It’s hard to believe this Winnetka kitchen was recently dark and dysfunctional. Owners Charlie and Michelle Thompson hired Airoom to bring it up-to-date without losing the ambiance they love in their century-old home.

Stunning Kitchen Makeovers Add Value, Ease

Once just a forgotten space, kitchens are becoming the new living room. Discover how several local families turned their tired, cramped kitchens into bright, beautiful living spaces.

It’s hard to believe this Winnetka kitchen was recently dark and dysfunctional. Owners Charlie and Michelle Thompson hired Airoom to bring it up-to-date without losing the ambiance they love in their century-old home.

Michelle and Charlie Thompson of Winnetka had a problem. The kitchen in their 100-year-old home was a dark, outdated space that was difficult to maneuver in, making mealtimes a challenge for the family of five.

“When we bought the house, the cabinetry was old and coming off its hinges, and the appliances were on the tired side,” Charlie says. “The best thing to do was tear everything down and rebuild.”

And so, in September 2009, the Thompsons hired Airoom, a design/build firm based in Lincolnwood and Naperville, to overhaul their kitchen. Working with designer Jane Kelly, CGP, they chose furniture-style cabinetry designed to complement the decorative detail throughout the house. The painted cabinets and walnut island, which is like a table, work well with the couple’s antique furniture. Traditionally-styled hardware, subway tiles, glass cabinet fronts and a mantel hood enhance the old world feel, yet have brightened the space to look and feel much brighter. The Thompsons couldn’t be more pleased.

“Airoom did a nice job marrying old and new,” Charlie says. “My wife didn’t want to give up the charm of the house, but we wanted a functional kitchen. We didn’t want a space that we weren’t going to use. It’s such an important part of our house. We got everything we wanted.”

The Thompsons aren’t alone in their desire to breathe new life into their kitchen. Kitchens have become elaborate living spaces that make meal preparation more efficient and more fun. While yesterday’s kitchens tended to be isolated rooms where mom usually did most of the cooking, today’s kitchens are social arenas where family members spend lots of time together – eating, doing homework, entertaining friends, paying bills. There’s even cool stuff in the kitchen now, like fold-down flat screen TVs, iPod docking stations and fancy intercom systems.

“Twenty years ago, homeowners were content with having a simple builder-style kitchen,” says Kelly, who is also a kitchen and bath architect. “Now, they want all the latest gadgets and technology. Kitchens are such a personal space and homeowners use it every single day, so they need to love it.”

Homeowners spend more money on kitchen remodeling than on any other home improvement project. According to the 2010-11 “Remodeling Cost vs. Value Report,” the Chicago-area average cost to remodel an upscale kitchen is $130,146, with a return of $74,751, an average of 57.4 percent. That’s compared to the national average cost of $113,464 and an average return of $67,746, or 59.7 percent. For many homeowners, a kitchen renovation is the largest investment they will make beyond the purchase of the home itself.

This beautiful room, featuring Wood-Mode cabinets, was redesigned by Better Kitchens in Niles, for a Glenview family that does extensive cooking and entertaining. A pull-out spice rack, next to the stove, and a pull-out step stool, hidden below the toe kick, make the kitchen easy to use.

“It used to be, when you built a house, the architect would ask, ‘What size do you want your living room? What size do you want your bedroom or dining room?’ and they never asked about the kitchen,” says Alan Zielinski, CKD, president of Better Kitchens in Niles, and president-elect of the National Kitchen & Bath Association. “Whatever was left was the space for the kitchen. Now, the first thing someone asks is, ‘How will our kitchen space integrate?’ People are going out less and spending more time at home.”

A high-end renovation can cost from $30,000 to six figures, depending on its scope. “Cabinets account for about one-third to one-half the total cost of the project and will have the greatest impact on your budget,” says Dave Wegner, a kitchen and bath designer from Blue Ribbon Millwork, based in Woodstock. “They range in price based on quality, the type of material they’re made of, and whether they’re stock or custom.”

The material you choose for surfaces such as counters, backsplashes and floors also impacts the price. “It’s a visual transformation that happens,” says Rosie Arnold, a kitchen and bath designer at Blue Ribbon Millwork. “You can have all the bells and whistles and really get carried away.”

