About Me

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I have 20+ years experience in Home Furnishings and Interior Design, specializing in Kitchen and Bath Design since '01. I work for Bilotta Kitchens in the A&D Building on East 58th Street in the Mid-town Manhattan. I have a passion for learning and love the opportunity to collaberate on projects of all sizes. My strengths in the field begin with my design background, use of color and texture to bring interest to a room, spatial relationships, organizational skills, innovation, decisiveness, and planning. I have had the thrilling experience of helping hundreds...?maybe thousands of people with their projects, and what I love is it never gets boring, and no two are ever the same. Thanks for reading.

Monday, November 30, 2009

New Holiday Tradition

As you know, by trade I am a kitchen designer, but the secret underlying passion that led me to my chosen path, was a love of cooking. This is a time in my family's life when completely new holiday traditions are being born one celebration at a time. So as I have seen my hosting responsibilities go on temporary hiatus, it's become all the more important that the "What Can I Bring To Your Party" item is a hit.

Emilie Barta asked for Tweets on what the favorites dishes were this Thanksgiving I shouted back "Spinach & Artichoke Dip, putting it in the oven now."

Emilie quickly asked how and how hard...I am here to tell you not very hard at all, and it always draws a crowd.

Recipe for Spinach & Artichoke Dip

What you will need:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees

Mixing Ingredients:

  1. thaw and drain frozen vegetables
  2. soften cream cheese for 30-45 seconds in microwave
  3. coarsely chop artichoke pieces (chunky)
  4. set aside 2 Tbsp of diced tomato for garnish
  5. in large bowl combine all other ingredients
  6. mix well and move to oven safe/microwavable serving dish
  7. heat in microwave on high for 12-15 minutes stopping (stir after 5 minutes) mixture should be creamy
  8. stir well
  9. sprinkle leftover tomato on top of dip for splash of color
  10. bake in oven 20-25 minutes

Serve warm with tortilla chips or other snack chip, great with garlic points!

Put your own twist on the ingredients, even try a different cheese, after all, that is the fun of being a chef in your own kitchen!

I hope that you add this recipe to your "What Can I Bring" list, and that your holidays are happy and spent with loved ones.

Follow Aston Smith

Monday, May 18, 2009

Micro-managing your Microwave

As kitchens have grown to become the showplace of the home, and for all we love our appliances, the microwave is undoubtedly the "Black Sheep" of all appliances. For every ten times you have heard someone say 'you have to see my new' "Sub-Zero refrigerator" "Viking range" or my "dual zone wine refrigerator" I challenge you to remember that last time a neighbor dragged you in to marvel at their new "Sharp carousel" or "GE Spacemaker OTR" (over the range) microwave. It just doesn't happen. Clearly I am more likely to have a client tell me: "I don't care where you put the microwave" but keep in mind, still almost every kitchen gets one, even if it's just for popcorn and tea.

So the question becomes: where does the microwave belong? Of course the NKBA has suggested guidelines for placement and they are that microwave be placed somewhere between 24" and 48" above the floor. Off the bat, we know that every time we put a microwave over the range, we forfeit compliance with that guideline. In many kitchens this placement is chosen because there simply isn't enough room to give up anywhere else in the kitchen. The obvious drawbacks to placing the microwave over the cooking surface are:

  1. Reaching up over a hot surface to retrieve very hot dishes
  2. Combing a busy work station with a sub-station
  3. Settling for less powerful ventilation for surface cooking
  4. Cannot be combined with Grill or Griddle range-top accessories

It's is easy to guess that the potential hazards of placing the microwave over the cooking surface, and they range from scalding, (I learned at the age of 16 with tomato sauce), to inadequate removal of grease and food smell, to compromised food quality because someone couldn't open the microwave or tend the saute pan because of competition for the same floor space.

