On the dusty, messy journey called kitchen remodeling, there are advantages to having a professional designer as a guide. The pros can help you budget wisely, avoid mistakes, make the space beautiful and functional, and open doors to new and specialized resources.
"They love designing kitchens, and they're super educated about how to make the most of the space and about what's safe," says Angela Lawrence, a certified master kitchen and bath designer (CMKBD) and member of the National Kitchen & Bath Association (NKBA) in Aurora, Colorado.
The kitchen demands a specialist, says Denise Dick, a CMKBD and NKBA member in Carrollton, Texas. "Just like you go to a doctor specializing in a part of the body," she says, "the specialist for that part of the home is the kitchen designer. We understand how it all fits together and why the parts are necessary. You're going to do it right the first time with a designer."
Start your search for a designer online at the NKBA website (nkba.org), which can point you to designers in your area. Then visit the websites of the designers or contact them directly. Get names from friends and neighbors who have remodeled their kitchens. The phone book, home centers, kitchen showrooms, and real estate agents might also produce good leads. Some clients found Dick at a specialty grocery store's cooking school, where she was doing design workshops.
Be discerning about the alphabet soup of professional designations that designers list on their business cards and websites. "People need to be careful of fakers and learn what the initials mean," says Gary White, a CMKBD and NKBA member in Newport Beach, California. "It's pretty easy to pick up initials by buying a membership in some organization."
Not so with NKBA certifications, which are based on experience, education, client references, rigorous exams, and continuing education. CMKBDs have at least 17 years of kitchen design experience. Certified kitchen designers (CKDs) and certified bath designers (CBDs) have at least seven years. NKBA-certified designers know every aspect of kitchens, from mechanical systems to space planning and color.
Do your homework before the initial meeting with a designer. If the meeting is at the designer's studio, bring a current floor plan of your kitchen. Browse showrooms to gather wish-list ideas for appliances, cabinet styles and finishes, and flooring options. Compile a portfolio of magazine photos that shows your style preferences.
"I do like them to already have ideas of what they want," Dick says. "When I have to pull teeth, it's harder."
The designer will want information from you, but you should seek information from the designer, too, including actual photos of his or her work -- not brochures from manufacturers. "If the designer can't produce examples of his or her own work, leave," White says.
Ask to see a project similar to yours, including the plans, and find out how much it cost. You should also ask about payment schedules, contracts, timelines, and design services.
The designer, in turn, will want to know about your lifestyle: Who's in the family? What's your cooking style? Where do the kids do homework? Do you pay bills in the kitchen? Are there ergonomic considerations -- height or accessibility needs? Do you have pets? Are the cooks right- or left-handed?
The designer will also want to know the scope of your project. Some might turn down less-challenging jobs. "If you just need some drawers and doors in there, it's very easy for a lot of people to spec that out," says Pam Goldstein Sanchez, a CMKBD and NKBA member in Atlanta. "When you have very specific taste, a bigger space, more complicated needs, handicap accessibility, or you want to keep kosher, that's when you want someone like me."
Talking about the scope of the project should include a candid discussion about budget. "I call it a spending plan, because budget is sort of a scary-sounding word," Lawrence says. "Spending plan is much friendlier."
After the initial meeting, a designer might decide you're not ready for a major project. "It's hard to tell somebody, 'I'm more than happy to take your money, but you're not ready to give it to me,'" Dick says. "It's making sure they're not being taken advantage of by people, they're not making a mistake, or they're not spending money where they shouldn't."
Likewise, you might decide that a particular designer is not a good fit for your project. The ideal designer-client relationship is based on honesty, trust, communication, respect, and a sense of teamwork.
"If you're not comfortable with a designer, there's a reason," says John Petrie, a CMKBD and NKBA member in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. "You can't sugarcoat the process. We are going to come into your home and we are going to disrupt your lifestyle for the next so many weeks. If everybody is honest and comfortable, it minimizes problems."
Choose your designer as you would a doctor, Lawrence says. "I like people to think metaphorically of the kitchen as the heart of the home," she says. "Is this designer someone who you would want to perform heart surgery on your home? That's really true. A designer is responsible for tearing the guts out of the heart of your home. And if you feel comfortable enough, and trust a designer based on her knowledge, her creativity, and her needs, then that's a good vibe."
Designers offer a range of services, giving you a chance to do as much of the work as you want -- or no work at all.
Lawrence and Dick provide design-only services, creating working drawings with floor plans, specifications, elevations, and renderings that their clients can take to contractors and use to shop for cabinetry, appliances, and other design elements. Neither designer sells cabinetry or other products.
"Clients can go to all the kitchen showrooms and all the contractors and say, 'Here's my kitchen design. What's my price?'" Dick says. "Then they're shopping price, they're not shopping design."
Sanchez's firm provides design services, handles cabinetry purchases, and offers access to allied professionals such as contractors, builders, architects, and interior designers. "As long as the design-hour fees are less than 10 percent of the entire project, they're part of our service," she says.
Petrie's firm is full-service, handling projects from concept to completion. He creates the design, provides custom cabinetry, and employs carpenters and installation professionals.
No matter what services your designer provides, the NKBA recommends setting up a clearly defined cost schedule by which you pay in installments -- and never in full until the work is done.
Remember, the designer has a lot at stake in your project, too: Stories about bad experiences often travel faster than those of good experiences. Designers work hard to achieve the latter. Having a detailed contract from the start can eliminate or at least minimize disagreements. Contracts often include a mechanism for arbitration in client disputes. Designers also might carry liability insurance or, like White, include a "due diligence" clause stating essentially that although the designer is there as a coach, you are responsible for the decisions you make.
It's rare, but sometimes a designer might "fire" a client if the working relationship sours. "Everything must be in writing and signed, even down to which bathroom the installers are allowed to use," Dick says.
Get new tips, inspiration, and advice delivered to your in-box every week. Sign up for the FREE Kitchen & Bath Ideas newsletter.