How to be Smart in a World of Dumb Designers

Recently, I received this very generous email from one of my lovely readers (no names will be used here), who said I was welcome to share her story:

I have made literally every mistake in the remodeling book! I really do not like to complain, I dislike myself for being negative this way…but my mind cannot stop working on the design problems because it just hurts my eyes to look at something jarring.

How did I create something so ugly after spending so much money?

We spent tens of thousands on a kitchen remodel, using a kitchen design firm.  The collaboration did not work well.  In hindsight I see that every time I was on the right track, the kitchen designer discouraged me, every time I was on the wrong track, she encouraged me.  And she was basically just selling and designing cabinets…I should have realized she wasn’t really motivated to make sure the whole thing came off including all the surfaces and fixtures, and that it related to the rest of my house. 

Anyway, long story short, I ended up with a kitchen that totally depresses me. The cabinet color doesn’t show in the photo but it’s sort of a deep cherry finish…reads burgundy in bright sun…hate it.  I liked my old kitchen better. My old kitchen was white of course.  Thermofoil over MDF cabinets and tile with high maintenance grout, but white.

The kitchen remodel lady talked me into changing to a wood tone “why would you want it to look exactly the same?”, was her reasoning. I was practically suicidal for a year after the remodel. I know that sounds so stupid and shallow, but I am sensitive to my environment, and it was So Much Money for us. Just devastated me.  It has been two years since the remodel.  I discovered your blog one  month after the remodel. Why couldn’t I have discovered it before I started! Argh! I am trying to figure out what to do one of these days to make it better. Maybe paint the cabinets a shade of warm white.  

One of the most awful things about it is the clashing granite counter and travertine floor.  I had no idea when I chose them, I could not see the problem until after they were installed.  

The cabinets read with a reddish undertone, maybe more rust than burgundy, as I said earlier. The backsplash tile is ivory, with deeper ivory grout, which was chosen because of the granite.  Dumb, because I have white trim, white vinyl windows, white tile in my bathrooms, and white vinyl plantation shutters in the adjacent living room.  So now I have the visual confusion of white versus ivory.

Pink Beige floor with Yellow Granite

Regarding the kitchen designer: the last time she was on site was during cabinet installation and before the granite went in.  She did call after installation was complete.  She asked how I liked it.  I was sort of beyond words at that point, I mean, the day the granite went in, I went to bed, went under my covers, and sobbed for a full day. Literally.  

It had only been about a week at that point, when she called, from the granite install. I managed to say to her, well, the granite is a little weird for me.  She said, how? I said well, too much pattern, too much color, too much everything.  Panic was evident in my voice. This was before I found your website and I wasn’t really sure what was wrong, so I couldn’t really articulate.  She said: I’m sorry you don’t like your granite.  I was just so overwhelmed at that point I didn’t even want to talk to anyone about it, so I said, oh, I am just a perfectionist, blah blah, and tried to end the phone call quickly.  Then I cried again, of course.

In her defense, she had suggested black granite (with some slight peachy veining in it, it looked like to me) to go with the wood cabinets she had nudged me toward.  And I said no to the black granite, I did not like it. The whole thing was just getting so confusing for me at that point, I knew the direction wasn’t right for me, but there were all these choices and deadlines. I felt so unreasonable, and like such a troublemaker.  

When I said no to the black granite, she didn’t really help me with any guiding principles to choose another color. Her assistant just said choose something that picks up the cabinet color. So my husband and I went to the granite yard an hour and a half away, on our own, and all the slabs looked so weird to me.  We chose something, then we went to the tile store on our own, to choose the floors, and the designer there let us down in not telling us this combination would not work.

The whole process just didn’t work. I was inexperienced about working with designers.  I should have hired an interior designer, I guess. I asked the kitchen design firm up front if part of the deal was that they would help me choose the surfaces.  They said yes, so I took that as a yes…but when we got past the cabinet part of the design process, there was really little help forthcoming.

When I nixed the black granite, she didn’t really work with me to figure out what would be pretty for me. For the floor and backsplash, she simply recommended a tile store, and expected me to go choose on my own.  I was surprised that I would have to lug samples to the kitchen design place at a time the designer was available (rarely) if I wanted her help.  So it was a miscommunication about the level of service provided.

