09 March 2010

Sensible Style: The 7 most underrated kitchen products

Some products get all the attention! They supplant older offerings in consumers' minds and those unfairly fall out of fashion. That doesn't mean they're no longer functional or a good choice for your kitchen. They're just not getting good press any more. Here are some products I consider underrated, and why.

30-30 vision

Everyone wants 42 inch wall cabinets these days. They look better in many applications, I'd agree, and their greater height allows for more impressive molding. There are two problems with 42s, however. One, most people can't reach the items on the top two shelves without a step ladder. And, two, design is shifting toward simpler, pared-down looks that just don't call for elaborate trim any longer. In fact, the contemporary European brands I work with typically offer metric sizes closer to our 30-inch height than our 42s, leaving blank space on the wall above. Modern American kitchens are moving in that direction, as well. So bear in mind that good things can still come in small packages.

Contemporary European kitchens, like this one by Miton, typically feature wall cabinets closer to our 30 inch models than our 42s

Reconsider Corian

Granite often comes first to mind when homeowners are looking at replacing their kitchen countertops. Not everyone craves stone, however, or should have it. For clients who want a softer, warmer top, I typically specify Corian. This acrylic-based surface can be easily repaired if it scratches, making it an exceptionally family-friendly counter, and it's also warrantied. Like quartz, Corian is nonporous and stain resistant, which add to its family friendliness. I like it for seniors, too, as its softness is more forgiving of aging eyes that might misjudge how far the plate or glass must travel to reach the top. As an added benefit, Corian allows you to create integral drainboards and sinks, both of which look great and have practical benefits. One cautionary note: Because stone has supplanted all other materials as the luxury top du jour, not using it could impact the short-term resale value of your project.

Pretty meets practical in Corian countertops... As good as they ever were!

Taking stock

Custom cabinets get all the magazine layouts, but stock cabinets can meet many project needs. They won't deliver the deep rich finishes that semi-custom or custom cabinets can. They won't offer all the bells and whistles of their pricey competitors. They can't be customized for luxury detailing. And they're mass produced for affordability. That doesn't make them bad.

I've worked on some beautiful projects with limited budgets that took advantage of stock cabinetry's recession-friendly price points. My role as a professional designer is to generate the best outcome at whatever investment level the client wants to make. Stock cabinetry can help me achieve that when funds are tighter. My go-to brand for quality, affordability, features, selection, customer service and warranty is sold in Home Depot as American Woodmark and in Lowe's as Shenandoah.

Style can be affordable, too, as shown in this American Woodmark stock cabinetry kitchen

The kind side

Like the popular new kid in town, French door refrigerators are getting all the attention these days. If the budget mandates a freestanding, rather than built-in model, I prefer side by sides. Style-wise, I think the water through the door dispensers on the French models throw off their symmetry and just look awkward. I also dislike bending over to reach anything I want in the freezer. Side by sides give users the option of storing their most frequently-used items at a more comfortable, easier to spot level.

The Linea by Bosch offers good form and functionality in a sleek side-by-side

Crock steady

Branding them as Crock Pots probably hasn't helped the slow cooker's image as an outdated, second string appliance. Don't be fooled; this countertop appliance can be a busy person's best friend. It seals in meat's moisture and works with even the toughest cuts. It prepares your meals at home while you're at work. It creates appetizers, entrees and desserts. It can even keep foods warm while your dinner guests are caught in traffic. The latest, most deluxe models let you brown foods on your cooktop in the same insert they'll cook in for the next few hours, rather than requiring a separate skillet. That translates to more time enjoying dinner and less time cleaning up afterward. Works for me!

Countertop Candy 2010 style: All-Clad's Deluxe Slow Cooker delivers high performance in a low expectation category

Get gellin'

Yes, you can get a GelPro mat at your neighborhood bath store. That doesn't mean you should look down on these foot, hip, back and knee savers. There's a wide range of sizes and styles that work with more upscale kitchens and make meal prep and entertaining a much more comfortable activity.

Happy feet stand on GelPro mats

Vinyl style

Don't get me wrong here. I'm not a fan of sheet vinyl with simulated grout. I've never seen one that meets my style standards, and over time, their edges tend to curl. Ugh. What I do like in certain very limited scenarios is self-adhesive vinyl tile. Here's where I'd consider specifying it: A rental project where the budget is limited, for a retro-styled room, or for a client who likes the look of tile but detests maintaining grout, which no sealer will protect forever. There are attractive options available at very affordable price points and it's easy to install for a do-it-yourselfer. Tip: Avoid styles that try to look like wood. They don't. The best application is to show it off for what it is -- kitsch for the kitchen. Pair it with a metal-edged Formica counter and 50s style appliances for a great old-fashioned space.

Pair this Armstrong Excelon Cherry Red Vinyl Tile with white to create a diamond dandy retro kitchen floor

Visit the Sensible Style box on the right column for links to all the posts in this ongoing series.


  1. Great post Jamie, and I agree with nearly all of it. But for an economical floor that looks great, I would go for linoleum rather than vinyl. Linoleum floors last, and last, and last - you can still find serviceable linoleum floors in elementary schools built in the 1950's. They may look similar, but lino is made from natural materials, doesn't off-gas VOCs, and has a much gentler energy footprint because it's not made from petroleum products.

  2. Great post Jamie!

  3. We have Corian on our vanity in the ensuite, and I love it :-) I don't normally like non-stone materials that try to look like stone, but this one is an exception :-) We installed granite countertops when we did our kitchen makeover, but it doesn't look like typical granite.

    I bet it feels good standing on that gel mat!!


  4. Is there a difference between Corian and other solid surface brands? I am considering the solid surface for my kitchen reno now and Corian is more expensive than others. Is it worth it to spend more on Corian?

  5. I believe that there are subtle differences between Corian and its competitors. I'm not an expert in this area, but I believe that Corian's higher acrylic content makes it a better top. I also like the fact that it comes from a reputable, U.S.-based company. This gives me confidence that its warranty will have lasting value.

  6. I really like my Gel Mat. It makes a world of difference on the back,hips,and knees on those days when it seems as if I spend all day in front of the sink or stove.

  7. Corian, as well as quartz countertops like Cambria's, are often not only less expensive alternatives to granite, but granite countertops can be extremely high-maintenance. Also, I really like that GelPro mat.


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