That being said, arguably in half of all kitchens with microwaves in the design, the microwaves are over the range, and the pluses to that are:

  1. Saves counter space
  2. Replaces a vent with ventilation/cooking/ and light in one appliance
  3. Economical

Alternatives to this location, which are clearly recommended if possible include pairing the microwave with a wall oven in a tall cabinet, including it in an island or base cabinet in an area of the kitchen away from the stove, or placing it on a special purpose shelf in an upper cabinet, making sure it is not too high.

The drawer microwave, made by Sharp as well as others, is an excellent choice for the under counter application, as is any of the counter top microwaves so long as you measure them for fit before ordering cabinetry, you will probably find that a family size microwave will require a 27" cabinet for proper fit and function. It is a good idea if you have small children to check the microwave for a locking mechanism.

When placing a microwave on a dedicated shelf a good thing to remember is that if you use the microwave for reheating, keeping it close to the refrigerator is not only a good idea, but the end panel on the refrigerator will offer the microwave shelf the extra support it needs. Not supporting the cabinet properly can void the manufacturers warranty and cause future problems.

An experienced kitchen designer will be able to help you choose the appliances that are right for you and make sure they are installed properly. Make sure you ask questions, and look for the Energy Star Seal, spending a little more now can save you more in years to come!

Monday, May 11, 2009

Concrete Countertops!

I wanted to share that there is an "Artisan in Concrete" opening up in Northern New Jersey. Located in Hackettstown, New Jersey they will be serving all of the Tri-State Area. The company is a new venture for the original founder of Concrete Design Studio, Rockaway, NJ.

Bill was the father of the formulas that produced the product CDS was known for, and his commitment to customer satisfaction and quality remains his the same.

I am featuring Artisan in Concrete in our design studio, and take pleasure in boasting that his new manufacturing facility expected to open later this month will work in tandem with our design staff creating new finishes to expand the vast line currently offered, troweled, cast, glazed, and glass finishing will all share an enormous color palette to please any customer.

There is a nominal charge for development of specialized finishes should someone want a color beyond the selection offered, and the tops can be personalized with embossing and other unique additives, an array of edge styles, and the possiblity of seamless counters beyond industry standards.

Concrete is a Green material as it utilizes postconsumer material in its manufacturing, and the waste material from the manufacturing process is recycled, pricing is comparable to granite.

Inquiries can be made to bgockeler@aiconcrete.com

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Kitchen Appliances, How Much is Too Much?

As the Kitchen Remodeling industry is beginning to show signs of life after the long winter, I am faced with the age old question: How much should I spend on new appliances?

This is a very personal decision, and the answers to this potential dilemma are simple: "whatever you like" or as the NKBA suggests 15 percent of your overall budget, or yet again somewhere in between. A quick check of retail appliance prices will confirm that it's easy to spend $15,000 on the essential appliances. See specific examples in this quick reference Kitchen Remodeling Guide.

I can tell you that the major league appliance players in the all-star lineup, are doing a bang up job whetting the appetites of consumers for their top shelf wares. I almost never leave a preliminary design appointment without having heard the names:

  • Viking
  • Wolf
  • AGA
  • Gaggenau
  • Blue star
  • Sub-Zero
  • Bertazzoni
  • Perlick
  • Thermador
  • Heartland

    I love these brands, for the features and the look, the colors and the versatility. Hearing my client wants to have the 30" Viking self cleaning oven as their kitchen centerpiece is like music to my ears. But if their total budget is $30,000 for the entire kitchen, and they have to replace their flooring, upgrade their electrical panel, add new lighting, solid surface counter tops, and new cabinets, the math won't work.

    How we as professionals handle this moment of realization is critical, these artfully designed appliances our clients want are unceremoniously plunked in the kitchens of "average" TV sitcom families, tucked into photo layouts in home fashion magazines, and featured daily on HGTV.

    If you deliver this information with a thud, you may never hear from your prospective client again. They may buy a kitchen, and they may downsize their appliance budget, and take your advice, but if you aren't gentle and dont offer creative and helpful alternative solutions they won't buy from you.This is where tact and good planning become crucial.

