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What I learned from renovating a NYC kitchen…

Like many people embarking on a gut renovation for the first time, I nervously tackled the kitchen.  What made it even harder was that I had a very tiny New York city kitchen.  Once I purchased my apartment, I had severe buyer’s remorse as my dream of a gourmet and functional kitchen faded away.  Luckily for me, I had an amazing designer who happens to be a great friend.  Quan Dang from Quanism is an interior designer based in Dallas, Texas who started his own firm in 2000.  Prior to Dallas, he was designing high end interiors in New York and Paris.  I also worked with Paul Bullard from Bullard & Xenides Interiors on the rest of my apartment renovations and all the lighting fixtures in the apartment.  I will be showcasing their brilliant work in this reno series.   In this post, I will share what I learned from working with Quan on designing a kitchen in a very small space.

Many people do kitchen renovations in varying degrees.  The cost, benefit and time are something everyone has to consider thoroughly.  For me, I decided it was best to gut renovate my apartment as it has not been updated since the 1960s and the kitchen was dark and not functional.  There are many ways you can work with a designer from just consultation to overseeing the whole project depending on your budget.  Quan did the design and consultation for the kitchen project while I managed my contractor.

Here is the before picture of my kitchen from the 1960s made for someone who only ordered delivery for food.







This is the end result of the renovation.  It is a “big” gourmet kitchen for an apartment that is only approximately 500 square ft.






The new kitchen is 100% better than what I would have imagined even after hours of scouring Pinterest and magazines for inspirations.  This is what I learn from the process.

Rethink the existing layout

I highly recommend working with an interior designer to at least plan your kitchen as this will impact how the overall design look.  My original intent was to remove the wall and put the fridge, kitchen and everything in the footprint of the previous kitchen.  The pictures below are a typical renovation layouts in my building.  You can see that all the appliances are squeezed into the small area.





Quan was able to look at the overall square footage of the kitchen and living space and suggested opening the kitchen square footage by removing the existing pantry. Be prepared to revise your kitchen layout a few times before you purchase the cabinets.  Quan had to revise the kitchen plan based on unexpected things we discovered during this process and ultimately, it came out better than what i had envisioned from the start.

Quan:  “One thing I see is people tend to pick items separately and forget about the aesthetics of incorporating the lines of the appliances which should meld with the lines of the cabinetry for a seamless look.  For example, I tried to avoid putting a double oven next to the refrigerator because it becomes an incongruous mask of appliances.

People need to think about their own lifestyle and not just the vision of what they want the kitchen to be.  In the end, it needs to be functional and incorporate your vision. People need to understand their cooking needs and break them down like the following:

a.  How do i cook?

b.  What type of cooking do I do?

c.  Which area do I use the most and how often?

d.  What is the logical progression of my cooking routine?

This all needs to be analyzed before committing to a vision.  Break the kitchen down into what is the most important to them and group accordingly.

Look at the space of the kitchen and look at the surrounding space.  Does the layout really work?

Do you really want an open kitchen?  Alot of time this means cooks do not have the privacy to cook.  An open layout is very tricky for serious cooks.  Consider traffic pattern to keep your guests engaged with you but not in the way of your cooking.”

Negotiate everything

When I had my first quote for the renovation, I almost had a heart attack.  The labor costs alone was my entire renovation budget for the apartment.  I had a bit of a meltdown and Quan was able to talk to me through it.  He calmly said that my reaction is very normal for people getting an initial quote.  I needed to find more quotes and bring it back to all my contractors.  I asked around for referrals from people who renovated and from the contractors that worked in the building.  I ended up with 6 quotes and managed to negotiate down to half of my initial quote.  I also ended up sourcing many of the items in the kitchen from various vendors (online and in store) and had vendors price matched each other until I can get the lowest possible overall bid.  Interior designers and contractors also have relationships with PC Richards and other hardware and appliances stores that they can get you some discounts as well.  This took a lot of work but I was able to save money to splurge on other parts of the renovation.

Don’t dismiss the IKEA cabinets

From the start, I assumed that I would do the custom kitchen route.  Quan brought some realism to my kitchen dreams by stating that it was not worth it for where I am right now in my life and for this particular apartment’s budget.  To my horror, he suggested IKEA.  I had flashbacks to my college days of cheap IKEA furniture that lasted for a short time.  Quan asked me to research online and also stated that he and many designers used IKEA’s cabinets as a base of their kitchen renovations for clients with a budget and then add details to give the room a custom finish.  In addition, the soft close hinges are made of top quality European hardware.  I wanted a white modern kitchen and IKEA glossy white is in fact made in the same factories as many high end modern Italian kitchen cabinets.  IKEA also has a 20% kitchen sale every 6 months so that kept the cost down.

We were able to give the kitchen a custom look by framing all of the cabinets with extra panels.  LED undercabinet lighting and high end hardware added the extra oomph.  Don’t be afraid to cut down the IKEA cabinet to size as that was what my contractor had to do to make it work in an very awkward non-linear wall.

Quan:  “The new IKEA Sekion cabinets are phenomenal.  There are more components and more flexibility to make them easily customizable to an individual’s needs.  There are a lot of companies that do custom doors such as Semi-homemade.”