Granite Edge, Inc./Kitchen Gallery, Spring Grove, opened in 1992 as a kitchen remodeling company. These days, about half of its business is granite countertop production. The company supplies granite and stone-related products to homeowners, builders and cabinet dealers in northeast Illinois and southern Wisconsin. Owner Susan Soine notes that the priorities of her customers have changed over the years.

“Instead of going out for dinner, more people are staying in and enjoying their homes,” she says. “The two biggest things we tell our clients are, ‘Be aware of current trends’ and ‘Know what you like.’ You don’t want to date your kitchen immediately. Don’t get trendy with cabinets. Make sure it works for you. Be true to yourself and to your home.”

Tim Cegelski, Allied Member ASID, of Hawthorn Woods, is no stranger to high-end kitchen remodeling projects. The interior designer has transformed numerous kitchens in the past 24 years. Now Cegelski, is in the process of renovating his own home – a ranch he purchased four years ago. For the kitchen, he teamed up with Soine and Granite Edge. “Susan and her company are very good at working with novices who needs help with their kitchens,” he says. “They do a great job of showing you all the possibilities that exist.”

Tim Cegelski, Hawthorn Woods, hired Granite Edge to redesign his kitchen, shown here.

Cegelski’s project was a total overhaul – the kitchen, which is now three times larger, was relocated to a space where the family room once was. The cabinetry is light brown with a distressed look, the island a creamy white. Other features include new appliances, a French limestone floor, a handmade tile backsplash, and a hand carved stone fireplace. “It has a very European look – some might call it Gothic,” says Cegelski, who entertains frequently and hosts an annual party for about 100 guests. “I can’t say there’s one thing I like best. It’s having a good cooktop, a good oven, having a warming draw for entertaining, which is crucial. It’s everything.”

Soine is pleased, too. “The difference is night and day,” she says. “It’s unbelievable how the changes have improved the look and feel of not only the kitchen, but the entire house. It’s become a very elegant home.”

Sue and Bob McDowell are owners of McDowell Inc., a St. Charles-based remodeling company that started in 1971 as a siding installation company. They encourage homeowners to ponder several questions when contemplating a kitchen remodeling project. “Do you cook a lot? Do you entertain? Do you have school-aged children?” asks Sue. “In that case, a kitchen might mean a place to do homework. How long are you going to stay in your home, and how busy are you? Your answers will give you a pretty good indication of what your project should look like.”

Mike and Dawn Roberts of St. Charles had always wanted to update the stark white kitchen in the spec home they bought 15 years ago. “It was very plain, sterile and not very welcoming,” Mike says. “We wanted to make it warmer.”

The Roberts hired McDowell Inc., and Bob met with the couple, to examine their current space, discuss options and review other projects he had done. “We didn’t know where we wanted to go with it,” Mike says. “Bob came up with ideas we hadn’t thought of, and suggested we stay away from some things we thought we wanted to do. He was very helpful.”

The Roberts’ new kitchen includes spacious hickory cabinets, granite countertops, new appliances and lighting, and a hardwood floor. A desk was replaced by a cabinet hutch with a glass door, perfect for storing dishes. The best part? A new island that’s more functional than their previous one, with plenty of room for seating and storage. “It was a total transformation,” Mike says. “When people come in for the first time, they’re taken aback by how nice it looks. Now it’s very warm and inviting.”

Many kitchens – including appliances – have to be streamlined so they don’t clutter up the overall look. Designers are adding under-the-counter microwaves, dishwashers set into drawers that match existing cabinetry and easy-to-reach snack drawers built into islands, ideal for hungry children after school.

Other homeowners, however, are going in the opposite direction, creating even larger kitchens that need more appliances to make use of the bigger space. Often, they install multiple “zones,” each with its own fridge, oven and sink, or a separate area for baking. “The husband and wife come home from work and enjoy cooking together,” says Kelly. “These zones help, so when you’re cooking and cleaning up, you’re not running into each other.”

