1. Leave time for the planning
A kitchen is the sum of many parts, not just cabinets and a faucet. Decisions must be made about layout, proportion, storage, and myriad other things.

Give yourself at least six weeks just to brainstorm, discuss, plan, refine, and—just as important—compromise. "You should know going in that the design process requires numerous meetings—there's a lot to discuss," says Rebecca G. Lindquist, a kitchen and bath designer in Duluth, Minnesota. After that is the neverending wait for plumbing, cabinets, countertops, appliances, flooring, fixtures, and paint. Ordering and installing each can put another three to six months between a final design and a finished kitchen.

Before Marshall ever talked about any finishes, she asked Chris and Liz to fill out an nine-page questionnaire she uses to find out everything from whether homeowners are right- or left-handed to whether they have collections to display. She ended up showing the women several plans over three months. But it was this constant exchange that helped the two women refine what started out as two general ideas, until each was satisfied that she was getting the kitchen she wanted.

2. Start off thinking big
Details are important in any kitchen, but designers like to start with the big picture—how you use your kitchen—and let details emerge. Even if your budget will inevitably call for compromises (join the club), get your wish list on the table. "I want clients to empty their heads," says Patricia Gaylor, an interior designer in Little Falls, New Jersey. "The budget should come later." Similarly, Marshall sees good kitchen ¬≠design as a process of reduction: "It's easier to go down than up, so I tell people to throw everything in; later, when we strip out the budget breakers, it will still be a great kitchen."

It helps to think about what you don't want, too. Make a list of things that bother you about your current kitchen—the mail piled up on the counter, the stockpot you can never reach. Designers say these negative lists are just as helpful at driving the details as having an extensive wish list.

3. Set the scene
To pull your dream kitchen into focus, designers recommend thinking in terms of activities. Some people envision rolling out pies with their kids; others see a big informal dinner party with guests in the kitchen. Those images could mean the difference between a low marble baking counter and a raised island bar.

Chris Flynn wanted to still be able to look out the window when standing at the sink. This became one of Marshall's biggest challenges—the budget didn't allow for moving windows, and the sink couldn't fit where it had been. She solved it by putting the sink in an island positioned where Chris would have a view through her family room to the windows beyond. The bonus: That configuration fit in with another vision Chris had—of being able to interact with guests as she entertained.

4. Know what you need—and don't need
There are dreams . . . and there are needs. Just as important as defining your dream is setting a bottom line—things you'd really rather not live without. "There's always one thing that people generally know they want," says Gaylor. "The rest is a puzzle that goes together around it. You have your heart set on an island with stools? Okay—you'll need at least two feet of cabinet depth in the island and three feet of space between the island and the counter."

But you also should know where to set the cutoff. Designers have encyclopedic knowledge of fixtures and materials, and you can get drawn in as they introduce you to the latest gadgets. Be clear about what's an unnecessary extravagance. "Some people find a $1,000 warming drawer very useful," says Jones. "Others end up storing paper cups in it."
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