    I recommend the following:

  • have pre-specified and priced appliance packages at various price points available to show your clients. Don't make them wait, offer it up.
  • Make sure you photograph kitchens where your clients have used reasonably priced alternatives such as:
    Electrolux, Kitchen Aid, or GE Cafe series
  • Feature these kitchen photos prominently in your showroom. When the kitchen is admired, you can point out that the appliance were at a considerable savings allowing for other upgrades.
  • If you don't offer appliances, an appliance retailer near your showroom will undoubtedly partner with you and provide marketing materials to assist with your clients.
  • Use this retailer (he/she is now your good friend a.k.a.:Appliance Guru) to refer your clientele to, and always give them time to prepare with advance notice that you are sending someone over.
  • Advise them of the reasonable spend limit so your Appliance Guru can safeguard your plan for your client, making sure the expectations substantially met, or better yet exceeded.
  • Best practice:go with your client, but let the appliance people be the experts.

    If the NKBA suggests 15 percent of the budget be set aside for appliances, that means that on a $45,000 kitchen you have approximately $6800 to spend. Why do I say approximately, because 15% is a suggestion, not a law, and we can trim down some other expenses in favor of a Sub-Zero refrigerator if it's been wanted forever and it makes the dream kitchen come true. What we don't want to do is drain the well so dry that we have to use the refrigerator box as a pantry when we're done!
  • Wednesday, March 4, 2009

    The Changing Kitchen Customer

    Quality craftsmanship and professional remodeling have inherent value, you get tremendous benefit from a new kitchen when it is well designed and properly installed. Taking shortcuts in the process and product will only shortchange you and your investment in the end. After all, most homeowners look at their house as part of their future financial rewards, a nest egg.

    As a
    Kitchen Designer, sometimes my profession can be viewed as a "fat" that can be trimmed away in lean times. After all I am a leap of faith, and from the moment my client engages my services, I have to prove my worth. I quietly point out that I pay for myself many times over when I save you from making mistakes in your new kitchen, either costly to fix, or unsightly and inconvenient to live with.

    Hiring a professional designer or a remodeling company that provides a designer you should expect:

    • detailed measurements for project planning
    • best use of space
    • innovative design ideas
    • current industry technology in your design
    • what you have ordered will work
    • you don't pay for excessive material that gets wasted
    • material is right and on time
    • open communication with the crew installing your kitchen
    • a direct line for help when you have a question
    • no "last minute" details that were forgotten
    These are benefits the Home Centers can't pitch to you, because if you design your kitchen there, your project may changes hands as many as three or four times before your kitchen ever gets ordered.

    Increasingly over the last few months I have received an influx of inquiries from homeowners shopping for design services as a first step in the remodeling process, prior to talking to any contractors. It comes as welcome news when I tell them of installation services we offer at The Kitchendeziner
    , we recognize a trend towards design it, sell it, and install it, all in one place. I have been designing in the Millburn/Short Hills area of New Jersey now for over a year and half now, about thirty minutes south of Bergen County where I initially developed my reputation as a kitchen designer. Both areas are saturated with a variety of remodeling "shopportunites" from the entry level Home Center to the Ultra-Boutique experience.

    A common complaint I hear from my clients when we first meet is, "No other designer would even talk to us without a retainer." And what I hear from colleagues is "People just aren't buying" and I believe once you take that view, no one will buy from you. I understand that time is money. I have been known to ask a "shopper" who becomes pushy for a copy of my actual design before committing to the project "what do you do that you get paid for, that today you want to do for free?" The truth today is, in this economic climate, if you hold people to money just to talk, you may find yourself very lonely in your showroom.

    Less people are out spending money right now, and everyone knows it. And those who are out there shopping, know they can probably get a little more than they would six months ago. What I have also concluded is homeowners are enjoying the design process a little more than before, taking longer, asking more questions, and exploring their options. The current buying behavior is definitely more conservative. If I have to be more inventive, and entertaining to please my customer, then sobeit.

