IKEA Kitchen Cabinets: Pro Design Tips for Custom Look

There is lots to love about Ruthie Schulder’s Brooklyn home. It’s a bright, big, light-filled space that was renovated to add function and modernity while respecting the beautiful original architecture. A warm and eclectic collection of vintage furniture mixes with sleek custom pieces throughout. And on top of all of that, there’s a room that impresses the most: the kitchen.

And no, I’m NOT talking about the fact that when they renovated this Brooklyn home’s open-plan kitchen, they added a huge wall of windows that lets light in. What’s most impressive about their kitchen is the brilliant way the budget was stretched to include both splurges and savings. After design, renovation and labor costs, the budget for the kitchen wasn’t huge when it came to finishes. But it looks like a million bucks — so I dug in to discover some of its smart money secrets.

“Don’t get me wrong, I love custom cabinets and we do them frequently, but when the budget isn’t there — it doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice on having an interesting space.”

Designer Sarah Zames of General Assembly (who worked with Ruthie to design this stunning space) always advocates for custom. “I think IKEA has a time and a place, but for the most part, I really advocate for custom kitchens. Designing a kitchen from scratch and working with a millworker is definitely my preference. Doing a custom job means that you can accommodate for your particular needs and space.”

But because she understands not every homeowner can afford a completely custom kitchen, she knows sometimes you’ve got to work hard to figure out how to get the most design out of the budget you have.

“I always mention Ruthie’s project to clients when I’m trying to describe to them the importance of knowing where to spend your money. Don’t get me wrong, I love custom cabinets and we do them frequently, but when the budget isn’t there — it doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice on having an interesting space,” wrote Sarah.

IKEA makes a great base

In Ruthie’s kitchen, affordable IKEA wall cabinets are double-stacked to create a tall, impressive wall of storage. Here, the cabinets are finished in a glossy white that makes perfect sense, but Sarah has a suggestion on how to make sure you choose the best finish for your space: “I buy small cabinet faces of the different finishes that I’m considering, so that I can match them to the tile, countertops and flooring. It’s inexpensive and it’s good practice to take it home and see how the color feels in your space.”

Whether you’re working with a designer on an IKEA kitchen (who as Sarah describes, might be able to bring other ideas to the table you may have never thought of) or you’re working on the IKEA website to design it yourself, Sarah does caution it’s not always easy-breezy just because it’s IKEA:

“You should make sure to understand that although IKEA does feel very straightforward, there is still a lot of organization involved. Be aware of that, and compensate for it. There is a little bit of a danger in how easy IKEA makes it look! To do it right, you have to be careful and thoughtful! …There are things to consider when you make the decision to go with IKEA, and you need to remember that there will be a lot of trips back and forth to the store (somehow the order is ALWAYS messed up, no matter how careful you are) and installation is not always inexpensive.”

Though Sarah does use IKEA when it makes sense for a project’s budget, she urges homeowners to do a comparison of prices before assuming IKEA will be the most affordable: “Take all of those things into account when comparing it to working with a millworker or cabinet maker instead. If the cost is close, then you should always go with custom.”

“After a long renovation, often filled with headaches and spending money on the “non fun” things — it’s important to add special touches that you are going to be excited about for years to come.”

Pro trick: Avoid the filler strips

A big part of why Ruthie’s IKEA-cabinet kitchen looks so amazing? When this part of the home was remodeled, the walls were designed to fit around IKEA’s standard cabinet sizes.

“We were careful to avoid using IKEA filler strips as much as possible. We built the walls to the IKEA cabinets, instead of inserting the cabinets into an existing space. Unfortunately, this is only a luxury you can afford to do in new construction or a significant remodel.”

A great idea if you are in the process of tearing down and putting in new walls, but what if your remodel isn’t quite so dramatic? Sarah shares a tip from another recent kitchen project:

“We just did another kitchen where it was all IKEA, but we had an odd amount of space next to the refrigerator when we were done. The space was too small for a standard IKEA cabinet, so we had our contractor build one to match. Doing small custom pieces like that to finish an IKEA space is worth the investment. You are saving a lot of money by doing IKEA, so you should invest in areas where you need to.”

Dress IKEA cabinets up

IKEA’s kitchen cabinets got a face lift when these Schoolhouse Electric Pulls in Brass were added to the doors and drawers. As Sarah describes: ‘The shape and finish of them really brought out more of an architectural feel.”

Splurge on statement spots, save everywhere else

“For other finishes in the kitchen, we splurged on the island counter top, since it’s such a huge feature in the space. We used Aquasol Hone Quartzite for that. And for the back counters, we used a matte LG Hi-Macs in grey (LG Hi-Macs is just another solid surface countertop material, similar to Corian). We picked that because it was inexpensive, and the matte quality helped make the cabinets pop even more. We played this budget game in several places in the apartment.”

The Final Word on Splurging

“Always splurge on the backsplash. It’s a very small amount of square footage, and the installation is easy. I always tell clients to get whatever tile or stone that they want for that area. I also think it’s really important to invest in light fixtures. This isn’t an area to play it safe; pick something that you love. Splurging on special items is what makes the space unique to you. After a long renovation, often filled with headaches and spending money on the “non fun” things — it’s important to add special touches that you are going to be excited about for years to come.”

Thanks to Designer Sarah Zames of General Assembly (follow them on Instagram, too!) for not only helping bring this beautiful kitchen into existence, but also for sharing some of its secrets above. Much gratitude to Ruthie Schulder and family for allowing us to tour their home.


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