Can this Kitchen be Saved

Apr 29, 2005

Wall Street Journal
By Paula Szuchman

FOR A RECENT kitchen-remodeling job, Jennifer Kay.Goodman discovered a designer she says had “real vision” — a professional who suggested a modern look with open cabinets and kidney-shaped counters, and urged her to try stainless support rods under her counters for an airy industrial feel. The best part? The design fee for her one-of-a-kind kitchen came to $60.

Not an old-guard design guru, Ms. Kay.Goodman’s designer is an employee at the local Home Depot. “I expected a guy in an orange apron,” says the schoolteacher in Cambridge, Mass.

When it comes to interior decorating, the big buzz is coming from an unlikely creative community — designers whose nametags read Ikea, Lowe’s, even Ace Hardware. Hoping to boost their share of the $196 billion home-remodeling industry, national chains are expanding their ranks of full-service designers and taking on some fancy jobs. Lowe’s, which added more than 50 locations in the past year, says its in-store kitchen designs have sold so well it is now branching out into deck-planning services. The Great Indoors, Sears’s home-decor chain, did 54% more kitchen designs in 2004 than in the previous year. Coming this summer to House Beautiful magazine: Projects by two designers from Expo Design Center, a Home Depot subsidiary.

But what can you expect from a chain-store blueprint? To find out, we asked designers from six national companies to give us a plan for a better kitchen. The one in our upstate New York “test home” has high ceilings, new appliances and views of the Hudson River — as well as its share of problems, including tile floors that are chilly and hard to clean, plus four separate doorways that leave little wall space for cabinets. We told each designer our total budget topped out at $50,000, asked them to plan for more storage space and new floors, and then gave them free reign with the 250-square-foot space. (We didn’t disclose our media credentials until each design was completed.) Later, we called in New York City designer and architectural historian Thomas Jayne to critique the plans.

Along the way, we picked up a pointer about the kitchen-triangle concept from a salesman at Expo, discovered our kitchen is “mathematically desirable” for Ikea cabinets and met a Lowe’s designer who encouraged us to keep both patio doors for “party circulation.” In the end, we gleaned a few important lessons: Chain-store designers can deliver some surprisingly good plans — but we were always happier with the results when they’d actually visited the space.

Home retailers have been adding design services for the past few years, of course, as some buyers leave the do-it-yourself model and seek more help. But now the stores are stepping up their pitch for big-ticket purchases as home-renovation spending soars — it’s up 11% last year from 2003, according to the National Association of Home Builders. Meanwhile, small businesses say that with big chains undercutting their prices on tools and hardware, they’re forced to stand out by offering additional personalized services. Handymen, too, are getting out the drafting paper: Last month, more than a dozen of Case Handyman’s 66 national franchises played up their design credentials by rechristening themselves Case Handyman & Remodeling. “Their mantra is you sell projects not products,” says Kermit Baker of the remodeling-futures program at Harvard University.

The promise of getting it all under one roof led Michael Palladino to Home Depot when he remodeled his kitchen late last year. “I don’t have time to hire a million different people,” says the 51-year-old client-services director in New York City. But while he liked the design, which included glass-fronted cabinets and track lighting, he wasn’t happy when the kitchen took three months to finish. (Home Depot says a special-order piece broke during installation and had to be reordered.) “It’s not like I lost blood or anything,” Mr. Palladino says. “But I lost out on making Christmas dinner.”

Chain-store designers carry some unique limitations, because they are a hybrid between employee and independent designer. Like non-affiliated designers, many work on commission, so they may have an incentive to sell shoppers on extras. They’re on the job to pitch a retailer’s products — Expo designers, for one, offer only Expo vendors — so it’s unusual for them to incorporate items a customer picks out elsewhere. Some chain-store designers don’t even make house calls (those at Ikea and Lowe’s, for example, generally don’t). And of course, these designers’ experience can vary broadly, with consultants at even the same company having markedly different visions.

For their part, companies say they have rigorous training programs. At the Great Indoors, designers go through 150 hours of classes and have to pass yearly design tests. Expo sends its designers through a “Before the Apron” course that includes 50 to 60 hours of training on design software and store products. At Lowe’s, cabinet salespeople can become kitchen designers after attending what the company calls a comprehensive course. (Industry experts say customers should ask prospective designers how many years of experience they have, and suggest looking for ones with membership in organizations such as the National Association of the Remodeling Industry or the National Kitchen and Bath Association.)

For our test, we focused on national retailers, including two that specialize in home improvement (Lowe’s, Ace Hardware), and two that sell furnishings (Ikea, Expo). We also tried franchises of Case Handyman & Remodeling, based in Bethesda, Md., and Waco, Texas-based DreamMaker Bath & Kitchen. We judged their designs on creativity and practicality, and looked at everything from the designers’ material choice to how far they’d travel to see us. Below are our findings, in rough order of least favorite to favorite:

Ikea, New Haven, Conn.