    In an attempt to help folks over the buying hump and give them a place to shop for a kitchen that isn't high pressure or intimidating, we have redesigned our showroom with offerings that make sense to today's customer, more smaller displays, beautiful and real, but not over done, showing styles and finishes that range from Contemporary Dark Wenge to a Distressed Glazed Tuscany motif, and all else we have room for in between. The focus is definitely on added value, features like roll out trays, spice storage, base wastebasket pullouts, and customizable cutlery storage. The response has been great, and once they are in on the design, it's very short leap to purchasing our complete installation services.

    Offering homeowners the complete service package has been the key to our success in these tougher times. Homeowners want to know what their project will cost when it's done, and they want to know before they begin. We have taken steps to help our clients avoid cost overruns. People are looking to hear that from us, especially with today's economy.

    At Empire we take a project from inception to completion offering the client:

    • cabinetry
    • tile back splashes
    • counter top surfaces
    • flooring
    • project management
    • decorating advice
    • engineering/sealed plans
    • dedicated electricians and plumbers
    • in-house crews
    • a detailed project timeline

    These are the features that we are offering to put our clients at ease and give them the assurances they are looking for. With as much HGTV as the average kitchen consumer has seen, they are more savvy than they were 5-10 yrs ago, many know what they want when they come in, others take a guidance. Either way the pace of sales has slowed a little for now, the time isn't wasted, we are using it to expand our offerings, improve our services, and get better at what we do best, taking care of our clients, and building great kitchens. Doing anything else now, just wouldn't make sense!

    Friday, February 13, 2009

    Diary of a Bathroom Remodel "Go ahead and rip out both bathrooms, I'll shower at the Gym"

    You know that famous interview question "what is your greatest distinctive attribute?" we have all heard it! As a kitchen designer, I had a great answer for that one--my age. Young enough to be seen as "hip" "in touch" "with it" and old enough to know better, not a rookie.

    At The Kitchendeziner, we don't start a remodeling project until everything we need for it is inventoried in our warehouse. All stamped with Mr. or Mrs Happy Kitchen-Customer's name on it. Before we start the project we lay out a timeline with the clients that works for both parties. When I have more than just a kitchen remodel (kitchen+ 1 or more bathrooms), before we turn a screw in any room, we establish a sequence. My goal: balancing continuous job progress against access to facilities i.e.: shower, water closet etc. I never want a client running in the house after being stuck in rush hour traffic for 45 minutes and scrambling up the stairs to use a bathroom that doesn't exist anymore!

    Last October, I started a kitchen and bath renovation I was really excited about. The job was a kitchen and two bathrooms in a two and half bath townhouse. That left Ms. Happy Kitchen-Customer with a half bathroom all to herself for the duration and my commitment that she would always have a shower. I thought about my options, knowing I had an excited and anxious homeowner on my hands. She had the desire to choose beautiful things and followed her heart. This was obviously a fun pleasureable undertaking, and I wanted to do everything to keep it that way. Keep in mind even kitchen remodleing customers who take six months to decide to move forward on a project have one question after they sign the paperwork, and that is: "How quickly can this all be done?"

    The Plan for the Townhouse:

    • rip out the kitchen
    • rip out the hall bathroom
    • leave the master bathroom intact
    • get kitchen and hall bath past rough inspections and tile/install fixtures in hall bathroom
    • hall bathroom working/rip out master bathroom(trade one shower for another)

    We were projecting a job completion date 10 weeks after initial demolition, on all phases. Everything was running ahead of schedule, I found I had Ms. Extra Happy Kitchen-Customer on my hands now.

    With the holidays approaching, and work sending her out of town for a week, my client, who I am very fond of to this day, came and asked me to make a change. She said "Aston, while I am away will you rip out my master bathroom? I know, the schedule doesn't call for it, but I can 'shower at the gym'(words I won't forget) until the bathrooms are ready." I was reluctant, I warned against, and then I made like a neanderthal and caved.