Source: IKEA

Source: IKEA

Source: IKEA

Source: IKEA

Source: IKEA

Source: IKEA

Pick your appliances before picking the cabinets sizes

I had picked out all of my appliances (range, the hood, dishwasher and fridge) to go with the style.  Quan then looked at what I picked out and suggested that I picked appliances with a stronger square edge for the modern look as the range that I originally picked out had rounded corners.  This is not something I had considered but an interior designer would notice this.  It is a small detail but it brings cohesion to a small space.

From the appliances, Quan then planned out the kitchen and drew up the parts that I needed to order from IKEA.  There are a lot of parts to an IKEA kitchen but the folks at IKEA are good with assisting the purchase. Do come first thing in the morning to get the best service as IKEA is a tiring experience in itself.

You can assemble it yourself but I highly suggest you stipulate this as part of your contract with your contractor.  I had my contractor put the cabinets together.  There were some trial and errors due to the many customizations that went into this kitchen.  Mr. Carchi and Quan put together a highly functional and gorgeous kitchen on a budget!

Don’t be afraid to mix, match and swap

I wanted a brass and modern white kitchen.  Originally I had my heart set on shaker style cabinets which Quan then promptly stated that it would not work for my kitchen. I needed something simpler and would reflect light to make the new open kitchen blend into the apt.  We ended up with the white glossy kitchen cabinets and modern brass pulls.  We originally were going to leave the range wall clear. Due to the ventilation hood, we added additional cabinets.  To prevent the space from looking overloaded with cabinets, we chose frosted glass fronts for the upper cabinets along that wall.  We took the cabinets up all the way to the 10 feet ceiling to maximize storage.  Faucets and overhead light (picked by Paul Bullard) were chrome instead of brass tones.  All of this makes the kitchen more classic and able to withstand trends.

Quan:  “To imbue your kitchen with your own sense of style and flair, don’t be afraid to play with the different elements to achieve unique results.”

Hide all your appliances for a streamlined look

One thing Quan insisted was that I get in integrated dishwasher so that the dishwasher would blend into the kitchen.  It is important to look streamlined and less cluttered as possible in a small space.  Since we moved the fridge to where the original pantry was, we were able to rebuild a more usable pantry with IKEA high cabinets.  We also hid the microwave and all of my appliances in that cabinet.

Quan:  “If you can’t afford a built-in refrigerator, you can build your cabinet around to achieve the same effect.”

Put all your materials together to make sure they look coherent

We had marble backsplash from Porcelinosa, white quartz countertop, glossy white and frosted glass cabinet fronts, brass pulls and stainless steel appliances. We did end up having to switch out certain elements because it didn’t work with the overall design.  It is important to get the samples of all your materials and see if they complement or distract from your design.

Don’t be afraid to splurge on the faucet

I hesitantly splurge on a Moen faucet because it was going to show from every angle of my open living area.  I am very glad I did because it really enhances the design and is a joy to look at.  This is more important in an open area where you will see it every day.

Quan:  “The faucet and the hardware are the jewelry of the kitchen.  Don’t be afraid to splurge on them.  Cheap hardware will make all your hard work disappear.”

Multiple light sources is key, especially for a small kitchen

Even though my kitchen is in an open layout, we had an overhead light and LED undercabinet light.  This made it very easy to illuminate the workspace and gives it an illusion of a bigger kitchen.

Quan:  “You want to have enough general and task lighting.  Don’t forget ambient lighting such as putting everything on dimmer.  Accents lighting such as under cabinet can be either task lighting and gives a glow when it is on dimmer.”

Hiring a good contractor will make or break your renovation

I had a great partnership with Luis Carchi and his team at Good Fellas Painting, Inc.  (914-332-8978 or  They are affordable and completed a quality job.  It was a learning process for both myself and Mr. Carchi.  There were miscommunications earlier in the project but the key thing is that Mr. Carchi was able to work through them in a professional manner and resolved issues to the client’s satisfaction.  He was easy going and we collaborated together on how to fix issues that will inevitably come up in a renovation.  This is why it is important that you find a contractor that is flexible and can help you resolve problems as cost efficient as possible.

Quan:  “The most important thing you can do in a renovation is to make sure you have a good contractor.  Ask for references.  Talk to the people who used the contractor in the past.  Ask what the weaknesses are and what the strong points are.  Force the contractor to provide an itemized bid.  This is the only way you can be clear on what you are getting and what you are paying.”

You will end up managing this process more than you think

Even though I had a capable contractor and designer, I did end up having to manage the renovation project more than I had initially thought.  This is something you will have to do regardless of who your contractor is unless you have a designer overseeing the whole construction project.  It is like having a very stressful second job so be aware.

Expect the unexpected

Everyone told me this would happen and I thought I was prepared.  Renovating in NYC is on another level of craziness.  You have to deal with the building’s people, find unexpected things in your apartment and having to adjust your budget and timeline because of it. It will be highly stressful and you will want to give up.  Hang in there because the final results will be worth it.

For more related articles, visit our DESIGN page.

Author: Chau Hoang and Quan Dang
This entry was posted in: Design
Tagged with: ,


Life is full of possibilities made only meaningful with the people we share it with. This site is a place where friends can share our point of view on food, travel and design.


  1. Pingback: My Favorites: Knobs | La Vie Partagée

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