quartz surfacing, made by blending crushed quartz with pigments and plastic resins—such as Silestone, CaesarStone and Zodiac. For backsplashes, your options now include tumbled stone and glass and metal tile.

Linda Bellmer, a certified kitchen designer at Expo Design Center in Roseville, says all that choice can be overwhelming.

“Customers are amazed when they come into the store and see all the products on display,” she says.

Appliance Logic

It seems we all want to be professional chefs—or at least cook like them. Which is why the most popular appliances on the market these days are commercial-style stainless-steel models that look like they belong in a restaurant.

“People want their kitchens to be showpieces,” explains Nick Kress, sales representative at Standards of Excellence (formerly McPhails Appliance).

Men in particular are seduced by the heavy-duty stoves, with their powerful burners and gleaming steel surfaces. Viking burners, for example, give off nearly twice as much heat as an ordinary stove, enabling the home cook to pan-sear a fillet with all the élan of Emeril. “Men like firepower,” asserts Korb.

Other hot items: built-in appliances, from refrigerators to coffee makers; hyperquiet dishwashers and exhaust hoods; “integrated” appliances whose controls are hidden from view within doors or cabinet panels; and appliance drawers, including dishwasher, refrigerator and freezer drawers, which make the kitchen more flexible and easier to use. Kress says his customers spend on average $10,000 to $15,000 on appliances. But you can spend less—$5,000 to $7,000 for the basics—and you can easily spend more: $30,000 to $40,000 for exclusive brands. And for the cook for whom money is no object, there is La Cornue, a handmade 48-inch-wide porcelain range with brass trim that starts at $30,000. “It’s the Rolls-Royce of appliances,” says Kress, noting that you can even customize it with your family coat of arms. “It’s like a piece of art.”

Counter Intuitive

Far and away, the most popular countertop material these days is granite. It’s strong, durable, natural and attractive. And it has no unsightly grout lines.

“The vast majority of people definitely want granite,” says Dennis Pine, general manager at Natural Stone Design Gallery.

Laminate, America’s onetime favorite, has fallen so far out of favor, Expo Design Center doesn’t even carry it anymore. And manmade solid-surface materials such as Corian, which held a large share of the market a decade ago, also have lost favor with consumers, who prefer the look of natural stone.

But as granite has become practically de rigueur in American kitchens, some consumers are looking to alternatives such as limestone, marble and soapstone. Pine and other experts caution that these softer stones are not for the faint of heart. “Limestone stains very easily,” says Expo Design Center’s Bellmer. “And it requires a lot of maintenance.” Some design centers require customers to sign a disclaimer before buying limestone. Natural Stone Design Gallery installed limestone counters in its working kitchen, so that clients can see what happens with daily use. Still, Pine admits, “if you want your kitchen to have an Old World feel, you’ll like limestone.”

Another alternative to polished granite: honed granite. The unpolished stone looks like soapstone yet is harder, making it less susceptible to chipping and staining.

For an average-sized kitchen, granite slab countertops will cost you anywhere from $3,000 to $10,000—and that’s just for materials. Fabrication and installation will run you another $6,000 to $20,000. To save money, you can opt for granite tile or elect for a simple polished edge rather than a built-up decorative edge.

The Kitchen Cabinet

Cabinets are the furniture of the kitchen. Fittingly, today’s consumer wants cabinetry that looks like fine furniture.

So cabinets are outfitted with architectural details such as columns, corbels, spindles and “feet.” And to keep a big kitchen from looking boringly uniform, designers are mixing things up, using two different stains or staining some cabinets while painting or glazing others. Frequently, the island will sport a different finish from the rest of the cabinetry. Other popular options include glass doors on upper cabinets and pullout drawers, rather than doors, for the lower cabinets.

Cabinets are perhaps the most expensive line item in a kitchen remodel, costing anywhere from $10,000 to $50,000.

How Much?

By now, you probably have figured out that remodeling your kitchen isn’t going to be cheap. Local experts say you will spend $60,000 to $80,000 for a remodeling package that includes granite countertops, nice cabinetry and upgraded appliances. For many, the sticker shock is severe.

“People are gulping real hard when they hear what it’s going to cost,” says Korb.

Certified kitchen designer Ernie Sanchez agrees. “Some clients are still stuck in the 1980s,” he says. “They think you can still do a nice kitchen for $30,000. It’s painful when they find out that’s not the case anymore.”

Sanchez points out that remodeling your kitchen is a complex job, requiring many steps, tradespeople and products.

What do experts recommend for people who can’t spend $60,000 on a new kitchen? Korb suggests repainting or refacing your cabinets—if they’re made of wood and you like them and their location. She also sends clients to a home center, such as The Home Depot, where you can purchase ready-to-assemble cabinets at a much lower price.