There was a fee charged for design service, after all, so I thought I was going to get full service.  Whatever amount that fee was (I am remembering in the several hundreds, maybe 800, but don’t quote me) I wouldn’t have known how to compare that to level of expected service, this was all new to me. And I was starting to question her taste level.  The dark cabinets with the black counter seemed vaguely nineties to me.  And in a sunny room? I knew it was going wrong, but had no idea what to do.  I felt like there was no one to turn to who knew what they were doing by the end of the process.

What a nightmare.  So, anyway, enough of this. We’re healthy and have a roof over our heads!

Pink Beige Floor with Yellow Granite

If you know me and my blog, you’ll know that pink beige and yellows of any shade do NOT go together. Pink beige just ends up looking dirty beside yellows and yellow beige. The above image is a perfect example of this.

She asked if painting the cabinets would help but I said “If this was my kitchen and I had to choose between changing either the floor or the countertop vs. painting the cabinets white, I would change the countertop (less disruptive) because the cabinets are installed directly on top of the new tile.

Since I am obsessed with white kitchens, I would personally choose an off-white solid, quartz countertop and then paint the cabinets off-white (immediately even if I had to do it myself) or just wait until I could afford to get it professionally re-done.

Option 2: If I didn’t have the budget to immediately replace the countertops with stone, I would replace the countertops with laminate in the right colour ASAP and then personally get out a paintbrush and paint the cabinets myself.

Way better than to walk into a kitchen you installed and get upset on a daily basis.

Option 3:  would be to choose a coordinating granite to relate to the floors, something like this one (Baltic Brown). Let the record show I WOULD NEVER CHOOSE THIS GRANITE. But since this is an emergency (and some of you will really want to know), here’s one pink beige granite that would at least coordinate with the existing pink beige travertine.

Baltic Brown Granite

If the floor tile would be replaced, my personal choice would be to continue the hardwood flooring from the living room into the kitchen.

If it had to be tile, I would choose a yellow beige floor tile that relates to the granite, NOT too busy!! There’s enough going on with the existing granite. This one I found isn’t perfect but it’s the general idea.

Yellow beige tile

 

Close up of granite

Existing granite

This homeowner clearly cares about her environment. Her kitchen is styled with white dishes in the glass cabinets and lovely touches on the countertops. Her slipped bar stools are pretty and coordinate with the kitchen.

There is NO GOOD REASON why she now has a kitchen that makes her CRINGE every time she walks in.

If you are a designer reading this, you clearly do not fall into the category of dumb designers and if you are a homeowner reading this post, here’s the best and smartest, if-all-else-fails-and-you-don’t-know-what-to-do, do this:

Find a picture you love on-line and then just COPY IT. There’s no shame in it, truly.

That’s it. Simple. Don’t let anyone talk you out of your inspiration kitchen.

This kitchen perfectly demonstrates the post I just wrote: Danger: Free Advice will Sabotage your Expensive Renovation. And the sad part is, she also paid for this advice.

This is also the reason why I continually preach simple and clean when it comes to finishes. Why I have said time and time again, PATTERNS in hard finishes should RARELY, ALMOST NEVER be seen in the same room at the same time.

It’s bad enough that the colours completely clash, but even if they did not, there would be a lot of busyness happening with the ‘Look at me, look at me’ granite.

White

In November one of the designers in my Specify Colour with Confidence Workshops told me she was doing my colour training because she had recently been hired by a developer to help homeowners select all their brand new finishes and colours for the homes they were buying.

She freaked out, because confidence in specifying colour was where she knew she needed help, found my blog, downloaded my ebook, bought my colour boards and immediately registered for my workshop.

Smart.

The designer who did not help the homeowner find her finishes because she didn’t know what she was doing and clearly did not want to be held responsible for the result.

Dumb.

Note to commenters, I’ve never said this before, however, this reader has been so brave and so generous in allowing us to learn from her mistake, please be kind with your comments. She has suffered enough!  

