High Impact Kitchen Changes:
A Designer Reveals Her Tips

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Remodeling a kitchen might sound like a huge project, but it doesn't always need to be — sometimes small changes can have a big impact. We talked to Leah Moss, a long-time Apartment Therapy contributor and a professional interior designer, to get a professional's perspective on upgrading your kitchen — what to consider, what to ignore, and how to get the best bang for your buck.

Q: What are your favorite go-to upgrades for a quick kitchen fix? What are the most cost-effective upgrades, and what big upgrades do you think are worth the money?
A: Lighting and hardware are upgrades that can be done within any budget., and they make a huge difference visually since those are often areas where builders skimp. Switching out an overhead fluorescent or a dinky flushmount for pendants can change the whole feel of the room, making it more inviting and current. Changing out hardware is probably the most cost-effective upgrade. I think splurging on countertops and a decent gas range are upgrades well worth their price tag.

Q: Are there any upgrades you think are unnecessary or unnecessarily pricey? Any kitchen features clients ask for that you think they don't really need?
A: Appliances are the trickiest, since price does not always equal performance. Also, many clients wish to "upgrade to stainless steel" when their current appliances are perfectly suited to their needs. Adding a new face to an old but well-functioning dishwasher can save a lot of money, and is often a better look for the kitchen as a whole.

Q: What kitchen features do clients always love?
A: New countertops, deep undermount sinks, and functional faucets! If a budget is limited but the countertops are in poor condition, I will always almost suggest using the majority of the budget on the counters and a little on a deep sink and a decent, versatile faucet (the latter two aren't necessarily expensive).

People who love to cook are often very tactile, and there's something very satisfying about good, solid prep surfaces. The same is true for deep undermount sinks and versatile faucets. If cleanup always involves scrubbing grime away from a flimsy sink rim, spraying water all over the place out of your shallow sink, or trying to force a huge pan under a tiny faucet, you are not going to want to spend much time in the kitchen. If those things are correct, cooking and even cleaning are so much more satisfying. Basically, the functional upgrades that decrease everyday stresses are the ones that are most popular long term.

Q: Describe your own ideal kitchen: What is the mood? What does it include? What isn't there? What is the color scheme? What materials?
A: My ideal kitchen is a mix between Scandinvian modern and American farmhouse--clean, light, functional, and npretentious. I like kitchens that allow the human activity to take center stage without many frills or ornamentation. Lots of windows, white or light walls, rustic wood floors, one long reclaimed wood shelf for everyday dishes, a mix of task and overhead lighting, and soapstone stone counters.

Q: Where are your favorite places to find inspiration?
A: Scandinavian shelter magazines like vt wonen and design classics like Terence Conran's New House Book, which I always come back to and never seem to tire of. Especially when it comes to functional spaces like the kitchen, I totally identify with Conran's stress on using materials that age well (natural vs. synthetic), and his notion that "simple things are superior to flashy, complicated ones, precisely because ultimately they are more pleasurable."

Q: What signature details do professional decorators include in kitchens that the average layperson doesn't always consider?
A: Countertop thickness is one of the most common details that the average person may overlook. Kitchens featured in shelter magazines will often have these really thick, substantial countertops, whereas the average kitchen center will suggest the standard 1-1.5." An average person may not think to ask about upgrading.

Q: Have you ever been surprised by a tiny change that has yielded a big result?
A: Taking off upper cabinet doors and painting the cabinets will completely change the feel of a kitchen. Open cabinets are not for everyone, but it's amazing how light and airy they make a kitchen feel.

Q: What are your favorite countertop materials?
A: Butcher block for its warmth and affordability, honed absolute black granite for its durability (it's one of the hardest granites, so it rarely if ever has to be sealed, and it won't stain or become damaged by hot pans, and unlike most other granites, it doesn't clash with anything), and stainless steal for a combination of the two.

Q: What do you think are the most lasting current kitchen trends?
A: I think the most long lasting are incorporating free-standing and furniture-like pieces in the kitchen, and limiting or doing away with over-the-counter cabinets. As the kitchen becomes more and more the center of our family and entertaining lives at home, design elements that contribute to the kitchen's sense of warmth, openness, and relaxation are important. These trends decrease the institutional, boxed-in vibe that many kitchens have, and connect it with the rest of the home.

Q: Which kitchen upgrades do you think must be done by a professional, and which do you think people could think about DIY'ing?
A: Anything plumbing, electrical, or structural should be left to a professional. There are so many variables, and often the risk outweighs the reward…so where safety is involved, look to the pros! Tile work is iffy — if you're meticulous and patient, you can probably handle it, but it's not something you can easily wing. Everything else is fair game in my opinion.


Thanks to Leah for her expert advice and opinions! Check out her own gorgeous home in last year's House Tour.

>>>Inspired to plan your own kitchen upgrade? Use KOHLER's Kitchen Planner to visualize the big impact even small changes can make