The light touch: A few small changes make a kitchen all new

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Photo: Stephen Barling Photo: Stephen Barling

Designer Wendi Smith found not just good but excellent bones to start with when she tackled a recent kitchen redo. And that was lucky, because the look of this kitchen was very different from what her client ultimately wanted.

“She definitely has a style,” says Smith of her client. “She likes neutral and calm colors; blue’s her favorite.” The client favors modern and transitional furniture, but the house—a four-bedroom showplace built in 1967—had been given a highly traditional treatment.

Not just traditional, but fussy. “The house was covered in wallpaper, with lots of florals,” says Smith, who owns the Leftover Luxuries consignment shop. The kitchen, too, had a bit of wallpaper to call its own, along with floral curtains, wicker barstools and green and yellow cabinets that made the white appliances stand out awkwardly.

Still, the Farmington Heights house had some wonderful assets. It was built with an abundance of beautiful details—fine woodwork, a graceful curved stairway and built-in storage everywhere. In the kitchen, it turned out that a light facelift was all that was needed to transform the feel of the space.

Photo: Stephen Barling
Photo: Stephen Barling

“We considered opening the wall to the living room,” says Smith. “What would that benefit?” Such a move might have made it slightly easier to carry dinner out to the lovely screened porch overlooking the pool. But it would have sacrificed an attractive wall of built-in cabinets in the living room. Meanwhile, the kitchen layout—three walls of cabinets wrapping a long island—was quite functional as is.

Perhaps the luckiest break was that the cabinetry itself, aside from its colors, had just the right level of detail to swing effortlessly from a traditional to modern style, and was in excellent condition. The team did intend to change out the countertops for stone. But the length of the island—12’—turned out to be a barrier. “There was no way we could find a slab of marble or granite with no seam,” says Smith.

Photo: Stephen Barling
Photo: Stephen Barling

So, in the end, the existing countertops—a white composite material that isn’t spectacular, but also isn’t offensive—were left in place. The kitchen facelift was going to come down to a few simple but key moves: a new backsplash, a new paint color on the cabinets and walls and new lighting. Hardwood flooring could stay; a soffit over the island could stay; even the appliances could stay.

Once the cabinets were refreshed with white paint, “The appliances look all new,” says Smith. For the island cabinets, she chose a fresh blue hue that looks vibrant in the otherwise neutral palette. It’s echoed in the four blue seeded-glass pendant lights that now hang over the island. They replaced recessed lights, adding dimension to the room. “Having something hanging vertically stops your eye,” Smith explains.

The crowning glory of the redo? “The backsplash tied everything together,” says Smith. She and the client agreed immediately that this tile, sourced from Sarisand, was the one they’d been waiting for: elongated hexagonal marble tiles with tiny squares intricately inlaid around the borders. Many shades of gray in the marble provide a rich range of neutrals to offset the smooth blue finish of the island.

Photo: Stephen Barling
Photo: Stephen Barling

Brass hardware was exchanged for chrome, with long pulls on every door and drawer, a “sleeker look” than a mix of pulls and knobs. Other details likewise added to the contemporary feel—the ghost chair at the desk, and the books with specially wrapped white spines on the shelves. “She’s very minimalist,” says Smith of her client, noting the serene lack of clutter on the expansive countertops.

One final touch: new barstools to fit at one end of the island. Smith found just the right pieces on allmodern.com. They sit on hydraulic posts so they can be adjusted for these high counters, and their white leather seats are set off with chrome and black trim.

In all, it’s remarkable how different the kitchen now feels—clean and open rather than heavily textured—after just a few surface changes. Great bones really do matter, says Smith: “The house was done really well.”

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