What if you don’t want to hire a kitchen designer? Gualco recommends paying a pro to look at your plan. (Kitchen designers charge anywhere from $100 to $250 per hour.) “This is expensive real estate you’re talking about,” she says. “You don’t want to make a mistake.”

Brick By Brick

“You’re doing what?” a friend asked when Cheryl Holben told her about her plans to build an all-brick kitchen in Holben’s newly acquired house. “Are you crazy?”

Crazy, no. Determined, yes. Holben, a Sacramento interior designer, had fallen in love with a photograph of a brick kitchen she’d seen in a French design magazine. And no amount of naysaying from friends or contractors was going to stop her. “This kitchen,” she says, “was a leap of faith.”

As soon as Holben and her husband, Chris, took possession of the 1934 French Revival-style house, a team of subcontractors went to work, ripping out the old kitchen and installing the new. Holben was on a tight schedule—she wanted to move her family in within a month—so she had already ordered all the supplies, including the brick and the appliances.

To keep costs down, she retained the original kitchen’s U-shaped design and didn’t move any walls. She enlarged the opening between the kitchen and the adjacent library and added glass-fronted bookshelves around the doorway for storage.

In the main work area, she used three types of brick: 1-by-8-inch bricks to face the cabinets, standard-sized bricks for the toe kick and 6-inch-square brick pavers on the floor. Holben says brick, while rarely used indoors, is perfect for a kitchen floor: It’s hard-wearing, long-lasting and easy to maintain. “Just sweep and mop,” she says.

Because the brick makes such a strong design statement, Holben wanted the rest of the kitchen to take a back seat. So she painted the walls, moldings and cabinet doors the same muted gunmetal gray. The upper cabinets sport glass doors, keeping the look open and enabling her to see her china and glassware. (“Because I can see everything, I actually use it,” she says.) For additional storage, Holben designed a pullout broom closet and added a row of old school lockers, painted the same gunmetal gray as the walls, for her two daughters.

She went with stainless-steel appliances, including a Miele dishwasher and a professional-style six-burner dual-fuel range from Thermador that she selected because it was the most “old-fashioned-looking” one she could find. “It didn’t have any digital displays,” she explains. She used sheet metal instead of tile for the backsplash behind the range—a good money saver—and opted for charcoal-colored French limestone for the countertops. “I know limestone chips and stains, but that’s part of its charm,” she says. “In Europe, you see these beautiful old counters that clearly have been used. That’s what makes them gorgeous.”

Holben wanted to be able to feed her family in the kitchen, which is too small for a standard-sized table. So she had a local sheet metal shop fabricate a 22-inch-wide table and four small benches that can be tucked under the table when not in use. “Chairs would have protruded into the room,” she explains.

Ultimately, Holben got the French country kitchen of her dreams. “I love it,” she says. “It’s exactly what I wanted.”

A Collector’s Kitchen

Sharla Chador is a passionate collector of classic blue-and-white china, which she picks up at estate sales and antiques stores. So when it came time to renovate the kitchen of her Sacramento house, it only makes sense that she turned to her china for design inspiration.

The result? A charming country kitchen with Wedgwood-blue walls and painted white cabinets—the perfect backdrop to her collection of mismatched china.

Chador and her husband, Michael, were looking for a cost-effective way to redo the kitchen of their 1925 house. The galley kitchen, last renovated in the early ’90s, was showing signs of wear and tear. Because the layout was functional and the cabinets well-built, the couple decided on a budget-minded cosmetic fix-up. “We liked the room’s bones, so we didn’t rip anything out,” says Chador, who acted as her own contractor. She repainted the existing cabinets and replaced the worn-out butcher-block counters with granite slabs. And she put in new, high-performance appliances: a KitchenAid gas cooktop, Viking refrigerator, Miele dishwasher and double wall ovens by Bosch. “True to my style, nothing matches,” says Chador, laughing.

Chador purchased sensibly priced drawer and door pulls from Expo Design Center in Roseville, where she also found the iron chandelier that hangs over the kitchen table. But she splurged on unusual light sconces from A & A Appliance: silk stretched over curvaceous wire forms.

Chador filled her kitchen with things that have sentimental meaning: an old white painted country table, paired with black painted chairs that she bought in Petaluma, and a pine armoire that she’s had for 20 years. She displays toleware made by her mother along with folk-art chairs that her mother-in-law painted for each of her three daughters, and she keeps old silver flatware, which she also collects, out on the countertop in cheery blue-and-white crocks for easy accessibility. “If it’s important to our family, it will make us feel comfortable,” she says.

To make the kitchen as functional as possible, Chador turned a large pantry into an office that serves as central command for the family, with a computer where her girls can do their homework and room for overflow storage for things like the KitchenAid mixer and the microwave.

Chador surveys her kitchen with satisfaction. “I have a quirky style,” she says. “My kitchen shows that.”

For the rest of this story pick up a copy of Sacramento magazine’s February issue.