portrait photography JEN DEAN
interior photography DARREN SETLOW

Vanessa Helmick,
principal interior designer
at Fiore Home.

The kitchen has always been considered the heart of the home, and recently the pandemic has put a greater emphasis on this space as families eat, work, learn and entertain in this central area. Remodeling a kitchen these days calls for a deep dive into not only the practical aspects of the space—appliances, storage, seating and traffic flow—but also the emotional ones, such as incorporating a favorite color.

Vanessa Helmick, principal interior designer at Fiore Home in Portland, and carpenter Danny Fisher of Fisher Custom Carpentry worked with homeowners Tim and Meghan to remodel their 11½ x 15-foot kitchen, keeping nothing but the corner window from the original space.


What were the goals for this kitchen remodel?

Vanessa: The homeowners wanted to be able to sit both parents and children at the island and maximize storage space. They’d also hoped to open the wall up more than we did, but that would have required bringing in steel beams, which wasn’t really worth it in the overall design of the space.

Tim and Meghan: Entertaining is a very important part of our lives and we wanted the kitchen to be the central part of socializing. Heartbreakingly, we have not entertained inside at all since we’ve moved in and we look forward to doing so when it is safe in 2021, hopefully. It’s very surreal to buy a new house, move in five months later during a pandemic, and have none of your friends and family over to become part of your new home’s institution.

Additionally, the remodel had to maximize seating and storage space while opening up to the rest of the house. The counter and cabinets on the load-bearing wall by the dining room have ended up being a highly used space that we had once considered omitting, so we’re grateful they stayed in. The “pieland” (pie-shaped island) also has a corner cabinet under the seating overhang to optimize every space available.

How did a growing family play into the design?

Tim and Meghan: With young children, we knew the kitchen island was just as important as the dining room, and that flow from one room to the next was also important. The sun room off the kitchen is now their playroom. We could have closed off a door and added more kitchen cabinetry or a bigger refrigerator, but the tradeoff would have meant one less exit for them to run circles around us! We kept both sun room entrances (one from the kitchen, one from the dining room) and opened up the entrance from the dining room to kitchen, which gave a sense of more openness.

Vanessa: Microwaves are a necessity with kids and are unsightly, so placing one near the fridge (below the counter) makes it functional and tucking it out of sight is beautiful. All the finishes in the home can withstand heavy use for years to come. Silestone Calacatta Gold quartz countertops are more durable than marble, but still give that fresh, clean aesthetic. The center island is wood with a little greige (a color between gray and beige) stain because an all-white island will show little shoe marks when kiddos sit there to eat. The floor is porcelain so it’s durable and easy to clean. The perimeter backsplash is a very pale greige subway tile, not white. It gives depth to the kitchen but shows less dirt. I wanted the parents to not worry about maintaining their kitchen but simply enjoy it.

Did you make any structural changes to the space that increased its size or configuration?

Vanessa: We widened the opening to the dining room to create some symmetry. Nothing in the room was symmetrical, and the room was closer to a square than a rectangle, which is a space-planning challenge. Another challenge was three of the four walls contained doorways or openings for traffic flow, which really eats away at functional space. We wanted the kitchen to feel larger than it was, so the perimeter cabinets and the appliances were the same bright white, including a counter-depth fridge. This had a huge impact on the space.

You mention using white cabinets and appliances: Would you speak to the white color trend and what it means for overall design?

Vanessa: White appliances have been on the rise for a few years. So far, Café by GE is the most popular and has multiple options for knobs and pulls. There are a couple of European brands that have always had off-white options, but the bright white is fresh with white cabinets. I think other manufacturers are waiting to see if the trend lasts. When done properly, they are beautiful and not the cheap, ugly ghosts of our college apartment days. Having visible appliances is an American trend.

White subway tile is classic, but I chose a light gray to break up the white and accentuate the veining in the countertop quartz. It was also a subtle balance to our focal point in the kitchen—the backsplash behind the stove. We kept the hood white, but ran the glass mosaic backsplash all the way to the ceiling. I like to do this when it suits the design—and when the client lets me. When you have a challenging room shape, creating specific focal points is even more important.

How did you work together to incorporate some of the stated preferences, such as using the color purple?

