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  • Writer's pictureGretchen Schmidt

No Budget for a Custom Kitchen? No Problem

Here’s how to get the look of $40,000 cabinets for less than a quarter of the price.

Published Feb. 4, 2020 in the New York Times

Covering Ikea cabinets with custom doors can give an inexpensive kitchen a surprisingly high-end look. This kitchen in Copenhagen was customized with Surface doors by Norm Architects for Reform.

People often assume that getting a gorgeous kitchen like the ones they see in design magazines would require draining their bank account. And often, they’re right: Building a custom kitchen with upscale materials and finishes can easily run into six figures.What they might not realize is that there are cost-saving alternatives that can deliver a high-end look for a fraction of the price. One of the most popular, employed by a number of architects and designers, is building a kitchen with Ikea cabinets and then covering those cabinets with custom doors, drawer fronts and panels from companies like Reform, Semihandmade and Kokeena.“Ikea makes a great box,” said John McDonald, the founder and chief executive of Semihandmade, a company based in Monrovia, Calif. And inside its Sektion cabinets, he added, Ikea “uses the best hardware you can get.”

Those hinges, drawer slides and other pieces, he said, are from Blum — the same brand of hardware that many custom cabinetmakers use, although Ikea’s products are far more reasonably priced.

Stine Goya, a fashion designer, created a kitchen with brass Chelsea doors designed by Christina Meyer Bengtsson for Reform.

Nathan Cuttle, an interior designer who founded the New York-based Studio Nato, has built numerous kitchens with Ikea cabinets and custom doors from Reform and Semihandmade. “We’ve done some tight-budget projects,” he said, “but still wanted them to be unique.”

For the kitchen of an average one-bedroom apartment, “we’re not going to spend $40,000 on the kitchen cabinets, because we don’t have the budget,” he continued. “We’re going to spend maybe $1,500 to $2,000 on cabinets from Ikea and then have, say, $5,000 of custom fronts and panels.”

We asked designers and manufacturers to walk us through the process.

Find Your Inspiration

The first step in creating a kitchen you love is figuring out exactly what you want by searching for inspiration in design books, magazines and online sources like Pinterest, Instagram and Houzz.

Do you prefer upper cabinets or open shelves? Do you want an island? Do you like doors or drawers for the lower cabinets? Do you want custom panels to cover the dishwasher and refrigerator, to give them a built-in look?

Also consider the design and color you want for the finishing doors, drawer fronts and panels by browsing the offerings of custom door manufacturers, either online or in their showrooms. Semihandmade offers a range of choices, from paint-ready blank panels to designs from Instagram influencers like Sarah Sherman Samuel. Reform, a company from Copenhagen with a showroom in Brooklyn, N.Y., sells designs by European architects and designers like Bjarke Ingels Group and Norm Architects. Numerous other companies, including Kokeena, The Cabinet Face, Dunsmuir Cabinets and Scherr’s, offer many other choices.

A Brooklyn kitchen by vonDalwig Architecture has Basis cabinet doors from Reform.

Create a Preliminary Layout

Measure your kitchen floor and walls. Then begin designing the layout of your kitchen with Ikea’s online kitchen planner.

“You can put the dimensions of your kitchen into it and play with all the different configurations,” said Whitney Menefee, a founder of Townsend Interiors, in Portland, Ore. “Even if you have no design experience at all, you can use that software to design your kitchen,” she said, by selecting and placing cabinet boxes on a floor plan. It automatically generates a shopping list of parts.

Ms. Menefee has designed many custom kitchens for clients, but turned to Ikea’s kitchen planner when she sought a more affordable option for her own home. She later worked with Portland-based Kokeena to develop custom doors, which evolved into Townsend Home, a new collection of cabinet doors that Kokeena now offers to all customers.

If Ikea’s kitchen planner leaves you scratching your head — or if you just want a second opinion — there are other options.

Tyler and Jessica Marés, of Renovate108, built a kitchen with cabinet doors from Semihandmade.

Ikea offers free design consultations online and in its stores. And firms like Inspired Kitchen Design will plan Ikea kitchens for a flat fee, using custom doors and details, if desired.

“Forty-three percent of the designs we do use custom doors,” said Michael Toth, the owner of Inspired Kitchen Design, estimating that his firm designs more than 250 kitchens a month, for $295 each.