If you are starting a renovation or new build and need a step-by-step plan to avoid these or similar kinds of mistakes, go here.

Related posts:

What Everyone Should Know About Beige

When Should You Rip out Brand New Tile?

When Can you Combine Patterned Stone or Tile?

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  1. I am not an interior designer but I have visited a lot of open houses while shopping for one. The biggest mistake I see are in the kitchens with granite countertops that have a very busy or noisy pattern with a cacophony of colors. It looks dated to me. As a natural stone one can’t really control the consistency of the pattern either and sometimes there are big splotches of color in some areas that are distracting. I think engineered stone is always better because the pattern is a known quantity and will not vary. The countertop should not be the first thing you see when entering a room–competing with the total feel of the kitchen. Most real estate agents what the words “brand new granite counter tops” in their listings and I think encourage home owners to put one in to sell the house without thinking of the total effect or ambience.

  2. I feel this woman’s pain. A couple of years ago, I finally replaced the hideous tile in the master bath that I had been looking at for almost 9 years. The cream-colored subway tile on the walls is just what I wanted, but I had “help” choosing the floor tile from the woman at the tile shop. Yup. Pinky-beige travertine-look porcelain tile. None of my other initial ideas for wall color, accessories, etc. work with this floor. While it wouldn’t cost a fortune to replace, I’m having trouble justifying the cost all the same, as we will likely sell and downsize within the next 5 years or so. I’m not sure I can wait that long. And yes, it’s not leukemia, but to have my error smack me in the face every time I go in there takes a toll on my spirit. Hope this lady finds an affordable solution that makes her happy.

    • Hi Joanne,
      Just get that this happens in renovations. It’s just the world of it. I would just replace it if you can, it will make you so much happier. It doesn’t matter that it’s not a 3rd world problem. Once our survival is handled we look around to enhance our life and this is how we do it. Buy tile that makes us happy when we walk into the bathroom. So don’t look at it any longer, just change it and give up something else instead. Maria

  3. I find your “dumb designers” title to be rather insulting to the real interior designers out there that do know what they are doing that are very often second guessed by the client who chooses to either not listen or take the advice of their friends and/or family.

  4. We recently finished our kitchen 9 mths ago. I was absolutely terrified making the decision with the flooring, the bench tops, design and choice of cabinets, as I knew I would only get one go at it. I think we have pulled it off brilliantly but it could of been a disaster too. I like plain my husband loves colour so we compromised. He got his Granite which is very busy plus his marble floor in Bursa Beige which is subtle and I did the design and got to choose the plain white cabinets. It’s the best kitchen I have ever worked in. It always look tidy and clean. Initially I did a lot of research and read many books and knew basically what I liked and how the area needed to be designed. It took ages. Then hubby made the discussion about the flooring which I came around to but the granite started to really worry me

  5. I love the way Fran has turned lemons to lemonade and has educated herself about undertones and now she can help others from making expensive errors. I also commend her for sharing her dilemma so others can learn. I feel confident she and her husband will make the modifications needed to make her kitchen a standout. I must say I love how supportive Fran’s husband is.

  6. I think you could make this kitchen classic and be happy with it. I would change out current granite to a honed absolute black or soapstone. See how you like that with the cabinets. If you still don’t like, have the cabinets painted white & you have a classic beautiful kitchen. You may have to change out the backsplash and if so use subway tile. Keep it classic.

  7. I am freaking out right now because I think I am in the process of making this same exact mistake. The granite is being fabricated as we speak. What are your rates. Could I consult with you!

    Jill

  8. just a thought – they have “loose lay” vinyl floor planks ( see earthworks and I think Armstrong) which may float over that tile floor. It isnot expensive (maybe 4-5$ per sq ft) , and might solve a problem until you are ready to rip the tile out. The planks closely resemble wood and are warm/soft to walk on. And, when you are tired of the planks, you can pick them up and reuse in another room.