    I should have had my head examined! As a seasoned kitchen and bath designer, I know better than to take away all the bathrooms at once! but, I did it, fingers crossed.

    And wouldn't you know, that the the very next thing that happened? Ms. Happy Kitchen-Customer's neighbor had a leak that flooded her unit, old buried un-neighborly disputes rose up again, the neighbor declined to allow the proper firestopping remediation that was now necessary, and my cherished client, came down with pneumonia. You can't make this up. I was in a tailspin.

    Well, I have to say that without my plumber's tactful intervention (I didn't realize he was a part time "therapist"), the township inspector bending over backwards to schedule the inspections in a tight timeframe, and some Divine intervention, undoubtedly my client would have been bathing in her kitchen sink...which thankfully was as scheduled, back in action, her hall bath only two days from completion, on time, not too bad.

    The key to keeping the situation under control was remember you don't get what you don't ask for, and you need to ask nice, people will go out of their way to help, if you are polite. Equally paramount: communication, with the town, the trades, and most importantly the homeowner. Don't let a day go without checking in, you may not always have answers, but a client in this situation is reliant on you, trip up and it can be a disaster, once you lose their trust it can very hard to recover. Let them know you have been to their house, you aren't just taking other people's word for it. Copy your homeowner on imporatant emails, don't make their project their part time job, just keep them in the loop.

    And put your experience in your mental file for the future, the next time that the happiest customer you have ever met asks you to tread this close to the line remember from this little anecdote, no one with pneumonia wants "to shower at the gym".

    Friday, February 6, 2009

    Confession of a designer: I was a REFACE SNOB...

    For most artists, nothing could be more fun than a blank canvas, or the equivalent...but let's be honest, as designers every kitchen we do isn't an expression of our art...that would make us lousy designers, and I tell my clients just that! "My job is to bring out the artist in you and skillfully make it all work", I constantly seek out and nudge and nurture any hint of preference I can find in my homeowners.

    I don't love every style, I have passion for color and texture and love the opportunity of limitless choices, I appreciate all styles, and I am open to experimenting...and that, I thought, was about as open as I could be as I designer. The only thing I truly hated in our business was "kitchen refacing". Anyone who I met who was considering it, I am sure was met by my nose flipping upside down, and a twisted curl on the side of my mouth...seemed more like a scheme than a home improvement. I was suspicious.

    As a kitchen designer, the very thought of Kitchen Refacing was like having my hands tied. I thought: 5 doors to choose from, 5 colors, nothing else changes.

    Well, talk about needing an attitude adjustment! I was long overdue, and little did I know when I signed on at Empire Kitchens and Baths, http://www.empirecontractor.com/, I had met my match. I came to find out there was very little I could do in a new kitchen remodel that I couldn't do within a "kitchen refacing" project.

    My preconceived notion of the process was:
    • remove old doors and drawers fronts
    • sand cabinet surfaces,
    • smear with glue,
    • slap up plain laminate
    • install new doors and drawer fronts
    • leave customer with same old floor, counter top, layout and basic look

    In my mind, the frustrations of the existing layout never got addressed, everything just got "spruced up" like painting your front door, but way more expensive.

    When I got to Empire Kitchens and Baths, located in Union, New Jersey, I learned that Kitchen Refacing wasn't a marketing hook, our refaced kitchens got completely overhauled, with huge benefits to the consumer. One main criteria was that their cabinet boxes had to be in good shape...beyond that there were few rules to obey. We moved plumbing if necessary, moved stoves, turned those 24" wide gas tall oven cabinets of the 1950's and 60's into
    roll-out pantry cabinets, added custom islands, removed soffits and added crown molding, we even turned 30" high uppers into 42" high uppers. This was refacing like I had never heard tale of. The colors and finishes available competed equally with the new cabinet manufacturers, and we could be completely done, start to finish in THREE WEEKS.

