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Karen Kassen says your kitchen should be like that little black dress in your closet —a classic design to which you can add accessories and other elements — creating a space you can enjoy for years. An award-winning Certified Master Kitchen and Bath Designer, Karen co-owns Kitchens Unlimited with her husband, Joe, and has been practicing kitchen design for more than 23 years. “Kitchen design combines interior design, space planning, problem solving, interior architecture, cooking, technology and creativity into one package,” says Karen. Today, we’re excited to finally chat with our Interior Designer Crush!

Karen Kassen of Kitchens Unlimited, today's Interior Designer Crush!

Karen Kassen of Kitchens Unlimited is today’s Interior Designer Crush. Image: Micki Martin

You have the letters CMKBD behind your name, meaning you are a Certified Master Kitchen and Bath Designer. What kind of education and training did you have to go through to get that designation?

While at Auburn (University), I took the specialization classes that were accredited by the National Kitchen and Bath Association (NKBA) and graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Interiors and Housing. Prior to graduating, I did an NKBA-required internship here in Memphis at Kitchens Unlimited for three months where I was offered a full-time position.

My first step toward the CMKBD certification was to pass two separate practicum exams: the Certified Kitchen Designer (CKD) exam and Certified Bath Designer (CBD) exam. I then had to have at least 10 years of experience as a practicing kitchen and bath designer. Once I had the experience, I provided the NKBA with affidavits from clients of completed projects, recommendations from industry professionals and proof that my design work had been published.

The kitchen plays such an important part in home design, especially over the last decade or so when there was a shift to the open kitchen/family room concept. Did that shift alter your design process, and if so, how?

The open concept design did change the way we think about kitchen design. In most open kitchen designs, there are only one or two walls available for storage and appliances and, often times, at least one of these walls has a large window on it. When I come across this type of floor plan in a new home, or if my client wants to create this type of kitchen in an existing home, one of the first things that I have them understand is that they might have to use different type appliances and different storage options than what they have had in the past. A large 48-inch range and a 48-inch refrigerator can quickly eat up all the wall space in an open kitchen.

 A classic white kitchen is the perfect complement to a dramatic polished marble backsplash and takes cabinetry to the ceiling to maximize storage opportunities. Image| Chip Pankey

This kitchen’s dark cabinetry is the perfect complement to a white, polished marble backsplash. The cabinetry reaches to the ceiling to maximize storage opportunities. Image: Chip Pankey

Maximizing the storage with organizational features in base cabinetry is very important, as there are typically many more base cabinets in an open kitchen with an island. Some of my favorite solutions are using tall cabinetry to house a dish pantry, drawers to house everyday dishes, base pull-out pantries for spices and canned goods, and splitting up two ovens instead of using a traditional double oven.

The open floor plan kitchen design must work for family gatherings, homework space, serving meals, dining, clean up, home office space and entertainment, and relaxing after a long day.

Is there a “best by” date in kitchen design?

Styles can usually change in 10 to 12 years, so a kitchen should be like a “little black dress” in your closet. It should be a classic design and style that can be enjoyed for many years and enhanced with different accessories. You can always update by changing a few things cosmetically. If thoughtful selections are made with the cabinetry and more permanent products such as appliances, then updating can be done fairly easily with decorative hardware changes, backsplash tile and paint color selections.

 Colored appliances from top brands, like this 48” Viking professional range, are becoming increasingly popular to use because it adds an exciting layer to a design’s personality. Image| Vicki McLaughlin

Karen says colored appliances from top brands — like this 48-inch Viking professional range — are becoming increasingly popular to use because they add an exciting layer to a design’s personality. Image: Vicki McLaughlin

What’s the most important thing a homeowner needs to remember when contemplating a kitchen renovation?

Don’t do it alone! A kitchen renovation is one of the most complex and expensive rooms to remodel in a home, as well as the one with the most permanent details, cabinetry, parts and pieces. It cannot be easily changed and is not refined often. A licensed professional can help you make informed decisions on the plan, products, pricing and the installation of these so that your investment of time and resources will enhance your quality of life and home without regret.

Tucked into a Downtown penthouse, this sophisticated Poggenpohl bar is the epitome of luxury with its high-gloss, lacquered cabinetry and exotic stone flooring, countertop and backsplash. Image| Chip Pankey

Tucked into a downtown penthouse, this sophisticated Poggenpohl bar is the epitome of luxury with its high-gloss, lacquered cabinetry and exotic stone flooring, countertop and backsplash. Image: Chip Pankey

Where do you get your inspiration?

One of my favorite ways to be inspired is to visit with someone in their home. Walking through their front door allows me to see how they live and function with their family in the center of their world. I can either be inspired by knowing that their space can be so much better and that I can help them achieve this, or by just getting an idea of what their style is all about. People also open up to me more in their own surroundings and will tell me things that they love or hate about their spaces. I am working with a client right now who has a fabulous collection of art, and she and her husband love color. At our first home visit, we noticed this immediately. Her fun style and love of color became the inspiration for her tile backsplash using 15 different colors, with her cabinetry providing the neutral backdrop for her splashes of art.

 200 year old antique corbels originally from a Tipton County home were used as decorative countertop supports in this kitchen remodel, which provided a unique and personal detail for the homeowner because they were given to her by her late mother. Image| Julie Wage Ross

These 200-year-old antique corbels originally from a Tipton County home were used as decorative countertop supports in this kitchen remodel, which provided a unique and personal detail for the homeowner because they were given to her by her late mother. Image: Julie Wage Ross

Who have been your industry role models/mentors and why?

Locally, Mary Katherine Taras, who has always offered me words of encouragement and shown me that you can have a successful business while also having a family. Nationally, designer Ellen Cheever has been very involved in the education and professionalism of kitchen and bath designers and helped write the industry standards and textbooks that we work from. Two amazing kitchen designers are Matthew Quinn with Design Galleria in Atlanta and Mick De Giulio with de Giulio kitchen design in Chicago.

 Paneling appliances with cabinetry such as a dishwasher or refrigerator enhances the design, and if models change over the years no one knows that you don’t have the latest. Image| Vicki McLaughlin

Paneling appliances, such as a dishwasher or refrigerator (above and below), with cabinetry enhances the design; and if models change over the years, no one knows that you don’t have the latest. Image: Vicki McLaughlin

A beautifully paneled refrigerator. Image| Julie Wage Ross

A beautifully paneled refrigerator. Image: Julie Wage Ross

Share one kitchen design secret with us.

Save the polished finish on marble for the backsplash in your kitchen. If you follow the popular trend of using white marble in your kitchen, use a “honed” finish or matte sheen on the countertops and you will love your marble tops for the long haul. Every splash of lemon juice and ring from a glass that someone left on the countertop will not show.

Thank you, Karen, for sharing your design world with us!

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