ESTIMATED JOB COST: About $1,800 for materials, $4,300 for labor, without flooring

HOME-VISIT POLICY: Planners don’t leave store

Ikea, more than the other big retailers we tested, sticks close to a do-it-yourself philosophy. Each store — there are 23 in the U.S., with four added in the past year — has a handful of computer terminals loaded with design software. Customers can use these to plan layouts, occasionally getting advice from staff members. Ikea also put its kitchen and office-design planning tools online last year, in part to relieve in-store crowding.

On our visit, the computer terminals were empty, but the staff was swamped. Pat Martin, one of only two on duty, did her best to show us how to use the software, but we kept getting stuck, at one point deleting a design that had taken us 45 minutes to make. To pass the time while we waited for their help, we watched an Ikea video on how to install a kitchen (it only reaffirmed our decision not to do it all ourselves) and snuck off to the cafe for a plate of Swedish meatballs.

In the end, Ms. Martin helped us pick a clean, country look inspired by Page 32 of the Ikea kitchen catalog: beadboard doors in white veneer and beechwood butcher-block countertops. The bill for materials was $1,833, by far the least expensive in our test. But it’s a good thing we didn’t buy them on the spot: Our measurements were off by about four inches, because we hadn’t accounted for the trim around our windows and doors. (Ikea says it offers a professional measuring service for $75, and will exchange cabinets that don’t fit.)

BOTTOM LINE: We did too much ourselves — but we couldn’t beat the price

DreamMaker Bath & Kitchen, East Greenbush, N.Y.

ESTIMATED JOB COST: $46,000 for materials and labor

HOME-VISIT POLICY: Our designer came out first thing

When Worldwide Refinishing Systems changed its name to DreamMaker Bath & Kitchen six years ago, its goal was to move beyond odd jobs into larger remodeling projects. Today, the national franchiser says an average bathroom renovation runs about $18,000, up from $10,000 when it started.

Our experience started out promising, with Bill Crowe, owner of the franchise closest to us, scheduling an appointment to see our kitchen on Palm Sunday, four days after our initial call. Mr. Crowe, an industrial electrician by training, was eager for our business: His consultation was free, like Mrs. Pike’s, and he offered to take our calls until 11 p.m. He arrived early, carrying a briefcase with cabinet samples and apologizing for using a paper and pen instead of a computer to do his layouts. We liked his old-school approach, and the fact that he doesn’t hire out to subcontractors. (His staff of three is trained in everything from plumbing to tiling.)

But when we received his plans by fax a week later, we noticed something odd — neither one included appliances. We called to point this out, and Mr. Crowe had us a new version within hours. “You never get a second chance to make a good first impression,” he says. His reworked design suggested, as others had, that we should knock out a pantry wall to provide extra space. But it had its quirks: The stove was nearly 10 feet from the fridge, on the other side of a center island.

BOTTOM LINE: Busy layout, personal touch

Williams Lumber (Ace Hardware), Hudson, N.Y.

ESTIMATED JOB COST: $11,000 plus labor

HOME-VISIT POLICY: Before you buy, designer comes out for measurements

When we discovered that some Ace Hardware stores have in-house designers, even we were surprised. Lathes and layouts? Sign us up. Turns out, more than 400 Ace franchises have full-service design centers offering everything from bathrooms to room additions. In our neighborhood, the closest franchise is Williams Lumber, which has seven locations in upstate New York and a new one opening this year just for kitchen design. The Web site for its Hudson, N.Y., store urges customers to meet with Carol Pike, a “highly qualified and talented designer.”

“Tell me something about your kitchen,” Mrs. Pike asked when we called. We were taken aback, because none of the other designers thought to ask this question right off the bat. She told us to come by any time with our measurements. We found the showroom crowded with toilets, model kitchens and flooring samples, and it may not be the place for rushed remodelers: Mrs. Pike is the store’s only designer; she kept picking up the phone each time her name was called over the P.A. system.

Still, we found her knowledgeable, and she helped us pick out materials we never thought we’d like, including bamboo floors and off-white maple cabinets with a coffee-colored glaze. “Ooh!” she said, holding the samples against a reddish-brown granite sample. “This is going to look really elegant.”

A week later, we returned for our design. While we’d find others we would like more, this one had something no one else thought to include: a kitchen table.

BOTTOM LINE: Limited cabinet selection, but offered to incorporate outside products

Lowe’s, Glenmont, N.Y.