With cabinetry requiring about 50 percent of a kitchen project budget, the choice of cabinets is important. Nothing dates a kitchen more than oak cabinetry, according to designers, and white is still a safe route. “There was a time when people said white was out, but that’s really not true,” Rosie Arnold says. “Coffee colors and dark browns are still popular, especially for islands and accent pieces.”

McDowell Inc., St. Charles, designed this new kitchen for Mike and Dawn Roberts, St. Charles. The distressed black painted finish on the island cabinets contrasts nicely with hickory wall-mounted cabinets. Carefully considered task, accent and ambient lighting adds to the room’s beauty and efficiency.

Marble and granite are two of the most popular choices for countertop materials. The same is often used for island countertops and backsplashes. A backsplash can help blend the colors, textures and patterns of the floor, cabinetry and countertops, and natural stone is a popular choice. “It’s a way to personalize a kitchen without being married to it forever,” says Tom Graham, president of Airoom. “You can always change a backsplash.”

Ceramic tile floors haven’t disappeared, but wood floors are definitely in demand. “Wood floors are very hot right now in kitchens, especially oak and maple,” says Ken Kohley, general manager of Blue Ribbon Millwork. “Wood floors are more resilient and easier to take care of, too.” After years of lighter-toned wood, deep mahogany finishes are coming back. They look especially nice with white cabinetry. For high-traffic areas, ceramic, slate and limestone are still popular. Bamboo floors are the choice for green homes and environmentally-friendly kitchens.

Lighting is one of the easiest ways to improve the look and feel of any kitchen. A well-lit kitchen includes three types of lighting: ambient, task and accent. Ambient lighting includes flush-mounted ceiling fixtures, wall sconces and track lights. “Lighting is not really talked about, but it’s so important,” says Sue McDowell. “You can change lighting in a kitchen and make it look completely different, without really doing anything else.”

Designers emphasize that colors don’t all need to match up perfectly. “It should either complement or contrast,” Kelly says. “If it doesn’t look good, we may offer some alternatives. But if it’s their passion – it’s their kitchen, it’s their home. If you dream of having a bright red kitchen, then we’re going to give you the best red kitchen you can have.”

The Steinwehe kitchen before and after its redesign by Blue Ribbon Millwork in Woodstock. The new kitchen features hickory Bertch cabinets and Cambria countertops, with an island replacing the former peninsula.

Design/remodeling firms do more than just rebuild kitchens. They offer unique services to enhance the customer’s overall experience.

Better Kitchens send interested customers to cooking classes, and invites chefs to a client’s new kitchen to demonstrate how best to use equipment and appliances. The McDowells go shopping with clients to help select building materials. Airoom has resource centers where clients spend four to six hours with staff members picking out every material for their new kitchen – down to each doorknob and drawer handle.

“The resource center is the living catalog,” says Graham. “If we talk about flooring, we want people to see what the hardwood looks like. If we talk about trim, we want them to see it so they get an idea about scale. The client is involved in the entire process.”

Pulling together the ultimate kitchen can be a daunting task; it’s the job of designer to help alleviate stress. “I think of myself as a coach – to help before it becomes overwhelming,” says Zielinski. “Many homeowners can’t picture what the end result is going to look like. That’s why they put their trust in us. And when the project is over, it’s very satisfying to hear the client say ‘this is exactly what we dreamed about.’”

Don and Marylee Steinwehe of Woodstock had never done a major remodeling project in their 40-year-old house. That is, until late last year, when they hired Blue Ribbon Millwork to redesign their kitchen and a half-bath. By the time the project was completed six weeks later, the Steinwehes had their dream kitchen, including all-new appliances; hickory Bertch cabinets; Cambria countertops; custom lighting and an oak wood floor to replace their worn out laminate Pergo flooring.

Marylee enjoys her new kitchen, especially the island, which replaced a peninsula. The island has a built-in microwave drawer on one side and ample space on the other for seating. “It works well for serving when company is here,” she says.

The Steinwehes frequently entertain a group of friends, who come over for drinks and appetizers. “It’s more fun now to be in the kitchen,” Marylee says. “It looks beautiful, and we absolutely love it.” ❚