For several years, my wife, Cindy, and I endured renovation after renovation to slowly transform our 1960s split-level home into a contemporary space. In the fall of 2013, it was finally time to tackle the last room in the house: the kitchen.


A photo of Glenn Kessler’s kitchen before the renovation. (Glenn Kessler/The Washington Post)

When we moved into our McLean home 14 years ago, we painted the dark wood cabinets and over time had replaced all of the appliances. It had turned into a mishmash with a distinctly retro look. But this time we were going to do it right: gutting the entire room, down to the floorboards and wall studs. We would start with a blank slate and get our dream kitchen.

Finally, we could get rid of the electric stove top and install gas lines for a Thermador range. We replaced the linoleum with an oak wood floor. We even had our contractor, Hambleton Construction, extend the floor out a few feet into the garden so we could install a floor-to-ceiling picture window.

We opted for European-made cabinets and a stainless-steel counter, which added to the construction time because everything had to be manufactured in Italy and then shipped by sea to the United States.

We chose to work with Pedini, an Italian company, largely because we were impressed by the D.C. store’s designer and co-owner, Roy Wellman. For a large project like this, it’s essential to have a good relationship with a designer who is open to new ideas and concepts.

Wellman recommended white lacquer for the upper cabinets, with the lower half finished in wood; we choose sapele, an African wood similar to mahogany. Then, for our canned goods and cookbooks, he suggested frosted glass cabinets; we came up with the idea of rendering the glass in the distinctive red, yellow, blue and white squares of a Mondrian painting. You can’t get more contemporary than that.

All told, from the initial contact to the final installation, the process took nearly 11 months, with the cabinets and appliances adding up to about $100,000. But it was worth it, because the kitchen looks spectacular. Here are some of the lessons we learned.


Glenn Kessler’s new streamlined and contemporary kitchen. (Glenn Kessler/The Washington Post)

Design the kitchen for yourself. We spent weeks fretting over a location for a built-in microwave drawer, something that’s become standard in high-end kitchens. We rarely use a microwave, and we certainly wanted it hidden. But every option seemed to take away a space we wanted for other purposes. Finally, it dawned on us to stop worrying about the next owner. So we kept our simple and small Sharp microwave. Wellman came up with an ingenious solution: The microwave is hidden behind a door that opens automatically with a touch of your finger.

Be prepared for some sticker shock. A high-end contemporary look these days all but requires cabinet-depth appliances, with custom-built covers, but it is not inexpensive. Our Miele refrigerator was more than four times the cost of our old 25-cubic-foot LG fridge; even our Perlick wine cooler and beverage center was double the price of the old refrigerator. Both are significantly better-built than the LG, even though the two combined probably do not equal the space of the old unit.

If you know which appliances you want, buy them — now. There is a long lead time involved in designing a high-end kitchen, and twice we were surprised to learn that a product we had selected was no longer being manufactured and was being replaced with a new version. In one case, the new product (a Miele oven) would have required an additional $1,800 in plumbing and electrical work, after the new walls had been finished. We were able to scramble and locate the last versions of our original selection left in area stores, but it was pretty hair-raising at the time. Our contractor later said he would have purchased the appliances earlier and stored them for us, so we probably should not have relied on the cabinetmaker to buy those items.

Don’t buy products sight unseen. We bought a Grohe Blue Chilled and Sparkling water system because we wanted a second sink with cold sparkling water. (Most cabinet-depth refrigerators do not dispense water.) But it was so new it was not on display anyplace in the area. We took a chance on the product, given Grohe’s reputation. But once it was installed, we realized we disliked the taste of the sparkling water. To Grohe’s credit, they sent someone to our house and completely replaced the system. Then when we still did not like the taste, they took it back and refunded our money. (We opted for a plain Grohe Blue filter and faucet, which has worked well for us.)

Don’t be afraid to change your mind. Once the stainless-steel counter and the lacquer cabinets were installed, we realized that the 60 square feet of fancy stainless steel backsplash we had purchased on Amazon was going to be too much stainless-steel. So, despite the money already spent, we switched to rectified white-glass tile from Porcelanosa. We ended up selling the stainless-steel tile on Craigslist for a substantial discount, but we are very happy we made the switch.


Glenn Kessler’s McLean kitchen. (Glenn Kessler/The Washington Post)

Read more on kitchens:

See inside our favorite local kitchens

Why the open kitchen is here to stay

What’s new in kitchen design

Tips for a timeless kitchen