  9. Hi Maria,

    I just finished building a home and renovating another. Have spent much of my life living with decisions that other people made (former owners, builders, etc) that were uninformed. Fortunately found your blog at the beginning of my process and am completely happy with the outcome. White shaker cabinets, absolute black granite with dull finish, white subway tile and medium brown wood flooring. Neutral yellow-beige paint on what little wall surface there is. It is a classic kitchen and with a few accessories I can introduce any color scheme I want with my dishtowels, ceramics etc.
    THANK YOU SO MUCH. I wanted to share a happy outcome. We all know the pain of a design gone wrong!

  10. Unfortunately, this is so hard to avoid. So many professionals to sabotage you along the way. This is why I still haven’t started my master bath. Every time I go to look at tile I am told my choices are too boring.

    The world is full of bad taste. It’s a minefield out there.

  11. thank you for sharing your story. I think the cheapest and easiest fix would be to change out the counters to white, the backsplash to white subway tile. Remove the upper cabinets in favor of open shelving and paint the legs of the stools white. I’d be so happy with that! Good luck!

  12. this just popped up in my News feed and I feel like I can relate to it, unfortunately. We are in the process of building a house and went to a kitchen designer so I could have my dream kitchen. I currently have in my house now, wood cabinets that I love but I wanted something different in the new house. I opted to go with white painted cabinets but told the designer that I did not want them to look yellow. He suggested a white cabinet with the chocolate glaze. The cabinets are in and all I see is yellow! What makes matters worse is my counters that I picked are Taj Mahal natural quartzite which to me when they are together looks awful. I also wanted a farm sink and clearly white will not work. At this point I can’t do anything about the cabinets but can change the granite. I also have to pick a paint color and have no idea what will work, hopefully something to counteract the warm tones of the cabinets. I am so sick about this that I am not sleeping and I swear I’m getting ulcers because my stomach hurts so much. The funny part is that when ever somebody else sees my cabinet with the counter swatch that I have they all say it looks good but I just don’t see it!

  13. My heart goes out to this woman. I will add my 2 cent advice. I recently painted my custom maple cabinets with Farrow and Ball Floor Paint. Took the doors off a couple at a time, washed well with Murphy’s, and a magic eraser. I primed the uppers, but not the lowers. Painted a coats with a sponge roller, then immediately brushed the paint with a good brush all in one direction. Light sanding before 2nd coat, repeat process. No drips or runs, look professionally done. This took me about 2 weeks to do bit by bit, but it saved my sanity, and it looks so good now.

    If I could possibly afford it, I would change the floor. I know it’s a lot of work, but it would have the most impact. We replaced our floor, also installed under the cabinets by cutting around the cabinets, where the kick boards are, then having them shaved down to compensate for the extra 1/2″ that the new wood floors took up.

    Then paint the cabinets, 2 or maybe 3 gallons at most, less than $400. That backsplash and granite are not so bad, white accessories with tie it in with the rest of the house.

    Your reader is a brave woman. Good Luck.

  14. Another consideration when using natural stone (travertine floors). The actual product can vary dramatically from the samples. When specifying this type of product for our clients we always obtain a sample from the current supply avoiding costly mistakes in undertones. May sound basic, but is a step that is rarely done by most designers.

  15. It’s very unfortunate that this woman ended up with a kitchen she hates. Just let her know that not all designers are disastrous and most of us prepare a complete color board with all samples together. I advise my clients to move the samples into a variety of lighting situations such as daylight, fluorescent (pretty much required in CA), LED, and incandescent lighting. Make sure that the colors don’t clash in any of those lighting situations. The bigger the sample, the better. A cabinet door, a large tile or hardwood samples. a chunk of the granite, and a big sample of the paint help immensely.

  16. reason to paint the cabinets! There is a better fix.

    STEP 1)  As was suggested, replace the counter. Choose a solid color Corian, etc. or laminate that is similar in tone to the floor, going lighter even to white, but not darker.  If you try exactly match the pink beige of the travertine you’ll go crazy.
    STEP 2) Add a pattern wallpaper above the wall tile and cabinets in a style that speaks to the rest of the house.  The pattern should include dark and light colors similar to those in the kitchen, and maybe include a third color from an adjacent room.
    STEP 3) Coordinate the stool seat covers with the wallpaper!
    STEP 4) Accesorize.  

