Five Design Tricks Transform an Uptown Kitchen

This week, I went behind the scenes of a design and build collaboration to learn about the journey of this Upper East Side kitchen from forlorn galley to stunning chef’s workspace. After the owners of this home came to Sweeten to modernize their kitchen, we introduced them to Sweeten Experts Lauren and Adam, an architecture and interior design duo, and brought in Sweeten Expert Alan, a general contractor, to re-imagine the kitchen’s storage, function, and feel. The results are so easy on the eyes that you could be forgiven for missing the simple design tricks tucked behind these lacquered cabinets and beneath those gleaming Calacatta counters.

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Sweeten Experts Lauren and Adam got the message loud and clear from the owners of this condo: this is a family that loves to cook and planned to spend a lot of time in the kitchen. Although they were first-time renovators, the homeowners had very thoughtful and specific ideas about storage and workspace needs, and they conveyed a desire, above almost all else, for function and durability.

Lauren and Adam worked through drawings that featured five smart design tricks, each designed expressly to increase the kitchen’s storage capacity, locate critical cooking and prep tools precisely where they would be most useful, and play with the depth and width perception in a room that could not be physically enlarged. These design ideas are simple enough to incorporate in any kitchen renovation and are especially key for small-space dwellers.

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1. Frontload the bulkiest pieces

In a galley kitchen or narrow hallway, it can be tempting to place cabinets and furniture evenly throughout the space (or shove the bulkiest pieces away from the entry point). Instead, Lauren and Adam created a sense of depth and width by placing the largest cabinets and the fridge near the entry, gradually lightening visual heft as the room continues toward the window. When a visitor walks through the kitchen’s entryway, the largest cabinets feel like a natural continuation of the narrow door and frame, and the room appears wider and longer as floor-to-ceiling cabinetry gives way to open storage and spacious countertops. This approach ensures that the room draws its visitor through the most narrow point of the space first and into more open space immediately.

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2. Play with cabinet layers and materials.

Lauren and Adam designed uniquely-defined cabinet sections that add visual interest to the room and help delineate storage needs. Custom-built base-cabinet drawers and ceiling-height cupboards offer the most significant storage options for this family’s heaviest-duty items. As a second layer, Alan installed an upper row of white lacquer cabinets for items that need to be easily accessible but concealed. As a third layer, the team incorporated a section of translucent glass-fronted cabinets to display tableware and serving pieces, and as a fourth layer, Lauren and Adam chose a natural maple floating shelf to minimize sight lines along the wall and to give the family immediate access to everyday basics. Each element of cabinetry was custom designed, built with durable MDF, and shop-sprayed in white lacquer.

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3, 4 and 5. Find very, very specific spots for the basics (from knives to a pasta maker to sponges).

The team worked together to find creative ways to store the family’s pots, knives, and prep tools. In just a few square feet of space, Lauren and Adam’s designs pulled in a countertop knife storage block, placed just above a maple butcher block prep nook, relocated the microwave from eye level to hand level, and kept corner window light as exposed as possible by hanging pots and pans on the wall. The 15-inch knife slot at the back of the butcher block provides safe child-proof knife storage and was designed by the homeowner’s sister.

Across the galley way, hidden beneath the slight overhang of the Calacatta Caldia marble countertop and invisible from all angles, Lauren and Adam found a place for the family’s pasta maker, a favorite tool that clamps on to the counter. Alan created a slight cut-out above the set of open shelves so that the owners could easily work with their pasta maker near the butcher block nook and close to the stovetop.

And in their final design hat trick, the team ran with a suggestion from the homeowner to conceal a slim flip-down compartment along the front of the sink to store sponges. Contractors often build a cosmetic panel in that spot to mimic the look of real cabinetry, but this kitchen puts that extra few inches of typically wasted space to smart use.

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Kudos to the team for finding these simple and functional ways to account for this family’s favorite kitchen activities! I loved hearing about the planning and collaboration that went into this project. In addition to these inspiring designs, Lauren and Adam partnered with the condo’s owners to select beautiful and durable materials to use throughout the space. The classic subway tile backsplash is from Heath Ceramics, the recessed lighting fixtures came from WAC, and the cabinet pulls are from Hafele. The owners selected the Calacatta Caldia marble countertop from ABC Stone; its faint veining has traces of greens, grays, and yellows and its specific cut is the result of a full team field trip to the stoneyard to confirm that the cut would take full advantage of the stone’s natural beauty. The owners also report that the quiet star of the new kitchen is “unquestionably” the 30″ Capital Culinarian gas stove with its high-BTU open burners, and understated “British racing green” finish.

The owners are still considering how best to use the corner nook by the window — I’m selfishly hoping for a future update to see how they decide to create a little seating and eating spot here — but we won’t have to wait too long to see more from this gorgeous project: next week, I’ll have the full story on how this family’s design team and contractor re-did three bathrooms and created custom built-ins in the living room and master bedroom. If this project is inspiring you to get going with your kitchen renovation, post your project on Sweeten and we’ll find the right team to create a space you will love.