Meghan: My love of purple knows no bounds—it was one of my first words as a baby! It was important that any purple elements weren’t garish or brash and still remained unique. When Vanessa showed us the tile choices for the backsplash, and explained that the way the light hits the kitchen with the morning sun makes the color change hues, it was a done deal.

Vanessa: Meghan mentioned from the beginning that her favorite color is purple and that she knew it probably couldn’t be incorporated in a kitchen, but was just “throwing it out there.” Tim was also open to the idea, so I was determined to add something that was both purple and tasteful. I really enjoyed surprising them with multiple options. Artistic Tile, carried locally by Distinctive Tile and Design, introduced a few new patterns last year that have shades of lavender and violet on both glass mosaics and marble. We decided on Echo Violin Violet. I was so impressed by how Meghan and Tim balanced and supported each other’s design opinions.

How did you work through other design options?

Meghan and Tim: Vanessa provided three or four design choices and most of the time we both agreed on the same first choice. Having those options really helped us because we are both analytical people and Tim is very literal and needs something in front of him to visualize possibilities. We almost didn’t buy this house because the kitchen remodel didn’t seem like it had the return on investment for our wallet and our dreams. Vanessa reviewed renderings of what the design options would look like, which really helped us visualize the end product and feel confident that this was the best decision for our family.

What was the process like, working with a designer?

Meghan and Tim: Working with an experienced designer is such a valuable service. They truly help narrow down the sea of options so that what you’re envisioning is what you get. If you’re starting with a blank slate, they help fill it. We know we’re not experts in décor supply chain management and, with this past year, we felt confident our designer had the pulse of the industry at the top of her mind to keep timelines in sync.

Designers also coordinate the project with the contractor, cabinet company and counter company, which makes it all far less overwhelming. This is especially true in a pandemic or when there are tariffs. We had many close calls where we thought we were going to be moving into our house with plywood countertops but it all pulled together, thanks to our Vanessa.

What were the biggest challenges of this project?

Vanessa: The biggest challenge was that island, since fitting four people required either a square or curved countertop. The alternative to the “pieland” would have involved expensive steel, moving doors and walls—all a bit unnecessary just to get a rectangular island. This was Danny Fisher’s project. I was asked to help with the design, but he is wonderful to work with and experienced. He knew there would be some surprises in the walls and floors and was prepared. He is that rare general contractor who will spend time having design discussions and idea sessions with a designer and then only take the final, collaborative proposals back to the clients. This process is key to a positive client experience.

Danny: The biggest challenge in the beginning was that the clients really wanted a professional design opinion on where to take the layout of the kitchen, while keeping the flow of connected spaces in mind. I referred Vanessa to them to offer her thoughts. Ultimately, I executed some structural work to open up two wall areas to allow more light and passage space with Vanessa’s ideas. Vanessa would ask if these changes could be made easily, and I was able to advise what could be modified and where. We worked the same way with finishes like tile and lighting. She brings the vision and I take the role during construction.

In the end, the biggest challenge was the pandemic. We started the project in January and ended in May. I was working alone the last few weeks of the project, taking it to the finish line, and Vanessa stepped up to help by having the finishing pieces delivered and organized. She also weighed in on many of the decisions that take place on a whim as a project of this scope comes to completion.

How did you and Danny make it easy for the homeowners to go through a remodel?

Vanessa: We both try to understand their day-to-day living experience and how it will be affected during a remodel, so we can prepare them. Most homeowners don’t know what to expect and without professionals to set expectations and communicate the process, it can be stressful. Danny and his wife have three children, I have a young daughter, we all have dogs—we are practical with our design and our approach as a result. We are families who remodel for families.

Danny: Communication was the key. Vanessa and I were always talking with each other and reporting to Tim and Meghan. Amidst the health concerns, we had a lot of remote discussions. All in all, I believe we delivered a beautiful kitchen/downstairs remodel to their brand-new home. They couldn’t have been more gracious clients to work for and we plan to work with them again in the future.

Is your family pleased with the new kitchen?

Meghan and Tim: We love it! We moved in six months ago and we’ve commented independently at least a dozen times at how much we love the kitchen. ZERO regrets.

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