    That’s it! Sit back and enjoy the lovely contrast between the dark and light hues—much more interesting than all white/beige.

  17. I think the problem with this kitchen is more of mixed styles than colour exclusively.

    I reckon remodel follow-up is not a real option for person who just spent loads of money on something of this size.
    Pulling it all together could be done by stripping the chairs of cushions which absolutely ruin the effect white pottery has on interior. Bringing in more white and clean details to give focal points on the counter could visually make background colours (cabinets plus stone) pop out less. I envision some nicely sculptured bowl doing the trick visually at least at ‘hello’. More sleek white touches could pick it all up and hold space together. Thus if there is a possibility the tiles would be best changed to white to hold to the continuity through the whole house. This kitchen asks for more light and nice clean cuts. I wouldn’t rip the stone off this fast (except tiles).
    Another trick is to bury both counter tops and the floor by repeating their colours, just the more saturated versions, throughout the interior in binding elements though I’m aware it might turn out kitschy and must obviously throw white off its throne. But it might make the kitchen more acceptable to the eye on temporary basis. The floor-countertop clash will create it’s own style.

    It really is the question of budget and advice over distance when it comes to colour is the hardest to give.
    All in all, I can really only sympathize and wish good luck with the next remodel 🙂

  18. This story illustrates how important it is to have a relationship with a designer. When doing any type of renovations and furniture purchasing, it is so important to work with someone that ‘gets’ you. Maria, you have always said that it is money well spent to hire someone to help.

    However, it is both the responsibility of the designer and the homeowner to make sure they are a good fit. If the homeowner doesn’t feel the love after spending a few hours in the company of the designer, then it’s time to part ways. As professionals, we always feel it is our job to provide our clients with a look that makes them happy while still maintaining good design principles.

    No situation is ever hopeless, and there are several things, as noted in the comments, that this homeowner can do to make her space more harmonious. Good luck and thank you so much for sharing.

  19. I feel so much empathy for this woman. I too renovated before I found you, Maria. I feel stuck with new green-gray tile that does not relate to my black (not my choice) granite countertops or to my old pink beige carpet. The tile covers many square feet and was a real bear going down. The labor alone to replace it would be very expensive. Arghh! I actually wish I had my old 90’s, 12″ white tile floor back. At least it was white! Two years after my new floor and I still hate it! And not just the color. The finish has no shine and it shows every bit of dirt and foot traffic. Just saw the original post and wanted to share my similar disaster!

  20. My sympathies to the homeowner. As a kitchen designer I’ve found it really important to provide a wider range of services than technically mandated to do. I’ll plan the kitchen keeping in mind the storage & functional requirements the homeowner expresses as necessary. Also make suggestions in general space planning as these areas flow into nearby rooms. Once a plan is established, work at providing assistance with the decorative finishes. Many times the homeowner has a fundamental desire for rich, deep finishes or light & bright. This direction is necessary and should be respected. Also it must dovetail with the rest of the house details. As mentioned if all the trims are white… go toward crisp whites to relate to the surroundings. Further, I make it a practice to go to the tile store, the lighting outlets etc to provide the finished look for my clients. Far too many times in the early days of my career, I’d put together an attractive kitchen or bath & the homeowner would consult with the tile shop girl (who wants to be a designer) & we’d end up with the trendy splash, that was the wrong undertone or far too busy. I always tell my client we want a thoroughbred racehorse, not a camel when we are finished. Furthermore, I try to warn them that their neighbor, hairdresser or coach aren’t professionals and most haven’t seen their home or know enough about their personal lifestyle to make wholesale suggestions regarding their interior design! Some in this thread have suggested laminate as an alternate. Given the layout, with multiple angles, it may have far too many seams when finished to be very attractive or functional. Perhaps consider changing the shelves in the two glass door cabinets to glass then add interior lights for brightness & then intersperse some more colourful, happy dishware inside. lights on top of cabinets & under if not already there, will brighten the space too. Paint the inside of the glass cabinets with a soft tone in harmony with the splashes to lighten the look. Also consider painting all the uppers, to the fridge panel. Leave the deeper wood tone on lowers & fridge assembly. Then when you are ready, swap out your counters with a lighter, brighter counter in quartz. Perhaps a Cambria Tenby Cream quartz that is a little more smokey taupe & will harmonize with the floor. Get all the potential samples together & do not start until you have a game plan that successfully integrates all the undertones. Ask around for a designer that is a colour pro! Look at their work on line to start & you’ll see who has a grasp of tones & textures that are harmonious. A couple of hours consultation will more than pay for itself short & long term.

