Thoroughly Modern Kitchen, Only Warmer

Rebekah Zaveloff fulfills the vision of a decisive client who wants minimalist design without the cold and is willing to take chances.


Feeling secure in what you like and willing to go for it means you've conquered 50 percent of the kitchen design challenge, says Rebekah Zaveloff, a kitchen designer in Chicago. "It doesn't matter if it's trendy or in style as long as it's what you want — if it makes you smile when you walk in the room!" she says.

When one of her clients approached her about doing a minimalist kitchen, he exuded confidence and a natural affinity for materials and approaches unlike anything other homeowners would be drawn to. "He knew just what he wanted and his ideas were a study in some things a lot of homeowners find hard to do, like doing without wall cabinets or caring for a white limestone counter," she says. "At the same time, he was willing to entertain ideas for alternative materials and to rethink how he stored things to achieve his goals."

Such decisive thinking made for a beautiful and unusual kitchen, but it also created challenges in installation and a few elements that Rebekah couldn't see working for anyone else. Here, she shares some solutions that made the design live up to its potential, as well as advice for developing your own design taste and confidence.

"The client wanted something minimal and modern, but at the same time warm, not cold or austere." One material that fulfilled both needs: maple with a charcoal stain. "You get the warmth of the wood grain, but the coolness of the color adds to the modern ambiance," says Rebekah. "It was almost a fluke the way the bottom layer of maple with its yellow undertone and the top coat of charcoal blended into something like a new color, a blue, greenish-gray."

White Limestone

First, Rebekah emphasizes, "the stone is absolutely gorgeous." That said, white limestone is not the type of counter she would ever recommend to a homeowner. "But my client was convinced that's what he had to have and so we used it, even though limestone is very porous and has to be treated very, very carefully or it gets stained or chipped." The French Vanilla slab came from Belstone; Rebekah engaged local fabricators to turn it into an island top that's modern and sleek but still looks natural.

For a similar look that's not so tough to maintain, she would advise using marble or limestone, but in a beige color.

Be Careful with Ceramic Tile in a Retrofit

One of the hallmarks of Rebekah's design is handmade ceramic tile that goes clear to the ceiling. "It's beautiful and easy to care for as long as you seal the grout — a great modern kitchen surface," she says. "But it's tricky to install in a remodel unless you're gutting the walls. It's tough to get the tiles to line up in a straight stacked pattern and the existing wall itself might not be even."

For this design to succeed, Rebekah hired a very talented tile installer who had to mud a bit to make the walls suitable for tiling. "Anytime you're dealing with tile on the wall in a grid pattern, mistakes are very obvious," she says. "That's why I recommend smaller, handmade tiles, where any flaws are part of the appeal. I would also hire an artisan to install, someone who will give extra special thought to the layout."

One thing that won't help is the carved moldings or caps that do-it-yourselfers traditionally use to hide flaws in the tilework. "In a modern application of tile, the traditional details are a big no-no — they'd just look awful," says Rebekah.

"My advice for anyone embarking on a kitchen design is to be honest with yourself about your goals and your budget, not just look around at what you think you might want," she says. "You don't have to share it with anyone else at first, but you should really know what your spending comfort level is before it comes to making a lot of decisions."

If you're concerned with sticking to a strict budget, the surest way to save money is to get comfortable with your preferences before bringing in the professionals, says Rebekah. "If it's in your budget, though, you may want the enjoyment of going through and choosing together. And even the most decisive clients will benefit from a back and forth with the designer later in the process, to get the benefit of their resources and information."

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