Mr. Toth’s team of designers plan a kitchen from start to finish, using custom “hacks,” he said, like cutting an Ikea cabinet down to a smaller size or adding panels around an island, which can sometimes be difficult for homeowners to achieve on their own.

Contact the Door Manufacturer

Once you have a preliminary design and a style of door selected, share your plans with the custom door manufacturer.

“We recommend the client gives us an Ikea drawing with the Ikea fronts and side panels on, because then we know exactly what is needed,” said Jeppe Christensen, a founder and the chief executive of Reform. “We also tell them to include handles, so we can see where they want the doors hinged.”

Then the company produces a quote for custom doors, drawer fronts, panels and other elements as replacements, while confirming the details of the design.

“There are always some small adjustments,” Mr. Christensen said, so don’t buy the Ikea components before making arrangements for the doors. “It’s really important for us to make sure that there are no other requirements beyond what the drawing shows — and there often are.” That includes awkward corners and soffits that may need to be addressed.

The company also produces filler strips and toe kicks that match the doors, to give the kitchen a perfectly finished look.

Russell Edwards, the chief executive of Kokeena, noted that door manufacturers can make many other components, too. “We can make a custom box, like an open cabinet,” he said, that matches the doors. “And floating shelves.”

Place the Orders

When your kitchen design is finalized with the door manufacturer, it’s time to order the parts.

To ensure you have everything you need from Ikea, Mr. Christensen and Mr. Edwards recommended providing a complete kitchen design, with Ikea doors, drawer fronts and panels, to the retailer, and asking a sales associate to remove those finishing components from the order.

“When you go to order it from Ikea, you take your entire list, but say, ‘We’re doing custom,’” Mr. Edwards said. “They’ll eliminate just the doors and drawer fronts from the cabinets.”

And don’t worry about insulting Ikea — the company doesn’t flinch at this sort of order.According to a statement emailed by Janice Simonsen, Ikea’s senior public relations specialist in the United States: “While we encourage customers to create their own style with Ikea cabinets, we do believe they should be able to design a kitchen that expresses their own original style — this is why we sell modular systems.”Ikea usually has its cabinet components in stock, so they can be bought and brought home on the same day, or arrangements can be made for quick delivery.

The custom door manufacturers, however, have a longer turnaround time, because the pieces are made to order. Semihandmade and Kokeena, for instance, typically ship doors in two to six weeks. Reform makes its doors in Europe, so the lead time is typically 10 to 14 weeks, delivered. (Depending on your renovation schedule, you may want to order the custom doors long before you intend to tear out your old kitchen and buy the Ikea components.)

Install the Cabinets and Doors

Ikea kitchens are based on a modular system that can be assembled and installed by a homeowner who is handy with tools, and putting on doors and drawer fronts is one of the most straightforward parts of the process. Whether the doors are from Ikea or a custom manufacturer, they come predrilled for hinges and screws.

“You can build it yourself,” Ms. Menefee said. “I installed all the doors in my kitchen. Building the Ikea kitchen is the difficult part, but not impossible. It just requires patience.”

For those who don’t have the skill or inclination to build their own kitchens, there are plenty of options for finding a contractor who can do the work. Ikea works with Traemand, a company in which it has an ownership stake, to offer an installation service to buyers.

Custom door manufacturers and kitchen design firms have their own lists of contractors to share with clients across the country. Online services like Sweeten and Houzz can also help homeowners find contractors.Of course, recommendations from friends and neighbors are often best of all.

Finish Up

While cabinet installation may be a do-it-yourself project, some of the finishing touches are best left to professionals. Licensed plumbers and electricians should complete any work on pipes or wiring, along with the installation of plumbing fixtures and built-in appliances.

There is also an opportunity to upgrade the look of your kitchen further with the counters. Ikea sells many types of affordable counters, including wood and laminate, but there is no requirement to buy them with the cabinets.

Choosing something different can add to a kitchen’s custom look, and there is no shortage of choice, from natural stone like marble and granite to stainless steel.

For one Brooklyn kitchen, Studio Nato splurged on counters and a backsplash made from basalt. “We just used a local countertop fabricator to come in and template the kitchen and then do the install,” Mr. Cuttle said, after the cabinets were in place.

The resulting look? “Super upscale,” he said. No one would ever know that inexpensive cabinets were hidden underneath.

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