Balancing Act

A river cruise from Amsterdam to Switzerland includes a stop at Cologne Cathedral for a group photo. From left are George and Barb Dodge, Jo and Jim Brown, Polly and Jim Myers, Diane and Cleon Stull, and Dean and Lynne Schneider.

Kitchen Remodeling Weighs Form, Function and Budget
By Meredith Ericksen, Tuscan Blue Design | Photography by David Spence/Spence Photographics

Over the past two years, we’ve spent a great deal of time in our homes and specifically our kitchens. Have all those trips to the fridge left you dreaming of a new kitchen? If so, you have probably been scouring the internet, reading about design tips and gathering ideas. And maybe getting a bit confused.

A new kitchen is more than just stunning countertops and handsome new cabinetry. Kitchen design starts with livability—simply put, creating a space that is functional, easy to live in and a potential workspace (as we have seen in recent years).
Good kitchen design finely balances all those uses.


The kitchen will always be the heart of the home. Current trends show that over the past few years with more of us working from home, families are rethinking the open-space kitchen concept. They are wanting a little more privacy. Opening up the kitchen to other rooms requires thoughtful decisions about the livability of the space.
Think about how and where you will use different parts of the kitchen to create workstations and storage centers. This is as simple as making a spot for breakfast foods and bowls near the breakfast table; locating dishware/flatware/glasses near the dishwasher for easy unloading; and creating storage for wraps and plastic containers near the work surface.
When designing a kitchen, there are basic dimensions used to configure a functional space. When you are working on a layout, pay attention to these measurements:

  • All paths through the kitchen should be at least 36 inches wide.
  • All paths in the kitchen should be 42 inches wide. For example, the path between the island and the cabinetry. If you are planning for two cooks working at once, that space expands to 48 inches.
  • Plan for 15 inches of countertop for a “landing space” on either side of the cooktop and refrigerator. Landing space is also important near the microwave. If you cook frequently, you probably need more counter space between the range and sink for chopping and prep work. This need can be accommodated by an island.
  • Speaking of islands, form follows function. If you want to cook and eat at the island, plan enough space so the cooktop is safely separated from the seating area. Allow for 20 to 24 inches per person at the island for comfortable seating.


There is no way around it, kitchen remodels can be expensive. When considering your goals, think about where to splurge, where to save and how to put it all together.
Cabinets. There are two ways to go here, the most common being new cabinetry. Keep in mind cabinets are among of the most expensive parts of a well-done kitchen. This is an item where it might make most sense to splurge. Remember, cabinets are the first thing you see when you walk into the space, plus they get daily wear and tear from the family. So, they need to look good and be well made.
When considering new cabinets, find a reputable kitchen showroom that will offer different lines of cabinetry for your budget/design, but first ask yourself a few questions: What is your budget? How long do you plan on staying in the home (one of the most important questions)? What improvements are standard for similar homes in your area? Note: Shaker-style kitchen cabinets are still the most popular for their transitional style.

If you are replacing cabinets, a 42-inch-height wall cabinet is my recommendation. Those few extra inches of storage are well worth the added expense. Tip: The taller shelves are a great spot for storing seasonal items.
Not worth the money is covering your appliances with matching cabinet doors. Today, most appliances are designed to be showcased, even the more budget-friendly lines. I like the addition of smooth stainless steel or sometimes a colorful piece like a navy blue range to the kitchen.
The second route you can take with cabinetry is simply keeping and upgrading your existing cabinets. If you are keeping your existing kitchen layout (maybe adding an island or moving a few cabinets to create a new layout) and your cabinets are in good condition, the most cost-effective solution is to give them a facelift with a new paint scheme. Note: If your cabinets have a Thermafoil face, paint does not adhere well to that surface, so I advise against painting them.

You can also save a bit of money and replace some sections of your upper cabinetry with open shelving. Add just a few open shelves for interest. Tip: If you have an open space between your cabinets and ceilings add a drywall bulkhead plus crown molding and paint it the same color as the kitchen cabinets. This will visually extend the cabinetry to the ceiling.

Countertops. Weigh durability with cost. Engineered quartz is my go-to material for counter tops. The options can look just as good as natural stone but are more durable and cost less. Engineered stone comes in various pricing levels to fit most budgets.
Tip: Your butcher block countertop can be refinished every few years to look like new.
For those who aren’t always cooking in the kitchen, a more budget-friendly option is butcher block (or a combination of butcher block and engineered quartz). Butcher block adds a lovely warmth and patina over years. Tip: Your butcher block countertop can be refinished every few years to look like new.

Marble can be used as an accent piece such as a countertop for a bar cabinet. There is nothing more beautiful than real marble.
Pantry. I am a firm believer of finding more pantry space in a kitchen. It is always a good idea and worth the investment.
A closet pantry is for more than food storage. It’s a great space to store small appliances like the ubiquitous pressure cookers, air fryers and other space gobblers. You also add a countertop for coffee/tea/beverages and it can be an additional prep space.
If a closet pantry is not part of the overall kitchen design, a cabinet-style pantry with shelves, drawers and specific storage options is a nice upgrade. If you are short on space, a wall of tall, 12-inch-deep cabinetry is perfect for food storage.

Backsplash. Don’t skip adding backsplash tile. It makes the space feel more complete, adds detail and pattern, and is generally a good-looking feature in the space.

Your budget will determine the type of tile you use, so get creative. Subway tile is popular and a cost-effective option. Give it a fresh spin with different patterns and sizes—a long subway tile in a herringbone pattern, and other designs with vertical and horizontal pieces create an attractive band. Subway tile comes in many color options from light gray to navy blue. I think it will always be a classic.
For that hard to clean area behind your sink faucet (especially if it is below a window) think about using the countertop material as the backsplash instead of tile. There is no grout to battle and it is much easier to keep clean. You can pair the countertop material with the wall tile.

Kitchen island. If you are looking for more countertop surface or additional seating in the kitchen, adding a kitchen island is the perfect solution. You can maximize every square inch.

With the growth in the work-from-home lifestyle, many people are using the island as a workspace. The cabinetry below can be used for storage, small appliances even under-the-counter ovens. Islands should be countertop height at 36 inches. A large, wide surface allows for prep, serving and gathering.

As you work through the design and selections, note my golden rule for a kitchen remodeling: Let one piece be the star. If you have a fancy backsplash, keep your countertops and cabinetry neutral and vice versa. Too many things to occupy the eye means pieces can clash or fade into the background. Pick one focal point and complement that area with quieter, eye-pleasing details. Happy remodeling!
Meredith Ericksen is the owner and principal designer at Tuscan Blue Design. With 25 years of design experience combined with art training, she leads the team at Tuscan Blue with an eye for multiple design perspectives and an excitement for unique challenges. Find out more at

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