ESTIMATED JOB COST: $24,000 — about half for materials and half for labor

HOME-VISIT POLICY: Typically, designers don’t do house calls

Despite the noise from reversing forklifts, the design center at Lowe’s is a surprisingly tranquil spot. A couple of desks and computers are surrounded by handsome kitchen displays, with rows of stainless steel ovens and refrigerators beyond. We were pleased to find designer Art Himmelfarb waiting for us on a Friday afternoon; we’d only made the appointment that morning.

When he saw the photos and measurements of our 1880 Victorian home’s kitchen, Mr. Himmelfarb’s reaction was like that of our other designers: befuddlement. How to create a functional kitchen in a room with so many openings and so little wall space? For two hours, we watched him toy with different layouts, scrapping some and starting from scratch, or having “brainstorms” involving refrigerator placement. He listened to our concerns and had ideas of his own, including adding a couch in the corner and keeping both patio doors intact for good flow at parties. Then he packed up so he could make it to Schenectady for a George Carlin show. “I’m a Carlinist,” he said. “The man’s a comedic genius.”

After another computer-design session a few days later, Mr. Himmelfarb printed out the design, including one in a fancy three-dimensional rendering, and sent us to the cashier to pay a $70 “measurement fee.” A week later, an installer subcontracted by Lowe’s came by our house to double-check our measurements. When we showed Mr. Himmelfarb’s layout to Mr. Jayne, the designer said it had a “scientific practicality about it that looks as if an engineer designed it.” On the other hand, he said, it was claustrophobic, with way too many cabinets.

BOTTOM LINE: One of our more affordable estimates, with a quick design time

Expo Design

Center, Nanuet, N.Y.

ESTIMATED JOB COST: $31,700, materials only

HOME-VISIT POLICY: Typically, multiple visits

We didn’t think we’d get far here: Expo Design Center has 54 U.S. locations, but the closest to us was about 100 miles away. The company says it generally doesn’t work on houses more than 50 miles out, but a manager agreed to take our business on two conditions: We’d have to hire our own contractor for installation, and the designer would only come to the house once (they typically go out multiple times).

We visited the store once to sign up, then returned for a meeting with our assigned designer — Henry Font, a former runway model originally from the Dominican Republic. Clipboard in hand, he took us around the 100,000-square-foot store to pick out materials, gushing over pricey faucets and quoting industry stats that a new kitchen would boost our home’s value by 20%. Four hours later, we were exhausted, but we’d made some big choices: red oak floors, natural maple cabinets and a side-by-side sink.

A week later, Mr. Font came to the house, filled with ideas not just for the kitchen — “Oh my God, how wonderful,” he said, eyeing the place — but for the bathroom, bedrooms and patio. He even suggested tearing down three walls to expose the pantry and stairs, which our contractor said would cost $20,000 in labor alone. For the kitchen, he suggested a long peninsula in the middle of the room, plus a wine rack, backlit martini shelves and a racy stainless-steel stove hood. All of which added up to the most expensive proposal in our test.

Another catch: Though we paid a $750 retainer for Mr. Font’s consultation, we couldn’t get a hard copy of his layout because the company won’t release its designs until materials have been bought. “We have to protect the integrity of our design services,” said Tony Zarvou, Expo’s director of at-home services, adding that the company prefers to work on homes closer to its stores.

BOTTOM LINE: Too many rules and a lot of upselling — but a thoughtful design

Case Handyman & Remodeling, Amherst, N.Y.

ESTIMATED JOB COST: $48,890, materials and labor

HOME-VISIT POLICY: Our designer did his plan on-site

“I’m trying to absorb the character of the house,” said Jim Lyon, as he stood in the middle of our kitchen, arms akimbo, looking up at the pressed tin ceiling. Mr. Lyon was surprisingly jovial for a man who had just driven more than 300 miles to our house — our survey’s record — and received a speeding ticket along the way.

He had been similarly upbeat when we had met him in his office, a welcoming place just outside of Buffalo with a new one-cup coffeemaker and a banner that read “On Time + On Budget + Delighted Client = Success.” Mr. Lyon, who studied architecture at Dartmouth and has been in the handyman business for two decades, agreed to take on a job at our old Victorian in spite of the long drive. We showed him photos and measurements, picked out some Shaker-style hickory doors and agreed to meet at our house two weeks later.

He showed up — on time — with a digital camera, laptop with design software and a printer. “It’ll help me develop the ideas as I go,” he said. While initially perplexed at the space limitations, he was the only designer to come up with a key concept: Rather than open up the wall between our kitchen and pantry to create more space, he suggested closing it off completely. The resulting L-shaped design gave us extra counter space and a corner refrigerator. He also suggested adding a picture window on the south-facing wall, to take advantage of our river views. When we showed Mr. Jayne the plans, the designer said: “It’s a model of efficiency, without being claustrophobic.”

BOTTOM LINE: Retainer was a hefty $2,500, but design was our favorite.

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