  21. As a color consultant, I’ve encountered spaces like this many, many times. Busy granite with a busy backsplash.. or a counter that doesn’t coordinate with the floor tile. For years, builders would stick tumbled marble with any countertop, as if it was a total neutral. I always feel bad, because choosing the paint color is then just a compromise: finding a shade that doesn’t look too bad with either material, instead of one that could look great.

  22. So now almost four years later, was this ever resolved for your client? Did she get new countertops? Did she paint? Dying to know!! A similar thing almost happened to me when we were doing a facelift to our kitchen. Thankfully, I had found your blog a few years prior so I knew that I wanted simple white subway tile to go with our white quartz countertops. Our home is fairly traditional, so I wanted traditional subway tiles in 2 by 6. When the “designer” at the tile store kept bringing me contemporary long (2 by 10 at least) tiles, I had to keep explaining to her that I wanted more traditional, in keeping with our home, etc. Believe it or not, she couldn’t come up with a simple, white 2 by 6 tile, so I left the store, but not before she made me feel like I was being a picky perfectionist. I was so mad. But so happy that I stuck to my guns! Thanks to you, Maria!!!!!

  23. Thank you SO MUCH for sharing this! I’m doing a brand new kitchen right NOW! No designer assistance except from the cabinet place (and even then, I have changed it to fit my needs). I’ve been working on it for literally MONTHS while the house was framed, plumbed, etc…. And you helped put it all together for me 🙂

    I already know the cabinets, cabinet color and layout. I received a sample cabinet door which I’ve looked at in the room it will be in during day/noon/night… I’m going to use that to help pick out the tile, granite, etc… so that all the colors go together the way I want and how I’ll expect it to. NO RUSHING.

    So, for me the order to go in is:

    1. Cabinet color (get sizable sample of the one I want)

    2. Pick out flooring – and bring cabinet color sizable sample with me to pick out flooring.

    3. Get sizable flooring sample, bring back to house and lay it down in floor next to cabinet sample – look at them at various times of day and twilight.

    4. Get flooring installed…get cabinets installed.

    5. Take sample of flooring and sizable sample of cabinet and bring with me to pick out GRANITE.

    6. Bring home granite sample and look at it throughout the day being next to the cabinet on the floor.

    7. Order granite

    8. Final step – find paint that goes with it all.

  24. Maria. This was the best post I’ve ever read. Everr. How brave and awesome of her to share this number one. Number two: She should never fear. You provided her with 3-4 scenarios that will rock her world. In a good way lol. Once she chooses her new path, happiness and peace will slip back in. Bravo to you both. She needs to follow her heart this time around. I’m sure she will. And the color/colour lesson of all time was presented to us, your large class of students lol, right here, right now. It was a culmination of all you have been teaching us since your blog began. This blog does it all. It’s thee one. The creme de la creme!!! Thank you. I feel like all of your teachings have finally sunk in. I am now equipped with your arsenal of do’s and dont’s and they MAKE SENSE to me. It took a bit of time before it all gelled and sunk in. But what an AH-HA moment it is when it all comes together!! Your client will do just fine. She was no different than so many others who entrust someone clearly not qualified. But now she has you. And now she’s got the dream team lol Thanks again for the amazing insight and the best post ever. Cudos to your client for enlisting your aid. All will be well…

  25. I just found Maria’s website yesterday! As a complete novice, one thing I noticed in the photo of the kitchen is how very yellow the undercabinet lighting seems. I just finished replacing all the yellowish (2700-3000K) lights in my kitchen with 4000k LED lights and the difference is amazing! The pure white light makes everything better! Different bulbs are the least expensive and quickest fix you can try.