Light fixtures above the sink are always a smart idea.

In my book, a great kitchen doesn’t have to be big or fancy. However, to function well, it does require a few essentials: good light, sufficient storage, decent appliances, and someone who knows how to use it. Recently, I stopped by to check out the newly remodeled kitchen of Mary Kysar. I admired the work and products I’d seen from her design firm, Makelike (which she owns with Topher Sinkinson), and was curious to see how a graphic designer who loves to cook might go about making an old kitchen new again.

Mary and her partner, Niki Rondini, purchased their two-story 1915 craftsman three years ago. And though they couldn’t climb the staircase to the new porch (a wooden ramp was perched on top of the rotting stairs), once they got inside, it was in pretty good shape. Mary recalls, "Nothing had been redone, the kitchen was remodeled in the thirties, but other than that, everything else was original." Their previous home had a tiny "efficiency" kitchen, which made it challenging to really cook. So, having a high functioning kitchen was the impetus to buying a new house.

When I walked into the bright and compact 275 square feet kitchen, I knew this was the place of someone who understood food and cooking. Collections of Le Crueset pots, well-used cookbooks, and a hood over the stove caught my attention immediately. I also knew by the way the tchotchkes were arranged that a designer’s eye was at work here. The vintage collections of plates and figurines collected by the couple over the years felt like they were part of the overall plan, not mere afterthoughts. And the red patterned tree wallpaper added a whimsical happy feeling to the space, without making it too busy. Light was allowed in by an elegant row of windows over the sink, a thoughtful connection to the garden in back. Mary recounts, "The old kitchen had a tiny window that was too high to really see out of, so we got rid of that and added these." I was impressed by many things about this kitchen — how they managed to retain the historic feel of the kitchen without making it feel "trendy retro" and how well everything modern fit so nicely into the space, without it seeming crowded.

Dividing the space is a long Endurawood countertop and shelf that functions as both work space, divider, and table. The couple had to watch the budget in certain areas, but this "centerpiece" was something they chose to spend a bit more on. Mary laughs, "I imagined clipping some of those baby seats to the edge and feeding the twins, "Smoochie and Tas-Devil" right from the stove… and also a place for guests to put their wine glasses down and hang out, since the kitchen is where everyone always ends up at our parties." The other place they spent more liberally was on quality cabinetry, built by Mark Ferris.

The two started their kitchen project by first choosing their appliances. They went to the Basco kitchen warehouse and found showroom models of Fisher Paykel stainless stove and an Asko dishwasher, which in the end saved about $5,000 in the budget. "Choose what you want to spend your money on" is Mary’s advice. They found ways to "cheat" and keep the budget in tow in other areas by getting some of the less prominent wood shelving and countertops from Ikea. And though the cabinetry is custom, they cheated a bit by not building out the area near the stove, instead using an industrial open shelf. Understanding how you will use your kitchen is key to Mary, "I’m a cook and know that I need to reach for certain things and where I like to have my utensils, etc. stored for easy access and efficiency." I told Mary that I admired the sense of fun in the space, in the midst of such efficiency. I wondered how they managed to not over-do the stuff they had out on the shelves and counters, and she replied, "I curate Niki’s revolving vintage doo-dads and dishes. It’s a balance between the amount of tchotchkes Niki would prefer and the simplicity I would maintain. I think it’s best with the combo. Mine would be too sparse and hers too cluttered."

Here are some tips from Mary on how to get along though the process of a remodel and how to stay mindful of the budget

Bring "pulls" or pictures you’ve torn out of magazines, anything to help the designer understand your vision so they don’t waste time trying to figure that part of it out. That alone will save you a lot of money in the end.

Don’t make decisions in your head, communicate those ideas and come to each other with your visual ideas, the same way you would with a designer, showing them pulls from magazines, books, and websites. This helps to make each other’s "vision" more concrete.

For appliances, look for seconds (like our scratch and dent refrigerator) or showroom models before you lockdown your kitchen design

Negotiate with your partner or housemate in the beginning to see who is in charge of what. Don’t do this once the build-out is about to happen.

Keep a little in the budget for unexpected surprises. We peeked beneath the old linoleum and assumed we’d be able to use the subfloor, but after pulling up more of it, we saw it was covered in nail holes and was unsalvageable. We had to put in a new floor, which was not part of the original budget.

makelike design 1515 nw 19th portland oregon 97209 usa 503-233-4843