    How the process really is with the right designer:
    • Remove all old doors and drawer front and drawer boxes
    • sand all exposed areas as per plans
    • finish interiors of any cabinets with glass doors
    • make plumbing & electrical upgrades as per plans
    • add custom boxes and make necessary modifications to existing boxes
    • your refrigerator gets concealed behind custom panels and a new deep cabinet installed above it
    • new flooring is installed
    • high Pressure Laminate or wood paneling is applied to all expose surfaces as per plan
    • new Doors are installed with concealed European hinges
    • new solid wood dovetailed drawers with full extension soft close drawer glides are installed
    • new drawer faces are installed
    • new counter top surface of customers choosing is installed
    • new roll out trays, base wastebaskets, vegetable bins, liter bottle pullouts, spice racks, cutlery dividers, every convenience you can imagine is available and installed per plans
    • new crown molding and light rail
    • under cabinet lighting is installed
    • and a full custom back splash is added, tile, Corian, granite, customer's choice

    This appealed to many customers, and the reasons varied. Some folks couldn't imagine being under construction for 6 weeks, some really liked their kitchen layout and just wanted an update and more conveniences, some wanted to leave more of their budget for high end appliances, others saw the value in their existing kitchen.

    They may not have known they were being "GREEN" but imagine the benefits of re-using your existing boxes! Not just on your personal economy, but on the environment. The savings on energy by not re-manufacturing what already exists, not re-boxing it, not re-shipping it. Use what you have, the ultimate savings. And now add to that, you are saving the ugly question of where to get rid of your old cabinets!

    Traditionally, when I rip out a kitchen, the arrival of a 30yd dumpster heralds the news to the neighbors. And while remodeling kitchens is my passion I know how this huge garbage bin makes my eco-friendly colleagues cringe. When I reface a kitchen, my installers bring what little remains back to the shop in the back of standard work van.

    Compare the toll on the landfill, there is no question, refacing your kitchen is an act of ultimate conservation, and the results can be no less dramatic. The colors and hand applied finishes, the array of door styles, the ability to create your custom specifications equal to any other cabinet resource.

    Ask yourself, what else can I learn about kitchen refacing, is it for me? Is it for some of my clients? I know it is for some of mine.

    If you are interested inlearning more please feel free to email me and visit our website at The Kitchendeziner.

    Monday, February 2, 2009

    Big Impact Small Space-Kitchen Remodeling

    Welcome to February 2009, friends know me as a person who loves to cook, and when I cook, I make enough to feed a small hungry army. I believe a great kitchen doesn't need to be huge to accomplish this task, just well organized. And when done, everything should have a home, I know i am not alone in my cooking style or my philosophy!
    With the recent slump in the economic market, I see less clients on a daily basis who are willing to "blow out" the back of their home to add the "Super-Kitchen/Great Room". Many more are looking to grow from within. To me, that means, while they may be willing to remove a wall to promote the open feeling they seek, they are really looking to me for Zen-like efficiency and space planning. At the store I call "home" we recently completed just this very task. In a very nice neighborhood in Hillsborough, NJ, I designed a kitchen in a home like many others on the street. All well kept homes just of an age where the builders kitchen needed to go! Surrounded by neighbors, who also wanted islands or peninsulas, but had been turned down by designers and settled for less. Our clients hadn't given up on their dream!
    The fly in the ointment: soffits that can't be removed. The answer: add more soffits where you need them so the design makes sense!(TBC in another post)

    The key to the design, interestingly enough, was using a tall oven cabinet. By converting the surface cooking to a cook top, we were able to offer alternate corner storage solutions and pull the cooking away from the back door! The homeowners got the gourmet feeling they were looking for in many respects, glass transom cabinets, a fabulous dining peninsula, deep under mounted corner sink, and enhanced back splash with a tile mosaic; we even ordered additional sheets of glass tile to add more of the cranberry tones we wanted.
    With this simple kitchen remodeling we went from a kitchen you would feel forced to cook in, to a kitchen you would love to cook in without building on to the space, just using what they already had better!