What a Kitchen Pro Knows

By Terri Sapienza
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 12, 2006

Jennifer Gilmer's name is practically synonymous with high-end kitchen design in the Washington area. For 21 years, the Maryland native has been advising clients on the advantages of custom cabinetry, the differences between granite and quartz countertops and the importance of not skimping on appliances or table space. Her Chevy Chase showroom is a one-stop shop for kitchen designs large and small, budgets fat and, sometimes, not so fat.

So when time came to renovate the kitchen in the Bethesda bungalow she shares with her husband, Bill, she knew precisely what she wanted. Until she met architect Amy Gardner.

After years of experience, Gilmer said, "I can completely understand -- whether [my clients] understand or not -- what it is that they want. I can sense their style and create a kitchen that is a reflection of their personality. And Amy did the same thing to me."

Every home renovation is stressful, but none more so than a kitchen redo. The sheer number of choices for cabinets, countertops, appliances, floors, lighting and layout is overwhelming. Projects frequently -- indeed notoriously -- take longer than expected and run significantly over budget.

In Gilmer's case, the kitchen project ultimately became part of a much larger home renovation that began at the start of 2005 and is just winding down. Besides the new kitchen/butler's pantry, the work included a new roof, a new second floor and a two-story addition on the back of the house. The project was estimated to take 15 months, but it has taken 22. The budget ran about 15 percent above overall expectations.

Giving the rest of us solace: Even a bona fide kitchen design expert can suffer renovation setbacks.

"I have the same problems that everyone has," Gilmer said. "Even if I had the materials here, the [subcontractors] would work here, then jump to another job and then come back. . . . There really are no shortcuts." And she admits that part of the renovation lag was due to her taking a breather: "Even I get overwhelmed."

Originally, Gilmer planned a classic bungalow kitchen. Then Gardner, who had worked on the house's first minor interior renovations three years before Gilmer owned it, helped Gilmer recognize her fondness for contemporary design, and the remodel went from Arts and Crafts to Asian and modern. "It was an immediate meeting of the minds," Gardner said. "We were instinctively on the same page, broadening the ideas of the original project visually, functionally and structurally."

Gilmer said it would cost about $105,000 to replicate her kitchen/butler's pantry, though of course her outlay was lower.

The original 10-by-11-foot kitchen space is now a butler's pantry that leads to the Asian-inspired, two-story addition that includes a kitchen, living area and sunroom. It's big, but the new 18-by-10-foot kitchen is not (by today's mammoth standards). Gilmer is quick to say she is not a champion of large kitchens.

"It's easier to turn on a heel and be able to reach everything without having to walk a great distance," she said. "I think small kitchens are the wave of the future."

The design of the butler's pantry began with a limestone basin Gilmer found at Arc Stone in Capitol Heights. She chose copper for the countertops (it complemented the basin) and knotty cherry cabinetry (with real stone pulls) to conceal built-in appliances, storage and a pull-out butcher block drawer "for slicing limes."

In the kitchen, the focal point is the cabinetry. Dark and sleek with concealed hinges, the cabinets are made of Macassar ebony, an exotic wood species that has a horizontal grain pattern resembling tiger stripes. "I could have selected a lighter wood that had the same horizontal grain," Gilmer said, "but I felt that this would have been too jarring from the original bungalow part of the house."

The dark wood contrasts with the painted tempered glass that sits on the wall above the cooktop. Gilmer liked the clean lines of the glass and the absence of grout lines.

On the main counters, Gilmer chose Absolute Black honed granite and a hefty nine-inch granite backsplash to better keep heat off the glass and to remain proportional with the 9 1/2 -foot ceilings. But the designer always prefers to go higher or lower than the typical four-inch backsplash. "Four inches is so expected," she said. "This gives it a little more punch."

The room's details make it obvious that the homeowner is a professional kitchen designer. An 8 1/2 -foot-long table on casters rolls under the island when it isn't needed. A pot-filler faucet and sink (with a sliding wenge wood cutting board on top) sits next to the fridge rather than by the stove, making the tasks of rinsing and chopping produce easier and more efficient. The granite, the wenge wood and a sliding butcher block on the center island provide alternative work surfaces in close proximity.

The new kitchen offers the convenience and style of a modern Asian-inspired design tucked behind the traditional framework of a classic bungalow.

Asked if she misses the old kitchen, Gilmer answers by defending the merits of its small space. But clearly, she's pleased with the remodel. The original kitchen "was a good space -- it wasn't bad," she said. "It just wasn't a Jennifer Gilmer kitchen."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company